Victor Davis Hanson’s book A War Like No Other is neoconservative drivel. He claims that the Peloponnesian War contains wisdom that can help America (the West) in dealing with problems of Islamic fundamentalism, the civil war in Lebanon, and the rising trend of anti-Americanism in the Middle East. He wrote this book in 2005, when America was fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In that period, I remember watching a TV debate in which Hanson lambasted the Islamic thinkers for their tendency to take a flight to Late Antiquity, the era of the first four Caliphs, to find answers to the problems that the Islamic nations face in the present. Apparently, Hanson thinks that he is being rational when he takes a flight to the Ancient Age. But if others take a flight to Late Antiquity, he will vilify them as fundamentalists and madcaps.
He compares America with Athens, and Sparta with the fundamentalist regimes of the Middle East and even with Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. He wants his readers to believe that there are parallels between the challenges that America faces in the twenty-first century and the Athenians faced during the Peloponnesian War in the fifth century BC. To be effective, the propaganda must be subtle—it must be written in a style which will beguile the reader into believing that this is a work of real scholarship. But Hanson is not subtle. He is not scholarly. Anyone who has read Greek history and knows about the Peloponnesian War will easily see through Hanson’s propaganda. He writes history like a neocon activist. He wants his readers to believe that the “West is the best military power.” Of course, he gets to define what is the West: Athens is the West, while Sparta is not.
He ignores the fact that both the Athenians and the Spartans were Greeks. They worshipped the same Gods. They celebrated the same festivals. They followed the same traditions. They ate the same kind of food. They drank the same type of wine. They spoke the same language. They engaged in the same kind of hoplite land battles and trireme-based sea battles. Due to his ideological bias, Hanson distorts the reasons for the Peloponnesian War. He claims that Sparta was responsible for the war since it was an oligarchy, and that Athens desired peace since it was a democracy. This is not true. In his history books, Donald Kagan gives a better explanation for the causes of the war. The war was fought over economic and political issues, and not ideological ones. Athens was probably more to blame for the war than Sparta.
Hanson uses phrases like "roughneck Lacedaemonian granddads" and "oligarchic fundamentalists” to describe the Spartans. No serious historian will use such terminology without offering justification. Hanson offers no justification. He labels, the Athenian democratic system “Athenianism”—which is an absurd term, since the Athenians were not ideological. He asserts that Alcibiades was “Kennedyesque”—this term might seem fine in a magazine article, but in a history book it makes no sense. To describe the impact of the Peloponnesian War on Greek life, he uses the phrase “Lebanonization of Greece”—a truly absurd phrase.
He presents Sparta as a slave society that is alien to the West. He presents Athens as the “hyperdemocracy” and the fountainhead of the West. He ignores the fact that the Athenians had more slaves than the Spartans and that the Spartan women could inherit property while the Athenian women could not. He ignores the fact that the Spartan league was larger than the Athenian league and that the Spartans had support in Southern, Central, and Northern Greece. They controlled access to the critical Isthmus of Corinth. He tries to present the Spartans as bumbling oligarchs who could not understand the power of Athenian democracy. He ignores the fact that the Spartans were better strategists. The Spartans showed the ability to interact with not just the oligarchic institutions but also the Athenian type democratic institutions.
In the early section of his book, Hanson tries to establish the credentials of Thucydides as a trustworthy historian. He asserts, without providing any justification, that much of what Thucydides has written in his book, The History of the Peloponnesian War, is correct—this view makes no sense. The good historians never rely on a single chronicler from the past for developing their thesis. They usually cite multiple resources to make their case. Hanson is a bad historian. His book is based on a single source: the account given by the Greek historians like Thucydides and Xenophon. For the last seven years of the war, Hanson has relied on the work of Xenophon (since Thucydides's account ends at 411 BC).
Hanson ignores the fact that in Ancient Greece, history was a branch of literature. Its objective was to entertain and inspire. In Greek literary tradition, historians were allowed to invent speeches. They were allowed to assign popular figures of their time at the scene of major battles. They were allowed to invent the sacking of cities and massacre of citizens. They were allowed to amplify the number of soldiers involved in any battle. For instance, Herodotus says that there were 2.5 million soldiers and an equal number of support personnel in Xerxes’s army when he attacked Greece. Modern historians estimate that the number of soldiers in Xerxes’s army cannot be more than 200000. Some historians have suggested that Xerxes had just 20,000 soldiers.
Thucydides’s account of the Peloponnesian War could be as off the mark as the work of Herodotus. But Hanson has a blind faith in Thucydides.
Hanson has been in the business of distorting Greek history for quite some time. In his 2001 book Carnage and Culture, he offers a one-sided account of the Battle of Salamis to establish his naive theory that democracies always prevail over tyrannies. How did the Persians view the war? Hanson ignores the Persian perspective. In his account, the Persians come out as tyrannical warmongers. He ignores the fact that the Athenian attack on Persian territories prompted the Persians to retaliate. He ignores the larger context of the Greco-Persian conflicts. He ignores the fact that the Athenians were defeated by the Spartans in the Peloponnesian War, and were conquered by the Macedonians, who were barbarians and monarchists. By focusing on the war between the Greeks and the Macedonians, a conclusion that is opposite of Hanson’s thesis can be drawn: that a barbarian monarchy can beat a democratic state.
For writing history, you have to examine evidence from multiple resources. Hanson is incapable of conducting in-depth research. He is incapable of making a fair assessment of the perspective of the people who are non-Western. In the beginning of every book he reveals that his agenda is to prove that the “West is the best military power.” How can you write a good work of history if you are prejudiced from the beginning? You cannot.