Sign Up

The Iraq War and the Sicilian Campaign (Part II)

What lessons does ancient history hold for the United States and its involvement in Iraq?

January 23, 2007

What lessons does ancient history hold for the United States and its involvement in Iraq?

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 part one of his piece, Ranalli described six ways in which the Iraq war resembles this ancient conflict. Below, he presents four final parallels:

Worst of all, in both cases the imperial power's real enemies determined to join the fray. Seeing Athens overstretched and vulnerable, Sparta sent an army and an experienced general to the island and also renewed the war on the mainland in earnest, terrorizing the Athenian suburbs.

Al Qaeda, too, has found Iraq fertile ground to recruit, train, and operate against U.S. forces, and al Qaeda and Taliban forces have taken advantage of the United States' overstretched position to stage a resurgence in Afghanistan.

With all these strategic disadvantages, both invasions suffered from critical lapses in good leadership as well. U.S. leadership disbanded the Iraqi army, instantly creating a virtual army of unemployed, disgruntled mercenaries.

U.S. leadership also winked at, if it did not actively encourage, cruel and degrading treatment of civilian detainees, a policy that effectively lost the war for Iraqi "hearts and minds."

The Athenian generals foolishly launched a poorly coordinated all-out night-time assault on terrain the Syracusans knew better, and the attackers were thoroughly routed. And, as described more fully below, the Athenian generals even more foolishly waited to withdraw from the island when they had a chance.

Athens had at least two distinct opportunities to cut its losses and leave. First, when it became apparent that the Athenian forces would not be able to prevail against the combined Syracusan and Spartan forces, the Athenian general sent home a plea: either recall the army or send reinforcements.

Athens feared losing face. After all, how would it look if a great empire like theirs were to "cut and run"? Fearing that it would no longer inspire fear and respect in other states if it were to retreat from Sicily, Athens determined to gamble everything on a "surge" of military support, and send all the troops and ships it had available.

Determined to attack quickly, while the new troops were still fresh and the supplies had not yet run out, the Athenian generals launched the army into the night-time debacle. Athens' second opportunity to cut its losses was after this defeat. The invading force still had a fleet, and the Syracusans were busy burying their own dead.

But although the Athenian position was hopeless, and it was agreed that the only sensible course was to withdraw, an eclipse convinced the superstitious leadership that they should wait one more month.

One more month was enough time for the Syracusans to engage and destroy the Athenian navy, and they were then able to hound, massacre, and enslave the trapped army.

Athens was left defenseless, bankrupt and humiliated. Though Sparta was slow to consummate its victory, the debacle in Sicily clearly spelled the end of Athens as a great power.

The U.S. force in Iraq, of course, is in no danger of annihilation. But the Iraq war does represent a very real threat to U.S. hegemony. Bogged down in Iraq, the United States can not credibly project power elsewhere.

The effect of the occupation on morale at home is to pinch military recruitment, making it more difficult for the nation's all-volunteer forces to meet future military threats.

On top of that, every day the United States supports the war in Iraq it plummets an additional $200 million deeper into debt (not including the cost of reconstruction).

The Athenians did not have the luxury of deficit spending on this scale. The United States does. But that level of deficit spending cannot be sustained indefinitely, and every borrowed billion spent in Iraq is a billion that will be unavailable to fight a future war, or indeed to meet any other crisis, domestic or foreign.

The United States is at a crossroads in Iraq. It is clear to all now, even the cheerleader President, that "stay the course" is no longer an option. Should we cut our losses and retire from Iraq? Should we send in a "surge" of troops? The Sicilian campaign offers lessons.

"Cut and run" is an ugly phrase. No one likes to be perceived as admitting defeat. But the example of Athens suggests that it may be wiser to cut one's losses when one has the opportunity, however undignified it may seem, than to continue to hemorrhage money and men and have to accept a worse outcome later.

Is there any sense in a military "surge"? In Sicily, Athens made a dangerous double-or-nothing gamble, and lost. Still, having committed the necessary resources wholeheartedly, Athens arguably might have won — or at least not lost so badly — if its army had been better led in the field.

What would it take to win in Iraq, to crush the insurgency and suppress civil war? According to retired Army Colonel Paul Hughes, experience shows that successful peacekeeping requires deploying a force in a ratio of one soldier for every 50 citizens.

To pacify even Baghdad alone, a force of 130,000 troops would be needed in the city —about a ten-fold increase from current levels.

A gamble that huge is apparently too large even for the White House to stomach. What the President has actually proposed, a surge of about 20,000 troops, might make sense if intended as a face-saving measure, a show of strength before withdrawal.

If it is really intended as a gamble at victory, it is quite a long shot. The U.S. generals in Iraq might well throw up their hands in despair, as the Athenians would have if their pleas for recall or reinforcement had been answered so tepidly.

Clinging to hope against odds, President Bush has been slow to publicly recognize the grave problems in Iraq, and he was slow to craft a meaningful strategy either for victory or withdrawal.

The announcement in December 2006 that he would delay setting a new course until January 2007 drew a chorus of criticism: Why wait an extra month to begin to extricate the nation's military from its present untenable position?

During that month, and with every additional month that passes on the present course, the United States and allies can expect to lose dozens of additional soldiers, with hundreds more wounded, without getting any closer to victory — and to drain an additional six billion dollars that will not be available to meet the next terrorist attack, hurricane, or other crisis.

One month might not make much of a difference in the long run. But then again, it might, as the Sicilian eclipse demonstrates.

Shortly after the Sicilian disaster, the Athenians did the unthinkable. Whatever its faults, throughout the Peloponnesian War Athens had been a force for democracy. Before, the oligarchic Spartans and their allies had lived in constant fear that slaves and commoners would revolt and claim Athenian protection.

Now, exhausted and demoralized after a crushing defeat in an unnecessary war, with the Spartans camped outside their walls, the Athenians lost faith in their own democratic institutions. They threw over their constitution as an expedient and embraced a police state.

The authoritarian regime was short-lived, but the moral damage was done. Athens never attained greatness again — except in philosophy and tourism. Even its eventual capitulation to Sparta, seven years after the coup, seems almost anticlimactic by comparison.

Unlike them, the United States is not in danger of catastrophic military defeat, or even of democratic self-liquidation. But it is nevertheless in danger of losing its soul.

The creeping authoritarian measures of the so-called War on Terror, the moral culpability for a "preemptive" war based on false pretenses — and the crushing costs of the war in human trauma and in debt that will be borne for generations: These could easily cause a nation to turn sour of itself and its ideals.

For the sake of the United States, and for the sake of a world that continues to look to the United States for moral leadership, let us hope history knows other endings.

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