Athens, Sparta, and Strategic Miscalculation

Thoughts on Thucydides – Book I, Part III


Nearly a century before the onset of the Peloponnesian War, on the other side of the planet, Sun Tzu wrote the scripts for The Art of War, including the famous admonishment to “know thy enemy, know thyself.” Unfortunately for the Athenians, the lesson had not yet transmitted very far from ancient China. At the very outset of the war, Athens committed three critical strategic miscalculations that would cripple the effective prosecution of the war.

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Thoughts on Thucydides – Book I, Part II: Bipolar Disorder

On the eve of the Peloponnesian War, the Hellenic world was divided between the respective alliance systems of Athens and Sparta, a geopolitical remnant of the wars against the Persian Empire. The system was bipolar, but it was not “balanced” owing to the vastly different characters of the predominant powers. Athens had acquired a maritime empire that provided revenue and external sources of food, while Sparta remained an agrarian society centered on the Peloponnesus. And though Sparta was a famously martial society, in terms of policy it was surprisingly unwarlike, with no expansionist tendencies and an almost lethargic attitude toward external affairs. Sparta’s legendary warrior tradition was a means by which to organize society rather than an instrument of policy and conquest. In contrast, Athens was aggressive and enterprising, attributes probably reinforced by its reliance on its empire for tribute and provisions. The speech of the Corinthian envoys to the Spartan assembly succinctly compare the natures of the two city-states:

The Athenians are addicted to innovation, and their designs are characterized by swiftness alike in conception and execution; you have a genius for keeping what you have got, accompanied by a total want of invention, and when forced to act you never go far enough. Again, they are adventurous beyond their power, and daring beyond their judgment, and in danger they are sanguine; your wont is to attempt less than is justified by your power, to mistrust even what is sanctioned by your judgment, and to fancy that from danger there is no release (1.70).

In the language of neorealism, Sparta was a “status quo” power and Athens was an “aspiring hegemon.” However, a fragile peace endured thanks to the independence of a lesser power, Corcyra, from either of the two alliance systems.

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Thoughts on Thucydides – Book I, Part I: The First Navalist

In the first 23 chapters of Book I (“The Archaeology”) Thucydides details the historical backdrop of the Hellas, against which the great Peloponnesian War occurred. Even at this early stage of the book Thucydides key themes are apparent, along with the titles they bestow upon the author.

As the “Father of History” he constructs the backdrop layer by layer, starting with the most elemental – soil quality (1.2.3) – in the same manner as a 20th century Annales work. His skepticism for traditional historical sources, such as the poets, is explicit (1.20). In a lament that remains just as valid today as it was 25 centuries ago, Thucydides bemoans the fact that so many of the narratives that inform and dominate our understanding of the world are demonstrably false:

There are many other unfounded ideas current among the rest of the Hellenes, even on matters of contemporary history which have not been obscured by times … So little pains do the vulgar take in the investigation of truth, accepting readily the first story that comes to hand (1.20.3).

Thucydides seemed to be aware of the magnitude of his own accomplishment, and that his work had value not for his contemporaries, but for the reader of the far distant future. At various remarkable points, he seems to be addressing that reader specifically, such as when he cautions against judging the glory of Athens and Sparta by the quality of their ruins (1.10.2), and his famous passage that presciently describes his own work:

…if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the understanding of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work not, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time (1.22.4).

Thucydides as a political realist is a theme that will be emphasized throughout the discussion; however, even within The Archaeology we find one of his most important passages, which encapsulates the central argument that is threaded throughout the work:

The real cause, however, I consider to be the one which was formally most kept out of sight. The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta, made war inevitable (1.23.6).

Largely unappreciated is Thucydides’ quality as perhaps the first navalist. In the initial chapters of Book I he identifies the maritime domain and the advent of naval power as the key factor that brought the scattered and divided Hellenic peoples into regular contact with one another, enabling diplomacy, trade, the accumulation of capital, war and conquest. According to Thucydides, it was Minos who first assembled a powerful navy, expelling pirates from the Cyclades and allowing the Hellenic peoples to venture upon the sea in relative safety (1.4). This allowed each seafaring polity to gain wealth with which to secure its cities upon the land and project power abroad, escaping the confines of a fractured physical and political landscape.

