[KS] KSR 2002-15: _War And Democracy: A Comparative Study of the Korean War and the Peloponnesian War_, edd. by David R. McCann and Barry S. Strauss

Stephen Epstein Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Wed Nov 6 14:12:01 EST 2002

_War And Democracy: A Comparative Study of the Korean War and the
Peloponnesian War_, edd. by David R. McCann and Barry S. Strauss. Armonk,
NY and London: M.E. Sharpe Inc., 2001, 385 pp.  (ISBN 0-7656-0694-1,
hardcover, $77.95; ISBN 0-7656-0695-X, paper, $29.95).

Reviewed by Stephen J. Epstein
Victoria University of Wellington

_War And Democracy: A Comparative Study of the Korean War and the
Peloponnesian War_ is an intriguing collection that juxtaposes 5th century
BC Greece and 20th century Korea in order to explore a set of fascinating
issues.  As the publisher's promotional blurb asks: "Why do societies go to
war, and what happens to them when they do?  What are the factors, human
and otherwise, which make wars take the form they do; and what are the
factors that could have led to outcomes other than armed conflict?"
Co-editor David McCann, well-known to Koreanists as a literature
specialist, together with Barry Strauss, a prominent Greek historian, here
assemble a number of equally distinguished scholars who treat the Korean
War and Peloponnesian War as case studies in order to explore these timely

Comparative work that brings together areas as disparate as ancient Greece and modern Korea is always fraught with difficulties, but Strauss and
McCann argue cogently that the effort required is worthwhile.  As they
write in their helpful introduction, "Comparisons do not lead to a direct
transfer of insights, but they can sharpen our awareness and let us think
in ways in which we would not have thought before" (xii).  While the
co-editors offer several valid points of comparison between the two
conflicts (terrain, unpredictability, destructiveness, and an ideological
divide between the combatants), as a guiding theme Strauss and McCann focus
on the way each placed a democracy on trial.  They note that in the
conception of Thucydides, the great Athenian historian, the Peloponnesian
War revealed his city's democratic regime as aggressive, inefficient and
prone to committing atrocities, while the Korean War raised questions about
American democracy's leadership, its relationship to other cultures, and,
for many at the time, "whether a liberal society could compete with the
global threat of communism" (xi).

The books' fifteen articles are grouped into five triads that relate in
different ways to the themes announced by the book's title (Part I:
"Democracy: Bellicose, Imperial, or Idealistic?"; Part II: "Categorizing
Wars: Civil or Hegemonic, Decisive or Cyclical?"; Part III: "Third Forces
or Shrimps Between Whales"; Part IV: "Demagogues or Domestic Politics in
Democracies at War"; Part V: "Realism, Militarism and the Culture of
Democracies").   The structure, however, is forced at times, and readers
may find they must work to impose thematic coherence upon the articles in
each grouping.  Part I, for example, joins Victor Hanson's analysis of
Athens, in which he makes a case for the greater military efficiency of
democracies, with a debate between Ronald Steel, who argues that American
global hegemony constitutes an imperium, and Robert Kagan, who supplies a
spirited rejoinder.

Part II similarly lacks overall integration: it begins with a piece by
Bruce Cumings, entitled "When Sparta is Sparta, but Athens isn't Athens:
Democracy and the Korean War," in which he reiterates his arguments for the
civil nature of the Korean War and extends them with an analogy to the
ancient world (which draws, for its part, on overly idealized images of
Athens).  His essay works well in conjunction with the next article,
Kathryn Weathersby's account of "Stalin and the Decision for War in Korea."
Weathersby maintains that "in the last analysis the Korean War was less a
civil war than a hegemonic conflict" (xxi).  Cumings and Weathersby engage
here, as elsewhere, in a productive clash on this issue.  Nonetheless, it
becomes difficult to link these two pieces with the third member of their
trio, Paul Cartledge's analysis of "The Effects of the Peloponnesian
(Athenian) War on Athenian and Spartan Societies."  Cartledge's main thesis
is to argue against periodized models of Greek history that view the
Peloponnesian War as a watershed event and postulate a decline in the 4th
century BC after the so-called "Golden Age" of the 5th.

