Rightly or wrongly, I believe that letting the lunatics in Tehran nuke up is a sufficiently bad idea that we should be prepared to go to war rather than allow it. But “prepared” is a long way from “eager.” It looks as if the lunatics in Washington would really like to go to war with the one Middle Eastern country whose population is, or at least was until recently, pro-American.
As the narrator says at the end of The Bridge Over the River Kwai: “Madness! Madness!”
Blogging is a humbling activity, if you go back and read your old posts and notice how many things you got completely wrong. But every once in a while, you look back at an old post and think “Hey! That was pretty smart!”
As it happens, I stumbled today on a post from the run-up to the Iraq war. Of course, it reminds me that I supported that war, which now looks like a very bad mistake. But it also reminds me that I had BushCo’s number, even back when Bush was popular. The fundamental fact about this crowd is that they think rashness is a virtue.
Since roughly no one was reading the predecessor to this blog in September of 2002 (I think I was getting a couple of hundred hits on a good day), I’m taking the liberty of reposting the whole thing, at the jump.
“The Whole Earth is the Tomb of Famous Men”
My friend and colleague Eugene Volokh, who thinks we should go to war, quotes Thucydides: “The secret of happiness is freedom, and the secret of freedom is courage.”
Here’s the full passage, in a different translation; it’s from the great Funeral Oration of Pericles:
For the whole earth is the tomb of famous men; not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions in their own country, but in foreign lands there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men. Make them your examples, and, esteeming courage to be freedom and freedom to be happiness, do not weigh too nicely the perils of war.
The language is magnificent; but the context made it deeply ironic then, and its use now in the pro-war cause is not less ironic. Pericles had just led the Athenians into the Peloponnesian war, and the speech, given after its first, victorious, year, is confident of victory, even somewhat boastful. Yet Thucydides’ readers knew that this was to be the high-water mark of Athenian greatness: what was to follow was defeat, conquest, and the imposition of a Quisling government. Later Athens was to regain its independence, but not its hegemony, and its permanently poisoned relationships with the other poleis were to lead, in the next century, to the conquest of all of Greece by the Macedonians under Philip and Alexander.
So when Pericles urges his hearers not to “weigh too nicely the perils of war,” we are meant to hear in the background Thucydides’ sardonic laughter. Pericles took his own advice (or perhaps Thucydides put into the mouth of Pericles words appropriate to his actions), and the result was catastrophe.
Going to war with Iraq may be the safest, smartest thing we could possibly do; reading the arguments made against it is almost enough to make me think so. What worries me is that I do not now see in power men and women who nicely weigh the perils of war. Rather, I think I see a truly Periclean hubris, albeit expressed in much less stirring language.
America is, in many ways, the new Athens. The parallels between the Peloponnesian war and the Cold War are almost eerie: a land-based, insular, impoverished, culturally conservative and backward land power against a wealthy, mercantile, culturally rich, heterogeneous, and innovative democracy. Only this time the good guys won.
Let’s not have it go to our heads. A calculating boldness a virtue; rashness is a vice. There are better uses for the whole earth than to make it our tomb.