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The Spartans Would Think We're Crazy

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History provides an endless source of commentary on contemporary folly and the more violent and ill-conceived today's events, the more damning the evidence history provides. Whether the United States in Iraq, Israel in Lebanon, or Russia and the U.S. in Afghanistan, one simple fact is being driven home painfully and repetitively: war no longer has credibility as a solution to political problems. While there are sufficient ethical reasons to take this view, ethics are reinforced by even the greatest powers' sheer inability to control the unforeseen consequences of war waged within a tightly interwoven global system bristling with the extraordinary destructive power of military technology.

There's another more subjective reason for consigning war to the garbage heap of history: our political systems have been so corrupted that war has become an end in itself rather than an instrument of policy, and we have lost touch with whatever guiding principles nations once abided by in determining whether to fight. That is not to imply that war has ever been morally defensible except in clear cases of self-defense. But even the reprehensible has been governed by rules (for instance, the Geneva Conventions), and once we override even those principles, we might as well hop on our surfboards and ride the vortex all the way down to oblivion.

The dangers to even the greatest military powers are not only moral but strategic in nature. The three most fearsome military machines of the past 25 years all suffered serious loss of prestige (a critical competitive advantage for any military) and political focus by making the same mistakes great powers have been making for thousands of years. All three - the Soviet Union, the United States, and Israel - waged war for the wrong reasons against a foe that any oddsmaker would have ranked a serious long-shot. All three suffered or are suffering continuing damage not only to their military prestige, but their ability to achieve viable ends through diplomatic means.

One of the most intensively militaristic societies in history offers three powerful injunctions to today's reckless powers that, had they followed no other guidelines, would have actually done more to advance the cause of peace than any of the mealy-mouthed liberal pieties or crazed right wing rants that pass for political discourse in our system.

Few societies ever embraced militarism as avidly as Ancient Sparta, which throughout the 7th - 5th centuries B.C.E., boasted the most effective soldiers in the ancient world. Daily Spartan life made an NFL training camp in August seem like an evening at Miss Hotchkiss's School for Charm and Ballroom Dancing. Military training and barracks life began at age 6. One did not show pain, period, even if, as legend recounted of one Spartan boy, a fox hidden under one's cloak was eating its way through your guts. The World Cup soccer players who writhed and grimaced after every collision would have had their heads handed to them by one of the 9-man squads that made up the basic Spartan military unit.

These ancient Spartan warriors could have defeated anyone in SNL's old "Quien es mas macho?" routine, but Spartan women probably could also have taken on most men in that department as well. They were renowned for their stature, beauty, physical strength, and will and grace, and famous for their independence, athleticism, wealth, and influence over the men. In Aristophanes' anti-war comedy Lysistrata it is Lampito, the Spartan woman, who stands head and shoulders above the others and inspires them with her fierce commitment to peace. (Cindy Sheehan, and the mother-daughter tandem of Sara Rich and Suzanne Swift [], are similarly fierce warriors for peace and justice, although their tactics are more suited to American realpolitik than the ancient comic stage).

During the heyday of the Greek city-state, when each city, town, and even village had its own citizen-warriors, individuals were directly accountable to family, friends, and neighbors for their battlefield behavior. Generals couldn't hide behind thick Pentagon walls, officers couldn't pass blame down the line till it stuck, and chickenhawk politicians couldn't proudly display their feathers to complicit media. Sometimes we learn from history not because those who have gone before were just like us, but because they so absolutely differed.

Although the Spartans trained harder than anyone else, they also were guided in their approach to war by at least three important principles. The most tactical was simply, "Don't fight the same enemy too often because he'll learn all your tricks and use them against you". If you go at it with the same guys over and over, sooner or later they're going to figure out how to beat you. And since the Spartans maneuvered on the battlefield like no one else on earth, they weren't so dumb as to give their enemies a crash-course in their cutting-edge tactics.

That was smart, but another side of the Spartan military mentality is revealed by Herodotus in his history of the Greeco-Persian wars. In 480 B.C.E., as Greeks and Persians gathered their forces before the naval battle at Salamis, Xerxes, the Persian "King of Kings", gazed upon the two hosts. He was accompanied by the exiled Spartan king Demaratus whom he honored not just as a potential ally once Xerxes placed him back on the Spartan throne, but as one-time leader of the famously fearsome warriors. Xerxes confidently remarked upon the vast differential in numbers between the armies. Demaratus, ever the Spartan, set him straight, although with all the tact due to an emperor known for the occasional murderous rage. Basically, Demaratus said that while the other Greeks were good soldiers, the Spartans were incomparable because they considered themselves free men subject only to the Law. And that Law commanded that they never accept slavery and even if all the other Greeks fled, the Spartans would take the field against the Persians rather than relinquish either their freedom or the Law, thus niftily summing up the central theme of Herodotus's entire work.

