AD Main Menu

John Havelock: Slow down and take a page from Thucydides

John Havelock

Ever hear of Herodotus or Thucydides? Well, they were the first two Western historians: way, way back -- 400 years BC -- but still very important guys. Here are a couple of reasons why.

They wrote, maybe 200 years after writing was invented, about the war between Athens and its allies against the Persian Empire, and then about the Peloponnesian War, which came down to a war between former allies Sparta and Athens.

Before writing, oral poetry, exemplified in the written record of Homer, conveyed the culture through story-telling. A little embellishment of the truth never hurt to carry a story, and if you believed in gods, their intervention could be terminally important, as always in the Old Testament. Herodotus followed in Homer's path, concentrating on the rip-roaring war story. Thucydides, writing soon after, was a bit more like the "just the facts, ma'am" guy that historians now often pretend to be.

Though his history is all about the war, Thucydides, an Athenian, elsewhere proudly defined its government: "Our constitution is named a democracy because it is in the hands not of the few but of the many. ..." Has Citizens United disqualified us as a democracy, Mr. Thucydides?

Professor James Muller has sponsored a public lecture series on important historical and political subjects at UAA. On April 17, visiting professor Paul Rahe came to talk to a large and overflowing classroom about Thucydides as historian. He said Thucydides understood the complexity of socio-political processes like a good modern historian. The making of policy is not as simple as many would have it who subscribe to "realpolitik," the hard-nosed pursuit of interests defined exclusively in terms of enhanced power. While Rahe did not reference the scene, seniors can remember Secretary of State John Foster Dulles' stunning our long-term British allies. "The United States has no friends," he snapped, "only interests." Wrong.

Following a realpolitik style, we invaded Vietnam and Iraq with a very simple notion of who everybody was. How did that work for us?

Following Thucydides' style of analysis, what do we make of the standoff between Putin's Russia and the Ukraine? Late-night comedians joke that those who don't know where the Ukraine is are more ready to go to war than those who do.

Many Americans, including congressmen, are advocating a military response to hold the Ukrainian border. Thucydides would say, "Hold your horses; it's more complicated." And so it is. We have no treaty arrangements with Ukraine, historically a buffer region between east and west Europe, a republic under Moscow rule before the breakup of the USSR. About half the people in Eastern Ukraine are of Russian heritage, most bilingual. The Ukrainian government erred early by ruling that Ukrainian is the only legal language. Ukraine's status as an independent country has been brief. It suffers from a profoundly unsettled government. Putin's realpolitik, a barely veiled invention, will backfire in the long run.

And speaking of unsettled governments, say, "Hold on," to those who advocate U.S. intervention in Syria. Bad stuff goes on all over but Syria is even more complicated than Iraq, where everybody now hates us.

The application of Thucydides' style of thinking is timely and beneficial but, paradoxically, both Thucydides and Herodotus have led us down a dangerous road. Generations of Westerners were taught that "history" is the history of warfare. Fighting wars is the apogee of manhood. To die in service to one's country is a man's most glorious achievement.

With these values in mind, millions marched to death in World War I, a war whose origins still leave a lot of "what ifs" to puzzle over. World War II was a clear "just war" revival, which may have encouraged an over-confident belief in the justness and wisdom of all our subsequent commitments to military violence.

Many of us lost relatives in recent wars. Many of them were heroes, as demonstrated usually by their commitment to the welfare of their buddies. But when given in dubious battle, these deaths are public as well as private tragedies.

Former Cpl. John Havelock, now a lawyer, once attorney general of Alaska, founded the justice program at UAA and later taught public policy for the history department.

John Havelock