I’m a little disappointed that the Chilcot report – at least if its text search facility is as reliable as has been suggested – contains no mention of Thucydides. True, there’s no established tradition in the UK of drawing foreign policy lessons from the Peloponnesian War, unlike in the US where it’s a set text for high-powered military officers as well as being a favourite of various associates of the Project for a New American Century, above all the influential Donald Kagan. But given the involvement in the inquiry committee of Martin Gilbert, historian of 20th-century war, and Lawrence Freedman, a leading figure in war studies, one might have expected at least a passing gesture. Alas, word searches for terms like ‘Athens’, ‘Sparta’, ‘Nicias’, ‘Syracuse’ and ‘Sicily’ all return blanks (though I was pleased to see that “shambles” occurs about thirty times).
It now seems, however, that I may have been too hasty in this judgement, and too superficial in my expectations; according to a blog by Glen Rangwala of Cambridge, ‘The Chilcot Report: the longest work of academic history ever’, Thucydides and his ideas in fact permeate the entire enterprise, not through a few glib citations, but by establishing its methodological principles:
The academic discipline that Freedman’s and Gilbert’s books inhabit began with what is still perhaps the greatest history of a war ever written, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. Indeed, Thucydides provides the subject matter of a whole chapter of Freedman’s Strategy: A History, a mammoth text published in 2013, and written at least in part during the Chilcot inquiry. While the report easily eclipses Thucydides’ eight books in length, it replicates its approach of recording meticulously the words spoken (or, in this case, written) by politicians, noting the differences of their perspectives, extricating their reasoning and tracing their consequences, both intended and unintended. Moreover, the report could have been seen as following, in its own way, one of Thucydides’ most famous maxims: that the history of a war will have served its purpose “if it is judged useful by those who want to have a clear view of what happened in the past and what – the human condition being what it is – can be expected to happen again some time in the future”, as Jeremy Mynott’s superb recent translation puts it.
What is under scrutiny is therefore the political reasoning of leaders, traced through presenting the memos, minutes of meetings, parliamentary debates and press interviews surrounding the use of military force in Iraq…
In one specific, but rather important, respect, as a characterisation of Thucydides’ work this is completely wrong. It’s not just that Thucydides does not meticulously record the words of his various characters; it’s the fact that, on the contrary, he openly admits that he was not able to record the words accurately in every case, and has therefore made the speakers say what seemed appropriate according to their situation. It’s one of the ways in which his approach to historiography is thoroughly un-modern, and troubling for many modern historians, to the extent that some (Kagan, for example) try desperately to interpret his methodological statements as charitably as possible – and others are happy to suggest that Thucydides was more like a dramatist or a mythographer. If the idea of Bush saying “Yo, Blair!” seemed too good to be true, in Thucydides it would certainly be much too good to be true.
But – and this is where I think Rangwala hits on something entirely right, even if by a questionable route – the aim of this procedure is exactly the same as Chilcot’s properly meticulous approach: to withhold explicit judgement or commentary, and to make the characters condemn themselves out of their own mouths. Pericles, Cleon, Nicias, Alcibiades and the rest speak, and we deduce not only their thinking but also their semi-concealed thoughts and their characters, without immediately perceiving that this is simply how Thucydides has made them present themselves. Blair, Straw, Short and the rest of them speak, and we deduce not only their thinking but also their semi-concealed thoughts and their characters, without immediately perceiving that this is simply how the Chilcott team has made them present themselves, not by inventing any words but certainly in the way they have chosen what to excerpt and how to arrange it. The reader appears to be left to make up his or her own mind, while being subtly manipulated towards a particular line of interpretation.
Further, the report, like many parts of Thucydides’ account, “focuses on the beliefs that [Blair] and others held, and what the consequences of those beliefs were.” It aims to reflect on the complexity of events and their interaction.
The Chilcot report is probably one of the most thorough and exhaustive accounts of the politics of a specific conflict in the history of the study of international relations. If it is read not as the evaluation of an individual leader or as a set of narrow policy prescriptions but instead as a critical evaluation of a way of thinking about foreign policy, it takes on a political force that goes beyond the specific context of the account. Like all good academic analysis, it has resonance beyond its own immediate moment.
That resonance, however, tends less towards a set of clear judgements and policy recommendations than towards a world view, that events are complicated and difficult to predict – but that individuals can always make things worse. Pessimism about prediction, optimism about the capacity for critical analysis to make sense of the past (if not the present); all very Thucydidean. As Rangwala notes, it’s questionable who’s actually going to have the stamina to read the Chilcot Report – in which case it’s worth emphasising his observation that Thucydides is substantially shorter, and so an excellent means of grasping the same essential truth about the world.