18 March 2008

Democracy and Military Prowess

Slowly, I am working my way back to a point that I began to address in early December last. In “Superior European Technology” I noted the reliance of Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen upon Carnage and Culture by Victor Davis Hanson for a key point in their argument regarding the reasons for European success in the conquest of the Americas. In a post focused more on the current situation in Iraq than Schweikart and Allen’s A Patriot’s History, I stated the scope of my initial interest in Carnage and Culture.

At the very least, my assessment of A Patriot’s History requires me to study Hanson’s first chapter, wherein he lays out his thesis in detail; chapter six, which explains the success of Cortés in Tenochtitlán; and the epilogue.
Victor Davis Hanson on Iraq
Hanson’s book captured my interest, however, and I have read and reread not three chapters but five, and have started looking through the rest of the book. Back in December I thought I would post a sequence of three articles on Carnage and Culture sometime in January. Now in mid-March, I seem to be getting close. I plan to offer an Overview of the book first, followed by a detailed examination of the Conquest of Tenochtitlán, then my assessment of the Use of Hanson in A Patriot’s History.

Before posting any of those three, I offer this footnote to those articles that will follow.

Brasidas’s Speech to the Peloponnesians

My effort to come to grips with Hanson’s argument in Carnage and Culture keeps bringing me back to his discussion of a speech recorded in History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides.

In Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War, nearly 2,500 years ago the Spartan general Brasidas dismissed the military prowess of the tribes of Illyria and Macedonia, who confronted his Spartan Hoplites. These men, Brasidas says of his savage opponents, have no discipline and so cannot endure shock battle. “As all mobs do,” they changed their fearsome demeanor to cries of fright when they faced the cold iron of disciplined men in rank. Why so? Because, as Brasidas goes on to tell his soldiers, such tribes are the product of cultures “in which the many do not rule the few, but rather the few the many” (Thucydides 4.126).
Hanson, Carnage and Culture, 6.

Hanson has thus highlighted in Thucydides a passage seeming to suggest that at the onset of Western Culture, military strength was linked to democracy in which “the many rule the few,” conferring advantage over those where “the few rule the many.” The tradition of democracy is but one of the cultural advantages that Hanson argues has favored the West in battle through two and a half millennia. That chiasmus (the few over the many/ the many over the few) makes for a terrific quote, so I went to the source, as is my habit.

There’s the rub.

The venerable translation of Richard Crawley, available from Project Gutenberg as an eBook since 2004, contains the words quoted by Hanson, but with a notable difference.

The bravery that you habitually display in war does not depend on your having allies at your side in this or that encounter, but on your native courage; nor have numbers any terrors for citizens of states like yours, in which the many do not rule the few, but rather the few the many, owing their position to nothing else than to superiority in the field.
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Richard Crawley
Their bravery stems from citizenship in a state in which the few rule the many, not the other way around as Hanson suggests. While Hanson has Brasidas stating that the few ruling the many is the source of weakness of the tribes his men faced, Crawley has the few over the many as the source of strength of the Greeks. Indeed, George Grote’s A History of Greece (1870) finds in this passage from Thucydides support for another Western tradition: might makes right. The few rule the many because strength is a legitimate source of power.

But there is another point in the speech of Brasidas which deserves notice: he tells his soldiers—“Courage is your homebred property: for ye belong to communities wherein the small number governs the larger, simply by reason of superior prowess in themselves and conquest by their ancestors.” First, it is remarkable that a large proportion of the Peloponnesian soldiers, whom Brasidas thus addresses, consisted of Helots—the conquered race, not the conquerors: yet so easily does the military or regimental pride supplant the sympathies of race, that these men would feel flattered by being addressed as if they were themselves sprung from the race which had enslaved their ancestors. Next, we see here the right of the strongest invoked as the legitimate source of power, and as an honourable and ennobling recollection, by an officer of Dorian race, oligarchical politics, unperverted intellect, and estimable character.
Grote, A History of Greece, vol. 6, 224-225.

Translations differ, of course, so I did not rest. Two more nineteenth century translations connect military prowess to the few governing the many, and doing so because their strength is meritorious. The 1873 translation by Henry Musgrave Wilkins states:

I say, then, that you ought to fight bravely on the field of battle, not in reliance on the constant presence of allies, but from your own inborn valour, undismayed by any foreign force, however multitudinous; for you do not come from those political communities in which the multitude rules the few, but from states wherein the many are governed by the few, who acquired their power solely by their military prowess.
“Speech of Brasidas,” in Speeches from Thucydides, trans. Henry Musgrave Wilkins, 165-166.

Peithō’s Web offers the second edition of the Jowett translation (1900).

For you ought to fight like men not merely when you happen to have allies present, but because courage is native to you; nor should you fear any number of foreign troops. Remember that in the cities from which you come, not the many govern the few, but the few govern the many, and have acquired their supremacy simply by successful fighting.
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Benjamin Jowett.

Rex Warner’s modern translation also connects national power to the power of the few in authority. As the Penguin Classics edition since 1972, it gets wide circulation.

The reason why you are expected to be brave in war is not because you have allies with you on every occasion, but because of the courage which is your birthright. It is not your way to be frightened of numbers on the other side, you who come from states where it is not the many who rule the few, but rather the other way about, and where to fight and to conquer has been the one and only basis of national power.
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner, 341.

Hanson may be correct. Errors in translation have been made often, and frequently the errors get perpetrated in new translations. However, since his reading of the text departs significantly from the plain sense of the most widely available editions of Thucydides, it seems to merit at least a footnote in his text. Carnage and Culture is steeped in Greek literature throughout. He appears quite conversant with the full range of ancient Greek texts. This familiarity and frequent reference is as it should be given both the nature of Hanson’s argument and his position as a professor of classics. Yet, if he mentions anywhere which translations he employs or that he makes his own, I have not found it in the notes.

1 comment:

Al said...

An Interesting article.

Looking through the lense of 20th Century history, do you think that armies from Totalitarian political systems were more effective than their democratic counterparts?

It is particular interesting to note that thanks to the modern media, democracies in Western Europe and in the US (before 2003) were often unwilling to use ground troops for fear of casualties (even thou this was often a sensible option from a military perspective i.e. Kosovo 1999)


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