Friday, June 14, 2013

Modern Day Relevance in Classic Military Literature

This entry is the first in a series of posts that will highlight books on the Commandant’s Professional Reading List in an effort to promote the study of military history and other professional subjects. This month’s selection is “The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War”. Next month’s feature is “Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power.”  This post was co-authored with Brad Fultz.

The world looks at the leading democratic power not as a source of inspiration or with feelings of kinship. Indeed, it seems that most of the world sees a threat-a global power determined to rule as an empire not based on democracy or any other altruistic reasons, but through the application of unchecked power to protect first and foremost its own interests. Anyone who stands in the way will be crushed.

And why not? This is an appropriate role for the dominant power in a loose, unipolar world. After all this country was responsible for the defeat of the “Evil Empire” to the East that ushered in “an end to history” where under its democratic leadership the world would cooperate to ensure the free flow of commerce and ideas. Treaties established trade linkages justifying the most powerful navy in the history of the world to keep open. The year is 433 B.C.-the democracy is Athens and one of the greatest wars in history is about to begin.     

As military professionals we are often at the forefront in the effort to work through a growing list of complex issues such as the nature of the international system, alliance building and maintenance, grand strategy, the operational level of war, and conflict termination.  By studying one of the most enduring works of history, Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, we can examine the unchanging nature of human political, economic, and military interactions.

Thucydides’ account is brilliant in its sweep and analysis.  The work is not simply a re-telling of one battle after the other, but offers a holistic view by focusing on the geo-political, economic, and other strategic elements of this civil war that lasted for almost 30 years. While reading this book I was struck by the transformation of a limited war into a total war and the failure of both sides to end hostilities despite numerous treaties. While the Spartans would eventually claim victory, both sides were so devastated that Greek power would never recover.

I also could not help but marvel at the arc of Athenian democracy presented by Thucydides. In Book One he discusses the evolution of Athens from city-state to the dominant force in the Mediterranean after the defeat of the Persians. In the Funeral Oration of Pericles in Book Two, one of the most famous passages in Western history, Thucydides records Pericles’ words at the end of the first year of war in which he eloquently and passionately describes the qualities that make Athens so great. With a modern update the speech could be made in the halls of Congress today.  As the war progresses over the years though the very nature of the Athenian state slowly devolves from Pericles’ ideal city on a hill to an international bully as depicted in the Melian Dialogue in Book Five. The Athenians offer the small and neutral island of Melos a stark choice, submit to Athens or be destroyed. In contrast to the rule of law stressed by Pericles the Melians are presented with an arbitrary decision-they refuse and are crushed.

As with America’s position after World War II, Athens came to dominate not only Greece but also the entire Mediterranean world. It was dependent on its strong navy to secure alliances and the resources needed to sustain its hegemony and evolved from a city-state to an empire. In a classic security dilemma, Athenian power, while saving the Greeks from Persian invasions led to resentment and fear of her unchecked power by other Greeks, particularly Sparta. This sets the stage for several decades of internecine war in which the account of Thucydides covers the most decisive phase. As we consider the nature of our own country, both in our foundational belief in democracy and our rise to power in the world, there is much we can learn today from the Peloponnesian War.

While this book is listed under the “Senior Level: Colonel to General” it would be a mistake to wait that long to tackle this book. If one waits until they are an O-6, too many of our thought leaders, be they on a Division or MARFOR staff, will miss the opportunity to study one of the great works of political-military history. Any O-4 who has completed Command and Staff College or the equivalent professional military education should read this book to reinforce the political and strategic subjects covered during the course.  

Noting that this is perhaps one of the most challenging books on the Professional Reading List we thought it would be helpful if we shared some of our best practices in getting through it as well as a discussion guide which is available on the MCU website (discussion guides for other reading list books are also here). We hope you will endeavor to tackle this exceptional work-it’s worth it.


  1. When I click on the title of the post nothing the link broken?

    1. Click on "MCU website" which is in the last paragraph of the post. It will take you to the discussion guide for Thucydides and other books on the reading list.

    2. John,
      That's the problem there is no post....just a red title line. Nothing else is there. This happened once before with the post about the Marines in 2025. The only thing that appeared was the red title line nothing else was there.

  2. Thucydides is also essential reading for any budding military theorist. Not only is the history chock full of lessons, but Thucydides is one of the first theorists. His idea that nations go to war out of fear, honor, or interest presages the realist school of international relations, centuries before Machiavelli.