Pussycats IV: Or Learning to Say No

The first Pussycat article, posted here on 21.5.2014, dealt with the frequent defeats of modern Western armed forces at the hand of irregulars in the Middle East, Asia and Africa and pointed out some of the underlying causes behind this phenomenon. Pussycats II, posted on 24.9.2014, explained how war was associated first with excellence, then with honor, then with wisdom (“the ultimate experience”) and then with PTSD. Whereas Pussycats III, posted on 8.10.2014, traced the way in which, time after time, rude but brave conquerors were turned into soft, lazy, effeminate losers. Here I want to analyze the contribution of yet another factor: to wit, the rise of the right to say no.

Principled resistance to military service can be traced as far back as early Christianity under the Roman Empire. Whether, at that time, it was rooted in moral objections to war as such or in religion has long been moot. The fact that, no sooner did the empire turn Christian in the fourth century A.D, many Christians started joining the army suggests that the latter interpretation is closer to the truth. Once God had told Emperor Constantine that in hoc signo vinces most problems disappeared. From the time of Charlemagne’s campaigns in Spain and Saxony to that of Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War, countless Christians went into battle under the sign of the cross. In 1999, the Serbs did so still.

Following the Reformation, some Protestant Sects took the opposite tack. Citing Jesus’ command to “love your enemies,” they asked to be exempted from military service on religious grounds. Among them were the Anabaptists, the Mennonites, the Hutterites, and others. In the Netherlands, in Switzerland, and in parts of Germany they often got their way, normally in return for paying a special tax. England too had some sects whose members refused to take part in the 1642-51 Civil War. However, the role they played should not be exaggerated. On one hand the numbers involved were never large. On the other, during the second half of the seventeenth century one country after another started creating professional armed forces made up, in principle at any rate, entirely of volunteers. This made dealing with objectors easier than it had been.

In America, where there was no “standing army” but where each colony had its own militia, the situation was different. As in England, the most important and best organized sect was formed by the Quakers. Like the rest, they were sometimes willing to contribute money for building fortifications and maintaining the various state militias. They also provided shelter to (white) refugees from war. Still they adamantly refused to take up arms and fight. On the eve of the War of the American Revolution, so strong were the sects that every one of the Thirteen Colonies recognized conscientious objection as a valid ground for exemption from service.

The 1793 decision of the National Assembly to adopt general conscription, the famous levée en masse that “permanently requisitioned” every (male) citizen, formed a critical turning point. In France itself the near complete absence of radical Protestant sects meant that the impact of conscientious objection, as opposed to draft-dodging and the like, was limited to nonexistent. Those, a mere handful, who did object were often assigned to depots, lines of communication, hospitals and the like, a solution that subsequent armed forces also adopted on occasion. However, as conscription spread from France to other countries objections to military service were bound to increase in number. As before, most were religiously based.

During the American Civil War both sides followed the old practice of permitting objectors to hire substitutes. Those who could or would not do so went to prison; Lincoln at one point personally pardoned some Quakers and Mennonites who were serving time for this reason. It was, after all, hard to fight for freedom while at the same time holding those who demanded it in their own way prisoner. The Confederate authorities, though they did recognize conscientious objection in principle, were not as tolerant in practice. Many Southern objectors were mobbed, arrested, abused, starved and whipped. A few, it has been claimed, had muskets strapped to their bodies and were forcibly transported to the battlefield, to no avail.

518V3-dR31LWhat made the period different from its predecessors was the rise of secular pacifism. It condemned war and violence not on religious grounds but on purely moral ones. No longer as isolated as they had normally been in the past, pacifists could be found in many walks of life from the highest to the lowest. The most prominent pacifist of all was the Russian writer Lev Tolstoy (1828-1910). Having seen action during the Crimean War, during the 1880s he converted to nonviolence. From then on he issued a whole series of treatises, denouncing war as “the absolute evil.” Another famous pacifist was an Austrian noblewoman, Bertha von Suttner (1843-1914), agitator, lecturer and troublemaker. Her 1889 novel, Die Waffen Nieder, went through thirty-seven German editions and was translated into sixteen languages. None of this either had a noticeable impact on the outbreak and course of World War I. For example, as against some 3,000,000 American men who were drafted in 1917-18, just some 2,000 objectors of all kinds were arrested and convicted.

