BMCR 2001.11.20

War and Democracy. A Comparative Study of the Korean War and the Peloponnesian War

, , War and democracy : a comparative study of the Korean War and the Peloponnesian War. London: M.E. Sharpe, 2001. xxviii, 385 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0765606941 $29.95.

‘At first glance’, according to the editors of this book, ‘it seems odd to compare the Peloponnesian War and the Korean War’ (p.ix). In fact, it could be argued that such a comparison is far from unpredictable: the Peloponnesian War has served as a point of reference in discussions of civil and international wars from the first ‘modern’ conflict (if the American Civil War is given that label) to the most recent international crises.1 This book does, however, offer significant variations on that theme: the choice of the Korean War as the modern comparandum is an unusual one; more importantly, perhaps, while such comparisons have traditionally been one-sided affairs (ancient historians groping for contemporary relevance, or modern theorists invoking the authority of antiquity), the problem is addressed here by scholars from both sides of the ancient/modern divide. This juxtaposition of ancient and modern can be seen not only in the book’s origins (it is the product if an interdisciplinary conference, held at the Woodrow Wilson Center in 1995), and in its editorship (Strauss is a historian of classical Greece; McCann a professor of Korean literature), but also in its structure: the book is divided into five parts—loosely grouped around various ideas or themes—each of which contains a mixture of ‘Korean’ and ‘Greek’ essays (although it should be said that the Korean essays outnumber the Greek).

Part One opens the book with some big issues: democracy, and imperialism, and the connection between the two. Victor Hanson, in ‘Democratic Warfare, Ancient and Modern’, introduces an apparently familiar Hansonian argument: that there is a close connection between a state’s political and ideological structures and its approach to war, and, more precisely, that democracies are better at fighting wars. However, this paper offers a different version of that argument: Hanson’s case here is that democracy not only affects the morale or efficiency of an army, but also has a direct (and positive) impact on levels of military technology. The argument is persuasively put and supported with a range of examples which undoubtedly demonstrate the innovativeness of Athenian military practice in the fifth and fourth centuries (the enthusiastic adoption of the trireme, or the increased use of extensive fortification). What is less convincingly demonstrated, however, is that such willingness to innovate is necessarily, or exclusively, a consequence of a democratic political structure. Hanson’s argument seems plausible in its own terms, but these terms are relatively restricted, and although he does acknowledge one potential problem for his theory—the fact that Athens lost the Peloponnesian War—it remains unclear how he would explain other possible counterexamples: most obviously, the spectacular success, and equally spectacular military innovations, of the (far from democratic) kings of Macedon.

The other two essays in this section—Ronald Steel’s ‘The American Imperium’ and Robert Kagan’s spirited rejoinder, ‘The American Empire: A Case of Mistaken Identity’—turn to the modern world, and to the question of how American interactions with the outside world in the twentieth century should be labelled: in short, is America imperialist? The answer depends, not unsurprisingly, on how one chooses to define ‘imperialism’, and it is from this issue, rather than substantive questions of the nature of American policy, that much of the disagreement between Steel and Kagan seems to arise. But their divergent approaches also illustrate a more important, if no less intractable, dilemma: the tension between the urge to isolationism and the desire for global pre-eminence which seems to be a leitmotif of much twentieth-century American policy, before and after the Korean War.

Part Two, ‘Categorizing Wars’, again contains one ancient and two modern essays, and, again, the modern are more closely connected than the ancient. In ‘When Sparta is Sparta but Athens isn’t Athens: Democracy and the Korean War’, Bruce Cumings argues that the Korean War should be seen primarily as a civil war and as a conflict in which the identification of a ‘good’ side and a ‘bad’ is far from straightforward. Athens and Sparta serve for Cumings as a sort of shorthand for that clear-cut good vs. bad dichotomy—although Cumings’ argument that such polarisations are fundamentally unhelpful in accounts of the Korean War is surely equally relevant for the study of the Peloponnesian War. Kathryn Weathersby, in ‘Stalin and the Decision for War in Korea’, chooses to emphasise the external elements of the causes of the war, and in particular the role of Russia in urging (or allowing) North Korea to come into direct conflict with the South.

Paul Cartledge’s study of ‘The Effects of the Peloponnesian (Athenian) War on Athenian and Spartan Societies’ is less concerned with attempting to define the character of the war itself than with examining its consequences. The piece is, at heart, a (welcome) restatement of the case against the historical model of fifth-century grandeur followed by fourth-century decline, which, although perhaps no longer so widely and openly proclaimed as it once was, nevertheless still seems to lurk in some form behind many accounts of classical Greek history. Cartledge’s essay offers a brief analysis of the ancient and modern historiography of the Peloponnesian and post-Peloponnesian War period, followed by a systematic survey of various aspects of Athenian and Spartan political and social life, and of the extent to which each aspect was (or was not) affected by the war. The pattern which emerges from this survey is, fundamentally, an absence of pattern: some things changed, others stayed constant, and there is no single model which can be used to explain, or could have been used to predict, the consequences of the war. The conclusion suggested by the piece is, then, a negative (and somewhat paradoxical) one: if the example of the Peloponnesian War provides any general lesson at all, it is, it seems, the extreme difficulty of drawing universal lessons from specific historical events.

