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Right Way to Farm the Classics

Victor Hanson, a fruit grower and expert on ancient Greek warfare, has won fans in the Bush White House by likening the U.S. to Athens.

February 25, 2004|Rone Tempest | Times Staff Writer

FRESNO — It was the first day of class in Victor Davis Hanson's final course at Cal State Fresno, where he has taught classical history, Greek and Latin for two decades.

The subject, Hanson told the 40 undergraduates, was the 431-404 BC Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. "It's a good time to talk about a war, because we are in a war," he said.

For Hanson, ancient reports on the Peloponnesian War are just as relevant today as recent Fox network newscasts on a suicide bombing of a Baghdad hotel. Both, Hanson believes, portray a do-or-die "referendum" on clashing cultures: the democratic republicanism of Athens versus the martial oligarchy of Sparta; the secular, "consensual" democracy of the West versus the theocratic dictatorship of militant Islam.

Hanson's moral parallels between the ancient Greeks' fight for democracy and our own struggles in Afghanistan and Iraq have endeared him to the Bush administration and changed his life.

Hanson, 50, recently signed a contract with Random House for a book on the Peloponnesian War, to be titled "A War Like No Other." His $500,000 writing advance is unprecedented for a work of classical scholarship and more than he received for his previous 14 books combined. Hanson will leave Cal State Fresno next summer as one of America's leading conservative writers, most prominently showcased in his weekly online column in the like-minded National Review.

In April, amid the early stages of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Hanson used his column to hail the American advance on Baghdad as "unprecedented in its speed and daring" and predicted that its "logistics will be studied for decades." Vice President Dick Cheney enthusiastically quoted Hanson in a speech before the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

Hanson's absolute, unflinching belief in the cause and its ultimate success made him a favorite of Cheney, who urges Hanson's books on his staff and on reporters traveling with him for foreign trips.

It's not hard to understand how Hanson has become an intellectual bulwark of administration foreign policy, given his conviction that nothing less than the future of Western civilization depends on our cleareyed recognition of the menace posed by militant Islamic forces.

"We haven't had enemies this antithetical to the United States in a long, long time," Hanson said several days later over coffee in San Francisco, where he was a guest speaker at the Commonwealth Club. "Take your pick of the Western agenda. Women's rights? They want to go back to the Dark Ages. Homosexual rights? They want to kill them. Democracy? They don't believe in it. Religious tolerance? You're dead if you're not a Muslim. Technology? They don't like it."

Pentagon officials who like Hanson's broad grasp of history vie for his time. On a recent afternoon in Fresno, an Air Force colonel with the Defense Intelligence Agency huddled with Hanson for several hours in the historian's small office, which is decorated with a marble bust of Julius Caesar and a huge map, in German, of ancient Greece.

"These guys like to expand their analysis using history through the ages," Hanson said after the meeting, which he said touched on topics ranging from European politics to the Korean peninsula.

Hanson is also a regular consultant to the influential Pentagon Office of Net Assessment, which has emerged as a key administration intelligence gathering and planning agency under Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and his senior deputy, Paul D. Wolfowitz. This week, Hanson was back in Washington to speak before the Board of Overseers of the Hoover Institution, the conservative Palo Alto think tank where Hanson is a resident fellow. His theme, "This War Is Not New," was the same as that of the Cal State Fresno class. Sharing the podium were Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Karl Rove, President Bush's main political advisor.

It is an enviable position for someone who never served in the military or trained in the science or tactics of warfare. Hanson's influence on the administration probably comes more in setting a tone or providing a historical justification for tough decisions than it does in the details of policy.

"Victor Hanson is a brilliant classicist with a real emotional insight into antiquity," said Stephen Peter Rosen, director of the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University, who has attended Office of Net Assessment sessions at the Pentagon with Hanson.

"Hanson has definitely carved out a niche," said William M. Arkin, a military analyst who writes often for the Los Angeles Times opinion pages. "In an era where many in the Pentagon think that the sword of Damocles is being held over our heads, here's a guy who can actually tell you who Damocles was."

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