War Without Feeling

1. Ten Years Later

History, as they say, has a dastardly tendency to repeat itself, especially if we are not cognizant of it. Those who do not know history, after all, are condemned to repeat it. The past is supposedly replete with warnings about the actions that brought men to their demise and sent imperial giants crashing toward the ground, in some cases vividly pinpointing the moment that such a downfall began. When the narrative is simple and straightforward as it tends to be in some cases, history serves as something of a Grimm’s Fairytales for those of a political stripe.

In the decade since September 11th, 2001, our culture – Western Civilization if you would like to call it so – led by the United States, has been a warring one. It began with Afghanistan, where we Canadians followed our allies, and shortly gave way to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and now sees the chaos in Libya enter the picture. Forces are stretched thin, no doubt, and despite the constant talk of exit strategies, to the man on the street there appears to be no end in sight. Costs also must encompass the increased security measures that have been devoted to protecting America at and within its own borders as well as the human costs of seemingly perpetual occupation and engagement in foreign territory.

Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War places its origins in 432 BC, when delegates from Corinth approached the Lacedaemonians, aka the Spartans, with grievances against the city-state of Athens. While it was agreed generally that Athens was indeed guilty of certain injustices, it remained a matter of contention whether or not Sparta would take up arms against Athens, though Thucydides posits that general opinions supported doing so.

The ultimate decision resulted from a debate between the Spartan King Archimadus and Sthenelaïdas, an Ephor, the highest ranking decision makers in the city. It is this debate that illuminates a striking lesson from history concerning the nature and culture of war. Specifically, what questions and imperatives are to be considered prior to engaging in military conflict and what sacrifices should be made and by whom? In their strikingly adversarial viewpoints, the two orators illustrate two contrasting views of the aforementioned question, inviting the reader to ponder those same questions in light of our contemporary warring civilization.

2. Sparta on the Nature of War

Archimadus, according to the text known for his intelligence and prudence, speaks first. The Spartan King essentially urges caution and coolheadedness in assessing the decision at hand. He says, “How could we lightly undertake a war with men like these? Unprepared as we are, where could we get the confidence to rush in to war? From our ships? We are weaker there, and it would take time to build and train a navy to match theirs. From our money? There we are even weaker, since we have no public treasury and cannot easily raise money from our citizens.”

Furthermore, Archimadus makes the case that a rushed war will bring shame and disgrace upon a city-state acknowledged for its discipline and good judgment. Quoting again, Archidmadus states, “If we are hurried by the complaints our our allies into wasting their land before we are prepared, then be careful we don’t bring down shame and trouble on the Peloponnesus. complaints can be resolved, whether they are from cities or individuals, but a war engages everyone for the sake of a few personal interests, a war’s progress cannot be foreseen, and there is no decent way to end it easily.”

Finance, in addition to caution, is a necessity, and the speaker urges, “We should collect money first, therefore, before we are carried away by our allies’ speeches. We are the ones who will bear most fo the responsibility for the outcome, either way, so we should take the time to look ahead.”

Archimadus brings his speech to a close with perhaps the most essential component of his argument. Here he makes a case for a certain temperament to permeate Sparta’s culture and politics. Though the Corinthians had previously criticized Sparta for their rigidness and fear of harm brought by reckless adventure abroad, Archimadus counters that these very same qualities are the greatest virtue of his city and will in the long-run be its most vital source of self-preservation and prosperity. Near the end of his presentation to the assembly, he makes his most important proclomation, stating,

…this slowness of ours is really nothing but clear-headed self-control. It is this that gives us our unique ability to restrain our arrogance in success, and to yield less than other people to misfortune. When people try to excite us with praise into doing something dangerous, we do not let the pleasure of it overcome our better judgment; and if someone tries to spur us on with harsh criticism, we do not let ourselves be swayed by our anger.

The subsequent speech delivered by Sthenelaidas is notable for its brevity and appeal to emotion rather than reason or pragmatism, as the speech of Archimadus was. Rather than considering the interest of the state or the feasibility of a military undertaking, Sthenelaidas simply posits war as a moral imperative and a means to justice. The argument boils down essentially to one statement prior to taking a vote on the matter. Sthenelaidas asserts,

This issue is not to be settled in arbirtration or speeches, since the damage is not being done in a speech; no, this calls for swift punishment with all our strength. Don’t let anyone teach us it’s proper to stop and discuss injustice while it’s being done to us; what’s really proper is for those who are planning injustice to spend a lot of time in discussions.

Vote for war, then Lacedaemonians! Be worthy of Sparta and don’t let Athens grow any stronger! Don’t betray your allies either, but with the gods’ help let us attack the aggressors!

