previous chapter
Sherman at Melos
next chapter

1. Sherman at Melos

Realpolitik Ancient and Modern

It is more shameful for those who enjoy a good reputation at any rate to pursue greed under fair-seeming deception than with open violence.

“War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it”—it would be difficult to render this remark exactly into the classical Greek of Thucydides and his contemporaries. A pejorative term, its semantic content shaped by Judaeo-Christian values, “cruelty” describes a wanton and useless pleasure in inflicting pain. To refine war, one would, in the usage of the statement’s author, have to render it gentlemanly, to civilize it and make it conform to Judaeo-Christian values. Nevertheless, William Tecumseh Sherman, general of the Union army and victor over Atlanta, the “father” of total warfare, here approaches the spirit, and even the rough aphoristic style, of his fellow (if decidedly less successful) general Thucydides, the father of “political realism.” If one had to choose a single sentence to characterize Thucydides, Sherman’s remark would serve well.

While Machiavelli and Hobbes often serve as reference points for students of Thucydides, Sherman’s memoirs also provide a useful starting point for this analysis of Thucydides. The American general is a good deal closer to most modern readers in time and in cultural background. Much of this book will, of necessity, situate Thucydides within a modern academic framework, but Thucydides was no professor, and he had far more in common with a Sherman than with those of us who make our livings as professional students of the past. Each man wrote about a war in which he had personally participated: Thucydides did most of his work in exile after the Athenian people had driven him in disgrace from his home city; Sherman published his memoirs in 1875 when he was fifty-five, just eleven years after his dramatic capture of Atlanta had restored flagging Union spirits, diverted attention from Grant’s bloody and stalled approach to Richmond, assured Lincoln’s reelection, and played a decisive role in preserving the Union. Like the elite among Thucydides’ Athenians, Sherman faced opponents who shared his language and many of his upper-class values. The Athenian Perikles, for example, was the official “guest-friend” of the Spartan king (Thuc. 2.13), and Thucydides, once exile had removed him from an active part in the war, mingled freely with participants on both sides (5.26.5); in the American Civil War, most of the senior commanders on both sides were West Point graduates who knew each other, directly or indirectly, through service in the Mexican War and the prewar “regular” army.

Each man struggled to preserve the world into which he had been born. Sherman was an avowed admirer of the South and accepted without question the ideology of white superiority common at the time. Thucydides’ relationship to the traditional elites of the Greek world is more complex, but I believe that, in demystifying many of the fictions of his time, he was struggling to preserve and reestablish in more defensible form that “ancient simplicity” whose demise he laments at 3.83.1. Sherman sought only to restore the Union and to return the country to a “normalcy” that the Civil War in general and his own tactics in particular buried forever. Placed on the shelf at what proved to be a relatively early stage of the conflict, Thucydides had no direct influence upon events, but he struggled in his brilliantly original, willfully selective, and obstinately biased history to reconcile the naked pursuit of interest with the soothing fictions of the archaic Greek elite.[1] Thucydides was much more successful at debunking the old than in establishing a new set of values—the latter task fell to Plato, who would devote his life to reconciling the ideas of the Greek aristocracy with the rationalistic attitudes of the later fifth century.

But it is as a thinker and observer of events that Sherman deserves particular comparison with Thucydides. At times, Sherman’s memoirs approach the ruthless candor with which Thucydides’ Athenians articulate their peculiarly rationalized attitude toward force in human affairs. Like Thucydides’ Athenians, Sherman was willing to express clearly the logic of warfare. Like Thucydides’ Athenians, Sherman laid claim to a savagery without passion. Neither applied violence indiscriminately. Their adversaries could come to moderate terms and live with dignity. Most important, like Thucydides’ Athenians, Sherman lived in a society that had changed profoundly, and whose changes dictated a revision in the ideology of force: Thucydides understood that monetary exchange had seriously undercut the traditional aristocratic webs of familial ties while the imperial mechanisms of Athens and the development of Athenian democracy had undercut the role of a hegemonic power such as Sparta; Sherman was not the first to confront an entire population “in arms”—Napoleon and the French levée en masse had made this strategy familiar—but the presence of railroads, the gross productivity of American industry, and the perfected rifle forced him to rethink tactics and strategy alike. Sherman’s success made him famous as a father of “modern” warfare. Thucydides, on the other hand, became the first “realist” thinker in international relations. Sherman was more accomplished as a writer and thinker than Thucydides was as a general, but concrete experiences drove both men to deep and extended analyses of force, justice, and society. And yet, both men were shrewd observers of their times, and, in Sherman’s case at least, conclusions from experience had an immediate impact on hundreds of thousands.