Yet even while the conflict lasted the British government, having introduced conscription for the first time in the country’s history, decided to recognize conscientious objectors by granting them the right to perform alternative civil service. In part this was done to assuage those veteran anti-war activists, the Quakers. Later, taking their cue from Britain, several other countries, mostly Protestant ones in Western and Northern Europe, passed similar legislation. Denmark did so in 1917, Sweden in 1920, the Netherlands in 1922, and Finland in 1931.

In both World Wars, compared with those who were drafted, the number of those who refused to be inducted on conscientious grounds and obtained a release was very small. Still their ability, in many cases, to get what they wanted or at least rouse some public sympathy for their views signified the various states’ tacit admission, previously all but inconceivable, that they themselves no longer necessarily held the moral high ground. As the saying goes, if you cannot lick them join them or at least try to ignore them as best you can. Increasingly, states admitted that some individual rights could not and should not be violated even when the state was fighting for its existence.

A landmark of sorts was set in January 1967 when the Council of Europe adopted Resolution No. 337. The Resolution declared that “persons liable to conscription for military service who, for reasons of conscience or profound conviction, arising from religious, ethical, moral, humanitarian, philosophical or similar motives, refuse to perform armed service shall enjoy a personal right to be released from the obligation to perform such service. This right shall be regarded as deriving logically from the fundamental rights of the individual in democratic Rule of Law states.” It was based on “Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights which binds member States to respect the individual’s freedom of conscience and religion.” By issuing the declaration, the states in question to a large extent pulled the objectors’ sting. Previously a principled refusal to serve had often had something heroic about it. Now it became just one of the numerous, if rather tepid and uninteresting, rights citizens in liberal democracies enjoy or are told they enjoy—without, nota bene, having to give anything in return..

Concurrently on the other side of the Atlantic the Vietnam War led to a sharp rise in the number of U.S citizens who made similar claims. Almost 10,000 were put on trial and convicted; the number of those who, refusing to serve, found various ways to do so was much larger. This time the objectors, merging into a broader protest movement that opposed U.S policies in Southeast Asia, seriously interfered with the war effort.

Several Supreme Court rulings expanded the right to gain an exemption so as to include not only those who based their objections on religious belief but on “deeply held moral and ethical” ones as well. Those rulings in turn contributed to the decision of the Nixon Administration to end conscription in favor of a professional, all- volunteer, force; the kind with which the U.S has fought all is wars since. Starting in the mid-1970s, one developed country after another followed suit. In 1996 even France, which two centuries earlier had pioneered modern conscription, decided to do away with it and re-build professional armed forces instead.

The end of conscription should have caused conscientious objectors to become extinct. But this did not happen. Instead, the more rights they obtained the greater their demands. Nowadays in the U.S even uniformed military personnel who joined out of their own free will are entitled to cite conscientious objection to war and ask not to be deployed. In 2014, three quarters of German troops who asked for such an exemption got what they wanted. With this reductio ad absurdum, the state’s surrender to conscience was complete.

Politically speaking, three factors made the surrender possible. The first was the fact that, in the wake of World War II and the defeat of Germany and Japan, “militarism” became one of the worst terms of abuse of all. Niagaras of ink were spilled in an effort to expose it and denounce it evils. Resistance to militarism has helped spread the idea that refusing to wear uniform was a good and honorable thing to do.

The second was the vast and still growing increase in the cost of weapons and weapon systems. As a result, not even the richest countries could any more afford the gigantic, militia-like, armed forces so characteristic of the period between 1790 and 1970. Making it much easier to grant a dispensation to those who asked for it.

The third, and probably the most important, reason was the waning of major war between major powers brought about by nuclear proliferation. Practically without exception, what wars the countries in question have waged from 1945 on had nothing to do with national survival. Quite often they revolved around issues so picayune, and geographically so far removed from home, as to be almost invisible.

No wonder pussycats multiplied!