The navies, then, of the Hellenes during the period we have traversed were what I described. All their insignificance did not prevent their being an element of the greatest power to those who cultivated them, alike in revenue and dominion … Wars by land there were none, none at least by which power was acquired; we have the usual border contests, but of distant expeditions with conquest the object we hear nothing among the Hellenes. There was no union of subject cities around a great state, no spontaneous combinations of equals for confederate expeditions; what fighting there was consisted merely of local warfare between rival neighbors (1.15).

Thucydides understood that it was by fleets that the sinews of war were carried; it followed that the geography of certain cities, such as Corinth, would benefit them greatly. And like any navalist, Thucydides recognized that at the level of grand strategy, there was a distinction between “continental” (1.9.4) or “military” powers like Sparta, and “naval” powers like Athens (1.18.2). The contrasting natures of continental and naval power would bedevil both Athens and Sparta through the entirety of the war, for each would struggle to project decisive power against the other.



Thoughts on Thucydides: Introduction

A few months ago I completed my first read of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian war with Robert Strassler’s Landmark edition. Only a couple of weeks ago, I learned of Zenpundit’s Thucydides roundtable and its impressive list of contributors. Two weeks is not much time to compose meaningful essay material on such a timeless work, and I would not want my own dilettantish observations to intrude on such an illustrious panel.

Still, the timing seemed auspicious, and all those hours spent reading, underlining and annotating would be wasted if I did not take this opportunity to regurgitate some of it. Thus, I will make my own spiritual contribution to the Roundtable on this blog, though I will probably not be able to keep up with Zenpundit’s ambitious schedule.

Writing about Thucydides is an intimidating prospect: when the topic is the Father of History himself, whose work grasps at truths in nearly every facet of human existence, how can one hope to add anything of value or poignancy?

And when you manage to start writing, a new challenge arises: where to stop? Thucydides is almost Biblical as a source of literary commentary, with a density that approaches singularity: peel back one theme only to find infinite layers beneath. To make any progress I had to delineate a limit, select a lens and focus primarily on the narrative of strategic and military events, which is the most accessible narrative within Thucydides and the most relevant to the traditional subject of this website.

I start my observations with Book I in the following posts.



Thucydides, son of Olorus

“Hitler’s Private Library” by Timothy Ryback

Hitler reading

A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing…

You can learn much about a man from his books. Since the world already knows plenty about Adolf Hitler, can we find a reflection of the man in his private library?

Hitler personally owned about 16,000 volumes, stored at several locations. The vast majority of this collection was lost in the closing days of World War II as the various portions were looted and destroyed. The Reich Chancellery library, the largest segment of the collection at 10,o00 volumes, was taken to Moscow and disappeared for nearly 50 years. Not long after the collapse of the Soviet Union a Moscow newspaper reported that the collection has been rediscovered in an abandoned church, but the books were moved and once again lost to history.

Similarly, the Berghof collection was looted piece by piece as victorious American soldiers took them as souvenirs, some of which occasionally reemerge when the attics and bookcases of deceased veterans are inventoried for posterity.

The only significant portions of Hitler’s library to survive intact were the three thousand books discovered in the Berchtesgaden salt mine, twelve hundred of which made it into the Library of Congress. The rest appear to have been “duped out” in the process of cataloguing the collection.

These 1,200 volumes were mined by Timothy Ryback to gain insights into Hitler’s reading habits, which he presents in Hitler’s Private Library: The Books that Shaped his Life. Ryback’s book is not the first nor the most extensive on the subject, but it is discerning in that he recognizes that, like all book collectors, Hitler read only a fraction of his library, evidence of which he left as marginalia, highlighting, dog-eared pages and worn bindings. These are the signposts pointing to the books that he valued.

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Generals’ Anonymous: “Why we Lost” by Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger

I read a large amount of material for which I have neither the time nor the inclination to write full-length reviews. However, that does not preclude me from sketching brief thoughts on a topic, such as an abstract, synopsis, memorable quote, etc. I will pretentiously refer to these posts as “epitomes” and categorize them as such. This post is the first of that content stream.


About 15 years ago I read a book by then-Colonel Daniel Bolger titled Death Ground. The subject of the book was America’s infantry forces, their current status and possible futures, circa 1999. It was interesting enough, but it reeked of elitist chest-thumping as Bolger extolled the virtues of active duty soldiers and marines and disparaged the National Guard. The complexities of modern warfare, he argued, had made citizen-soldiers anachronisms.