Whether or not Sherman read Thucydides at West Point (he probably didn’t—the United States military academy was an outstanding school for engineers but devoted surprisingly little time to history),[2] his attitude toward the use of power and the practice of warfare owes much to the tradition that Thucydides inaugurated. One can, of course, trace a line from Melos, where the Athenians annihilated the entire population of a small island, to Sherman’s devastating march through the heart of the Confederacy to the firestorms caused by Allied bombing in Dresden and Tokyo that incinerated tens of thousands of children, women, and noncombatants: military necessity, coolly articulated, served to justify ancient and modern actions alike. Indeed, Thucydides continues to occupy a privileged position as the first serious text on international relations and the founding document of the “classical realist” tradition that is exemplified by Machiavelli, Hobbes, Morgenthau, and Kissinger.[3] Within this tradition, Sherman, practitioner and even theorist of total war, offers a useful bridge between classical Greece and the late twentieth century.

In particular, Sherman’s memoirs include a remarkable exchange of letters that, in spirit and form, comes surprisingly close to Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue. For ancient historians, such documentary evidence from a later period serves as a control, reminding us that odd things really do occur. Thucydides does not even pretend that the speeches in his history are precise transcripts. At best, they approach the general spirit of what was said on a given occasion (Thuc. 1.22). Some, however, have gone so far as to doubt whether every speech in Thucydides actually had a historical counterpart. The Melian Dialogue has seemed to one recent commentator too dramatic and stagy to have actually taken place.[4] Improbable discussions do take place, though. The study of ancient history is, in large measure, an exercise in reconstruction, where we necessarily extrapolate to fill in gaps according to our views of what is probable (kata to eikos, as the intellectuals of the fifth century put it). In so doing, we run the risk of flattening out events, projecting onto them a predictability that accords too closely with our own assumptions, and retrospectively writing out of history that randomness that baffles all who gaze forward. Specific incidents from better-documented periods are an important corrective, for they direct our attention to the oddities that in fact occur and that shape many events.

As soon as Sherman had captured Atlanta—then a strategic city within the Confederacy—he resolved to “evacuate” (“expel” might be a better term) the civilian population. He complained that he “had seen Memphis, Vicksburg, Natchez, and New Orleans, all captured from the enemy, and each at once was garrisoned by a full division of troops, if not more; so that success was actually crippling our armies in the field.” Sherman knew that this move would be unpopular, and on September 4, 1864, he wrote to H. W. Halleck, the Union chief of staff, warning about the reaction in his characteristically aphoristic style: “If the people raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty, I will answer that war is war, and not popularity-seeking. If they want peace, they and their relatives must stop the war.” [5]

Sherman’s expectations proved correct. Although he offered to supply food and transportation to Atlanta for refugees who chose to go north, the forced evacuation of Atlanta provoked outrage. His Confederate counterpart, General John Bell Hood, who had finished last in his class at West Point in ethics,[6] nevertheless castigated Sherman with Melian boldness, provoking an extraordinary exchange of letters that ultimately involved the mayor and city council of Atlanta as well. Hood saw in this exchange an opportunity to score rhetorical points, and he accordingly annoyed Sherman by publishing their letters in a newspaper.[7] After the war, Sherman exacted his own revenge by including this exchange within his memoirs, where they are framed by a cover letter from Sherman to Halleck and Halleck’s reply, supporting Sherman’s action.

