Wednesday, March 20, 2024

“The strong do what they will..."

Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War is the first of "Five Best: Books on Geopolitics" recommended by Adm. James Stavridis in The Wall Street Journal. It was one of the books assigned in a political theory class that I took in graduate school.
Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) is the ultimate tale of a powerful geopolitical conflict. Athens, the dominant sea power, is challenged by Sparta, the upstart land power. The two city-states rely on complex alliance systems, crafty diplomats, military might and shifting objectives to dominate ancient Greece. The war lasts nearly three decades and forces almost all the other city-states to pick a side. The inferno would engulf them all. This is a work of history at once idealistic (“Judging happiness to be the fruit of freedom and freedom of valor, never decline the dangers of war.”) and pragmatic (“The strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.”). In recounting a war that deeply harmed both sides, Thucydides gives us a maxim for our own troubled times: “The course of war cannot be foreseen, and its attacks are generally dictated by the impulse of the moment.”
It's a good selection, but the last recommendation surprised me: The Lord of the Rings. It's an interesting interpretation of the trilogy, but one that I suspect would not have pleased Tolkien.
How does J.R.R. Tolkien’s three-volume fantasy novel land on a list of books about geopolitics? By being a thinly disguised roman à clef of World War II. Put Hitler in the role of evil Sauron, let Mussolini be the wizard Saruman and create a heroic alliance to oppose them. The hobbits—a peaceful people Tolkien introduced in his preceding work—carry much of the story. But the rest of the cast are the geopolitical masters of the tale. And what a tale it is: an immense force of evil seeking control of a devastating technology; a shopworn and fractious alliance formed in resistance; a harrowing series of battles across plains, mountains and rivers; and lessons in complex diplomacy, economic strangulation, courtly betrayal and mind control. The Lord of the Rings is also a cautionary tale about the dangers of the world, as we hear from ancient elven lord Elrond: “Let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall.” The hobbits try their best to remain naive and innocent. At one point Frodo, their accidental leader, says: “It is useless to meet revenge with revenge: it will heal nothing.” Maybe so. But the geopolitical lesson of The Lord of the Rings is to fight with all your heart and soul against evil—and build what alliances you can along the way.

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