Geopolitics and Today’s Foreign- and Security Policy – a German View


Erich Vad*


We all know: 100 years ago the First World War and 75 years ago the Second World War started. The lessons of both wars show us the importance of an early reconciliation of interests, a balance of power, and ongoing communication between the strategic players. Another lesson is that appeasement has its limits. Against totalitarian world views, appeasement has never been successful.

But what do these lessons mean with regard to current security questions? What do they teach us as we are being challenged by the Islamic threat and fundamentalism and movements like the Hamas, the Hizbolla in the near east, Boko Haram in Africa, Al Qaeda worldwide, and the reckless actions of the so called “Islamic State” Movement?

And what do these lessons mean with regard to the current Russian attempt to change the European order by annexing the Crimea and destabilizing the eastern Ukraine?

The world wars brought fundamental changes. They ended the German desire to achieve a hegemonic position in and over Europe as well as the Japanese attempt to extend their power and gain predominance over East Asia. Wold War II also terminated the worldwide supremacy of the British Empire and the dominant geostrategic position of Europe as a whole. The European era, which had shaped and characterised the world since the beginning of the early modern age, was finally over. A new geopolitical reality, a new “Nomos of the Earth” – as Carl Schmitt once puts it – was established by the victors in the Second World War, i.e. the USA and the former Soviet Union.

During the Cold War these strategic players divided Europe into two spheres of influence. The United States saw Western Europe primarily as its strategic bridgehead to Eurasia. Its leaders built up NATO and established close economic ties across the Atlantic. This enabled Western Europe to enjoy freedom, democracy, wealth and the rule of law and human rights. By contrast, Eastern Europe suffered under the strong and brutal rule of Communism.

In the end, it was the policies of Ronald Reagan which broke the geostrategic supremacy of the Soviet Union in Europe. Coming to power, Mikhail Gorbachv quickly understood that the USSR could never win the arms race and that only cooperation wih the west and political freedom for the Soviet sattelites could help Russia overcome the disastrous economic situation.

As we know, his opponents held a very different view. So does Vladimir Putin. They see the world in geopolitical categories which we Europeans thought had been overcome. It is Putin’s geopolitical aim to create a great power capable of competing with the US, the EU and China. The Russians’ problem is that all they have is their military; they do not have so-called “soft power” comparable to that of the rest. A modern world-power cannot simply threaten and intimidate its neighbors. It must also be attractive and innovative for other nations to accept it as a leading nation.

Reminding the world that NATO has already taken over the Baltic States, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, the Russians have made it clear that they will never accept a further extension of NATO (and the EU) eastwards. Also that, for specific economic, industrial and strategic reasons, they will only accept a neutral Ukraine. Accordingly the task is to weigh the justified desire and the right of sovereign states to freely select the alliances they wish to join on one hand and the preservation of geopolitical and strategic stability – in this case affirming the Russian sphere of interest in its neigbourhood – on the other.

It is not just Russia which understands the world primarily in geostrategic terms. The US, too, has long been aware of them. So far the emergence of the virtual world, important as it is, has made little difference in this respect. Ever since 1823, the basic Charter underlying US Foreign and Security Policy in Latin America has been the Monroe Doctrine. Both in the 19th and in the 20th century the Doctrine led to innumerable interventions, some of them involving the large-sale use of force, in many places around the world. Not only is geopolitical thought just as familiar to the US as to Russia, but its principles have remained unchanged. Neither developments in transport, nor in information processing, nor in money-flows, nor in military technology, have changed those principles one whit.

The violent reclamation of land, which Carl Schmitt once described as the “radical title,” seems to be back. With hindsight, one could argue that it has never gone away and that it was only the losers in the 20th-century’s geopolitical shifts who saw, or rather were forced to see, the world in more idealistic terms. Nowhere was this more true than in Germany. However, the victors continued to see the world in geopolitical terms. The same applied to other emerging countries such as China, Brazil and India which want to become global players.

Why should the Russian approach to their nearest neighbourhood and geostrategic sphere of interests differ from the US American one worldwide or the Chinese one in the South China Sea? How would the US act if, instead of an American fleet manoeuvring in the Black Sea, a Russian one did the same in the Caribbean? This does not mean that the Russian actions against Ukraine and the Crimea were right and legal. But considering that Russia is, and will continue to be, a world power with nuclear weapons, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and a country with enormous resources, they are understandable.

