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Thucydides, Scahill and Dirty History

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In his sweeping survey of America’s post-9/11 military campaigns, journalist Jeremy Scahill follows in the tradition of Herodotus and Thucydides. That’s not a good thing.

Yes, they are perhaps the two most storied names among those practicing the historian’s craft. Herodotus was dubbed the “father of history.” His legacy: a new definition of inquiry, looking for the explanation of cause and effect in human affairs through the actions of humans—their wisdom, emotion, and follies.

Thucydides then refined and eclipsed Herodotus. He dismissed the Histories, nine books of geography, politics and war, as rambling and undisciplined. In the long preface to his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides promised a clearer path for mapping out how decisions translate to action. Further, he vowed to adhere to tighter standards of proof, limiting his narrative to what he knew to be true—either through personal knowledge or that of demonstrably reliable sources.

Despite their differences, the two Greeks are credited with founding a discipline. In truth, however, neither one was a terribly good historian. Herodotus, for example, informed his readers that the plains of India were covered in gold dust and guarded by man-eating ants.

In his 2007 defense of Herodotus in The Atlantic, the best excuse Robert Kaplan could muster for the father of “factual” history was that “facts matter less than perceptions….” In other words, as far as Kaplan is concerned, Herodotus told a heck of a story and that was good enough for him. Maybe, but it is not enough to count as “history.”

Thucydides’ judgment is suspect as well. A participant in the Peloponnesian Wars, he was disgraced as a general and exiled from Athens—hardly strong credentials for an unbiased observer.

And those long, rhetorical dialogues recounting the debates over war and strategy—they are accurate word for word accounts? Really? Even near contemporaries were suspicious. “If people actually spoke like this,” Dionysius of Halicarnassus complained, “not even their mothers or their fathers would be able to tolerate the unpleasantness of it….” He really nailed Thucydides. To the father of history, getting the “storyline” right was more important than delivering a true transcript of what actually was said.

In fairness to Thucydides and Herodotus, what they gave birth to was history as explanatory narrative—a pointed view of why nations and empires rise and fall. The notion that history should be something truly objective and verifiable is more a product of the Enlightenment and historians like Lord Acton, Leopold Von Ranke, Wilhelm Dilthey and Hans Delbrück. Over the course of that century, history became professionalized with rough criteria to certify that the historian, his methods and his sources represented some modicum of effort to be independent, impartial and accurate.

Today, however, what is popularly read looks more like what the Ancient Greeks tried to deliver their audiences: cracking good stories reflecting the writer’s point of view. (Herodotus, for example, intended his histories to be recited in public—not read by classics students). In what is often passed-off as “history” these days, narrative trumps hard history.

In ancient Greece, narrative dominated because it was the only game in town. Thucydides and Herodotus didn’t have the data to do better.

Now, we gravitate to narrative because it makes us feel good. That can be attributed, in part, to the increasing importance of empathy in the contemporary world. Empathy has risen to become a key preferred attribute of Western society. The emotion of caring overwhelms the logic of cold hard facts.

Stories are particularly effective at stirring our empathetic impulses, and the power of information age technology pushes that impulse into overdrive. Historian Lynn Hunt argues, for example, that contemporary concerns over torture and the universal nature of human rights are modern expressions of an increasingly empathetic culture.

The temptation to tap into narrative-starved society under the guise of history is strong—and popular and profitable.

The dust jacket to Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield trumpets that, through his “brave reporting, Scahill exposes the true nature of the dirty wars the United States government struggles to keep hidden.” That sounds like history. But despite its six-hundred-plus pages of text, Dirty Wars is no history book. It is pop narrative.

It is hard to get beyond page one before beginning to dispute how Scahill frames his story. Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Scahill breathlessly writes, “had come to power with plans to topple Saddam Hussein in hand…” Really? They had a plan? Few dispute that Cheney and Rumsfeld saw Iraq as unfinished business. That’s different from saying they had an actual plan.

Further, let’s say they had dreams of Gulf War II. Others coming into the administration—including Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice—did not. Also among those wanting to demonstrate restraint was the president of the United States. George W. Bush often spoke, in public and private, about using American might with prudence and judgment. Scahill’s readers, however, are never presented with any facts that might suggest a different interpretation of the dynamic that drove post-9/11 policy. It’s all just one big Machiavellian moment for Cheney and Rumsfeld.

After the collapse of the Twin Towers, Scahill’s narrative presents something akin to a palace coup by neocons. On page 18, he quotes the economist Milton Friedman, “Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change.”

From a narrative perspective, what’s most interesting is that Friedman makes a cameo at all. He was, as Scahill rightly points out, a “conservative icon” and “a key advisor to successive Republican administrations… [with] tremendous influence over many of the officials in the Bush White House.”

But Scahill isn’t arguing Friedman had a demonstrable impact on post-9/11 policies. As Johan Norberg noted in a 2008 Reason article, it makes little sense to believe the economist would be a champion of the post-9/11 buildup. Friedman “had always emphasized waste in defense spending and the danger to political freedom posed by militarism,” Norberg wrote, quoting Friedman biographer Lanny Ebenstein.

Scahill might just as well have quoted Rahm “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste” Emanuel. Obama’s chief of staff expressed the same sentiment as Friedman. But quoting Emanuel would not have made the storyline nearly as eerily conspiratorial.

It would be possible to go on (and on) pointing out these annoying efforts to skew the story Scahill’s way—but that would make for an article longer than the book. For a serious reader, it would also require a pretty deep schooling in post-9/11 history to separate what is revelatory and useful from the spin.

Who would want to do that? Likely not many. Those who already embrace the neocon-conspiracy narrative will love the book. Those who don’t will toss it aside early on—out of sheer exasperation.

What lasting contribution will Dirty Wars make to America’s understanding of the issues of war and peace? Probably not much.

Herodotus and Thucydides will not be forgotten. Without them the world would know precious little about wars that helped define the West, how a disparate, desperate band of Greek city-states fought off the great Persian Empire or what animated the struggle for supremacy between Athens and Sparta. Despite their deficiencies as historians, their contributions are huge because their stories represent a huge portion of everything we know about those wars.

But when it comes to post-9/11 books, we already have a mountain of stories like Dirty Wars. In the future, few historians will waste their time picking through the bones of this book in search of real meat.

There is plenty of good and important history yet to be written about America’s post-9/11 war—particularly the secret parts. But that useful history will have to be more objective and balanced—weighed with a sense of proportionality and fairness to the decision makers, the decisions they had to make and their consequences.

In contrast to how Scahill looks at the world post-9/11, an instructive volume is Aaron Friedberg’s In the Shadow of the Garrison State (2000). The Princeton professor makes the case that Eisenhower—and the presidents who came before and after—successfully managed to keep the United States from becoming the military-industrial complex Ike warned us about.

To be sure, Friedberg would have been an unlikely model for Scahill to follow. During the Bush administration, Friedberg worked for Cheney.

Yet In the Shadow of the Garrison State is everything Dirty Wars is not: judicious, reasoned and soundly documented. Granted it doesn’t flow like Thucydidean rhetoric, but it is damn good history.

- James Jay Carafano is vice president of defense and foreign-policy studies at The Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in The National Interest

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