_War and Democracy_'s use of scholars from at least three different areas
(Koreanists, Classicists and Americanists) thus yields a collection that
often lacks cohesion.  This problem is exacerbated because, although each
triad contains at least one piece that deals with the Peloponnesian War and
one with the Korean War, most individual essays engage in little more than
an introductory or concluding nod to specific comparison between the two.
Juxtaposition may have worked well as a prime strategy for Thucydides, who
allows readers to draw their own conclusions about the events he narrates,
but a firmer editorial hand would be welcome here, and each triad could
have benefited from a separate introduction drawing out common themes in
detail and setting them within a comparative perspective.

In fact, only one essay out of the volume's fifteen (Jennifer Roberts'
illuminating comparison of Alcibiades and Douglas MacArthur--to my mind the
most engaging piece in the book) makes a genuinely sustained effort to
bring Greece and Korea together in comparative perspective.  Such reticence
over explicit comparison between the two conflicts is thoroughly
understandable, as few academics have deep familiarity with both.  Even as
a scholar who shuttles in his research between the ancient Mediterranean
and contemporary Korea, I can claim no expertise in the volume's thematic
focus.  Consequently _War and Democracy_ is an inordinately difficult
volume to review-- or, rather, a difficult two, or even three, books to
review, and instead of continuing to give a synopsis of individual pieces,
which would necessarily be disjointed,[1] I will record further some
overall impressions.

Given the venue for this review, of course, it is appropriate to ask what
Koreanists will glean from the volume.  Unfortunately, of the main
audiences for the book, Koreanists perhaps fare worst.  Only four of the
fifteen articles are by scholars of Korea specifically (Bruce Cumings,
Dae-Sook Suh, Kongdan Oh, and Dong-Wook Shin), and their pieces take up
just 64 pages in total, roughly one-sixth of the total volume. Furthermore,
they largely provide overviews of topics that will be familiar to Korea
specialists, rather than advancing any striking new arguments: Suh treats
"The Korean War and North Korean Politics" while Oh does the same for South
Korea, and Shin discusses "Characters and Characteristics of Korean War
Novels."  The contributions from the Greek historians, on the other hand,
put forth many more original interpretations.  One presumes that this
contrast results from a belief that the audiences of both the 1995 Woodrow
Wilson Center conference out of which the volume grew and the book itself
would be largely unfamiliar with Korea's domestic situation.

The short shrift given to Korea per se also mirrors an implicit perspective
on the Korean War taken by the volume: the book's major comparative
concern, despite its subtitle and Bruce Cumings' article, is not Athens and
Sparta as opposed to the two Koreas, but rather Athens vis-ˆ-vis the United
States.  For the most part, the non-Koreanist contributors reveal an
unspoken acceptance that the Korean War itself was "really" a larger
ideological conflict between the United States and its communist foes,
China and/or the USSR.  In this reading, Korea becomes, despite Cumings'
forceful arguments that the conflict should be understood as fundamentally
a civil war, merely a "shrimp caught between whales," and thus of less
concern than the superpowers themselves.  Frequently, the book ignores
Suh's salutary reminder that "studies emphasizing the international aspects
of the war often neglect the domestic Korean cause of the war.  It was
fought in the Korean peninsula by the Korean people, who suffered the most
casualties, and the peoples of North and South Korea are still suffering
from the consequences of the war.  While it is important to analyze the
international involvement, it is more important to understand the war in
terms of Korean domestic politics" (163).  As a result, readers may be left
uncertain precisely how to align the ancient and modern situations: the
introduction to Weathersby's piece, for example, notes similarities between
the "Peloponnesian War and cold war," rather than the Korean War as such,
and the book's oscillation between the two sets of comparisons could have
been more clearly worked through.

