Wednesday, March 18, 2015

"A War Like No Other" by Victor Davis Hanson (2005)

As a wannabe military historian you know just enough to know that there are some conflicts that you don't know anything about but you really should. Conflicts like the ones they talk about in classes at Annapolis and West Point... stuff from ancient Greece, or whatever. The Peloponnesian War is one of those conflicts. While visiting your neighborhood discount book store, you saw "A War Like No Other" for only $1.00 and figured it was as good a place as any to start learning. Fortunately for you, it was a phenomenal book. You recently heard on a great podcast that liberals aren't supposed to like Victor Davis Hanson because he's too conservative. As a self-described liberal, you're glad you didn't know you weren't supposed to like him before you bought the book. It would have been a damn shame to miss this one because of some stupid political prejudice.

The Peloponnesian War was fought between 431 and 404 BCE at the height of the Greek Golden Era. This nearly 30 year long war was waged between Athens and Sparta, two neighboring city states who had joined forces only 50 years before to repel the massive invading armies of Persia, turning Xerxes' soldiers back at the legendary Battle of Thermopylae (the one where all the good guys had amazingly photogenic abs). Rather than maintaining the alliance that historians often claim 'saved Western Civilization,' the two cities allowed their differences to foment tensions between them. Those tensions soon lead to war.

Sparta was an extremely militaristic society and was ruled by an oligarchy as well as a hereditary monarchy. Athens, on the other hand, was extremely democratic and about as egalitarian as any society at the time could boast. Sparta eschewed the worship of material wealth and had almost no notions of commerce or how to encourage a robust economy while Athens commanded a massive trade network complete with imperial colonies that brought in riches by the boatloads. The Athenians fostered a rich philosophical school of thought and encouraged individuality while Sparta preached an oligarchic appreciation of conformity and obedience. Of all the ancient societies, Athens is the one Americans and Western Europeans most identify themselves with. Athens, much like America, aggressively exported democracy, often through warfare, and formed the nexus of an expansive empire. Other city states throughout Greece and the rest of the Mediterranean, lead by Sparta, saw them as a threat to their more conservative ways of life. Democracy was a clear threat to monarchies and oligarchies, and the people in power in those societies were determined to resist any attempts to chip away at their power.

Athens was the undisputed master of the waves along the northern shores of the Mediterranean. Athenian ships, fast light vessels called triremes, were propelled by three levels of rowers and could crush any resistance neighboring states could hope to attempt. Sparta was a legendary land power. They had a dedicated warrior caste that devoted their whole lives to armed combat and the study of warfare. There were few armies who could hope to last more than a few moments in combat with the Spartans infantry formations, the hedgehog-like boxes of shields and spears called phalanxes. Fearing the growing influence of the Athenian empire, Sparta mustered its allies and invaded, hoping to draw the Athenians out from behind their protective Long Walls for a decisive battle. It is an age old rule of war that you do not meet your enemy where he is strongest. The greatest land power of the ancient world waging war with the greatest sea power meant that neither side would fight the kind of war the other was best at. This fact alone explains why the war lasted almost three decades.

Hanson's goal in writing "A War Like No Other" was to somehow personalize this war that ended two and a half thousand years ago, to make the reader experience a brief idea of what it must have been like to have lived or died during the Peloponnesian War. He certainly succeeded. Reading "A War Like No Other" gave you more than an academic sense of the chronological unfolding of events. It made a conflict that was already ancient history when Jesus lived feel like a visceral reality for you. Hanson contextualized the war, not just in a geopolitical way, but much more intimately. The claustrophobic and gory press of a hoplite soldier enfolded in a phalanx when the killing started, the fear of a civilian trapped inside a walled city during an outbreak of the plague, the gut-dropping horror of a stranded archer watching the fleet that had brought him to alien shores sinking just a few hundred yards away and knowing it meant that he was doomed, Hanson was able to make you feel all of these things from the comfort of your couch. He made it all personal.