Some hawks in Washington today, such as Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brezezinki, understand this very well. For them any powerful nation which intends to control Eurasia always presents a potential challenge to the US. In this respect little has changed from the first half of the 20th century when first Germany and then the Soviet Union represented the principal danger. Today their place has been taken by Russia and China; as to Western Europe, it is a strategic bridgehead and America’s closest ally.

But the European geopolitical perspective has to be different: for us Russia remains a powerful neighbour. A friendly relationship with it remains essential to our security and well-being. This does not mean that the Russians should be allowed to do whatever they want—their actions in the East Ukraine and in the Crimea are clearly unacceptable.

To deal with Russia we Europeans must do more than continue economic sanctions or show-the-flag operations. What we need is a double-track strategy. We must continue a straightforward dialogue with the Russians in order to convince them that they are not on the right track. On the other hand we must strenghten our defence posture and the deterrence capabilities of NATO, primarily in the east-European member states.

A successful defense of Eastern Europe against a conventional attack coming from the east is only feasable by using nuclear weapons, probably at a very early stage of the conflict. However, such an attack is unlikely. Most probably the Russians would not send tanks as they did in earlier their history. Instead they would use so-called hybrid methods of warfare: a combination of cyberattacks, destabilizing measures, secret service operations, and irregular fighters. A high probability exists that Russian aggression, if and when it comes, would strongly resemble the approach used in the Ukraine. The Russian minorities, for example in the Baltic States, could be very useful for them.

Ultimately we should not accept a division of the Ukraine. On the other hand, we should not kid ourselves that incorporating that country into the EU and NATO is still an option. One could even argue that Putin has deserved a NATO Order of Merit for strengthening the inner cohesion of the Alliance and motivating us to build up our deterrence, and spend more on defense.

The Russians have taught us Europeans a useful lesson concerning the true conditions and dangers of our international system. They taught us that peaceful dialogue, diplomatic interchange and permanent communications are not the only principles of international politics as many Germans believe.

The same applies to other critical hot spots of security worldwide. Take the South China Sea with its huge oil and gas resources and the straits where 80 % of world-wide oil deliveries have to pass. Here global players such as the US, as well as regional ones such as China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and India wrestle with each other in an attempt to look after their geostrategic interests. In this dynamic economic region, the Indian and American interests are being challenged. The present situation shows very clearly that the political and economic sovereignty of the involved nations can only be sustained by military readiness and modern defense capabilities in the air, at sea, and on land.

The same is true in regard to the great challenge Islamic fundamentalism, especially the so-called Islamic State, poses to Western Civilization. In both Syria and northern Iraq, these warriors cannot be beaten by political or diplomatic measures alone. The delivery of weapons and airpower, on their own, are unlikely to do the job either. They don’t want to “engage” with us; that is why we have to respond to them in ways they can and will understand.  

Even in Europe we cannot survive without the political will and modern military capacities to defend ourselves. Not pacifism and antimilitarism and the typical German goodness, but the old Roman principle, “si vis pacem, para bellum,” continues to be valid.

Clausewitz wrote that it is not the aggressor who starts a war. Instead it is the defender. The former wants to occupy us without resorting to violence; the latter does not agree, resists, and by doing so the starts the war. Long after Clausewitz wrote, Lenin was deeply amused by this insight of the Prussian master.  

Geopolitics cannot be impartial or neutral. Instead they must be directed by interests. The latter in turn depend on each country’s perspective and are often embedded in a political ideology which, as in the case of the old colonial world, follows a historically-determined path. However, idealism and the way the adversaries of geopolitical thinking see the world, is also largely determined by historical experiences and ideology.

Today Germany, which in 1945 was defeated by a powerful worldwide coalition, has again turned into an influential economic and financial world power and is able to play a leading role in Europe. But this may no longer be the case in the future, because the German elites do not have the will and defense technologies and capabilities to prevail in the long-term and on a sustainable basis. Most of them have forgotten how to think in geopolitical terms such as strategic spheres of influence and national interests. That is why they cannot formulate a national strategy. This is the real challenge facing Germany, and indeed Europe, today: can they develop the political will and the necessesary means and capabilities to safeguard their freedom and way of life? We must define what keeps us together and which values and strategic interests guide and drive us. If we don`t, we will lose the future and our freedom.