Indeed, at several points I was struck by just how American this book is.
Although the overwhelmingly American perspective is perhaps to be expected,
given the book's origins and that all the non-Koreanist authors are,
according to the contributor notes, US residents, reading the book as a
scholar of Korea, I found the extent to which the greater focus on the
United States wrests the Korean War from Korean experience troubling.  The
cover itself, tellingly, overlays a photo of an evidently wounded American
GI being helped by two comrades on top of a battle frieze from Delphi.  The
Korean War, yes, but no Koreans present.  The very American nature of this
book also appears in other ways: donning my Classicist hat, I read Greg
Crane's "The Case of Plataea: Small States and the (Re-) Inventions of
Political Realism" with pleasure: it is a fine piece with a nuanced
discussion of Plataea's extremely difficult position during the
Peloponnesian War.  But while Crane certainly shows sympathy for the Korean
people, remarks in his piece suggest an unconscious assumption that his
audience is American: "even now most forms ask whether we are white or
black, Asian or Latino" (137); "Nothing in this sad little episode would be
out of place in the _New York Times_ or _Washington Post_" (145).

There is, of course, nothing especially wrong with such assumptions, but it
does lead, however, to my final points.  I had eagerly awaited the
publication of this volume, because it is a true rarity in bringing
together my two academic fields.  As I read through it, however, I found
myself approaching this book not so much as a Koreanist and as a
Classicist, but, to my surprise, most significantly as an American
expatriate who has taken up dual citizenship in New Zealand.  The volume,
in fact, is ultimately of much more importance and interest to me as a
debate on the country from which I emigrated.  Although _War and Democracy_
was published in 2001, before September 11, its sustained discussion of how
democracies function in wartime has taken on a relevance that could not
have been predicted at the time of its release.

I had originally intended to conclude this review with the at least
partially accurate, if unfairly dismissive, remark that the book, as a
whole, is somewhat less than the sum of its rather considerable parts.  In the sense that perhaps few will read it straight through because of the varied nature of contributions that do not always cohere, the statement carries truth.
Nonetheless, in the period between first reading the work and allowing my
thoughts to continue their leavening process before writing this review, I
have found that its main themes and the questions it raises have remained
with me, especially as the current United States administration pursues
with vigor a largely unilateral policy towards Iraq.  Engaged scholars and
readers seeking to understand how the world works, whether or not they have
a particular interest in Korea or ancient Greece, will find much of value
in _War and Democracy_ .  Pericles, in a famous speech ascribed to him by
Thucydides, said to the Athenian people, "it may have been wrong to have
taken power, but it would be dangerous to let it go" (Thuc. 2. 63. 2). _War
and Democracy_ asks us to consider closely whether it is in fact true that
"the United States has been an idealistic and lenient hegemon, particularly
when compared to Athens" (xxi).

Ultimately, one can certainly recommend this book, as much within it is
excellent, and every university library should have it in its collection:
Strauss and McCann are to be lauded for bringing together an all-star cast
of contributors, who, as the back cover notes, are "often in top form."
Even more commendable is their eagerness to incorporate scholars who hail
from different ends of the political spectrum and who have not shied away
from controversy in their career.  It would be difficult, for example, to
imagine two scholar-commentators with more different ideological
reputations and views of American overseas military involvement than
neoconservative Victor Hanson, who champions American democratic values,
and Bruce Cumings, whose outspoken criticism of the US and South Korea has
even caused some to misconstrue him as an apologist for North Korea.

One final nitpick, however: a book that brings together so many
distinguished contributors deserves far better proofreading.  While most errors are insignificant ("the Athenians games" (133); "peace Tteaty" (162); "liberty could can also have" (227); "predicated" for "predicted" (286); "contradition" (360)) others are more insidious: any Hellenist will immediately recognize the error in the citation of Pericles' Funeral Oration as coming from Thucydides 1.34-46 (283), but Koreanists and American historians wishing to check the reference may not know to consult those chapters in Book Two instead. McCune-Reischauer does not fare so well either: p. 82 n. 35 alone contains
two apparent mistakes ("Sžl" for "S™ul" and "chidae esži" for "chidae es™").

[1] I direct those interested in a piece by piece summation to the on-line
review in the _Bryn Mawr Classical Review_
<http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/2001/2001-11-20.html> by Polly Low, who
makes a similar point about the disjointed experience of reading the book.

Epstein, Stephen J. 2002
Review of _War And Democracy: A Comparative Study of the Korean War and the
Peloponnesian War_, edd. by David R. McCann and Barry S. Strauss. (2001)
Korean Studies Review 2002, no. 15
Electronic file: http://koreaweb.ws/ks/ksr/ksr02-15.htm

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