These letters synthesize florid nineteenth-century rhetoric with cool calculation of power and interest. In particular, Sherman’s language and thought approach the candor and brilliance of the Athenian representatives at Melos. At the same time, Hood’s rhetoric recalls, with its appeals to human and divine right in the face of implacable force, the arguments of his Melian counterparts, the members of the local elite (Thuc. 5.84.3), who saw fit to impose their high-minded ideas on the population as a whole. If Hood’s sentiments had appeared in the work of an ancient historian, many of us would have assumed that they were a complete fabrication, arguing that no one could seriously have expressed them. The speech would, most likely, be judged a cumbersome literary addition or, if genuinely delivered, proof that the speaker was (as some have called the Melians) naive. But Hood was neither a neophyte nor a rear-echelon staff officer. His combat service included Antietam, one of the bloodiest battles that human beings, until that time, had ever fought. At Gettysburg, he was severely wounded, but within three months he returned to fight, only to be wounded again, losing his right leg to a standardly horrific amputation of the period. By the time he faced Sherman, his aides had to strap him to his horse to ride amidst his army.

When, on September 7, 1864, Sherman announced his determination to empty Atlanta of its civilian population, his offer of aid to refugees did little to soften Hood’s reaction. In his letter of September 9, Hood could not resist grasping for the moral high ground. After dealing with the logistics of the evacuation, Hood continues: “And now, sir, permit me to say that the unprecedented measure you propose transcends, in studied and ingenious cruelty, all acts ever before brought to my attention in the dark history of war.” This rather colorful judgment may make one wonder what military history Hood had actually studied when he was at West Point.[8] All the same, Hood had certainly composed his rhetorical exercises in school, and he concludes this letter: “In the name of God and humanity, I protest, believing that you will find that you are expelling from their homes and firesides the wives and children of a brave people. I am, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant.” [9]

Confident as Sherman may have been—basking in the glow of his recent victory, he was easily the most popular man in the Union—he refused to let Hood’s remarks pass. Sherman expresses nothing but irritation at the sanctimonious appeals of his weaker adversary. On September 10, Sherman responded: “In the name of common-sense, I ask you not to appeal to a just God in such a sacrilegious manner. You who, in the midst of peace and prosperity, have plunged a nation into war—dark and cruel war—who dared and badgered us to battle.” He continues with a list of offences that he charges against the Confederacy and concludes: “Talk thus to the Marines but not to me, who have seen these things, and who will this day make as much sacrifice for the peace and honor of the South as the best-born Southerner among you! If we must be enemies, let us be men, and fight it out as we propose to do, and not deal in such hypocritical appeals to God and humanity. God will judge us in due time, and he will pronounce whether it be more humane to fight with a town full of women and the families of a brave people at our back, or to remove them in time to places of safety among their own friends and people.” [10]

Compare the Athenian envoys as they set the terms for the Melian Dialogue:

For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences (onomata kala)—either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Persians, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us—and make a long speech that would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Spartans, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

Unlike the Athenians, Sherman, of course, is anxious to justify himself and unwilling to abandon considerations of morality. Sherman expresses outrage at Hood’s appeals to “God and humanity” because Hood, he argues, is at fault, but the exasperation at Hood’s moral posturing is very Thucydidean: Sherman’s phrase “talk thus to the Marines but not to me” is not so very far from the Athenian insistence that “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Were Sherman writing in Greek, the Thucydidean phrase “basing your observations on the facts themselves” (1.21.2: ap’ autôn tôn ergôn skopousi) would capture the spirit of Sherman’s argument, as he lists one piece of evidence after another.

On September 11, the mayor of Atlanta and two members of the city council signed a letter in which they modestly begged Sherman to reconsider his decision.[11] Hood, however, evidently could not let the matter rest, and he refused to back down. Like the aristocratic Melian representatives before him, Hood felt free to claim divine protection and to volunteer the lives of all those under his care—women and children included. He answered Sherman on September 12 with a letter that covers three pages of small print in Sherman’s memoirs. It concludes with sentiments that would have earned applause from Thucydides’ Melians: “You say, ‘Let us fight it out like men.’ To this my reply is—for myself, and I believe for all the true men, ay, and women and children, in my country—we will fight you to the death! Better die a thousand deaths than submit to live under you or your Government and your negro allies!” [12] Hood insists upon divine favor for his righteous cause: “Having answered the points forced upon me by your letter of the 9th of September, I close this correspondence with you; and, notwithstanding your comments upon my appeal to God in the cause of humanity, I again humbly and reverently invoke his almighty aid in defense of justice and right.” [13]

