Sunday, June 29, 2014

Hasn't Anyone Here Heard of Thucydides?

Regarding Fergus Bordewich's review of Michael Korda's Clouds of Glory, a Robert E. Lee biography, hasn't anyone here heard of Thucydides?  Bordewich is right in taking Korda to task for egregiously exaggerating Sherman's crimes against civilians during America's Civil War.  But Bordwich should have objected as well to Korda's claim that "Sherman introduced what a later generation would call total war, involving the burning of cities, homes and farms on a wide scale."   Sherman's war on the Southern economy was in fact an ancient "art."  It was employed by Sparta against Athens famously remembered in the History of the Peloponnesian War written by the Greek historian Thucydides.  "Cathago delenta est" is the famous phrase with which Cato the Elder would end every speech, regardless of subject, and in the Third Punic war that is exactly what Rome did to Carthage.  The Romans burned the city to the ground, sowed its fields with salt, and sold the 50,000 survivors into slavery.  It is really too bad that the classics apparently are no longer required reading for today's historians. 

Only egregious American exceptionalism and victimhood allows us to overlook the violence of the Napoleonic Wars, particularly in Spain and Russia.  The Russians destroyed their own farms to starve the invading French.  The French famously burned Moscow.  The French shot straggling Russian prisoners during their retreat.  The Russians took no prisoners as they hectored the fleeing  French.  Tolstoy recalls in War and Peace, the ruthless Dolokhov coldly reasoning that it was a waste of time taking prisoners who would starve or freeze to death in a day or two. 

El Tres de Mayo, by Francisco de Goya, from Prado thin black margin.jpg
Goya's "The Executions of the Third of May, 1808" similarly recalls the savagery of the French in dealing with Spanish partisans. 

The Napoleonic Wars were not simply something American officers studied at West Point prior to the Civil War.  They were a reality of the era.  George Gordon Meade commander of the Union army at Gettysburg was born in Spain to an American merchant who lost his fortune financing the Spanish resistance.