Fifteen years, two wars and three stars later, Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger’s latest book, Why We Lost,  open with a very different tone:

I am a United States Army general, and I lost the Global War on Terrorism. It’s like Alcoholics Anonymous; step one is admitting you have a problem. Well, I have a problem. So do my peers. And thanks to our problem, now all of America has a problem, to wit: two lost campaigns and a war gone awry.

The book itself is a narrative history of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, structured around vignettes of particular battles or key events that illustrate the course of the campaign. Bolger commanded a division in Baghdad in 2009-10 and advisory operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but he never had theater-level command. He was senior enough that he was exposed to the inner machinations of both wars, but he has no personal “legacy” to defend with optimistic spin and revisionism. His account in unvarnished and credible. And he pulls no punches:

Our primary failing in the war involved generalship. If you prefer the war-college lexicon, we – guys like me – demonstrated poor strategic and operational leadership. For soldiers, strategy and operational art translate to “the big picture” (your goal) and “the plan” (how you get there). We got both wrong, the latter more than the former. Some might blame the elected and appointed civilian leaders. There’s enough fault to go around, and in this telling, the suits will get their share. But I know better, and so the rest of the generals. We have been trained and educated all our lives on how to fight and win. This was our war to lose, and we did.

Bolger’s central argument is that America failed at the most basic level of strategy by ignoring Sun Tzu’s dictum to “know the enemy, know thyself.” After 9/11, the U.S. had a choice on the nature of the upcoming campaign: a narrowly-defined effort against a small number of targets amenable to kinetic action, or a broad set of maximalist objectives with the ultimate goal of somehow eradicating terrorism. The U.S. selected the latter option, thus committing the U.S. military – trained and equipped for high-intensity regular warfare – into two long-term counterinsurgencies, in fractured Islamic societies, with no clear objectives or understanding of the enemy.

Master Sun put it simply: “Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril.” We failed on both counts. I know I sure did. As generals, we did not know our enemy – never pinned him down, never focused our efforts, and got all too good at making new opponents before we’d handled the old ones…

Time after time, despite the fact that I and my fellow generals saw it wasn’t working, we failed to reconsider our basic assumptions. We failed to question our flawed understanding of our foe or ourselves. We simply asked for more time. Given enough months, then years, then decades – always just a few more, please – we trusted that our great men and women would pull it out. In the end, all the courage and skill in the world could not overcome ignorance and arrogance. As a general, I got it wrong. And I did so in the company of my peers.

This criticism of American strategy is very common, but not from the pen of a retired general who took part in the war, making it all the more trenchant.

However, this line of analysis is a thin thread through the entirety of the book, which is overwhelmingly a narrative history. Isolated from the vignettes, Bolger’s explanation of “why we lost” could fit in a lengthy newspaper op-ed. My impression is that he originally intended the book to be a straight history and that the publisher recommended the title to give it pertinence in light of the deteriorating situation in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Bolger obliged by bracketing the work with elaboration on a theme that otherwise exists thinly in the body of the text.

Still, Bolger is a gifted writer, and his book is worth reading as one of the first narrative histories of the “Global War on Terror.”


“Hi. My name’s Daniel, and I have a problem…”




Across the landscape of a nightmare: Kwajalein, 1944

Not long after the conclusion of Operation Flintlock, the American invasion of the Marshall Islands in early 1944, the Army tried a new method of documenting the course of the battle: “company interviews” during which a historical officer and his staff held session with individual rifle companies, allowing the soldiers themselves to tell the story of the battle, with the narrative being passed from one man to another as they relived events. The result of this series of interviews was Island Victory by Lt. Col. S. L. A. Marshall, first published in Infantry Journal in 1944 and now available on Kindle. The book recounts the actions of 7th Infantry Division, which was assigned to capture the southern half of Kwajalein Atoll (the northern half was taken by the 4th Marine Division).

The unsanitized narrative created a vivid account of close combat in the Pacific War, and a pattern that would be repeated in battles to come. Like many Japanese-held islands along the Central Pacific axis, Kwajalein was small, flat and densely fortified. Subjected to a massive bombardment prior to the landings, the terrain awaiting the soldiers was a tangled mass of destroyed structures, rubble, blast craters and felled vegetation. Movement on the island “was like trying to steer a true course through a thousand-acre garbage dump.”


