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The Iraq War and the Sicilian Campaign (Part I)

What parallels emerge between the U.S.-led war in Iraq and the Athenian campaign against Sicily in 415 B.C.?

January 22, 2007

What parallels emerge between the U.S.-led war in Iraq and the Athenian campaign against Sicily in 415 B.C.?

Does history repeat itself? If it does, it may be worthwhile to look back further than the Vietnam War and to compare the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq with the Athenian campaign against Sicily during the Peloponnesian War in 415 B.C.

In both cases, a democratic superpower made a fateful decision during an ongoing war — against Sparta in the case of Athens, and al Qaeda in the case of the United States — to pick a second fight.

For the Athenians, the nominal aim of the Sicily campaign was to aid certain distant kinsmen, the Egestaeans, in a local quarrel. And for the United States, the nominal aim was to punish the Hussein regime for its supposed WMD program.

In reality, motives were much more complicated, but in both cases could be boiled down to an ill-advised bout of imperialism. Athens hoped to crush Syracuse, the largest city on the island and a potential naval rival, and to use a subdued Sicily as a base for further expansion into Italy and North Africa.

And the United States was not just searching for WMDs in Iraq. The campaign was also undertaken to replace an unfriendly despotic regime with a friendly democratic one, to project U.S. power in the region, and to gain leverage over Iraq's oil reserves.

Of course, the campaign in Iraq was not undertaken solely by the United States. There is an allied force. Athens, too, called in allies far and near. The historian Thucydides lists them all, and notes with awe that never had so many states engaged in a single campaign. But no one doubts that the war was Athens'. Likewise, today's campaign in Iraq cannot be seen as anything other than a U.S. project.

Both campaigns were condemned by contemporaries for having been undertaken in a spirit of hubris, without adequate thought for preparation and without adequate knowledge of the distant land they were setting out to conquer.

Thucidydes reports: "The Athenians resolved to sail … to Sicily, … most of them being ignorant of its size and of the number of its inhabitants, Hellenic and barbarian, and of the fact that they were undertaking a war not much inferior to that against the [Spartans]."

The U.S. leadership notoriously thought the Iraq war would be a "cakewalk" and that U.S. armed forces would be received by the population with open arms as liberators. War planners gave inadequate thought to Iraq's history of religious and ethnic tensions and the risk that the fractious multi-ethnic state might unravel.

The first days of the Iraq invasion were indeed a cakewalk, just as the Athenian army found easy success whenever the inexperienced Syracusans dared to take the field against them. But both invaders found that winning pitched battles was not enough to win the war.

Anti-imperial forces in Iraq turned to guerilla warfare, and Syracuse settled in for a long siege, using its cavalry to harass the Athenians when they attempted to forage for food, fuel and water. Nominally the besiegers of Syracuse, the Athenians found that they themselves were effectively besieged in the "green zone" of their hastily improvised forts, lacking cavalry of their own.

The invaders faced several similar strategic problems. One was the problem of securing borders with a limited force. To isolate and properly besiege Syracuse, the Athenians would have had to encircle the city on the land side with a wall, but the longer the wall became, the harder it was to defend.

As the Athenian forces spread out thinner, the Syracusans could concentrate their whole force in a surprise attack at any point. With Iraq's many miles of unpatrolled desert borders with neighboring Syria and Iran, the U.S. military and the new government face a situation where they too are simply unable to choke off the supply of funds, men, and equipment to the insurgency.

In addition, the vulnerability of the invader's own supply chain was another strategic problem. The Athenian army was handicapped by its dependence on deliveries of funds, supplies and instructions from a home base that was a voyage of weeks away — an unprecedented distance for a Greek expedition.

In a motorized and electronic age, the United States has an easier time of it, but the expense of provisioning a military force operating on a distant continent is phenomenal. And it still takes a distressingly long time for the force to adapt to changing circumstances — for example, the fleet of U.S. vehicles in Iraq is still inadequately armored against roadside bombs.

The United States' logistical problems are compounded by overcharging and apparent corruption on the part of some private contractors, without whose services the armed forces could not operate on the ground. For food and other perishables, the Athenian army was similarly at the mercy of market towns in Sicily and in nearby Italy, which could drive a hard bargain or shut their gates entirely.

The goodwill of locals was not only a supply problem for the Athenians, it was a strategic problem in its own right. The Athenians could never hope to conquer the island, or to govern it afterwards, without winning over some local friends. The friends the Athenians had from the beginning turned out to be of little use.

The Egestaeans had made extravagant promises about the horses and funds it would supply to the campaign if the Athenians would only send an army, when they in fact had almost nothing to offer (much as Iraqi exiles like Chalabi apparently flattered and exaggerated in order to draw the United States into Iraq).

The Athenians did manage to cultivate some local allies, but they were never able to fully trust them all. Intelligence about Athenian military plans always seemed to make its way to Syracusan ears, and Thucydides surmises that some Syracusans who provided intelligence to the Athenians were actually double agents.

As the situation deteriorated, Athenian soldiers ended up carrying their own provisions, as local hired servants started deserting with whatever they had in their pockets.

All too depressingly, similar dynamics are playing out now in Iraq. High-ranking officials of the new U.S.-supported government sponsor paramilitary organizations that are pushing the country into civil war. Whether motivated by ideology, fear, or economic necessity, others on the government payroll appear to be helping the insurgency. When men in official police and military uniforms rob banks and kidnap civilians, it is impossible to know who to trust.

Editor’s note: Click here to read Part II.