Does History Repeat Itself?

Christine Bennett asks if history repeats itself. She forwards "... Unless It's All Greek to Him" (Commentary, 9/23/04)  by Barbara Garson, the author of the 1960s antiwar play "Macbird" and, most recently, Money Makes the World Go Round (Penguin, 2002).

During a lull in the war between Athens and Sparta, the Athenians decided to invade and occupy Sicily. Thucydides tells us in The Peloponnesian War that "they were, for the most part, ignorant of the size of the island and the numbers of its inhabitants, and they did not realize that they were taking on a war of almost the same magnitude as their war against the Peloponnesians."  According to Thucydides, the digression into Sicily in 416 BC - a sideshow that involved lying exiles, hopeful contractors, politicized intelligence, a doctrine of preemption - ultimately cost Athens everything, including its democracy.

Nicias, the most experienced Athenian general, had not wanted to be chosen for the command. "His view was that the city was making a mistake and, on a slight pretext which looked reasonable, was in fact aiming at conquering the whole of Sicily - a considerable undertaking indeed," wrote Thucydides. Nicias warned that it was the wrong war against the wrong enemy and that the Athenians were ignoring their real enemies - the Spartans - while creating new enemies elsewhere. "It is senseless to go against people who, even if conquered, could not be controlled," he argued. Occupying Sicily would require many soldiers, Nicias insisted, because it meant establishing a new government among enemies. "Those who do this [must] either become masters of the country on the very first day they land in it, or be prepared to recognize that, if they fail to do so, they will find hostility on every side."

The case for war, meanwhile, was made by the young general Alcibiades, who was hoping for a quick victory in Sicily so he could move on to conquer Carthage. Alcibiades, who'd led a dissolute youth (and who happened to own a horse ranch, raising Olympic racers) was a battle-tested soldier, a brilliant diplomat and a good speaker. (So much for superficial similarities.)  Alcibiades intended to rely on dazzling technology - the Athenian armada - instead of traditional foot soldiers. He told the Assembly he wasn't worried about Sicilian resistance because the island's cities were filled with people of so many different groups. "Such a crowd as this is scarcely likely either to pay attention to one consistent policy or to join together in concerted actionŠ. The chances are that they will make separate agreements with us as soon as we come forward with attractive suggestions."

Another argument for the war was that it would pay for itself. A committee of Sicilian exiles and Athenian experts told the Assembly that there was enough wealth in Sicily to pay the costs of the war and occupation. "The report was encouraging but untrue," wrote Thucydides. Though war was constant in ancient Greece, it was still usually justified by a threat, an insult or an incident. But the excursion against Sicily was different, and Alcibiades announced a new, or at least normally unstated, doctrine. "One does not only defend oneself against a superior power when one is attacked: One takes measures in advance to prevent the attack materializing," he said. When and where should this preemption doctrine be applied? Alcibiades gave an answer of a sort. "It is not possible for us to calculate, like housekeepers [perhaps a better translation would be "girlie men"], exactly how much empire we want to have. The fact is that we have reached a state where we are forced to plan new conquests and forced to hold on to what we have got because there is danger that we ourselves may fall under the power of others unless others are in our power."

Alcibiades' argument carried the day, but before the invasion, the Athenian fleet sailed around seeking allies among the Hellenic colonies near Sicily. Despite the expedition's "great preponderance of strength over those against whom it set out," only a couple of cities joined the coalition.   At home, few spoke out against the Sicilian operation. "There was a passion for the enterprise which affected everyone alike," Thucydides reports. "The result of this excessive enthusiasm of the majority was that the few who actually were opposed to the expedition were afraid of being thought unpatriotic if they voted against it, and therefore kept quiet." In the face of aggressive posturing, Nicias appealed to the Assembly members to show true courage. "If any of you is sitting next to one of [Alcibiades'] supporters," Nicias said, "do not allow yourself to be browbeaten or to be frightened of being called a coward if you do not vote for wars. Our country is on the verge of the greatest danger she has ever known. Think of her, hold up your hands against this proposal and vote in favor of leaving the Sicilians alone." We don't know how many Athenians had secret reservations, but few hands went up against the war.

