There’s a strong case to be made that the most active field of engagement with the classical past and its legacy outside the creative arts, and certainly the area where this engagement has the greatest potential for real world impact, is military education, especially in the United States. Several ancient authors have long been included within the canon of military and strategic studies: Thucydides above all, but also Homer, Xenophon and Caesar (and the candidate for Secretary of Defense, retired Marine Corps General James Mattis, is a devotee of Marcus Aurelius). Works on ancient warfare, largely based on these texts, regularly feature in lists of recommended reading: Donald Kagan on the Peloponnesian War, Victor Davis Hanson on the Western Way of War. This clearly derives from the importance of historical studies in the curricula of various military education establishments, most famously the US Naval War College with its use of Thucydides as a foundational text, and the way that this reading then regularly features in the public remarks of senior military officers.*
Recently – this is an impression rather than a scientific survey – this tendency seems to have increased; not just the proliferation of ‘Thucydides trap’ articles in response to the latest development in US-China relations (not least because the military seem to have rather less time for that idea than journalists), but a growing number of serving and retired military personnel reflecting on the importance of classical figures and texts, and a widening of the scope of that discussion. Just in the last fortnight, a single website focused on strategy, national security and military affairs, The Strategy Bridge, has offered the thoughts of an Australian army officer on Thucydides’ continuing importance and two discussions by US officers on military ethics (part of a series), one evoking Archimedes, Thucydides, Plato and Augustine, and the other focused on Plato’s Republic and Cicero’s De Officiis.
I had two immediate reactions to these pieces, especially the Plato/Cicero one this morning.** The first was to wonder about causes. Is it simply that sites like The Strategy Bridge now exist to offer an accessible outlet for such articles by professionals, whereas in the past there were few publication options besides proper academic journals, hence a long-standing tradition of reflection on the relevance of ancient texts for contemporary warfare and strategy is now becoming visible? Or is there a real turn towards the classical past as a source of insight, as a new phenomenon – and, if so, how far does this reflect a crisis of Enlightenment analysis and values, such that they are no longer felt to be adequate? It’s certainly the case that the ‘philosopher king’ model offered by Plato and Cicero works much better, or at least raises fewer problems, in the context of the hierarchical military rather than in wider society – but I still feel a little nervous at the appeal to ‘timeless’ ancient ethical values, leap-frogging the debates of the 17th-19th centuries that put that alleged timelessness under scrutiny. Plus, slavery: extracting timeless values that still work today from ancient ethics does imply either a selective reading of the past (that isn’t properly acknowledged) or the introduction of some very questionable assumptions into the present.
There’s a definite risk of both idealisation and decontextualisation in these readings, and that then leads to my second question: what’s the role of academic research in classical studies in these discussions? It should be stressed that, especially compared to the vast majority of brief and trite invocations of Thucydides and other ancient writers in mainstream publications, these pieces are clearly based on extensive reading, with careful referencing. However, this referencing falls firmly into the category of ‘provide a source for this statement’ rather than ‘show engagement with current debates about interpretation’ – and the works referenced are for the most part both general and conventional (Gilchrist’s heavy reliance on Kagan for his account of Thucydides is the obvious example).
The end result is that, if I were marking these as student essays, I could happily write “discuss” or “it’s more complex than that” at least once every paragraph. Obvious objection: these aren’t written as student essays, let alone as academic papers, so such scholarly pedantry isn’t appropriate. Yes and no; I fully acknowledge the different demands of writing for a non-specialist audience – but there is no hint here of an awareness that texts may be interpreted in different ways and may indeed be the focus for fierce argument, although clearly that has implications for any attempt at making use of them for the present. The rhetoric is not ‘here is my personal reading of Thucydides’, acknowledging a degree of decontextualisation, but rather ‘this is what Thucydides says’, invoking the ancient author’s authority to ground more general claims; much more powerful, but also more problematic if ‘what Thucydides says’ is actually a matter of debate.
I am definitely not arguing for the innate and automatic superiority of academic readings, which can indeed render themselves stale and unproductive through constant insistence that everything is contingent, historicised and undetermined. I do share the view that some ancient texts are powerful and thought-provoking, and can offer us knowledge and understanding relevant to the present – and, most importantly, that discerning such useful knowledge and understanding can’t be left to the academics, but needs to be based on extensive engagement with those actually practising in the relevant field of activity.***
So, the more military officers who read and reflect on ancient texts the better, up to a point – but it would be good to see more acknowledgement that, like the world, the means by which we make sense of the world (including texts) are complex and ambiguous. This has always been the attraction for me of the USNWC approach, focused on engagement with the whole work rather than isolated extracts, and with opening up questions rather than instilling a specific interpretation. A simplistic reading of Thucydides is, in itself, just slightly dull; a simplistic reading of Thucydides that is then applied to the real world is potentially dangerous.
The usual reading of the William Butler quote (more commonly misattributed to Thucydides) – “the nation that divides its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting by fools” – is that the scholar-warrior and the warrior-scholar should be single individuals, hence the emphasis on military education. But Achilles scarcely has time to become a true scholar or philosopher, as opposed to a thoughtful and well read one, without the risk of reducing his effectiveness as a warrior (and a fortiori this applies to the scholars). We could read this line instead not as a complaint against specialisation, but rather as a plea for dialogue instead of division: the danger is not that warriors are not scholars, but that warriors don’t pay any attention to scholars, and vice versa.
*See e.g. Dempsey on Thucydides, Powell’s love of the pseudo-Thucydides “Of all manifestations of power…” quote, and Mattis at length:
Ultimately, a real understanding of history means that we face NOTHING new under the sun. For all the “4th Generation of War” intellectuals running around today saying that the nature of war has fundamentally changed, the tactics are wholly new, etc, I must respectfully say… “Not really”: Alex the Great would not be in the least bit perplexed by the enemy that we face right now in Iraq, and our leaders going into this fight do their troops a disservice by not studying (studying, vice just reading) the men who have gone before us. We have been fighting on this planet for 5000 years and we should take advantage of their experience.
From an email exchange in 2003: http://www.strifeblog.org/2013/05/07/with-rifle-and-bibliography-general-mattis-on-professional-reading/
**Leaving aside my usual regretful muttering that British military education isn’t more interested in this sort of thing, as I’d love the opportunity to explore the potential usefulness of Thucydides in this context.
***Cue my usual regretful muttering etc.
[Update 16/12: and here’s another post on Thucydides on The Strategy Bridge – a return to the old question of the causes of the Peloponnesian War, but this time taking in historians like Hodkinson and Cartledge as well as the sophisticated reading of Ned Lebow. Not by a military officer this time, which may account for the different style and range of reference.]