November 27, 2016

Thucydides, Book Six: Projecting Power

The same winter the Athenians resolved to sail again to Sicily, with a greater armament than that under Laches and Eurymedon, and, if possible, to conquer the island; most of them being ignorant of its size and of the number of its inhabitants, Hellenic and barbarian, and of the fact that they were undertaking a war not much inferior to that against the Peloponnesians. [6.1]
"Do not think of elephants," goes an old saw. I see from a search it has spawned a couple of self-help, career guidance books. I thought it was just some form of toddler torture, but it seems the franchise has expanded. Likewise, the modern American reader is challenged to read the final few books of Thucydides' Peloponnesian War without thinking of Iraq.

Book Six presents the democratic arguments for and against War in Sicily. Those who have read ahead know it is a military disaster that ends the Athenian Empire.

I do not want to digress too much on my personal, unfinished journey of American involvement in the Middle East, but the short version for new readers is that I supported the actions fulsomely, through good times and bad. Yet William Easterly's "Tyranny of Experts" [Review Corner] provided a Hayekian objection which I cannot refute, and subsequent developments have not proven Easterly wrong.

This not a Freshman paper suggesting the end of America -- I'd have to proofread it better if it were -- but the parallels are difficult to ignore. It is difficult to project power. Our technological advancement has reduced half the world to the difficulty Nicias and Alcibiades faced waging war across the Ionian Sea. Yet the same difficulties of supply and logistics remain. More importantly, the Easterly-esque difficulties of understanding the region's scope, politics and culture are nearly insuperable.

Per the introductory quote, most of the Demos who would be voting for or against war did not know the location of Syracuse, the area of Sicily, or the disposition of cities on the island and southern coast of the Tyrrhenian mainland. Nicias, whom Thucydides admires, speaks first -- advising caution:

And yet the latter, if brought under might be kept under; while the Sicilians, even if conquered, are too far off and too numerous to be ruled without difficulty. Now it is folly to go against men who could not be kept under even if conquered, while failure would leave us in a very different position from that which we occupied before the enterprise. [6.11]

You're thinking of elephants, aren't you?
The Hellenes in Sicily would fear us most if we never went there at all, and next to this, if after displaying our power we went away again as soon as possible. [6.11]

Nicias closes with a swipe at the youthful who seek riches and glory without fully comprehending the potential downside.

The youthful, vainglorious Alcibiades takes umbrage at this attack on youth and vainglory. He addresses the crowd, warning of Syracuse's growing power (c.f. The Thucydides Trap) and dangers of a potential alliance with the Peloponnese. But his closing argument is "We will be greeted as liberators!"

The states in Sicily, therefore, from all that I can hear, will be found as I say, and I have not pointed out all our advantages, for we shall have the help of many barbarians, who from their hatred of the Syracusans will join us in attacking them; nor will the powers at home prove any hindrance, if you judge rightly.

Sensing that things are not going his way, Nicias elects to agree, but attempts to subliminally frighten the populace by enumerating the requirements. We'll need to bring grain and our own bakers and more ships that have ever been arrayed, and carpenters and machinists because we will be too far for repairs. But, rather than being subdued, Nicias's ruse backfires. Clearly, think the Athenians, this is going to be the greatest enterprise ever -- less a war and more of a moonshot. Carthage will fall next and we will rule the world.
The Athenians, however, far from having their enthusiasm for the voyage destroyed by the burdensomeness of the preparations, became more eager for it than ever; and just the contrary took place of what Nicias had thought, as it was held that he had given good advice, and that the expedition would be the safest in the world. [3] Everyone fell in love with the enterprise. The older men thought that they would either subdue the places against which they were to sail, or at all events, with so large a force, meet with no disaster; those in the prime of life felt a longing for foreign sights and spectacles, and had no doubt that they should come safe home again; while the idea of the common people and the soldiery was to earn wages at the moment, and make conquests that would supply a never-ending fund of pay for the future.
[...]
With this enthusiasm of the majority, the few that did not like it feared to appear unpatriotic by holding; up their hands against it, and so kept quiet. [6.24]

Was that an elephant?

The great fleet sails. Cities along the route come out just to see the historic array. "Alcibiades sailed to Syracuse -- and all I got was this lousy T-Shirt!" The Syracusans are brave and numerous but fall initially to Athens' superior technical skill and modern naval techniques. In a short time Athens holds commanding heights; Syracuse is defeated and demoralized and discussing terms of surrender. This Athenian adventure will be quick and successful.

Stop me if you've heard this, but things deteriorate from there.

Greek to me Review Corner Posted by John Kranz at November 27, 2016 10:52 AM
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