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Journal of Cold War Studies 5.2 (2003) 104-106

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David R. Mcann and Barry S. Strauss, eds., War and Democracy: A Comparative Study of the Korean War and the Peloponnesian War. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2001. 388 pp. $77.95.

This book opens with the editors' contention that at first glance "it seems odd" (p. ix) to compare the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) and the Korean War (1950-1953). At final glance, over 350 pages later, it still seems odd. This negative verdict does not mean that there is nothing to be gained from reading the book, or that the two wars cannot teach us anything about war and democracy, or that these "case studies" are not important or interesting, or that the individual chapters lack flair or value. On the contrary, some of the contributions on specific issues are excellent and deserve careful reading. My complaint is about the comparative aim, which is [End Page 104] flagged in the book's subtitle and introductory chapter, and which was presumably the point of the project.

One immediate conclusion to draw from this book is that professors of classics and history should, on the whole, stick to their own (important) roles and not engage in comparative studies unless they are prepared to study how to do comparisons. Identifying a few themes and then drawing some analogies does not constitute a "comparative study." Some of the best chapters do not give even the slightest nod in this direction. Many of the authors simply write about their own research interests and leave it to the editors to try to instill some comparative coherence. To give an example: Dong-Wook Shin's chapter, "Characters and Characteristics of Korean War Novels," usefully and interestingly helps us reconceive the Korean War as an experience suffered by Koreans as opposed to its dominant image in the West as an American war. But what is this chapter doing in a book purporting to be a comparative study?

The central problem of the book—conceiving these wars as an odd couple— begins with a major asymmetry between them in terms of the potential for historical understanding (let alone social science attempts at explanation). The editors describe the Peloponnesian War as "the most carefully studied of wars," whereas Korea, in their view, is a "forgotten war" (p. ix). Even if this is the case, which I doubt, it misses an important point. The Peloponnesian War might have been carefully studied, but because of its antiquity and remoteness we actually understand relatively little about it. The Korean War, by contrast, might be somewhat forgotten, but we actually understand a great deal about it. Twenty-five centuries is a big gap in terms of reliable evidence and the ability to get into people's heads. The gap and the asymmetry raise the question of whether a comparison of this odd couple is worthwhile in the first place.

The ostensible similarities between the two wars, as outlined by the editors in their introduction, get us nowhere in speculating about "war and democracy." Some similarities are simply banalities that characterize almost all wars, such as "unpredictability" or being "highly destructive to life and property." Others are simplistic, such as the ostensible "geographical similarities" between Korea and the lands of ancient Greece—similarities such as their terrain, peninsular topography, and size. These purported "geographical similarities" are not "striking" in the absence of a sophisticated comparison of the military and other technologies available to the armed forces in wars. No such comparison is offered by the editors. Thucydides might have had little difficulty in understanding the ambitions of the leaders of North Korea, but he surely would have been left in awe by the destructive potential of aircraft carrying nuclear bombs and the instantaneous speed of modern communications. For comparative military purposes, "geography" is a technological concept.

The editors consider the "central symmetry" (p. xi) between the two wars to lie in what many "thought they were fighting for": democracies were on trial...