I have emphasized Hood’s explicit refusal to give in to Sherman’s withering sarcasm because the Athenian cynicism at 5.89 similarly cannot squelch Melian calls to justice and the gods. Thus the Melians remark at 5.104: “You may be sure that we are as well aware as you of the difficulty of contending against your power and fortune, unless the terms be equal. But we trust that the gods may grant us fortune as good as yours, since we are just men fighting against unjust.” The argument continues for several more exchanges before the Melians conclude their case with a final appeal to the morality and gods whom their Athenian counterparts have sought to rule out: “Our resolution, Athenians, is the same as it was at first. We will not in a moment deprive of freedom a city that has been inhabited these seven hundred years; but we put our trust in the fortune by which the gods have preserved it until now, and in the help of men, that is, of the Lakedaimonians; and so we will try and save ourselves.” Within the context of Thucydides’ calculatedly understated and restrained language, the Melian conclusion is as florid as Hood’s.

Sherman wasted little additional time on Hood—a relatively brief note with final arguments on September 14 ends his correspondence on the matter. With the civilian representatives of the city, however, he took greater pains. He addressed to them a letter of which Thucydides’ Athenians might well have approved:

Gentlemen: I have your letter of the 11th, in the nature of a petition to revoke my orders to remove all the inhabitants from Atlanta. I have read it carefully, and give full credit to the distress that will be occasioned, and yet shall not revoke my orders, because they are not designed to meet the humanities of the case, but to prepare for the future struggles in which millions of good people outside of Atlanta have a deep interest.[14]

Sherman makes no attempt to deny the hardships that his order will cause. The “humanities of the case” are noted and dismissed. The “deep interest” of “millions of good people outside of Atlanta” takes precedence. Sherman goes on to clarify what he means with a string of syllogisms that explain the use of force. His explanation is one that Thucydides’ Perikles or Athenian representatives at Sparta might have endorsed:

We must have peace, not only in Atlanta but in all America. To secure this, we must stop the war that now desolates our once happy and favored country. To stop the war, we must defeat the rebel armies which are arrayed against the laws and Constitution that all must respect and obey. To defeat those armies, we must prepare the way to reach them in their recesses, provided with arms and instruments which enable us to accomplish our purpose.[15]

Atlanta, he argues, may need to serve as a military center for years to come, and there will be no way to support a civilian population over the long term. “Why not go now, when all the arrangements are complete for the transfer, instead of waiting til the plunging shot of contending armies will renew the scenes of the past month?” [16]

The sympathy that Sherman expresses does not change his resolve, but it does exert tremendous pressure upon him. The great personal irony of Sherman’s career was that he loved the South and had many close friends from that region. Immediately before the war, he had served as president of a small military institute that would later become Louisiana State University. He supported slavery, left the South with only the greatest sadness, and fought the Confederates with mixed feelings throughout the war. And although Sherman became the most hated man in Southern history—in fact, the enmity toward Sherman in many quarters survives undiminished to this day—the mild terms of surrender that he exacted at the war’s close outraged many Unionists. Years later, his most distinguished Confederate opponent, General Johnston, insisted on appearing bareheaded at Sherman’s funeral, just five weeks before his own death.[17]

But if Sherman’s divided personal feelings did not soften his actions, they seem to have forced him, like Thucydides, to reflect passionately upon the nature and meaning of war. Tall, thin, red-haired, heavily wrinkled, and nervous—always pacing back and forth, dashing about the front on horseback, scattering ashes as he brandished the cigars that he smoked one after the other—Sherman’s mind was constantly at work, and we can see in the remainder of this letter of September 14 the synthesis that he struggled to maintain and by which he attempted to reconcile his humane longings with the ferocity of his military practice:

You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know that I will make more sacrifices today than any of you to secure peace. But you cannot have peace and a division of our country. If the United States submits to division now, it will not stop, but will go on until we reap the fate of Mexico, which is eternal war. The United States does and must assert its authority, wherever it once had power; for, if it relaxes one bit to pressure, it is gone, and I believe that such is the national feeling.[18]

Like Hobbes, Sherman saw conflict as humanity’s natural state and thus passionately desired order.[19] When Sherman argues that without the Union the United States would dissolve and the result would be “the fate of Mexico, which is eternal war,” he might have been paraphrasing the famous thirteenth chapter of Leviathan, where Hobbes speaks fearfully of “that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man.” Like Thucydides’ Athenians with their emphasis on fear, honor, and advantage (1.76), Sherman emphasized the overwhelming forces that constrain human behavior.

