Thucydides, Scahill and Dirty History

The terror-war diatribe prizes narrative over accuracy.

Jeremy Scahill, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield. New York: Nation Books, 2013. 642 pp. $29.99.

In his sweeping survey of America’s post-9/11 military campaigns, journalist Jeremy Scahill follows in the tradition of Herodotus and Thucydides. That’s not a good thing.

Yes, they are perhaps the two most storied names among those practicing the historian’s craft. Herodotus was dubbed the “father of history.” His legacy: a new definition of inquiry, looking for the explanation of cause and effect in human affairs through the actions of humans—their wisdom, emotion, and follies.

Thucydides then refined and eclipsed Herodotus. He dismissed the Histories, nine books of geography, politics and war, as rambling and undisciplined. In the long preface to his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides promised a clearer path for mapping out how decisions translate to action. Further, he vowed to adhere to tighter standards of proof, limiting his narrative to what he knew to be true—either through personal knowledge or that of demonstrably reliable sources.

Despite their differences, the two Greeks are credited with founding a discipline. In truth, however, neither one was a terribly good historian. Herodotus, for example, informed his readers that the plains of India were covered in gold dust and guarded by man-eating ants.

In his 2007 defense of Herodotus in The Atlantic, the best excuse Robert Kaplan could muster for the father of “factual” history was that “facts matter less than perceptions….” In other words, as far as Kaplan is concerned, Herodotus told a heck of a story and that was good enough for him. Maybe, but it is not enough to count as “history.”

Thucydides’ judgment is suspect as well. A participant in the Peloponnesian Wars, he was disgraced as a general and exiled from Athens—hardly strong credentials for an unbiased observer.

And those long, rhetorical dialogues recounting the debates over war and strategy—they are accurate word for word accounts? Really? Even near contemporaries were suspicious. “If people actually spoke like this,” Dionysius of Halicarnassus complained, “not even their mothers or their fathers would be able to tolerate the unpleasantness of it….” He really nailed Thucydides. To the father of history, getting the “storyline” right was more important than delivering a true transcript of what actually was said.

In fairness to Thucydides and Herodotus, what they gave birth to was history as explanatory narrative—a pointed view of why nations and empires rise and fall. The notion that history should be something truly objective and verifiable is more a product of the Enlightenment and historians like Lord Acton, Leopold Von Ranke, Wilhelm Dilthey and Hans Delbrück. Over the course of that century, history became professionalized with rough criteria to certify that the historian, his methods and his sources represented some modicum of effort to be independent, impartial and accurate.

Today, however, what is popularly read looks more like what the Ancient Greeks tried to deliver their audiences: cracking good stories reflecting the writer’s point of view. (Herodotus, for example, intended his histories to be recited in public—not read by classics students). In what is often passed-off as “history” these days, narrative trumps hard history.

In ancient Greece, narrative dominated because it was the only game in town. Thucydides and Herodotus didn’t have the data to do better.

Now, we gravitate to narrative because it makes us feel good. That can be attributed, in part, to the increasing importance of empathy in the contemporary world. Empathy has risen to become a key preferred attribute of Western society. The emotion of caring overwhelms the logic of cold hard facts.

Stories are particularly effective at stirring our empathetic impulses, and the power of information age technology pushes that impulse into overdrive. Historian Lynn Hunt argues, for example, that contemporary concerns over torture and the universal nature of human rights are modern expressions of an increasingly empathetic culture.

The temptation to tap into narrative-starved society under the guise of history is strong—and popular and profitable.

The dust jacket to Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield trumpets that, through his “brave reporting, Scahill exposes the true nature of the dirty wars the United States government struggles to keep hidden.” That sounds like history. But despite its six-hundred-plus pages of text, Dirty Wars is no history book. It is pop narrative.