Part Three concentrates on the fate of the little state in great-power conflicts—’the shrimp between two whales’, according to a Korean saying. Gregory Crane’s ‘The Case of Plataea: Small States and the (Re-)Invention of Political Realism’ is one of the few pieces in the book which makes a sustained attempt to bridge the divide between ancient and modern—something which is achieved not by pointing to apparent parallels between ancient and modern events, but by looking at the possible relevance of modern International Theory to ancient conflicts (and of ancient conflicts to modern theory). The result is a stimulating piece which, after briefly discussing the uses to which Thucydides has been put by international theorists, and the reasons which lie behind that use, goes on to suggest an interpretation of Plataea’s fate in the Peloponnesian War which should be of interest to both historians and theorists. Crane’s focus is the structure of relations between states—a topic which has exercised international theorists for some time—and his thesis is that the identification and selection of a single model of interstate interaction is a problem which not only troubles modern commentators, but also forms the basis of ancient dilemmas. The Plataeans, Crane argues, are connected to other Greek states by a variety of relationships—panhellenic, hierarchical, reciprocal—but the circumstances of the Peloponnesian War make the maintenance of such multiple, fluid relationships impossible. The Plataeans are forced to choose a single relationship, and with that choice comes disaster. By analysing Plataea’s story in this way, Crane not only produces some valuable new insights into the ancient material—including a detailed new reading of Thucydides’ Plataean/Theban debate—but also, I think, points to an important lesson for modern theorists: that definitive, univocal models may often fail to capture the most important aspects of interstate structures, and that it is often in the ambiguities of those structures that the key to interstate behaviour can be found.

Dae-Sook Suh’s ‘The Korean War and North Korean Politics’ returns the focus to politics inside the state, and investigates the ways in which North Korean domestic politics both contributed to the outbreak of the war (which, like Cumings, he wants to see as primarily a Korean conflict, rather than one provoked by the great powers) and were, in turn, affected by the war. Kongdan Oh’s study of ‘The Korean War and South Korean Politics’ does the same thing for the Southern side, but also adds some broader background, tracing the story of Korean politics back into the nineteenth century, and demonstrating in the process that the interaction between domestic Korean policies and politics and the objectives of larger powers—Japan, China, the Soviet Union, the U.S.—is a theme not only of the Korean War, but also of Korean history over a much longer period.

The focus of Part Four is the effect of war on democratic politics, and particularly on American democratic politics of the 1950s. Ellen Schrecker’s ‘McCarthyism and the Korean War’ offers an clear and insightful analysis of McCarthyism’s effect on the American political landscape, exploring the consequences of this period for the nature of American political discourse and emphasising its impact on left-of-centre politics and on the labour movement—an impact which extended far beyond the official boundaries of the American Communist Party. Stephen J. Whitfield’s ‘Korea, the Cold War and American Democracy’ approaches the same topic from a different angle. Whitfield is concerned with the American political landscape during the Cold War, but he is also interested in setting political developments in their broader social and cultural context, and, in turn, in using that broader context to highlight some of the peculiar characteristics of American politics in the period. The essay perhaps raises and explores more questions than it definitively answers, but these questions—in particular, the problem of how the apparently ultra-conformist America of the 1950s became the iconoclastic society of the 1960s—certainly deserve that exploration.

Jennifer Roberts, in ‘Warfare, Democracy and the Cult of Personality’, also tackles the subject of American politics of the 1950s, but does so through the use of explicit comparison with classical Athenian democracy. The underlying question is a familiar one (at least in studies of Athenian democracy): how does an egalitarian society cope with outstanding individuals? Roberts’ case-studies are MacArthur, Miltiades and Alcibiades, and her conclusion—applied to both Athens and America—is that it is the ‘creative tension’ between ‘the stability of ordinary folk’ and the ‘energy and romance’ (p.262) of individual leaders which is one of the distinctive features of both democracies. This conclusion seems valid, but the route by which it is reached is perhaps more dubious. There are, for example, obvious problems in comparing MacArthur’s directly-recorded speeches with the Thucydidean versions of what Alcibiades may (or may not) have said. More importantly, the sharp division between the civil and military spheres which forms the basis of much of Roberts’ argument, might well be legitimate for modern America, but is surely much more difficult to apply to classical Athens, where military and ‘civilian’ life are—structurally and ideologically—intricately interlinked.

The book’s fifth and final part turns to the cultural effects of the Peloponnesian and Korean Wars. Josiah Ober’s interesting article, ‘Thucydides Theoretikos/Thucydides Histor: Realist Theory and the Challenge of History’, tackles in greater detail the point raised by Crane—the use (and abuse) of Thucydides’ work by International Theorists. Ober does not object to the identification of Thucydides as a Realist; nor even to his use to support (and justify) specific theoretical positions within the broad Realist framework. But he also wants to set beside this ‘Thucydides Theoretikos’ another, ‘historical’, Thucydides, whose project complicates, and even undermines, the reasoned, logical model of state power which is outlined in the ‘theoretical’ parts of the work. It might be objected that, once the existence of this second, undermining, Thucydides is acknowledged, his position as a guru of Realism (in any of its forms) needs some reconsideration. Ober does not go this far, but does insist on the need for extreme caution when using Thucydides in modern contexts. And because Ober has a clear picture of the nature of those modern uses—that is, that they do not consist only of direct analogies, but also of more extended, and more influential, theoretical appropriations of the ancient world—his essay (like Crane’s) is valuable not only for ancient historians interested in, for example, an analysis of the Melian dialogue, but also, and perhaps even more so, for international theorists who are concerned with what it is and is not possible to do with Thucydides in the modern world.