Sherman can do nothing else to express his sympathies for the displaced citizens of Atlanta, but he can, like Achilles before Lykaon (Hom. Il. 21.99–113) and Hesiod’s Hawk before the Nightingale (Hes. WD 203–212), seek to place the harsh reality of the moment in its more general context, offering grandeur of vision as a cold anodyne for present pain:

You might as well appeal against the thunder-storm as against these terrible hardships of war. They are inevitable, and the only way the people of Atlanta can hope once more to live in peace and quiet at home, is to stop the war, which can only be done by admitting that it began in error and is perpetuated in pride.[20]

There is even continuity in the imagery. Patroklos excoriates Achilles for his coldness to the Greeks: “Harsh one, the horseman Peleus was no father to you, nor was Thetis your mother. Rather, it was the grey sea and the jagged rocks, since your mind is unbending” (Hom. Il. 16.33–35).

Achilles, of course, yielded—and, in so doing, he lost Patroklos and ceased himself to value his own life. He rose to an unprecedented degree of fury as he attempted—vainly—to assuage his grief. He cut down every Trojan that he confronted, hunted down Hektor, even slaughtered, in cold blood, Trojan prisoners at the funeral of Patroklos, and then subsided, at once exhausted and forbidding. Sherman, however, did not inhabit an epic poem, and he did not yield. He left Atlanta in flames and drove his army through the South, pursuing over hundreds of miles a campaign of organized pillage and destruction.

Sherman pursued his strategy of total warfare relentlessly, but with remorse as well. The restless general could not help but plead for peace and insist that his cruelty was the limited product of war and not of his own character:

I want peace, and believe it can only be reached through union and war, and I will ever conduct war with a view to perfect and early success. But, my dear sirs, when peace does come, you may call on me for anything. Then will I share with you the last cracker, and watch with you to shield your homes and families against danger from every quarter.[21]

Sherman was desperately anxious that the war, cruel as it may have been, not destroy the bonds of society. Strictly speaking, Sherman did not pursue total warfare: he did believe that this war was being waged “by total populations” and thus needed to be directed “against total populations.” But, unlike the Athenians at Melos, Sherman refused to take the final step and wage “war for total stakes.” [22] He seems to have sensed that this step lay just before him and to have profoundly feared its consequences. Sherman could not leave Hood’s charge unanswered, not only because he understood full well what he was doing—what he felt needed to be done—but also because he clearly sensed that logical extension to his actions that he refused to pursue. He holds fast to the rhetoric of Christianity, and he challenges Hood to stand beside him for divine judgment.[23] The rebels had begun their war “in error” and continued it “in pride.” Sherman insists that he, far more than anyone on the rebel side, is the champion of peace. If Sherman were not to pursue his ruthless course of action, society itself might collapse into a Hobbesian jungle, and any action to prevent such a catastrophe was moral. At the same time, war was dangerous and always carried with it the threat that violence—Thucydides calls war a “violent teacher”—would destroy the society that the war was supposed to preserve.

Sherman insists that his actions do not, in fact, represent a radical departure from past practice. If Sherman lays waste every factory and farm that he can find, he does what the “rebels have done, not only in Maryland and Pennsylvania, but also in Virginia and other rebel States, when compelled to fall back before our armies.” [24] He makes a point of stating that a Union colonel and his Confederate counterpart who arranged a prisoner exchange “harmonized perfectly, and parted good friends when their work was done.” [25] Brief as his final letter to Hood may be, he still feels compelled to make two points. He denies that he has with him any “negro allies”—Sherman supported slavery—and he defensively insists that he did not violate the rules of civilized behavior: “I was not bound by the laws of war to give notice of the shelling of Atlanta, a “fortified town, with magazines, arsenals, founderies, and public stores;” you were bound to take notice. See the books.” [26] As Sherman clung fast to his partial vision of total warfare, the people that his armies controlled seemed to change from marauding guerrillas to regular troops to women and children—even to friends, classmates from West Point, and former students whom he had taught before the war.

