About a month ago I had lunch with someone
who was helping to prep me for a difficult interview. Knowing my
background as a classics major, he asked me what I thought Donald
Rumsfeld might learn from Thucydides.
Since then, and for the first time since it was required reading
my freshman year, Thucydides’ “History of the
Peloponnesian War” has been on my mind. It came up about two
weeks later when I was the one doing the interviewing, this time of
prospective Telluride House residents. And just last Wednesday, I
went to a reception at Shaman Drum Bookshop for Prof. H.D. Cameron,
who has just published an enthusiastically received commentary on
Thucydides Book I.
That Wednesday morning, I had turned back to the text, a
historical account of the Peloponnesian War fought between Athens
and Sparta. I wanted to figure out what made this, a 2,500-year-old
document (Thucydides was himself a general during this war), so
special as to merit its unexpected mention three times in one
I wasn’t disappointed.
Rex Warner’s translation from the Greek is about 600 pages
long, so I turned to one of the most well-known passages,
“Pericles’ Funeral Oration.” The Funeral Oration
is perhaps most famous now for the comparisons that have been drawn
between it and President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address
(though whether there was any direct influence is very difficult to
say and highly contested).
Pericles delivered his oration in the winter of 431 B.C.,
shortly after the Peloponnesian war broke out. He gave it in
keeping with an Athenian custom which dictated that once a year a
public funeral be held for those who died in war and that the
speech in praise of the dead be made by “a man chosen by the
city for his intellectual gifts and for his reputation.”
When I read this speech I didn’t come any closer to a
smart answer for the question about Donald Rumsfeld, but I got a
pretty good idea of what President Bush might take from
Thucydides’ portrayal of Pericles.
The same day I read the oration, there was a very moving op-ed
in The New York Times called “Mourning in America” by
John B. Roberts II, a former Reagan-administration policy planner.
In this piece, Roberts argues that Bush could learn a thing or two
from the way that President Ronald Reagan handled the Oct. 23,
1983, suicide-bomber attack in Beirut that killed 241 U.S. marines.
A week or so afterward, President Reagan and the first lady stood
under umbrellas at a dreary memorial service held at Camp Lejeune,
N.C. Two television networks broadcasted the service, live.
Bush, however, has yet to attend a public memorial service to
honor the dead of U.S. intervention in either Afghanistan or Iraq.
Roberts wrote that he wants to tell him that “The commander
in chief should publicly honor the individual lives sacrificed in
war. He should show his respect in front of the television cameras.
A nation is a community, and the lives that are lost belong not
just to their families, but to us all.”
Pericles, too, recognized the importance of an open and communal
expression of grief. Before he gave his oration, there had been the
customary public funeral for the war-dead. Believing that this
action spoke loudest, he qualified his speech in its first lines by
saying that “it would be enough, I think, for (the fallen
men’s) glories to be proclaimed in action, as you have just
seen it done at this funeral organized by the state.”
Thus instead of devoting his entire speech to the dead, he
decided to dedicate the first half of its words (and most of its
spirit) to the living. He told his citizens that “you should
fix your eyes every day on the greatness of Athens as she really
is, and should fall in love with her.” He said of the
Athenian people that “everywhere we have left behind us
everlasting memorials of good done to our friends or suffering
inflicted on our enemies.” In this last line alone lies an
easy point of practical similarity between the United States and
But throughout the speech the theoretical ideals of Athens that
Pericles praises also seem strikingly contemporary in their
resemblance to generally accepted (and too often violated,
especially under this administration) principles of what America,
at her best, is.
Bush needs to realize that the road to healing is not through
jingoistic and self-congratulatory patriotic rhetoric, but through
a Periclean combination of reminders of ideals and national sharing
in grief. The last time the president did such a thing was in
February, when he attended a memorial service for the seven
astronauts of the space shuttle Columbia. Steve Schifferes, in a
BBC news analysis, wrote that “Mr Bush’s prompt
response to the disaster, and dignified words of comfort, have
boosted his standing on the eve of a possible war.” And while
we all know that that war has come, nobody seems sure whether it
Reagan, by attending that memorial service back in 1983 (take
him or leave him otherwise), showed that, like Lincoln, he knew his
Thucydides — whether he had read him or not. In the last line
of his funeral oration, Pericles tells his people, “And now,
when you have mourned for your dear ones, you must depart.”
Without some implication of similar words from the president, too
many American families are left waiting for that permission to
depart — and move on.