Recently when finishing the shopping at the local supermarket and heading for the door, I passed a box of books that the market provided for customers to freely drop off books they no long need or, for those like me passing by and seeing an interesting one, to pick up a title. Most of them were from the “most seen” list, books that have been popular, easy-reading fiction that rarely catch my eye. But, in the line of about twenty-five books in the box was one by John Lewis Gaddis, On Grand Strategy, published 2018.
John Lewis Gaddis is a professor of History at Yale, the author of “The United States and the Origins of the Cold War,” “Strategies of Containment,” “The Long Peace,” “The Landscape of History,” “Surprise, Security, and the American Experience” and “The Cold War: A New History.” His “George F. Kennan: An American Life” won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in biography. I have read the majority of his opus and his work was critical to IB students on the Twentieth Century history sections. His writing is concise, focusing on rational analysis of events and leaders in the context of the time period, aspiring to build causal explanations that follow logical arguments, and built on the premise that man’s actions can be explained. I would be interested to have him analyze the current state of politics in America, as it seems so illogical on many levels, given that an irrational narcissist is sitting in the Oval Office. I will use this most recent book, On Grand Strategy, which, though coming out this year, unfortunately makes no mention of Mr. Trump (perhaps he, like most historians, wants to give some distance of time to allow for all the documents and the proper context to present themselves). It does look at events and individuals from the Golden Age of Greece, to Napoleon, through the Civil War and to Vietnam to explain his theses, which are the necessary elements, developed from rational processes needed by leaders to attain success for their plans or policies. There is a video of a symposium discussion of the book’s contents with Gaddis in this link.
In the first part of the book, where he covers the 5th century B.C. in Greece- the invasion of that land by the Persians under the leadership of Xerxes, the building of Athens’ walls afterwards and the ensuing war with Sparta, the Delian League, and the demise of Athenian greatness that followed– I found much to ponder in today’s world, and therefore my title to this blog. I had not had the Delian League on my mind of late, but I have often thought, especially during my teaching career spanning forty years, that the United States was acting much like Greece had during that earlier time. Even recently those thoughts again arose in my conscience, as the US delegation discussing the support for mothers’ milk as the best option for new borns was torpedoed and the US used aggressive bullying to bring any country that resisted in line. Athens mishandled their democracy, their philosophy and their allies through the Delian League, and I always thought we were heading in the same direction at the end of Cold War. In the Twenty-First Century, we have not learned the necessary lessons, I fear, and perhaps we are entering the End Game the Athenians also did not anticipate. In stumbling across Mr. Gaddis, I can return to this thought. It seems even more pertinent to today’s discussion since November of 2016 and our handling of allies, bombastic demands of “the other” and inability to see the future with clear vision.
To follow Gaddis and me, let me set up some analogies and causal tools he used in the book. After opening the book with the description of Xerxes’ huge folly in inadequately understanding the invasion of Greece (he was avenging his father’s defeat at Marathon just a little over a decade earlier with somewhere between 150,000 and a million and a half men), Gaddis continues with an introduction of Isaiah Berlin, a Twentieth Century Philosopher/Historian from Oxford who had escaped communism and Stalin’s Russia after witnessing, at the age of eight, the Russian Revolution. Berlin loved the Greek poet Archilochus of Paros, using his fragment quote from a poem, “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” He later turned this fragment into a book on philosophy called, The Hedgehog and the Fox.
To summarize, a hedgehog is a person who is committed to a specific ideology, or to a theme, or to a position that has been researched, consumed or culturally assimilated, all of which afterwards it is difficult to accept alternate positions. These individuals are passionate in the defense of their ideas and can often hold an audience and elicit followers. The fox, on the other hand, weighs the situation, looks at the various options open to him, analyzes, evaluates and ranks his choices as best as possible, and is willing to choose the lesser of two evils or the better of two mutually exclusive goods. He is pragmatic and sometimes is evasive in committal. Often his pedantic nature can lose an audience, even though his advice is worthwhile.
