I hope folks at the Atlantic appreciate all the work I'm doing for them this week.
Another good article in this month's issue is A Historian For Our Time, Robert D. Kaplan's essay on the pure fun of reading the Histories by the Greek historian, Herodotus, and the lessons that can be learned from Herodotus' very human, quirky, and anecdotal accounts of the history of his world as he knew it.
There are some veiled criticisms of George W. Bush Inc. Kaplan finds quotes that make you ask, "How did Herodotus know?" This was my favorite:
He is the best of men who, when he is laying his plans, dreads and reflects on everything that can happen [to] him but is bold when he is in the thick of the action.
Cakewalk, Mr Adelman?
And this is Kaplan summarizing a story from the Histories:
Solon, the Athenian, advises Croesus, the arrogant and wealthy king of Lydia, to call himself lucky, not blessed, no matter how much money he has; as long as he is alive, anything might still happen to him. So it passes that all of Croesus’s wealth and power are lost in a war against the Persian ruler Cyrus. As Croesus lies on a pyre, fettered in chains, waiting to be devoured by fire, in lamentation he calls out, “Solon!”
So much for mandates.
As for torture and its place in the war on terror? Herodotus quotes the general Pausanias explaining why he won't take revenge for an atrocity committed by an enemy with a similar atrocity:
Such actions are more fit for barbarians than Greeks, and even in them we find it a matter of offense. For conduct such as this, God forbid that I should find favor with … any who approve such acts! It is enough for me to please the men of Sparta by decent action and decent words.
Of course, Herodotus knew because he knew people and human nature hasn't changed much in twenty-five hundred years. Herodotus' lessons are general, universal, and timeless, and we are all his subjects. We are all examined and found wanting. Kaplan could have written pretty much the exact same essay ten years ago and I'd have picked up on veiled criticisms of Bill Clinton and lessons I'd have wished he'd heeded.
Kaplan summarizing again:
Fate is like a brute force of nature against which the individual sometimes struggles in vain. As Polycrates, the benevolent tyrant of Samos, grows richer, he is advised to part with the thing he values most, so as to protect himself against a vengeful god. He goes out in a boat and throws away his gold ring. A few days later a man catches a fish that he gives as a gift to the Samian king. When Polycrates’ servants cut up the fish, they find the ring. The thing the king valued most is now back. And it transpires that the king is soon lured to the mainland of Asia Minor by the false promises of the Persian governor of Lydia, who puts him to death by crucifixion.
I can't help thinking what Herodotus would make of the story of Clinton, happy and self-congratulatory at having bested Newt Gingrich during the Budget Crisis, in a mood to celebrate, and in through the Oval Office door walks a plump but pretty young brunette delivering his pizza.
But my enjoyment of Kaplan's essay comes from the way he treats Herodotus as a contemporary, as if he was a new star on the literary scene who's written a fresh, novelistic work of popular history---like David Hackett Fischer's Washington's Crossing or Evan S. Connell's Son of the Morning Star---about figures from our own recent past who happen to have improbable names like Xerxes, Croesus, Polycrates, Aristogoras, and Candaules.
For the most part Kaplan keeps the focus on Herodotus and his stories, but he does draw some specific parallels between Herodotus' time and our own, and here's one that got me thinking:
The old inheres in the new: Herodotus describes the Spartan warriors, who subsist on twice-daily porridge and diluted wine, defeating the Persians, whose general staff ate lavishly upon tables of silver and gold. One can’t help but think of the dining facilities, laden with steak and lobster, of the American troops in Iraq, and the meager fare of the insurgents who often run rings around them.
My first thought after reading that was, Lobster?
Our troops are being served lobsters?
It's not that I don't want them to have nice meals. I'm a cynic and can't help wondering what subsidy of Haliburton is gouging the US Government on the Cheney-approved no-bid contract on that one, but really it's the case that I can't get my head around the incongruity of our soldiers dining on seafood in the desert.
My second thought was a nodding agreement with the idea that the Spartans knew what they were doing by being so...um...Spartan.
I thought of the starveling scarecrows of the Continental Army running rings around the British during our Revolution. I thought of Bill Mauldin's Willie and Joe draining the water from their jeep's radiator to make coffee while across the lines the Germans lived off fine French food and slept in feather beds. I thought of George Segal in The Bridge at Remagen taking the bridge single-handedly in the end because he's too tired and too hungry and too disgusted to care anymore.
And then I thought, I'm thinking of a myth, a cartoon, and a movie.
The Confederates were certainly underfed compared to the Union troops but the only reason the Rebs ran circles around the Yanks for the first third of the war is that the Confederacy happened to have one of the best field tacticians and fighting generals in the history of American warfare, and after Stonewell Jackson was killed the Confederates stopped running rings around anyone. They just got hungrier.
That paragraph of Kaplan's is actually an unfair characterization of what's going on in Iraq. If the insurgents are running rings around our troops, it's not because they are lean, mean fighting machines while our soldiers are weighed down by bellies full of steak and lobster.
It's because this is a fact of urban guerrilla warfare where native guerrillas face off against foreign invaders.
Thers, at Whiskey Fire, Scott Lemeiux, and Avedon Carol have dealt recently with a very strange notion among the Insider Punditocracy that can be summarized more or less like this: The reason that the pundits who were so spectacularly wrong about the war in Iraq should still be treated as wise men and women on the subject of the war while those who were right should be shut out of the discussion is that the those who were right were right in the wrong way while those who were wrong were wrong in the right way.
This has also been put this way: It isn't enough that those who were right about the war were right generally; they needed to have been right on every specific. Since they only predicted that the war would be a disaster but did not come up with an itemized list of every mistake and failure, their opinions don't really count, and we should all continue to listen only to the wise men and women who predicted that the war would be a glorious success.
This is insane, of course, but it's also a lie. Lots of people who were against the war were against it for very specific reasons and gave those reasons and almost everything they said would go wrong has gone wrong. (Digby, for one. Back when Hullabaloo was just a gleam in Atrios' eye.) For the most part, they were only mistaken about how badly the Bush Leaguers would screw it all up. They underestimated the Bush Leaguers' ineptitude.
But as Atrios points out the main way people who were against the war were right was in their insisting that there was no reason to invade Iraq. No reason. None. There were no WMD. There was no al-Qaeda connection. Saddam posed no immediate threat to the United States. All that was said at the time and all of it has turned out to be true.
Opponents of the war predicted and were correct about the destablizing effect of removing Saddam from power, about the sectarian violence that would be unleashed, about the real possibility of the country devolving into Civil War, about how hard it would be to maintain an occupation force, about how many more troops would be needed to do the job, about how the war would not be a cakewalk, that it would be bloody, vicious, and almost impossible to conclude.
They were able to predict these things and be right about them not because they are so much smarter than the Insider Pundits who rah-rahed us into war, but because they were all paying attention in 1991 when Bush's father and his generals, including Colin Powell, explained why after driving Saddam out of Kuwait we weren't going to chase his army straight into Baghdad and take him out then and there.
And among the reasons, which included all that I mentioned above, was that if we went into Baghdad we would risk being caught up in an urban guerrilla war of the sort our troops were not trained to fight.
Apparently Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were not the only ones who weren't listening.
I've started reading the Histories. I expect Herodotus has something to say about this. I'll let you know when I come across it.
Same deal as with the previous two Atlantic articles I riffed on. Subscribers only. Drop me a note at email@example.com if you'd like me to email you a copy.
Stonewall Jackson would make a great character study for an American Herodotus and in fact I'd argue he already has---if you haven't already, you should make a point of reading Shelby Foote's The Civil War.
Some of my favorite history books are here.