If somebody, far in the future, decides to ‘look for the immediate cause which brought such a great war’, they will find that ‘the real reason, true but unacknowledged . . . was the growth of one side’s power and the other side’s fear of it’. The warring parties here are not the Americans and Russians, and the author is not an analyst of contemporary geopolitics. This is Thucydides, discussing the Peloponnesian War of 431–404 BC. In explaining the outbreak of hostilities between Athens and Sparta, he does not mention any moral motive, nor any notion of defending values or principles. The conflict is described as non-ideological, born of a simple power imbalance.
Thucydides offered this lucid analysis despite the prevalence of ‘Athenian exceptionalism’ in mainland Greece. After the first year of the war, Pericles delivered his famous oration for fallen Athenians, which doubled as a eulogy for the city and its democracy. Kennedy and Obama’s invocations of a ‘city on a hill’ (not to mention Reagan and Trump’s ‘shining city on a hill’) pale in comparison to Pericles’s rhetoric:
We have a form of government which does not emulate the practice of our neighbours: we are more an example to others than an imitation of them. Our constitution is called a democracy because we govern in the interests of the majority, not just the few . . . In summary I declare that our city as a whole is an education to Greece.
Writing in 1792, Thomas Paine, would note, non-coincidentally, that ‘What Athens was in miniature, America will be in magnitude’.
It may be appropriate to ask ourselves why nobody delivered the same warning to Washington in 2021 that the Corcyraeans gave to Athens in the fifth century BC: ‘If any among you do not think that war is coming, they are deceiving themselves. They do not see that fear of your power is fuelling Spartan’ – or Russian – ‘desire for war’. Indeed, the reluctance to assume a Thucydidean perspective on contemporary conflict signals a deeply ingrained political outlook: a conviction that today conflicts are driven by moral imperatives, and that wars cannot be declared unless they are considered ‘just’.
This seems a rather whimsical idea in light of the previous 4,000 years of human history. It wasn’t for the triumph of human rights that the Egyptian and Hittite armies clashed at the battle of Kadesh (1274 BC), nor were principles of humanity cited by Scipio Aemilianus when he razed Carthage (146 BC) and spread salt on the ground to prevent it from ever rising again. William the Conqueror did not need any ethical legitimation when he invaded England, and he did not feel the need to accuse Harold of war crimes and atrocities (1066).
The persistence of this moralizing discourse in the twenty-first century is partly because our mental categories haven’t yet recovered from the fall of the Berlin Wall. So long as the Soviet Union was intact, the struggle for global dominion presented itself as an ideological contest. Rather than two empires, we had two irreconcilable conceptions of society: communism and capitalism. How gratifying it was to defend the forces of good from the Evil Empire! It seemed like a natural continuation of the previous philosophical struggle between liberalism and fascism.
This viewpoint has much to do with the particular course of US history. Let’s not forget that for over sixty years, the conquest of the American West was sold to the world as the defence of poor, vulnerable colonists and their unarmed offspring against savage, howling Indians thirsty for blond scalps. (An alternative narrative can be found in Malcolm Harris’s Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism and the World, whose opening chapters describe, among other things, how native Californians would be bought by ‘peaceful’ colonists at less than $100 per head, while a black slave in the Atlantic could be sold for up to $1,000). In the American Weltanschauung, the entirety of human history is an endless Western movie: a teleology in which there’s always a sheriff to punish the bad guys, a guardian angel who restores law and order to the city on the hill.
According to this vision, every war triggered by Washington is a response to some greater crime perpetrated by their enemy. The invasion of Cuba was justified by the sinking of the USS Maine; US entry into the First World War by the attack on the Lusitania; the war on Japan by the attack on Pearl Harbour (it is rarely mentioned that in 1940 the US blocked the sale of planes, components, machines and aviation fuel to Japan, before embargoing the sale of oil in 1941). The war in Vietnam was likewise legitimized by aggression in the Gulf of Tonkin, which turned out to be as fictitious as Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. In each case it was a confrontation between Good and Evil, the pious and the ungodly.