In the end, the Athenians lost everything in Sicily. Their army was defeated and their navy destroyed. Alcibiades was recalled early on; Nicias was formally executed while thousands of Athenian prisoners were left in an open pit, where most died. The Sicilians didn't follow up by invading Attica; they just wanted Athens out. But with the leader of the democracies crippled, allies left the Athenian League. Then the real enemy, Sparta, ever patient and cautious, closed in over the next few years. But not before Athens descended, on its own, into a morass of oligarchic coups and self- imposed tyranny.

RH:In the past, at West Point instructors refought  the victories of Napoleon, rather than the defeat and disaster to which they led.  Do they still teach Thucydides at West Point?

Christine Bennett asked if history repeats itself and forwarded "... Unless It's All Greek to Him" (Commentary, 9/23/04)  by Barbara Garson, the author of the 1960s antiwar play "Macbird" John Heelan comments: WAISers should perhaps also consult On the Psychology of Military Incompetence by Norman Dixon, originally published in 1976 (reprinted several times over the last few years) which, among other things,  looks at the way modern wars were fought using strategies and tactics from previous wars. (I found this book an invaluable teaching aid in the past in my lectures on the use of IT  for strategic business management.)  Aimed primarily at the British Armed Forces,  book " surveys 100 years of military inefficiency from the Crimean War, through the Boer conflict, to the disastrous campaigns of the First World War and the calamities of the Second. It examines the social psychology of military organizations, provides case studies of individual commanders and identifies an alarming pattern in the causes of military disaster" An excellent recent review by Captain Adrian Choong in the Journal of the Singapore Armed Forces (V30/N2 2004) comments, "Dr Dixon raises many instances and examples from British military history, from both great wars and small actions. Through all these wars, he picks out some common characteristics of military incompetence, for example:

• A fundamental conservatism and clinging to outworn tradition, ass well as an inability to profit from past experience.
• A tendency to reject, suppress or ignore information which is unpalatable or conflicts with pre-conceptions.
• A tendency to under-estimate the enemy and over-estimate the capabilities of one ’ s own side.
• An undue readiness to find scapegoats and suppress news about military setbacks.
• A predilection for frontal assaults and the belief in brute force rather than the use of surprises or ruses.
• Indecisiveness and a general abdication from the role of a leader.
• A failure to exploit a situation due to the lack of aggressiveness.

[RH: on `points 1 and 2. Since Napoleon's time, military academies have been studying his victories but not the total disaster to which they led]. Dixon continues later, "Another form of incompetence raised in the book is strategic incompetence. This refers to incompetence at levels beyond the military, occurring when the decisions made in deploying or withdrawing the use of military force. Often this incompetence takes place at the political and national level. Some examples are:

• Sending a military force to a situation without a clear mission or objective.
• Sending a military force into a situation without the legal ability to defend itself or the mandate to fulfill its role effectively.
• Leaving a military force in a situation where it becomes progressively more committed, to the point where it is unable to withdraw safely, or when resources and lives have to be continually poured into a situation with no clear end.
• The lack of political will to sustain losses, or an unrealistic political definition of “acceptable losses”.
• Withdrawing a military force before the successful completion off objectives.
He ends his review with the opinion that "Recent notable example like the US War in Iraq  readily come to mind."
The full review can be read in]
[RH: The last point would require that US troops stay in Iraq for along time].

The posting "Does History Repeat Itself?" was based on Thucydides' account of the Athenian attempt to conquer Sicily. I asked if they studied him at West Point.  Marine General Michael Sullivan replies: I don't know about West Point but they teach it at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.  The first thing we studied during the Strategy semester was Thucydides and the Peloponnesian Wars.

RH: Thucydides' History is divided into eight books, The Sicilian adventure is narrated in Books VI and VII. I have not checked to see if the author of the article had adapted Thucycides' to suit his satirical ends. Thucycides had been a general, but his failure to relieve Amphipolis resulted in his dismissal. He had a rather cynical view of men and war, and he did not believe in divine intervention in human affairs, so he would not have voted for President Bush. If any scholarly WAISer wishes to see how far the satirical article adheres to Thucydides' account, we would be enlightened.  Perhaps someone should contact the author of the article.

Your comments are invited. Read te home page of the World Association of International Studies (WAIS) by simply double-clicking on: E-mail to Mail to Ronald Hilton, Hoover Institution, Stanford, CA 94305-6010. Please inform us of any change of e-mail address.

Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: October 8, 2004