Gaddis sited a study done by an American political psychologist, Philip E. Tetlock, who compiled over 27000 “predictions” about politics made by think tanks, professors, governments, institutions, and the media from the late 1980s until the early 2000s: the experts. These were grouped as either foxes or hedgehogs by the very experts who self-identified themselves as either based on Berlin’s criteria. After ascertaining the validity of each’s predictions in corresponding to the actual outcome in politics, surprisingly it was found the hedgehogs were as valuable as having a blind ape throw darts at a target. Conversely, the foxes were surprisingly adept at getting it right. It did not matter as to their ideology, liberalism or conservatism, or any other potential bias. It mattered as to methodology and being open to options. It turns out the social sciences, those involving the outcomes from men’s minds and hearts, are unreliable in predicting or opining based on deductive methods that fit into grand schemes. Analysis and critical thinking require being open to as many variables as possible.
To quote Gaddis here: “Tetlock’s hedgehogs, in contrast, shunned self-deprecation and brushed aside criticism. Aggressively deploying big explanations, they displayed a “bristly impatience with those who ‘do not get it’.” When the intellectual holes they dug got too deep, they’d simply dig deeper. They became ‘prisoners of their preconceptions,” trapped in cycles of self-congratulation. These played well as sound bites, but bore little relationship to what subsequently occurred. Oh how we desperately need some foxes in Washington, D.C. at this point, as the hedgehogs are everywhere and are burning down the state.
Xerxes was a hedgehog, too. He did not take into account the huge size of his army perhaps being a disadvantage; or that the Spartans’ ability to hold a small pass and to die to a man doing it would have an adverse effect on his schedule and on his army’s morale; or that simply getting into Athens and burning the temple would not force the Athenians’ hand; or that his huge navy and rowers were no match for a group of sailors not simply fighting for pay, but for their homeland . Those are not an exhaustive list of his mistakes as outlined by Gaddis, either. He utilizes pages 10 through 14 in the book to explain them.
It would be my hope to emulate F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description, also found in the book, of first-rate intelligence when confronted with difficult issues. He felt this person has “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still have the ability to function.” Gaddis points out the Berlin also illuminated this issue. He felt that ordinary experience is filled with “ends equally ultimate…, the realization of some of which must inevitably involve the sacrifice of others.” Sometimes two desired “goods” are mutually exclusive and unattainable and you have to choose. We often resolve this by stretching out our ambitions over time. Berlin also felt people could be both foxes and hedgehogs, and were better functioning if they understood this.
I am more of a fox in my approach to ideas and knowledge, almost agnostic in comprehending and proclaiming what I know. I do know that holding two opposing thoughts in one’s head is useful, as well as confounding. But, unlike the Javier Bardem character in No Country For Old Men, I am aware that you cannot absolve yourself of your moral responsibilities by flipping a quarter to make decisions. Any decision made, using history and contemporary context, must have a moral compass. A compass that is aware of the Darwinian nature of man, the need for fairness to oneself as well as the community, and one that focuses on long term implications that survive long after the decision is made are all paramount in the final act. Piggy banks, painting your house, changing the oil in a car, eating well, attending to your appearance and such, all deal with this arrangement with the future. Then, just like the Javier Bardem character, shit happens you did not and could not plan.
Political and military leaders have the same choices, though theirs involve more people and sometimes a shorter time frame. Elections in a democracy have consequences. Look at Mitch McConnell and his dissembling and duplicitousness regarding Supreme Court justice choices. His morality is completely subservient to his choice of power. November of 2018 could be disastrous for him, just as November of 2016 gave him the opening he had stalled for in his pursuit of power earlier. Now, in 2018, he is acting totally against the logic that he offered in 2016. Military leaders act defensively or offensively. The choice of action is often dictated from the opposition, as it was after Pearl Harbor, or the attack on Poland by the NAZIs, or by the invasion of South Korea by the North in 1950 when Truman and Acheson seemed to say their wall of defense excluded the Asian territories, other than the Japanese, Taiwanese and Philippine islands. Various factors forced Truman to reconsider that wall once Stalin okayed the invasion of South Korea by Kim. How strange we are still prosecuting the results of that decision nearly seventy years later. It has not be resolved, either militarily or politically.
After Xerxes was defeated by the Athenians at the Battle of Salamis and their following victories, the Greeks settled into a period of calm, though they still feared the possibility of a return Persian assault. Athens built up their walls again, rebuilt the Parthenon in all its glory, and disturbed the Spartans with these policies. This was a time of Pericles, Athens’ Golden Age. Gaddis explores him from the hedgehog and fox perspective, brilliantly analyzing the decisions that were exemplary of a Grand Strategy from the good moral mind of a fox, while also exploring the hedgehog nature of Pericles’ demise and poor decision-making as Athens built up the Delian League.
