I plead the press of political developments, as well as a deep-seated suspicion of the habits of familiarity -- the annual “year-in-review” column; an annual “predictions” column to fill the ensuing Bowl Game weekend; the annual “first-robin-of-spring” column ...
Allowed to calcify, the routine can be imagined reaching a point where it might actually survive the demise of the columnist, himself.
But the nudge did bring to mind an observation that, while hardly new, keeps springing up. And that is that many a new mistake could be avoided if only our politicians would spend more time reading old books.
Amy was sorting through her personal collection the other day, preparing to haul some long-boxed volumes down to her booth (used books and not-just-vintage clothes, upstairs at the Not Just Antiques Mall, 1422 Western.) Intrigued, I snagged her copy of F.M. Cornford’s “Greek Religious Thought from Homer to the Age of Alexander” (the 1923 edition) and opened it at random, to a section on the irrationality of hope.
The author is quoting Thucydides, The Melian Dialogue. The Athenians set out to conquer the island of Melos, which had been colonized by the Lacedaemonians. In a parley which sounds a bit stilted to the modern ear, the Athenians tell the residents to give it up.
“But we know that the fortune of war is sometimes impartial,” the Melians reply, “and not always on the side of numbers. If we yield now, all is over; but if we fight, there is yet a hope that we may stand upright.”
The Athenians warn the Melians that false hope is leading them astray. The dialogue, as reproduced, is missing an element critical to the modern reader. We are left to assume the Athenians must have offered the residents some promise of better treatment if they would surrender -- not an irrational interpolation, since that remained a common rule of war well into the 18th century, A.D.
In the event, “The place was ... closely invested, and there was treachery among the citizens themselves. So the Melians were induced to surrender at discretion. The Athenians,” the historian then informs us without breaking stride, “thereupon put to death all who were of military age, and made slaves of the women and children. They then colonised the island, sending thither five hundred settlers of their own.”
This was an act not of the barbaric Persians or Babylonians nor the Mongol horde, mind you (though the Mongol horde would be similarly thorough with those who resisted) but of the Athenians -- those enlightened and freedom-loving souls from whom we trace the roots of our own modern “democracy.”
So here I am reading the browning pages of this ancient text, and the passage couldn’t be more relevant to the biggest public debate going on in America today.
For the record, I’m among those who have warned from the start that we can’t and won’t “win” in Iraq, if by “win” you mean getting these yowling Mohammedans to adopt and selflessly adhere to the gentlemanly rules of a pluralistic secular constitutional republic, as opposed to the overlapping sword-waving homicidal tribal Muslim theocracies they seem to prefer (and which, more to the point, are the only alternative to neo-fascist dictatorship that their history prepares them to envision.)
Efforts to get our temporary subjects in Sunnicrapistan to comport themselves like a respectable Oxford debating society are akin to the man who vows to teach his dog to read. By diligent reward and reinforcement he may get the beast to scan the pages of the local newspaper and bark excitedly, but if he believes this indicates real progress he is only deluding himself.
At any rate, it’s a common pronouncement by the peace party -- or, more accurately, the “We Always Deserve to Lose Because We’re Shameful Greedy Capitalists” party -- that our armed forces “can’t win” in Iraq.
This is currently true (see above), but might be more accurately worded “will not be allowed to win in Iraq, because few Americans really believe victory is important enough that we should go to the extreme of, you know, blowing up the houses of people who ambush our troops, let alone blowing up their actual persons” ... as “The Greatest Generation” did so effectively from 1942 to 1945, God bless them.
(Do you think the Athenians had any ensuing problems with an “insurgency” on Melos?)
Soldiers are not social workers. We should send them to war far less often -- hardly at all. But when we are forced to defend ourselves, our soldiers should be allowed to do what soldiers must do to win: ruthlessly kill and subjugate.
Ann Coulter is dismissed as an excessively shrill humorist when she says any conquering army that really wanted to change the landscape over there would kill anyone not willing to kneel down, kiss our rings, foreswear jihad, and convert. But in fact that’s the approach that surely would have been taken by any effective military conqueror down through the times of Genghis Khan and (particularly) the Muslim conquest of Spain. And I don’t hear anyone in China or the Middle East apologizing for those guys, whose eras are still recalled as “the glory days.”
No, I don’t think we should encourage our reservists to hang around killing a lot more Iraqis. The Iraqis had nothing to do with Sept. 11, anyway. When we do lay hands on those who planned that attack, however, this nation had better rediscover some (thoroughly politically incorrect) institutional ruthlessness, or we will indeed lose the longer-term, underlying struggle.
And the eventual occupying Mahdi army will not show us nearly the kind of restraint and “sensitivity” that we insist our guys show neighborhoods full of jeering “Who, me?” ambush artists in Baghdad today.