* Dr. Brigadier General (ret.) Erich Vad is Angela Merkel’s former military adviser.

My Wish List

Grégoire Delacourt’s La Liste de Mes Envies, is a novel first published in 2012 and translated into English two years later. A middle-aged Frenchwoman, Jocelyne, is married to her equally middle-aged husband, Jocelyn. They live in Arras, a provincial town, where he works for Hagen Dazs while she runs a haberdashery shop. She also has a website on which she writes about the joys of doing handicrafts. She gets many favorable responses and even attracts some journalistic attention. The marriage, while not perfect, is fairly good, or so Jocelyne thinks. She would be happy to live with her husband to the end of their days.

They have two adult children. There is a daughter who lives with an Irish guy in London; and a no-good son who periodically changes his equally useless girlfriends and, following them, drifts from one place to another.

One day, pressed by friends (two women, twins) who run a nearby haircutting shop, she buys a lottery ticket. Lo and behold, she wins! A little over 18,000,000 Euro (about 25,000,000 US Dollars)! What is she going to do with the money? It is a question I have often asked myself and of the answer to which I feel fairly sure.

I would start by distributing a considerable sum among my children. Not in order to “secure their future,” as the saying goes; that is something they should do for themselves. But only so as to help them improve the quality of their lives and have things a little easier than they are. I would also help out our “adopted” children Amihai and Shmulik (a homosexual couple, incidentally)—not with money, for presumably they would refuse to take it, but in some other way.

I might change my beloved townhouse in Mevasseret Zion, near Jerusalem, where I have lived for thirty years, for a single-floor house. Not because I want to, but because such a house would be more suitable to the needs of my wife who is having growing difficulties walking. Instead of flying economy class, as is my wont, I would use business.

There are a few more things. New sofas, perhaps, though that can wait. New night stands; ours are forty years old. Yet so minor are they as to be hardly worth mentioning. I could easily afford them even now. But I want to spend my days reading and writing, not house-hunting etc. Having money would make the move easier.

I would spend some of the money on charity. I like Wikipedia—to any thinking person today, it has become indispensable. So I would help out. I like Wikileaks—hopefully it helps keep our dear rulers a little more honest than they would otherwise be. I would give money to the kind of radio station that broadcasts lots of early modern and classical music. I might also give some money to an institute of higher learning. But not, I am sorry to say, to my own former alma mater in Jerusalem. The condition would be that political correctness be thrown out of the window and that everybody, students and faculty, be allowed to speak his or her mind on any subject without fear of reprisal.

A late uncle of mine, who was very wealthy, once told me that the one thing harder than making money is to distribute it properly. I know he was right. But back to the novel. The lottery employs a psychologist, a woman, whose job it is to tell winners to take care. Beware of every kind of beggar who, with true and untrue stories at the ready, will approach her asking for money. Of bankers with their unctuous smiles and false promises; and of relatives who, crazed with greed, will do what they can to try and put their hands on some or even all of her money. Should she need help, Jocelyne is told, the psychologist will always be there. Having received the cheque, she visits one of those shops where “celebrities” get their fancy stuff. Only to find there is nothing she really needs or is worth buying.

Returning home, she hides the cheque in a shoe. Some days later, while cleaning a cupboard, she notices it has disappeared. Jocelyn has found it. Suspecting—rightly—that she might throw it away, he tricked her into believing that his employers were sending him on a course and took off. Later she finds out he is in Brussels. The shock is terrible.

Time passes. She imagines Jocelyn spending money like water. A luxurious flat; an expensive red Audi; suits; and, of course, women. Both of the kind with whom he hopes to start some relationship and of the kind he pays for meeting, or trying to meet, his sexual needs. He is, however, desperately lonely and longs for his old life. That includes Jocelyne, his house, his friends, his job. Returning from imagination to reality, one day Jocelyne receives a letter with a cheque for the bulk of the money, some 15,000,000 Euro. He begs her forgiveness and asks her to take him back. She does not answer. Not receiving one, he starves himself to death.

