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Seeing the Future Through the Rear-View Mirror

The wars of the ancient world remain a guide to today's -- as does Victor Davis Hanson.

By 3.15.11

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Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome
Edited by Victor Davis Hanson
(Princeton University Press, 278 pages, $27.95)

Coming up for air after a couple of hours with this recent Victor Davis Hanson book, I switched on CNN and was briefly confused as to what century it was. Did his point on the overwhelming impact of organized military force refer to Moammar Gaddafi's generals chasing down Libyan rebels or to Roman soldiers crushing a slave revolt? The parallels are striking.

"Spartacus was overmatched by the logistics, discipline and generalship of the Roman legions," Hanson writes in his fine introduction to Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome. The Libyan rebels face the same odds today, reduced by Western media to a "ragtag" band of fighters rapidly losing the initiative, pretty much like those of Spartacus when it all ended for him.

Hanson, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a respected military historian, has assembled here ten succinct studies by academic colleagues that demonstrate, with variable persuasiveness, the "relevance of the past to military challenges of the present." The Libyan civil war came well after his deadline but illustrates how accurately his theme reflects reality.

Hanson's cohort of specialists maintain that human nature is such a strong constant that "there is a certain predictability to war" regardless of era or technology.

Matching past experience to present conditions has a long and illustrious history in U.S. academic history departments, latterly on the theme of the Fall of Rome and the perceived decline of the United States. Two specialists merit a mention for outstanding analysis from opposite perspectives: Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America by Cullen Murphy, and Empires of Trust: How Rome Built -- and America Is Building -- a New World, by Thomas Madden.

As Hanson's book shows, we remain obsessed by Rome. Three of the Hanson-edited studies deal with the experience of late republican and early imperial Rome, all cleverly linked to the present.

Five others focus on classical Greece and one on Persia. Hanson's contribution, one of the finest in the collection, deals with Theban general Epaminondas who in 371-369 B.C. humiliated the Spartan military state in a "brilliant" preemptory military campaign. Hanson praises him for freeing some hundred thousand oppressed Helots and fostering democracy for tens of thousands of Greeks -- "events eerily relevant nearly 2400 years later to what followed from the terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001."

Hanson's lesson to us, however, is that "unleashing the democratic genie hardly ensures perpetual allegiance to its liberator, as the United States discovered through much of 2008 in acrimonious negotiations with the Iraqi government over everything from future security guarantees to relations with Iran."

Hanson encouraged his contributors to choose a subject of special interest to them. As a result, the studies make for a diverse and refreshing collection. One that seemed at first to be peripheral is a study of defensive walls. David Berkey of California State University, Fresno, examined the effectiveness of the walls built in classical Athens. The walls were a "critical public works project of great political and strategic significance," he notes.

What's the point for us today? Berkey delivers a laundry list of giant wall-building projects that have worked exactly as the Athenians' did, often against initial currents of popular protest. He cites Israel's controversial wall blocking Palestinian terrorists, Saudi Arabia's wall impeding foreign fighters' entry into Iraq, and of course the multibillion-dollar wall fortifying the U.S-Mexican border stretching in its first phase from San Diego to El Paso.

"All that is certain in our high-technology future," he writes, "is that the more that walls and fortifications are dismissed as ossified relics of our military past, the more they will reappear… and the more we will need to look to the past for time-honored explanations of why and how they endure."      

Two studies I found of special interest -- urban warfare and spontaneous insurgencies.

John W.I. Lee of the University of California, Santa Barbara, tells an engrossing story of a limited force of 300 Theban fighters entering the small town of Platea in central Greece only to be routed by the locals who knew the winding streets by heart. Within a day, 120 Theban corpses were scattered in streets and 180 were captured. All of them were executed. Local knowledge prevailed.

Lee deplores our short memories. "Despite the carnage of modern city fights in places such as Stalingrad, Berlin, Hue, Mogadishu and Grozny, urban warfare has faded into the background of military consciousness."

He goes on to look at Mogadishu in 1993, "where an outnumbered American assault force was bewildered by a maze of unfamiliar streets." It is clear "some things have not changed," he concludes.

Susan P. Mattern of the University of Georgia takes up the obviously pertinent subject of insurgencies under various Roman occupations. To pacify populations, she notes, the Romans relied to some extent on their ability to punish. The Arminius revolt in Germany led the Romans to implement terror, including mutilation, mass deportation, mass destruction and something approaching genocide, "to punish, avenge and deter." They waged war against rebels throughout the empire, relying on their superior discipline, tenacity and military engineering.

"Insurgency under the Roman Empire was not a series of discrete events and responses; insurgency is attested in all periods of the Roman history and in many locations." U.S. foreign policy, she says, faces problems "similar to all those of ancient and modern empires."

Hanson concludes with a ringing call to arms: "The ancient world is sometimes thought to be irrelevant because it is so distant. But in an age of confusing theories, rapidly shifting technologies, and a cacophony of instant communications, the Greeks and Romans, precisely because of their distance and clarity, loom more relevant than ever."

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About the Author

Michael Johnson spent 17 years at McGraw-Hill, including six years as a news executive in New York. He now writes from Bordeaux in France.