Each side refused to play to the other's inherent strength. The Spartans were great at infantry conflict on open ground, so the Athenians rarely fought that way. They would pull their people, warrior and civilian alike, out of the open countrysides and behind protective Long Walls they had built to defend their city and its access to their ship building port called the Piraeus. The Athenians ruled the waves of the northern Mediterranean, so the Spartans refused to meet them on the high seas and would build fortress cities deep inside Athenian heartland to force a land war. All of this meant that the Peloponnesian War had to be fought like no other. It had to become what we call today an asymmetrical conflict. Suddenly the warriors who became the most important on the field of battle were no longer the heavily armored and well armed hoplites elites, but the lightly armed and almost unarmored skirmishers. These were highly mobile men with bows and slings, wearing none of the cumbersome protective gear that kept hoplites safe in hand-to-hand battle. They were deadly at a distance that made hand to hand combat obsolete. War had suddenly become a contest of mobility and maneuver.

The inefficiency of standard hoplite phalanx formations (or maybe rather the efficiency of the skirmishers and cavalry in dealing with them) forced the Greeks on both sides to adapt an come up with new battlefield tactics. Eventually the changes lead to the Greek tactics of deep infantry columns in favor of phalanxes, to strategic reserves of men placed just far enough away from the heat of battle for the exploitation of any breakthroughs, to cavalry forces that were well integrated with the foot soldiers, and exemplified the need to pay attention to all types of terrain instead of insisting on only fighting on flat open ground. With both sides relying on soldiers drawn from allied city states, vassals, and protectorates of the two main super powers, opposing generals often made battlefield decisions based on whether or not the outcome might foment insurrection within their enemy's own camp. The result was that war had now developed a political dimension as well as just being a military engagement. These innovations allowed Greece to produce even more fearsome warriors, paving the way for one particular Macedonian to conquer the known world. A century ago, the massive and tragically costly First World War taught us how to fight faster and more efficiently. A century after the Peloponnesian War Alexander the Great had learned similar lessons.

World War One destroyed the European traditional idea of classes. The Peloponnesian War did the same for Ancient Greece. The privileged class of men who had once embodied the ideals of valiant hoplite warriors had been replaced by farmers and working poor. Instead, the wealthy could just as easily be found rowing a trireme or patrolling the Attic countryside as cavalrymen. The conflict changed the face of Greek culture. Atrocities became the rule of warfare rather than the exception. Over the years civilians became just as legitimate targets as soldiers and sailors. Entire cities were often razed to the ground and their citizens either murdered en masse or sold into slavery. Hanson suggests that the title "Peloponnesian War" might be better changed to the "Thirty Year Slaughter."

Eventually Athens lost the war when their vaunted navy lost enough catastrophic battles in a row that production at the Piraeus couldn't keep up. As a result, the Athenians lost enough of their vassal states that they could no longer afford to keep rebuilding fleet after fleet. Sparta was able to achieve this victory by making a deal with the Devil. They had become financially backed by the hated Persians and could now easily afford to keep pace in the decades long battles of attrition. The very nature of the Athenian democracy may have played a role in her defeat as well. Generals and admirals had to return after campaigns and face a fickle public empowered by a pure democracy (one unfettered by any checks or balances). Flames of passion often lead to generals being executed or exiled, even when they were returning home victorious. Victory often requires sacrifice and the people of Athens vented their revenge at generals who might be seen as responsible for the loss of loved ones, even in victory. Therefore the leaders of Athens were rarely able to learn from their mistakes or even exploit strategic victories.

The Peloponnesian War, like most great wars do, changed the societies that fought it. The greatest change was the notion that tribalism, personal status, and tradition could ever trump the realities of military logic on the battlefield. Commanders who could think quickly and who could innovate became more valuable than the traditions of fighting the old "honorable" way. Thinkers were now more valuable than pure warriors, even in Sparta. But perhaps the most profound change in Greek society was how the average citizen came to think of the idea of war itself. Greek plays and literature from before the Peloponnesian War were filled with the vilification of enemy states, be they foreigner or fellow Greek city states. Instead, after the Thirty Year Slaughter, war itself was now seen as the enemy. War was no longer an arena in which honor or nobility were forged. War was simply evil, evil and horribly wasteful of precious human lives.

On to the next book!