Before the advent of the two great modern monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam, the concept of ideological war was alien. The only stake was power, or rather dominion. There were no just causes – or, at least, any cause could justify itself. Religious expansion, armed proselytism, otherworldly salvation at the tip of a sword: these were the gifts bestowed by the new monotheistic faiths. Christians and Muslims annexed new territories in the name of God, eventually pitting one against the other in the Crusades. This inaugurated an age of Deus le volt – one that we are still struggling to exit.
Of course, even the Crusades degenerated into commercial wars: in the Fourth Crusade, defenders of the faith set out to liberate the Holy Land and ended up sacking Christian Constantinople. The successive, diuturnal conflicts between Europe and the Ottomans gradually lost their religious character, such that European states would often ally themselves with the Sublime Porte to weaken other Christian powers. But everything changed with the Reformation, which created an entirely new phenomenon in the West: the ideologization of war within Europe itself.
At the end of the fifteenth century, Cesare Borgia wasn’t waging wars for the predestination of grace, or to demonstrate the unity of divine nature, but simply to conquer the fortress of Fermo or the castle of Rimini. Forty years later, though, German lords would be pulverising their respective cities in the name of theology: in pursuit or defence of Thomas Münster’s Anabaptists. Two decades after that, the French fought a bitter civil war that saw the massacre of the Huguenots on the infamous night of St Bartholomew in 1572. The modern scientific revolution – Galileo’s breakthrough, the stirrings of industrial capitalism and the colonization of North America – was contemporaneous with the Thirty Years War, the most murderous religious conflict Europe had ever known.
This upheaval was so sanguineous that afterwards, for a century and a half, warfare reverted to the paradigm that had been in place during the Italian signorie: diplomacy by other means. The wars of succession – Spanish, Austrian, the Seven Years War – were unideological and secular. When ideological war eventually reappeared in the West, it was no longer motivated by traditional religion but by the religion of nationalism: an idolatry of the fatherland replete with its own apostles and martyrs (‘mort pour la France’). It’s easy to forget that over the last two centuries the creed of patriotism has killed more people than all previous religious wars. It was first seen in the War of Independence from British dominion by the thirteen North American colonies. From the beginning, one essential feature was its compatibility with republicanism, on display in revolutionary France, where the Girondin Jacques Brissot called on the nation to confront monarchic power in a ‘croisade de la liberté universelle’.
From then on, wars of national independence – from the Spanish guerrilla against Napoleon to Bolívar’s campaigns in South America, from the Italian Risorgimento to Irish and Algerian anticolonial movements – were distinctly ideological. It is notable, however, that they all involved a great (or waning) power facing off against an emerging populace. These struggles share characteristics with more recent asymmetrical wars. For one thing, the uneven distribution of power shaped the tactics deployed on the battlefield: weaker contenders – the OAS in Algeria, IRA in Ireland, the Israeli Irgun – often had to resort to guerrilla methods. The religion of nationalism also had its own foreign legion: Santorre di Santarosa and Lord Byron, an Italian and an Englishman respectively, laid down their lives for Greek national liberation; Garibaldi famously travelled to South America to fight for national independence – just as, in our century, a significant number of Europeans travelled to Syria to fight for Islamic State.
In the meantime, up until and including the First World War, symmetrical wars between great powers were fought largely on the basis of colonial ambition, for control over trade and territory. This remained the case even when rival states shared an ideology and culture (in the First World War, the monarchs of three fighting empires – Britain, Russia and Germany – were cousins). For much of this period there was no notion of ‘public opinion’, nor was there mass conscription. One could simply declare war without having to convince one’s people that it was worth fighting and dying for the cause. In the late nineteenth century, however, the emergence of public opinion inaugurated a ‘politics of atrocities’. It then became necessary to convince the population that the enemy had committed atrocities so intolerable that a military response was needed (I dealt with the politics of atrocities more extensively in Sidecar last year).