Meanwhile Thucydides, the Greek historian of the Peloponnesian War that began fifty years after the Persian conflict, shows us the third aspect of Spartan militarism that, given our own society's eager resort to violence, may seem surprising. While other cities, fearful and jealous of Athenian success, hungered to declare war on Athens (although not unless Sparta led them), Sparta held back, seeing no rational reason for initiating an Aegean-wide conflagration. The greatest warriors understand that the call to battle is not to be taken lightly. The Spartans, unfortunately, were not the greatest diplomats and got drawn in, and the war lasted 27 debilitating years.

Almost every military machine holds the unspoken belief that war games and training alone won't burnish the edge of an army's readiness. Nothing does it like the real thing, baby. One of the reasons the Soviets invaded Afghanistan was its generals' envy of the U.S.'s experience with weapons, tactics, and battlefield realities in Vietnam. The Soviet Union could not conceive itself losing the war in Afghanistan. The technological differential was too great, for one thing. We all know how the story ended. All the internal weaknesses of the Soviet command, the army's awful morale, the inability to grasp the realities of terrain, and a profound political decay at the heart of the Soviet system, brought down not just the invasion but the Soviet Union itself, and lastingly damaged the myth of Russian military strength.

The Soviets made the same mistake that Xerxes made about the Greeks and that Napoleon and Hitler made about the Russians themselves: it doesn't matter if you're ruled by a czar or Stalin, Saddam or - as among the fortunate Greeks - oneself, once an outsider invades, people pull together in the name of their own freedom. Sure, that freedom may only mean freedom from you, the invader, but even if they're ruled by a devil, they feel freer with their devil than with an alien devil imposed by outsiders. This isn't always the case, but you'd better be damn sure you're bringing them a far better bag of goods than the one they've been living off of.

Afghanistan was no democracy but it was a free country. Saddam was a horror-show of medieval proportions, but then so was our ally the Shah of Iran. Iraq in 1990 was the most modern Arab state, with many strong social institutions that would have outlasted Saddam and his psycho sons, and a secular fortress against Islamic fundamentalism. It was largely in ruins before Rummy and Shrub's war; now it is devastated. And the country that invaded Iraq - the United States - has bankrupted itself morally and is close to doing so economically. Like Russia and ancient Persia, the U.S. has dealt a stunning self-inflicted blow to its own military prestige.

In "Desert Storm", our armies cut through Iraqi forces like a sledge hammer through butter, complete with General Barry McCaffrey (later Bill Clinton's "drug czar") ordering his forces to bury Iraqi troops alive where they cowered in their trenches ready to surrender. We then proceeded to betray the Shiites in the south after telling them (wink, wink) that we would support a rebellion against Saddam Hussein. Under Bill Clinton, we occasionally bombed Iraq and made sure many thousands of Iraqis starved or were fatally deprived of medical care, even while Halliburton under Dick Cheney conducted its business with Saddam's regime. After all of this, we saw fit to destroy what was left in an attempt to annex Iraq for its oil and strategic value. Construction on our massive military bases in Iraq continues, though who we can expect to garrison them seems to me to pose a serious dilemma. Probably Blackwater's private mercenary forces.

But of course, we won the war, it's the "occupation" we hate. The biggest problem is that from the perspective of the "insurgents" ("a person who rises in forcible opposition to lawful a government or to the execution of its laws" according to Webster's), they aren't insurgents at all, but freedom fighters. After all, one can't really be an Iraqi insurgent when fighting against foreign soldiers. Where is the lawful authority in Iraq that the insurgents are rising up against? As Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, George Bush, Tony Blair, and all the other weekend warriors gaze upon their chosen enemies, they are as bereft of understanding as Xerxes. Our leaders cannot imagine why the world doesn't realize that we mean well, we really do. We're the ones bringing freedom to them, don't they understand? Whoops there goes another cluster bomb smack dang in the middle of a wedding...or a school...or a hospital. Freedom has its cost. As long as we don't have to pay it. And if you come to Baghdad, you must visit the Green Zone, especially as it's the only part of the city where you don't stand a good chance of being blown to bits. But we feel very safe inside its walls.

Now comes Israel. When Prime Minister Olmert allowed himself to be pushed into a full scale invasion of Lebanon at the insistence of the ultra-hawks in the Israeli government and no doubt his oblivious allies on the Potomac, he did not even have the excuse of being a bloody-minded, imperious lunatic like Sharon. In referring to Syria as part of "the axis of evil" Olmert tipped off the world to the weakness of his strategic position. I'm not saying that the guy has to love Syria or its government. Who does? Assad's father slaughtered his share of Palestinians and the Assad regime has far less democratic legitimacy than Israel's. But "axis of evil"? That's just dumb.

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Barton Kunstler, Ph.D. is a writer of fiction, essays, poetry, and plays. He is author of "The Hothouse Effect" (Amacom), a book describing the dynamics of highly creative groups and organizations. His play, "An Inquiry in Florence", was recently (more...)
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