Featured Classic Work of Strategy and Diplomacy
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War (circa 400 BC)
Structure and Contingency: The Causes of the Peloponnesian War by Jared McKinney
Thucydides called it “a war like no other” (1.23.1, trans. Hanson, 2005). It was a 27 year war that brought an end to the fifth century Athenian Golden Age, killed more Greeks in one year than the Persians killed in ten (Hanson, 2005, p. 11), and, in the end, seemed to solve nothing. “Never before had so many cities been captured and then devastated . . . ; never had there been so many exiles; never such loss of life” (1.23, trans. Warner, 1972). Such was the severity of war that words lost their meanings. Aggression became courage; prudence became cowardice; moderation became unmanly; understanding was mocked; “fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man . . . . Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became suspect” (1.82). Greeks, in effect reentering what moderns might call a state of nature, became barbarians. It was in such an environment shortly after the conclusion of the war that Socrates himself—though he fought bravely during the war—was executed (Hanson, 2005, p. 5).*
What caused this war? The Greeks themselves were unsure: “As for the war in which they [Athens and Sparta] are engaged, they are not certain who began it,” Thucydides has Spartan delegates declare in a speech to the Athenians (4.20). But with so much devastation and pain, not knowing seemed unacceptable. And so it was that Thucydides (c. 460- c. 400 BC), who was himself an Athenian veteran of the war, undertook the first sustained inquiry in history into the origins and course of a single war (Finley, 1972, p. 23).
Featured American Classic
Benjamin F. Tracy, Annual Report of the US Secretary of the Navy (1889)
In March 1889, a hurricane destroyed or disabled three American warships in the Samoan harbor of Apia, where they had been deployed to support the United States in a political dispute with Britain and Germany over the status of the islands. The accident left the United States without any effective naval force in the Pacific and revealed the weaknesses of the existing fleet, as the old warships had been unable to get to sea and ride out the storm. Advocates of a more assertive American foreign policy, to be underwritten by an expanded modern navy, seized upon the incident. A perfect political storm did seem to favor their cause. The new President, Benjamin Harrison, was a big-navy advocate, and for the first time since 1875, the Republican Party enjoyed clear majorities in both Houses of Congress. U.S. Navy Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan was completing his landmark book, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660-1783, and his arguments were already circulating among such influential and would-be influential figures as Theodore Roosevelt and Harrison’s Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin Franklin Tracy.
Tracy, a decorated Brigadier General during the Civil War, was an able politician and administrator who laid out the blueprint for a new American Navy in his Annual Report of 1889 (excerpted below). Tracy’s official statement placed the Harrison administration squarely behind Mahan and the naval expansionist school. Although defense, not conquest, was the object of American national security and naval policy, Tracy argued that defense required a fighting force capable of engaging the fleets of potentially hostile powers. He evaluated the U.S. Navy as being inferior not only to such major powers as Great Britain, France, Russia, and Germany, but also to the fleets of Holland, Spain, Italy, Turkey, China, Sweden-Norway, and Austria-Hungary.
Featured Notable Book
Rick Atkinson, The Liberation Trilogy (2002-2013)
Rick Atkinson, journalist and military historian, authored the Liberation Trilogy, an acclaimed narrative history of the U.S. military’s role in the liberation of Europe in World War II. The first volume, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, published in 2002, received the Pulitzer Prize. The subsequent volumes were titled The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944; and The Guns at Last Light: The War in Europe, 1944-1945. Atkinson covers the war comprehensively, from grand strategy and the generals in command, to the details of daily life and small-unit combat. Atkinson’s perspective on war writ large, colored strongly by the experience of ordinary soldiers, is decidedly unsentimental and un-heroic, although he gives full due to the actions of heroic men (and women). He does not offer any startling new revelations or offer grand new theses about the war. The high-level argument throughout the Liberation Trilogy is that this was an absolutely necessary war, a war over the future of civilization (or, better put, between civilization and barbarism of the worst sort). The liberation from tyranny was real. At the same time, this war – any war – is a terrible thing.