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

By Boose, Donald W., Jr. | Korean Studies, June 2002 | Go to article overview

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


Boose, Donald W., Jr., Korean Studies


War and Democracy: A Comparative Study of the Korean War and the Peloponnesian War, edited by David R. McCann and Barry S. Strauss. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2001. 414 pp., index. $77.95 cloth, $29.95 paper.

In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the U.S. Army and Navy War Colleges went back to the classic texts, seeking insights to the phenomenon of war and the role of the military in society. The Army War College focused on Carl von Clausewitz's Vom Krieg (On War) as the essential philosophical examination of land power in the service of the state. At the Naval War College, Admiral Stansfield Turner reintroduced intensive study of Thucydides' account of the Peloponnesian War. Turner not only saw Thucydides as one of the great writers on war, statecraft, and maritime strategy, but believed his work had specific relevance to the circumstances of the Cold War and the Vietnam War. Thirty years later, both institutions still use these works in their curricula, and their students continue to find relevance to whatever situation faces the United States and its military forces. It is not surprising, therefore, that in 1995, a group of scholars, many of them leading names in classic and Korean studies, met at the Woodrow Wilson International Center to examine congruities between the Korean and Peloponnesian wars. David McCann, a Korea scholar, and Barry S. Strauss, a professor of history and classics, have gathered papers from that conference in this book.

In their introduction, the editors note the points of similarity between the two conflicts, beginning with the superficial but striking geographical resemblance, in location and topography if not in outline, of the two peninsulas. They raise the issue of the extent to which ancient and modern democracy, Athenian and American "empire," and Korea and the lesser Greek states can be compared. They also raise pertinent questions about the relationship between democracy and war in any age. The essays that follow are all thoughtful, well-grounded in scholarship, and informative, although they do not provide much actual comparative analysis. There is also a conceptual ambiguity in the project. Some writers make a direct comparison between the Korean and Peloponnesian wars. Most, however, relate the Peloponnesian War to the larger U.S.-Soviet Cold War confrontation, a more apt comparison that U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall made implicitly in a 1947 statement quoted by several of the writers. Nonetheless, both comparisons provide for fruitful analysis.

The first section addresses "Democracy: Bellicose, Imperial, or Idealistic." Victor Davis Hanson acknowledges that he "cannot explain how Korea follows or does not follow the Thucydides paradigm" and addresses "the more general question of how democracies conduct themselves in war--and why they often win." He recapitulates arguments he has developed over the past decades: the linkage of agriculture, democracy, and warfare in Greece as the basis for a uniquely Western way of war. He concludes that a free society and open economy confer military advantages on democracies. Ronald Steel and Robert Kagan then cross swords over the nature of American foreign policy during the Cold War. Steel argues that by the end of World War II, the United States had become an imperial power, exercising hegemony through economic influence and political and military pressure, and that the "empire" ended with the Cold War. Kagan acknowledges American global power and influence, but sees the American hegemony as more akin to the early Delian League, a coalition of willing states, than to the brutal Athenian arkhe Nor does he accept that the American hegemony has ended. Although these essays were written years before the events of September 2001 and subsequent war in Afghanistan, the Steel-Kagan exchange resonates with the current debate about America's role in the world. …

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