Where Sherman pulled back, Thucydides—or at least many of the actors in Thucydides’ History—took the extra step. Each represented a democratic society engaged in ruthless warfare directed at others similar to themselves in language and culture. Sherman agonized over his actions but attempted to justify the harshness of his actions as general. In Thucydides, warfare “for total stakes” begins to emerge. The Athenians restrain themselves after Mytilene, but civil war at Corcyra breaks down all social and moral restraints. In passages such as the descriptions of the plague at Athens and the civil war at Corcyra, Thucydides expresses in propria persona his dismay at the brutality of his fellows and the weakness of human virtue. Even when he does not make his judgment explicit, the details that he chooses to include often bring out, in dramatic fashion, the full measure of human suffering during the war—thus a recent book has been justly titled The Humanity of Thucydides.[27] At the same time, each writer prized candor and clarity of vision. Sherman explodes at Hood’s hypocritical and self-centered appeals to God and humanity. Thucydides virtually excludes high-minded language from his narrative and tends to include these appeals only to undercut them: the plague follows immediately after Perikles’ Funeral Oration; calls to Panhellenic sentiment do not prevent the Spartans from liquidating their Plataean prisoners.

Harsh as the American Civil War may have been, its conventions were very different from those of fifth-century Greece. In one of the grimmest passages of the History, Thucydides describes a militarily trivial, but morally illuminating, atrocity by Thracian mercenaries who capture the small Boiotian town of Mykalessos:

The Thracians, bursting into Mykalessos, sacked the houses and temples and butchered the inhabitants, sparing neither youth nor age, but killing all they fell in with, one after the other, children and women, and even beasts of burden, and whatever other living creatures they saw; the Thracian race, like the bloodiest of the barbarians, being ever most so when it has nothing to fear.

Thucydides’ contempt for these non-Greeks and their unrestrained savagery is obvious. His distaste for this massacre is so close to modern sensibilities that it is easy to forget what the civilized procedure would have been: the Thracians would have butchered all the adult males, then thriftily converted the women and children into cash by selling them into slavery. When the Athenians captured Melos, “they executed all the grown men whom they captured, and sold off as slaves all the women and children” (Thuc. 5.116.4). By contrast, after breaking the siege and capturing Atlanta, Sherman drove families from their homes, providing food and transportation within his own lines and arranging for logistical support for those who crossed over to Hood. Again, any Greek civilians unfortunate enough to encounter a Peloponnesian or Athenian raid could expect little mercy. On the other hand, even when Sherman began his famed march to the sea, cutting a path of destruction twenty miles across, “a great deal of damage was done, but people were generally left alone. Rape and murder were practically nonexistent.” [28] For all the rhetorical similarities between Hood and the Melian representatives, the situation was profoundly different: Hood’s theatrical remarks cost the civilians of Atlanta nothing; the high ideals of the Melian leaders led to the destruction of all.

But, of course, the Thucydidean observer would never accept at face value such a self-serving contrast. The image of Germans racing to surrender to the advancing American forces after the collapse of Germany and Douglas MacArthur’s exemplary occupation of Japan have been a source of pride—and justly so—for Americans, while the massacre at My Lai in Vietnam, visually documented in Time, or the accidental bombing of a bunker filled with civilians during the Gulf War, graphically covered by CNN, filled them with horror. Nevertheless, democratic sensibilities, weak in imagination, are slaves to the vagaries of representation and relatively insensitive to distanced “push-button” slaughter: the firestorms of Dresden and Tokyo in the Second World War probably killed far more women and children than all the fighting in the Peloponnesian War. Color pictures of the aftermath did not, however, appear on the evening news. Justified or not, the ruthlessness of these actions made little impression upon the American consciousness. Even the mechanics of violence were different. We do not know how many prisoners the Athenians took on Melos—presumably hundreds, since the Athenians sent five hundred colonists to take their place (Thuc. 5.116.4)—but there were no methods of mechanized slaughter. Prisoners needed to be killed one at a time, by hand. Whatever method the Athenians used, there was an intimacy to this slaughter that the nineteenth-century firing squad or even the modern machine gunner does not share.[29]