The Delian League was a group of city-states which, unable to afford the size of navy necessary to protect them from an invasion, depended on the alliance with Athens and their navy to ward off any threat. Of course, the Spartans did not have wall and felt their army was enough to protect their interests, so they were not part of the League. Other Greek states were also outside of the treat area, like those in Sicily and those in western Italy, known as Magna Graecia. These would present problems for Athens that were not resolved well. (Again, think to Trump’s comments about decrying the scant payments made from our allies in their defense by the United States)
What followed was the Peloponnesian War, from 431 to 404 BC. The analogy of a tiger and a shark, or an elephant and a whale, is used to describe the prosecution of the war: the Spartan army versus the Athenian navy. Unable to engage each other with their strong points. While each city-state had a distinct advantage in one phase of military power, it would seem strategically aligning to present a impregnable threat to invasion would have been advisable. But this would have relied on trust, something in very short supply in the Greek psyche. As Gaddis put it, “a quality with strikingly shallow roots in the character of all Greeks”.
In looking at the long term- in this case Gaddis was assessing the post-Xerxes Greece of Sparta and Athens- he felt Sparta, with its strong army had not altered the disposition of what they always were. But, Athens, once they built the long walls to enclose Athens and Piraeus, their port, they were giving up their agrarian roots. If invaded, the surrounding territory would be razed, either by the Greeks in retreat or the invaders as retribution, and everyone would withdraw into the walled city to wait out the threat. The expense of a navy required much communal financing and personal sacrifice towards its maintenance-far more than the simple army of a hoplite soldier. And, the Greeks would have to develop trade and relationships with those “barbarians” (a Greek word), allowing them to inhabit the city in great numbers along the way. Immigration without citizenship followed.
Over the ensuing decades, as Sparta and Athens danced the circle towards war, smaller skirmishes brought the interests of the two giants into conflict. One, in 428, brought the island of Lesbos into the mix. Athens was allied to them through the League, but the high cost and the distaste the islanders felt against Athens led them to repudiate their allegiance and to seek help from Sparta. The Athenians, fearing that inaction would lead to further problems elsewhere, blockaded the port city, Mytilene. These inhabitants sought help from Sparta, who promised it but did ultimately not supply any. The following summer the city capitulated to Athens. The Athenian assembly, headed by Cleon, feared further defections, so they accepted Cleon’s recommendations that the men be slaughtered and the women and children sold into slavery. They sent a trireme to notify the Myltilenians of these orders.
After the ship sailed, the assembly had second thoughts. It was pointed out by some citizens that the Athenian empire was a free community. If a person was free and felt oppressed, of course they would revolt. Why was it useful to kill someone whose life would be useful to Athens. The assembly voted again and narrowly decided to halt the first order. A second ship was sent to overtake the first. The first plowed along slowly, as Thucydides writes, “upon so horrid an errand.” The second, plied with ale and barley cakes, ate while they rowed and slept only when relieved by another rower. They gladly made haste to prevent the horror. The second boat arrived just in time, even though the first boat had just arrived and delivered the message. No massacre took place, though.
When Melos, a longtime Spartan colony which had remained neutrality in the Peloponnesian War, was approached by Athens to submit to Athenian dominion, the Melians asked why. The Athenians told them “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” The Melians refused, hoping the world would see that this is not how things worked and that Sparta would send aid- it seemed Athens should be shamed into the right course. They were disappointed on both counts, eventually surrendered and were slaughtered to a man and the women and children sold into slavery. The city was repopulated with Athenians. The Athenians, in their prosecution of the Peloponnesian War under Pericles and the later handling of Melos, have been discussed and sometimes judged by historians. They were acting as hedgehogs at this time, for sure.
Gaddis believes that the democratic habits of deal making, compromise and tolerance served the United States well when it came to holding the Western coalition together during the Cold War (beginning dates are debated, but from the 1940s until 1990). Today Europe and much of the world is as it is thanks in large part to the Marshall Plan and NATO, and the policies of containment. I am hoping there is some symbolic sending out of a second ship, a second November election two years later in other words, to save the democratic reputation of America. If anyone asks for a portion of ale and barley cakes, please give them some.
Gaddis also says that “Fear, after all, can be genuine without being rational. And as Sigmund Freud once pointed out, even paranoids can have real enemies.” We have too many fearful citizens fed by Fox News behind their Willful Wall of Ignorance. I know I am an enemy of a most irrational, paranoid man.