Perhaps Thucydides exercises some narrative impulse in his historical account given the blatant contrast of the two speeches, but the basic argument and the parallels to our contemporary matters of war are vivid and worthy of exploration.

3. Abstract Wars

There’s a certain ethic implicit in the words of Archimadus. War is a matter that is to be carefully considered and assessed prior to action precisely because it is a shared national sacrifice that a nation undertakes together. In the case of history’s greatest wars, some will fight, others will manufacture the resources that allow the fighting to be carried out, and many will make a financial contribution to ensure that the costs of something so significant can be covered. War, Archimadus says, engages everyone and is an action undertaken by an entire state, in turn affecting its entire well-being, both in its form as a state and as a collective group of individual citizens. All must therefore contribute.

This notion of a shared venture is precisely what has been absent in the culture of war that emerged after 9/11. We are all cognizant of the many wars currently being waged, but the vast majority of us do not at all feel its impact. Certainly, we rely on a small number of volunteers to march to war, a force that is stretched incredibly thin over a series of conflict zones.

In addition, the majority not fighting has not made a truly tangible financial sacrifice. As far back as September of 2002, when the Iraq invasion was first being amped up alongside the Bush tax cuts, Ronald Brownstein noted the counterintuitive nature of implementing peace time tax rates in a time of war as well as the historical relationship between war and taxes:

The first income tax was imposed to pay for the Civil War. To fund World War I, the top income tax rate was increased from 7% to 77%. In World War II, the income tax was deepened and broadened. Washington hiked the top rate to 91% and exposed more Americans than ever before to the tax by limiting deductions and exemptions. Before the war, just 4 million Americans paid income taxes.

By 1945, the number was 43 million. Income taxes rose again for the wars in Korea and Vietnam. That’s how ordinary Americans contribute when their neighbors are under fire.

This continues to be the case in the Obama presidency, which has added Libya to the agenda, further spreading unfunded military undertakings, one that is also undeclared as a war, without seeing a contribution from the vast majority of the population.

There is no doubt that, beginning with Iraq, the style of rhetoric employed by Sthenelaïdas has become predominant, casting aside the questions raised by Archimadus, namely how such undertaking will be affordable, how they do or do not accord with the principles of a nation, and whether or not they can ever be brought to a decent conclusion. When wars are fought on borrowed money, without formal declaration on behalf of a nation’s citizenry, perhaps those questions are not relevant. Most of us do not feel these wars directly. Rather, they are abstract notions, the justness of which we can ponder in a hypothetical manner without addressing the financial or human costs because these are not visited directly upon our doorstep.

For some, patriotism posits vengeance as imperative to justice and these wars are a moral necessity. For those of us who have been buried in the ivory tower for too long, intervention marks a positive step toward modernization and the spread of democracy abroad. On these grounds, many have found reason to find favour with our warring culture. Once again, however, we will not feel the sacrifices required to engage in such a culture of war.

The notion that a state goes to war as a nation, requiring the moral and human investment of all citizens, has become all but obsolete in America’s case. There is really no reason to believe that this trend will reverse itself any time soon. Being so removed from the human tragedy that has played out over the last decade and caught up in so many other spectacles and distractions, there is no incentive to push back for most.

Sparta was victorious in leading the Peloponnesian League against the Delian League, but the aspect of this conflict which finds itself most relevant in the contemporary context illuminates one of the most lamentable legacies of the post-9/11 world. We are divorced from the commitment to vengeance or justice that our civilization has made, not feeling the shame or consequences that it has wrought. It is, as I noted, a warring culture, but the burden of contemplating and implementing the action required of such a culture falls to a very few of us.

9/11 is something we claim we will never forget. The aftermath, so irrevocably connected to that event, seems to be another story entirely. Suddenly, the idea of shared sacrifice in a national interest has disappeared. The vivid and brutal confrontation with atrocity that was brought on that day is absent in the decade that has followed. Any acknowledgment of the aftermath comes in the form of brief  reports and images that can be discarded as mere inconveniences.

If the approaching tenth anniversary of this tragedy is to be a time of reflection, perhaps there is hope for a nation to once again take hold of a common sense of brotherhood and sacrifice and understanding that the burdens of war, if it is truly worth fighting, are also worth sharing, or perhaps even relieving. This faint sense of hope is the best I can do to end on a positive note.


The edition of Thucydides that I quoted:

Woodruff , Paul (editor). Thucydides On Justice, Power, and Human Nature: Selections from the History of the Peloponnesian War. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993)

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