The tempo of the battle was set by the combination of nightmarish landscape and confined geography. Maneuver was impossible. The only option was to establish a single “skirmish line,” shared by two regiments, that extended the entire width of the island and gradually advanced the entire length. The Japanese had sustained heavy casualties from the bombardment and their defense was completely disaggregated and uncoordinated.

Part of their numbers fought on with some fierceness but their resistance was hysterical and cataleptic and expressed itself chiefly in the effort to kill one or two Americans before the Japs themselves died. In this state of mortal deterioration, they became blinded and deaf to developments of battle which would be likely to have a marked effect on more self-collected troops.

However, thousands of Japanese soldiers were still deeply embedded in ruined fortifications, rubble piles, collapsed trenches and any other cover available. As the Americans advanced, every potential enemy position had to be flushed with grenades, satchel charges and flamethrowers.

More than fifty per cent of the garrison were killed below ground with high explosives planted by our engineers and Infantry. Most of the corpses counted above ground had been brayed to death by the Field Artillery.

The nightmarish terrain made traditional fire and movement tactics impossible and communications between units extremely difficult. Combat devolved to small groups of men, rarely larger than squad size, improvising their own actions as the line gradually moved forward. “Such was the chaotic state of the ground and such the nature of the fighting that the Infantry often could not see its own neighboring elements at distances greater than fifteen or twenty yards.” Higher headquarters could do little more than delineate boundaries between units and maintain a vague awareness of the situation. At one point an entire company was thought to have been annihilated and its fate was only revealed when the missing Captain walked into his battalion CP to report that his company was in position to hold for the night.

This and many other peculiarities of the operation would be hardly understandable to those who had not witnessed the Kwajalein battle. The action was indescribably chaotic; it was like trying to fight your way across the landscape of a nightmare.

I am reminded of Eugene Sledge’s haunting memoir of his Pacific service on Peleliu and Okinawa, where heavy Japanese resistance slowed operations into something akin to static trench warfare. Brutal combat day after day on the same shattered terrain gave the Marines an intimate familiarity with the land: every stump, boulder, depression, knoll, etc. had a name and a significance in the course of the battle. Combat completely transforms the meaning of the landscape. Mundane terrain features that are not even noticed in peacetime can suddenly become linchpins upon which the outcome of the battle depends.

On Kwajalein, 10 yards was an operationally significant distance and 100 yards may as well have been a different planet.

As the day wore on past noon, the battle lost its sweat for the men of 1st Platoon. The fires still blazed around the island but a strong wind from the eastward was whipping the smoke to the lagoon side. The men saw no sign of the enemy. They were through shooting for the day. They idled behind the palm stumps and in small shell craters and if they snoozed now and then in the strong sunlight, the enemy took no action to rouse them from their slumber. They knew that the left must be having some trouble because they could hear the rattle of automatic fire and snort of grenades exploding on that flank. But that was someone else’s fight and the sounds signified little more to them than did the distant rumble of the artillery breaking over Kwajalein Island where the battle of the 32d and 184th Regiments was wearing into its third day. That one hundred yards of mangled palm forest which separated the two platoons made all the difference, and their imaginations could not bridge the distance. It was as well so. They could do nothing to help the 2nd Platoon and rest is good for weary feet wherever it is to be had. They marked time and they enjoyed the afternoon.

Lt. Col. Marshall’s interviews also recorded some of the visceral moments of war that would never appear in contemporary official battle histories: the soldier who – understandably – loses composure and vomits uncontrollably after being splattered with the gore of a Japanese soldier he killed at close range with a grenade; the unnamed sergeant who starts speaking and behaving erratically after mentioning that fate was catching up to him for an evil deed he committed in his past, and is eventually killed; the eerie nighttime encounters between Americans and Japanese stragglers behind the line of battle, when both would go on their way instead of risk shooting their own side in the darkness; the squealing sound that the Japanese made in the mistaken belief that it would frighten the Americans, who actually found it hysterical. Moments like these help define battles, but they are often ignored in official accounts that emphasize a strictly tactical narrative that usually does not reflect the chaotic reality.

Island Victory is an obscure book about an obscure battle, but it effectively describes the chaos of battle, the “fog of war,” and how units adapt to combat in difficult terrain.

Landing craft approach Kwajalein

Landing craft approach Kwajalein