But now Jocelyne knows what to do with her own life. She gives each of the twins who made her buy the winning lottery ticket a small car. She helps her pregnant daughter and sets up a trust for her shiftless son. She leaves Arras and moves to a larger house on the seashore. There she lives with a man who, years earlier, had noted her distress—caused by a stillbirth that in turn had caused a marital crisis—and offered help, a cup of good tea, and a kiss. His appearance, incidentally, is the only detail in the entire novel that I found incredible. She takes in her old, senile father so she can look after him better and cheer up his last years. Having gone through a crisis, and by helping others, she grows.

And you?

Pussycats III, or the Rise and Fall of Empires

“What is time?” asked Saint Augustine. And, answering his own question, wrote: “I know what it is, but I cannot easily explain it.” Thirteen hundred years or so later Isaac Newton described some of time’s outstanding characteristics as he saw them. In his scheme of things time had an objective existence, i.e. it was not something that existed merely in our feelings or thought. It moved from the past to the future, never the other way around. Flowing along, so to speak, it could never repeat itself. The speed of the flow was fixed, and nothing could interfere with it.

053e603f99bd3334c36df8effbc28a3bThe Einsteinian Revolution challenged these ideas. Nevertheless, to this day many, perhaps most, people see time in Newtonian terms. Some scholars believe that the idea had something to do with the invention of mechanical clocks around 1300. But that is a subject we cannot explore here. Suffice it to say that, around 1760, it was joined by the idea of progress. Not only did time move from the past to the future, but as it did so things became better, or at any rate were capable of becoming better, than they had been. All men will become brothers” wrote Friedrich Schiller in his Ode to Joy (1785).

Shifting the emphasis from the individual to the polity, the father of modern history, Friedrich Hegel, led his strong support to this idea. So did all three of the most important modern ideologies that drew on his work, i.e. liberalism, socialism/communism, and fascism. As Steve Pinker‘s The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) shows, not even the experience of two world wars, Auschwitz and Hiroshima have put an end to the idea that man, and by implication society, is capable of moral improvement and has actually been improving.

Strictly speaking, neither the idea of progress nor that of the kind of time in which it takes place can be proved. That explains why the latter has always coexisted, and to some extent continues to coexist, with several others. Particularly interesting in this respect is time as moving in cycles. The idea was prevalent during classical antiquity. Such key figures as the statesmen Lycurgus, the philosophers Plato and Seneca, and the historians Polybius and Livy (who wrote that Rome “was struggling with its own greatness”) all advocated it. The great fourteenth-century Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldoun based his history on it. So did Machiavelli and the eighteenth-century philosophs Montesquieu and Gibbons. During the first half of the twentieth century it enjoyed a strong revival at the hands of historians such as Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee.

Some of these men sought ways to delay the process or, if possible, bring it to a halt. Thus Isocrates, the fourth-century BC Athenian statesman, hoped that Athens, by not ruling its subject city-states too harshly, could avoid the kind of rebellion that had brought previous empires (including its own as it had existed in the previous century) to an end. Arguing that trade generated gaps between riches (plutos) and poverty (penia) and that such gaps necessarily led to civil war and collapse, Plato in The Republic sought to ban it. In Sparta, private property as well as gold and silver were prohibited. Yet as was clear even as such measures were being proposed and implemented, in the long run the cycle of rise and fall could not be halted.

As one would expect from a line of thinkers stretching over two and a half millennia, there was no agreement as to just how the process works. Still, looking back, the gist of the argument can be summarized as follows. The earliest humans lived in rustic tribes. They fought each other over land, domestic animals, and women who, as the book of Exodus makes clear, were seen as little different from cattle. One tribe having conquered the rest, it took on its richer settled neighbors. As, for example, the Persians did in respect to Babylon; the Goths in respect to Rome; the Aztecs in respect to the Toltecs; and the Mongols in respect to China.

