History’s Largest Lessons

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In a time when the usefulness of the past as a means to comprehend the present remains the object of skepticism, if not outright attack, inside the academy, Donald Kagan, the former dean of Yale College and a professor of ancient history, has published a book about the necessity of historical analogy for understanding a nation’s security interests.

 
 

In a time when the usefulness of the past as a means to comprehend the present remains the object of skepticism, if not outright attack, inside the academy, Donald Kagan, the former dean of Yale College and a professor of ancient history, has published a book about the necessity of historical analogy for understanding a nation’s security interests. The most common arguments against such a view hold that modernity is so profoundly different from all previous human experience, and the past so particular and irreproducible, that analogies are necessarily anachronistic misreadings and can only mislead us.

But Professor Kagan believes that if we are to understand the world in which we live, we have no surer source, indeed no other source, than the past. Whatever the flaws, whatever the difficulty, there is simply nothing better available.

Professor Kagan is perhaps best known as an expert on the Peloponnesian War, waged from 431 to 404 B.C. His recent book, On the Origins of Wars , argues that close study of fifth-century Greece and second-century Rome remains the best way to understand the catastrophes that made our century and to ward off similar ones in the next. This argument flouts a number of his colleagues’ certainties: that professional specialization puts the twentieth century offlimits to him and that the distant past is unsuitable terrain for comparison to modernity. On the Origins of Wars makes bold claims to the contrary, and I went up to New Haven to hear Professor Kagan defend them.

Why do you believe so strongly that despite current academic convictions to the contrary, history is essential for modern statesmen, and for the rest of us too?

There’s no escaping history. No matter what people say theoretically, in their daily lives they take note of the past and make judgments about the likelihood of its recurrence. The drunk husband coming home at 2:00 A.M. knows from past experience to be very, very quiet. That is the study of history in its most simple sense, and people couldn’t live from day to day without doing a fair amount of it, which reveals something about history in the larger sense: Everybody knows perfectly well that there are constants in human behavior as well as discontinuities, and if this weren’t true, our capacity to function in the world would disappear entirely.

We tend to focus on economic interests as the source of conflict.… But the hard evidence belies this.

You begin the book with an analysis of the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, follow it with a chapter on the origins of the First World War, then compare the causes of the Second Punic War and World War II. This implies that historical analogies are least prone to obsolescence where the stakes are as high as they can be: in war.

Right. It’s in the realm of international relations, diplomacy, and war that the constancies are much greater than they are in other areas. One of the things that the book means to do is to reveal that by taking the reader into the council rooms of the people making the decisions. I’m struck by how much similarity there is about the nature of the problems, the rather limited range of options available in these circumstances, and the motives that people have in choosing one rather than the other; these have remained amazingly constant, even in a nuclear age. The greatest difference between ancients and moderns, which lies in the economic reorganization of life wrought by the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions, has not fundamentally reordered the logic of international politics.

Bernard Brodie, the master of strategic thought in the age of nuclear weapons, made one of the strongest objections to your thesis half a century ago when he argued that all past lessons about the logic of war had to yield to the fact that fission bombs made war between nuclear powers fundamentally irrational.

It seems to me that there have been a number of occasions when war ought to have been unthinkable, because the disparities of power were tremendous and the capacity of one side to obliterate the other ought to have been obvious to all, but that did not prevent the players from confronting one another.

Probably the most famous case is the one that Thucydides described in what is called the Melian Dialogue during the Peloponnesian War, when the Melians were made perfectly aware that if they didn’t do what the Athenians wanted, the Athenians would obliterate them. People seem to think that only nuclear weapons can thoroughly destroy a civilization, but when the Athenians got through with Melos, they killed all the men and sold all the women and children into slavery. I regard that as sufficiently horrendous an outcome that to speak of worse is pointless. So this kind of issue has existed before.

You take up Thucydides’ point that men go to war for three fundamental reasons: out of honor, fear, and interest. But doesn’t honor seem an archaic motive?