An intense, at times brutal, candor and an unflinching insistence upon the harshest aspects of war characterize Thucydides. He would have had little patience for any claims of justice that did not also fully stress the costs, in both suffering and brutalization, of any extended recourse to violence. Thucydides and Sherman were influential precisely because they did not avert their gaze from the harsh realities that their contemporaries glossed over or ignored. Each man changed the way in which others viewed the world, because each, in his own way, forced himself to contemplate and to synthesize in his own mind realities that were too painful or discordant for others. Each man was a realist in that each struggled to push aside empty fictions and to concentrate on the world as it was. Of course, reality defies easy definitions and the “realities” of the world are not obvious. What these realities were for Thucydides—what they included, what they left out, how well they accounted for the phenomena—are the main subject of this book. First, however, we must consider realism in general and “political realism,” the particular outlook of which Thucydides proved to be a progenitor.


1. The biases of Thucydides’ history are a major theme of Crane 1996a; two aspects of the ancient world that Thucydides clearly marginalized are the roles of women and of religion, on which, see, for example, Cartledge 1993 and Hornblower 1992. [BACK]

2. Morrison 1986. [BACK]

3. See, for example, Thucydides’ place in such surveys of international relations theory as Votti and Kauppi 1987, 78–84; Vasquez 1990, 16–20; and Knutsen 1992, 30–33. [BACK]

4. E.g., Rusten 1989, 15: “In the Melian dialogue the speakers are anonymous, the occasion private (Thucydides was by then in exile in any case), and the sentiments impersonal; it would be difficult to claim that it is not entirely ficitious.” [BACK]

5. Sherman 1984, 2: 111. [BACK]

6. McMurry 1982, 13. [BACK]

7. Hood was famous as a fighting general with uneven judgment on most matters, and it is not clear that the publication of these letters was much of a public relations success: a sympathetic biographer passes quickly over this “undignified correspondence” (McMurry 1982, 157). [BACK]

8. In fact, history played a relatively minor role at West Point, which concentrated on math and engineering. On the curriculum when Hood was a student, see Morrison 1986, 160–163. Even if Hood had studied a great deal of history, it would probably have mattered little, as he had little affinity for academic work, graduating at the bottom of his class (forty-fourth of fifty-two). [BACK]

9. Sherman 1984, 2: 119. [BACK]

10. Sherman 1984, 2: 120. [BACK]

11. Sherman 1984, 2: 124–125. [BACK]

12. Sherman 1984, 2: 124. [BACK]

13. Sherman 1984, 2: 124 (italics mine). [BACK]

14. Sherman 1984, 2: 125. [BACK]

15. Sherman 1984, 2: 125–126. [BACK]

16. Sherman 1984, 2: 126. [BACK]

17. Howard 1971, 2: 544–547. [BACK]

18. Sherman 1984, 2: 125–126. [BACK]

19. The most recent biography of Sherman, Marszalek 1993, bears the subtitle A Soldier’s Passion for Order. [BACK]

20. Sherman 1984, 2: 126. [BACK]

21. Sherman 1984, 2: 127. [BACK]

22. For the triad, war of total populations, against total populations, and for total stakes, see Morgenthau 1948, 289–301. [BACK]

23. Sherman 1984, 2: 120. [BACK]

24. Sherman 1984, 2: 128. [BACK]

25. Sherman 1984, 2: 129. [BACK]

26. Sherman 1984, 2: 128. [BACK]

27. Orwin 1994. [BACK]

28. So Marszalek (1993, 306), who cites as evidence for this Glatthaar 1985. [BACK]

29. Thucydides does not explain precisely how mass executions were performed. It is clear that the Spartans executed the captured Plataians one by one because we hear that each captured Plataian was given the “opportunity” to explain what he had done in the past for the Spartans to justify mercy (Thuc. 3.68). At Xenophon Hellenika 2.1.32, Lysander cuts the throat (apesphaxe) of the Athenian commander Philokles, but Philokles was explicitly exceptional. He was singled out for special treatment on the grounds that he had committed atrocities, throwing Andrians and Corinthians overboard. [BACK]

previous chapter
Sherman at Melos
next chapter