Having triumphed, conquered and subjugated, the former tribesmen grew rich and soft. Allowing themselves to be governed by women, they indulged in every kind of luxury. Pushing the process along, rich societies are almost always urban. Making a living in such an environment requires a long education. This causes childhood to become extended and makes raising children very expensive. Hence, as some Roman statesmen began arguing even before the Emperor Augustus passed legislation to increase the birth rate, people who live in cities tend to have few children.

Relative to their size, such societies end up by having fewer men of military age. The small number of men of military age turns them into a precious resource and makes societies reluctant to have them shed their blood even for the best of causes. If, on top of all this, the young are prohibited from experiencing and expressing the joys of war, let alone enjoying the rewards it can bring, the remaining ones are unlikely to be good at waging it.

Some such societies have tried to solve the problem by enlisting mercenaries, foreigners included, thus separating thinkers from fighters. The outcome, says Thucydides, is that decisions are made by cowards—excellent sheep, to quote one recent writer—while the fighting is done by idiots. Others put their trust in technology as the mid-fourth century anonymous author of De Rebus Bellicis (About Things Military) and quite some Chinese officials of various ages suggested. To no avail. Less than a century after De Rebus was written the barbarians brought the Roman Empire to an end. Far from defeating the northern barbarians once and for all, China was conquered by them not once but twice.

Finally, here and there attempts have been made to alleviate the problem by enlisting women. They are, however, unlikely to succeed. For obvious biological reasons, women are vital for the future of any society. As a result their blood is invariably perceived as more precious than that of men and very few of them actually fight or are killed in battle.

All this caused the societies in question to abandon the military virtues that had once led them to greatness or even start looking down on them. Attacked in turn by their poorer but more virile and aggressive neighbors, who were often joined by subject peoples, they ended by collapsing in ignominy. Often the conquerors were backward peoples whose only advantage over the conquered was their fighting spirit. The cycle, Plato and the rest believed, repeated itself, forming the stuff of which history was made.

Is there any reason to think it has ceased doing so?

In Memoriam, or Thanks to a Great Teacher

Each year as the academic year is about to open, I wonder how I can best help my students. Doing so, each year I think of my own most important teacher, Prof. Alexander Fuks (1916-78). Today it pleases me to explain who the man was and why he was such an excellent teacher. Fuks Picture

When I first met Fuks he was 47 years old. He walked slowly with a pronounced limp; how he got it I never found out. His colleagues used to say that he bore the beauty of ancient Greece on his face. At his funeral, several of them wept.

As we became better acquainted I found that he wanted neither power, nor money, nor fame. His calm, deliberate voice commanded respect. Though he did his share of administration,  it was never his ambition to head this or direct that. The way he saw it, a professor should spend his life trying to get at the truth. Work was truly its own reward. and everything undertaken for its own sake was worth doing.

At the time he died he was working on a socio-economic history of the Hellenistic world which, unfortunately, he did not live to complete. Given the topic and Fuks’ slightly pedantic style, it would hardly have become a best-seller. But it might very well have become the kind of basic text from which generations of scholars get their inspiration and their facts.

Having first tasted excellence, I continued to join Fuks’ seminars long after I had abandoned ancient history as my main field and even after I myself had become a tenured faculty member. The weekly meetings took place not in a classroom but in his office. The walls were lined with slightly out of date books, all of them in hard cover. They had belonged to one of his deceased predecessors and gave the room a serious, dignified air. Fuks smoked. In the days before doing so became a crime his pipe, which was seldom unlit, helped create a pleasant atmosphere which I always thought was conducive to learning.

His courses were superbly well organized so that every participant knew exactly what each meeting would bring. But they were never hurried. Time was left for the unexpected, permitting individual students to pursue their interests if they wanted to. I recall how, on one occasion, I spent a meeting comparing The Republic to George Orwell’s 1984. A debate ensued. Fuks was delighted with my show of independence, though I later understood that he was not at all in agreement with my interpretation of Plato’s work. Later still I came to share his view.