Kurt Raaflaub’s ‘Father of All, Destroyer of All: War in Late Fifth-Century Discourse and Ideology’ is much more closely focused on the ancient world, offering an analysis of the impact of war on all aspects of Athenian life. The piece is structured around an imagined walk through Athens (with Socrates and his companions functioning as the Athenian men-in-the-street): Raaflaub describes their progress from the Piraeus, along the Long Walls, and around the monuments of the city of Athens, and, as he does so, attempts to demonstrate the extent to which the practice, theory, and ideology of war were constantly visible in all parts of the city. There is, perhaps, a slight element of circularity in some of Raaflaub’s arguments (Athens thought constantly of war; therefore the boule was constantly debating war; therefore a glance at the council chamber would evoke thoughts of war…), possibly increased by the tacit assumption that ‘foreign relations’ and ‘war’ are, in classical Athens, synonymous terms. But the basic point is, nevertheless, both valid and important, and Raaflaub’s method of demonstrating it—highlighting the constantly interacting roles of topography and architecture, literature and politics—provides a valuable new way of approaching this, often very familiar, material.

Finally, Dong-Wook Shin provides a brief survey of ‘Characters and Characteristics of Korean War Novels’, showing that a recurring theme of these novels is the intense personal and social cost of the war: it was, or is portrayed to have been, a conflict which not only affected the lives of individuals as individuals, but also divided families and forced old friends into new conflicts. From this perspective, the Korean War again seems much less like a geopolitical struggle, much more like civil war.

Anyone who has persisted with this review to this point might feel that what they have been ploughing through is not so much a book review as a disconnected sequence of article reviews. But the justification for this approach is that it is, it seems to me, a reasonable reflection of the experience of reading this book. There are some recurring points in the book, both in content (Marshall’s comparison of the emerging Cold War with the Peloponnesian War appears several times, for example), and in broader themes: Dae-Sook Suh’s investigation of the consequences of war deals with similar problems to those raised by Cartledge; Dong-Wook Shin’s analysis of Korean War novels illuminates the earlier debate on the status of the war as a civil or a global conflict. But although the editors, in their introduction and in their arrangement of the book, have attempted to provide some sort of framework for these essays, the range of topics covered is so diverse (within, as well as between the two broad disciplines) that the sought-for coherence is inevitably elusive.

This is, of course, a familiar complaint against books which emerge from conferences. But it is, I think, particularly worth repeating here, because this lack of coherence seems to undermine one of the book’s most important aims. The subtitle of this work is ‘A Comparative Study of the Korean War and the Peloponnesian War’, but—with a few exceptions—the articles in this book are not, in fact, ‘comparative studies’, but accounts of straightforwardly modern or ancient history, politics or literature which happen to appear inside the same cover as articles which deal with the other side of the story. The book contains many excellent articles, some of which ancient historians will find very useful; some of which, I suspect, will be equally important for modern historians. But it is not perhaps too cynical to assume that many ancient historians will skip over the ‘modern’ essays, and many modern historians will do the same to the ancient. For the reader, that strict segregation is easy—too easy—to maintain, since, in many ways, this book can often seem to be not so much an exercise in comparison as one in juxtaposition. Too often, the comparative element, where it appears at all, is restricted to an opening or closing comment, framing an article which would not look out of place in an uncomparative work on ancient history or modern politics.

This is, though, a great shame. There is enough properly comparative work in this book to suggest that ancient and modern historians could gain much from this approach; and scattered comments and acknowledgements in footnotes suggest that the authors who participated in the original conference felt that they benefited from participation in that interdisciplinary environment. Comparative history is, as has often been acknowledged (or lamented), extremely hard to carry out successfully, and it is clear that collaboration between scholars across disciplines provides a route by which some of the difficulties and dangers of comparative studies might be avoided. The challenge, though, is to find some method of presenting the results of that collaboration without losing the elements of interdisciplinarity which initially made the exercise worthwhile.


1. American Civil War: Basil L. Gildersleeve, ‘A Southerner in the Peloponnesian War’, Atlantic 80, September 1897, pp.330-343; Afghanistan: see, for example, Peter Jones, ‘Ancient and Modern’, The Spectator, 3rd November 2001. A complete list could include examples from World Wars I and II, Vietnam, the Cold War, the (second) Gulf War, and Former Yugoslavia: for a very brief survey, see Jennifer T. Roberts Athens on Trial. The Antidemocratic Tradition in Western Thought, Princeton: Princeton University Press 1994, pp.296-298.