With the USSR, it was even easier to find a pretext for belligerence. Here was an empire of self-evident evil, and an atheist one at that. Its collapse created a gaping void for US grand strategists, who couldn’t help displaying a certain blasphemous nostalgia for their communist adversary. Just look at the names affixed to American military operations overseas. During the Cold War these were banal and arbitrary: the terrorist campaign against Castro’s Cuba was called Operation Mongoose; the mission to torture and assassinate members of the Vietcong was known as Program Phoenix; the bombardment of Cambodia, Operation Menu; Nickel Grass denoted the airborne delivery of arms to Israel during the Yom Kippur War; Praying Mantis the attack on Iran in 1988. Yet the register changed after the fall of the Wall. The 1989 invasion of Panama, Operation Just Cause, marked a new grandiloquence. In 1991, as the USSR crumbled, the US embarked on mission Restore Hope in Somalia, while Haiti saw the pinnacle of this Orwellian newspeak with operation Uphold Democracy in 1994. There followed Joint Endeavour in Bosnia (1995), Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan (2001), Iraqi Freedom (2003), and the classicizing Odyssey Dawn in Libya (2011).
If warfare in the communist era had a religious valence, in the post-communist world it became a question of morality – of humanity. We no longer speak of an Evil Empire but of ‘rogue states’. The enemy is to us what the criminal and gunslinger is to the sheriff. When we talk of ‘outlaw’ nations we embark, à la Carl Schmitt, on a ‘conceptual construction of penal-criminalistic nature proper to international law’: ‘the discriminatory concept of the enemy as a criminal and the attendant implication of justa causa run parallel to the intensification of the means of destruction and the disorientation of the theaters of war’.
Elsewhere, Schmitt notes that ‘to confiscate the word humanity, to invoke and monopolize such a term probably has certain incalculable effects, such as denying the enemy the quality of being human and declaring him to be an outlaw of humanity; and a war can thereby be driven to the most extreme inhumanity’. As we edge, like sleepwalkers, closer to the abyss of nuclear war, one can’t help recalling the words of the Nazi jurist (who didn’t seem to realise he was also talking about his own regime): ‘weapons of absolute annihilation . . . require an absolute enemy, lest they should be absolutely inhuman’.
The contemporary period, then, is marked by a yearning for the Crusades. But in European public opinion one can sense a certain apathy, a lukewarm resignation if not thinly-veiled scepticism: the kind one feels when watching a film one’s seen too many times. The media still denounces Putin’s atrocities and makes obligatory comparisons with the Hitlers and Stalins of the past, yet it does so with the enthusiasm of a bored schoolchild, almost as if le coeur n’y était pas. How many times have we woken up to the news that our former allies have suddenly become reprobates and criminals? How can we forget that Saddam Hussein was furnished with chemical weapons to use against Iran before he was designated a war criminal himself? Or that Bashar al-Assad was deemed reliable enough to torture prisoners at the behest of the CIA before he became a so-called international pariah?
It also strains credulity that the US wants to see alleged war criminals tried in an international tribunal which it does not even recognise; that it supports Israel’s illegal occupation and apartheid regime but refuses to tolerate Russia’s presence in Crimea and the Donbas; that it recognises the ethno-territorial grievances of Kosovar minorities in Serbia but not those of the Russophone minority in Ukraine, and so on. How can we take seriously the West’s invectives against authoritarian regimes, and calls to defend democracy, when our democratic leaders lay out the red carpet for a Saudi Prince who butchers critical journalists and an Egyptian General who executes political prisoners by the tens of thousands?
It may be time for our elites to put aside their hypocrisy for once and speak as frankly as the Athenians when they imposed their will on the inhabitants of the island of Melos:
We shall not bulk out our argument with lofty language, claiming that our defeat of the Persians gives us the right to rule or that we are now seeking retribution for some wrong done to us. That would not convince you. Similarly we do not expect you to think there is any persuasive power in protestations that . . . you have not done us any harm. So keep this discussion practical, within the limits of what we both really think. You know as well as we do that when we are talking on the human plane, questions of justice only arise when there is equal power to compel: in terms of practicality the dominant exact what they can and the weak concede what they must.
On the one hand, Thucydides seems to speak to the Russians of today, telling them to stop justifying every act of aggression by invoking the ‘Great War’ of seventy years ago and the need to save Europe from a Nazi menace (just as the Athenians safeguarded Greek freedom from Persian dominion). On the other, he seems to refer to the Americans, who impose penalties and sanctions simply because they have the power to do so, on states whose weakness often obliges them to comply.
Read on: Alberto Toscano, ‘The Spectre of Analogy’, NLR 66.