Would you believe it? Lessons with modern application flow from the Peloponnesian Wars, ending in 404 BC. Conventional (liberal) observers grieve for poor Athens, a “progressive, democratic” Greek state, condemning “brutal, militaristic” Sparta. The truth is more subtle.
Contrary to conventional summaries, Greek city-states were neither purely democratic nor purely militaristic. They were, as we are, complex. Athens was a pseudo-democracy – but aggressive and expansionist, constantly waring with others for land.
Contrary to myth, Athens was not the “land of bread and honey,” especially for women, who had no rights, could not vote, and were effectively property of their husbands.
Novel in the way it pioneered self-rule, Athens was actually governed by a loosely defined upper class, with “lots” drawn – and favored retired military heroes as leaders.
By contrast, Sparta – which history despises more than Richard III, a likely victim of Tudor disinformation – was not a heathen, horrible, all-war-all-the-time sort of place.
An inland city-state with no real navy, it tended to be defensive, focused on domestic prosperity, non-expansionist, and notably gave women every right men had – no exceptions.
Sparta’s domestic life was hardly insufferable, and the most educated citizens were elected to bodies that served under a king. If the collective view disagreed with the king, he was overruled.
So, why did history trash Sparta and celebrate Athens? Why do historians see Sparta’s more gender-equitable, orderly lifestyle – not expansionist – as bad? Why is Athens the posterchild for “good” governance, Sparta all that is “bad?”
The reason is simple, but subtle. Athens tended toward democratic rule, higher education, encouraged philosophy, higher thinking, even poetry. Athens was a dualism, confident in intellectual and political innovation – but also aggressive.
The reverse image, Sparta was content with traditional norms, not big on innovation, hardly ready to abandon established social norms, individuality and freedom, including for women.
Sparta was also determined to be prepared for war, perhaps because of city-states like Athens, invariably at their gates. So – and here is the nub – Sparta took nothing for granted.
Sparta had mandatory military service, modest for the young and highly capable, no excuses, no lapses for men in their prime and older age. Notably, if the population had not wished this, they could have overruled the king – and they did not.
So, what is the largest, most notable distinction between these city-states, based on primary sources? Yes, Athens was more progressive, poetic and philosophical, but more aggressive – a contrast to traditional, insular, but relentlessly prepared Sparta.
The biggest difference – one that changed history – is that Sparta recruited, trained, and retained men to be ready for warfighting, just in case. Thus, when Athens got aggressive, Sparta, which lived by the code of preparation, was ready. They fought back, overran Athens for a time.
What is the lesson? Poetry is good but preparation for war matters, might war, and if fighting comes to you, you have a better chance of winning. Unfortunately, we are behind the eight ball.
Take a look at numbers. Are we ready for the unexpected? A 2020 study shows 77 percent of young Americans are ineligible for military service due to drug use, obesity, and mental or physical health – up another six percent since 2017.
We are losing at recruiting and retention, less prepared. In 2022, we had two million service members, 1.3 million active duty, a stark contrast to the days of Ronald Reagan, with 3.264 million total, 2.2 million active duty.
If the Soviet Union is gone, China is rising, with Iran and others. Yet the US military continues to shrink, Army falling short by 15,000 active-duty soldiers in 2022, reenlistment less than 50 percent.
The Navy struggles in both areas, reenlistment at 60 percent, while Air Force is 67 percent, USMC 56 percent. Biden has pushed cuts everywhere, as if war is theoretical – something Sparta never believed.
Data is clear on recruiting, retention, and preparedness. They are all down. A soft society – one that indulges drug abuse, obesity, mental softness, and ignorance has fewer and fewer to draw from.
Meantime, advertising the military is about alternate lifestyles, where tradition, patriotism, faith, and historical norms are replaced by “drag queens” and leftist thinking – is a complete downer.
In short, America is facing yet another crisis – one of military identity, confidence, and readiness, because we are not focused on history. Indifference to history, our own and mankind’s, is reckless. Those who honor the military, who see value in preparing – tend to win when the war starts.
Being prepared for warfighting is not about wanting to fight wars, not about being barbaric, brutal, or militaristic. It is sensible, thoughtful and, if not philosophical, wise all the same.
The big difference between Athens and Sparta, forms of self-rule aside, was that Sparta systematically prepared for war – and thus won. We may be Athens intellectually, but we need to be Sparta in preparation. Hard to believe we can learn from the Peloponnesian Wars, but we can.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.