Fuks would prepare his classes on small pieces of paper which he later tore up. The idea, he once told us, was to force himself to prepare again each and every time. More important, there were never more than five or six students, both male and female, in a class. Sitting around a table, we spent most of the time taking turns translating selected Greek texts aloud. In addition to Plato, the menu included several minor utopian writers as well as the great Hellenistic historian Polybius. Each word, each letter, sometimes even each accent were explored in an attempt to capture the author’s meaning as closely as possible.

The real secret of the course was that none of us graduate students knew Greek well enough to translate it on the spot. As a result, we had to prepare. Whenever we encountered a difficulty that could not be solved on the spot Fuks would stop. Next he would ask the student who had pointed it out to consult such and such sources and report back to the class in a week or two. If, having discovered that there was more to it than met the eye, the student asked for another week which was never a problem. I remember listening to a briefing on Tyche, the Greek goddess of fortune, and preparing one on the meaning of oikoumene, “the inhabited world.” Needless to say, both presentations did not pass without comment and criticism. A better form of mental exercise can hardly be imagined.

An exceptionally well-balanced person, usually Fuks was as placid as placid can be. But one day he burst out. We were studying the way the Romans had subjugated Greece, and specifically the Achaean League, in 146 B.C. All of a sudden we heard him say: “Over two thousand years have passed, and I really do not care which side was in the right. But look, just look, at what those Romans did to the poor Greeks!”

It was Fuks who taught me to appreciate the beauties of Greek literature and, above all, Plato. Along with Nietzsche and Lao-Tzu, Plato is the only philosopher who was also a great poet. Not only is every character in the various dialogues sharply formed, but each one speaks in the kind of language you would expect from him—as a doctor, say, or a politician. Though I have since moved to other fields, I can sympathize with the scholar who spends his entire career studying him.

It was also Fuks, more than anyone else, who taught me how to do historical detective work. A very good example was a paper I once wrote for him on the difference between “cause” (aitia) and “excuse” (afourmē) as used by Thucydides and Polybius. Fuks helped. He insisted that I read everything ever written on the subject, including a hefty French doctorat d’etat as well as a one hundred and fifty-year old German monograph. He personally made sure I got the last-named volume by ordering it via the international lending service. And, having done so, did not allow me to defray the cost. He was equally generous to other students—spending time with them, encouraging them, and doing what he could for them.

There were also other lessons, most of them unspoken. In teaching the humanities and social sciences at the university level, curricula do not matter nearly as much as most people think. To be sure, one cannot do everything at once. Some things must come first and others last. Courses must be arranged in some kind of order and adapted to the students’ needs and abilities. Somebody must decide on the program and handle administrative details such as matching classes to classrooms, setting examination-dates, and the like. These and a thousand other matters are essential for the smooth functioning of any department and none of them will take care of themselves. I grant that, unless they are taken care of, the outcome will be a mess. Nevertheless, when everything is said and done, by far the most important thing is what happens in class.

The most important teaching devices by far are seminars of the kind where everybody can see everybody face to face. They enable students to think aloud to each other and to their teacher. But some prerequisites do exist. A good seminar can only be based on absolute trust between teachers and students such as the former can and must build up.

A friendly atmosphere is also essential. When a student came unprepared to a meeting, which only happened very rarely, Fuks did not say a word. There was no need. A lapse would be automatically forgiven on the assumption that force majeure had prevented the student in question from doing his or her homework. Or else, why bother to attend class at all? Absent-minded as I am, I am afraid that I sometimes played with Fuks’ pipe cleaner. But he never said a word about that either.

Above all, there is the need for tolerance. I sometimes wonder what Fuks would have said if, building on what Plato wrote about feminism and the relationship between the sexes, I had started developing opinions on these topics similar to those that later gave me so much trouble. My guess is that he would have raised an eyebrow. Even so he would have been glad to see me take an interest and encouraged me to explore it further. And he would have done whatever he could to help.

Thirty-six years after his death I still miss him on occasion. Having turned to teaching myself, I have often tried to do as well as he did. But I think I never quite succeeded. Perhaps this was because, not being an ancient historian, the texts I used in my attempts to imitate his methods were not nearly as good as the ones he read with us. With all due respect, even Clausewitz is not Plato. Or perhaps it was because of my own limitations.

As the new academic year approaches, I shall try to give others some of what I received from him.