James Holmes

Fighting Ebola? Read Thucydides

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James Holmes

Fighting Ebola? Read Thucydides

Thucydides isn’t entirely silent on the topic of civilizational encounter with plague.

Things come in clumps. After almost eight years back in Rhode Island with minimal contact with nearby Brown University, the Naval Diplomat addressed two gatherings in two days involving Brown scholars and students. Go figure. At the second, on campus in Providence, I inveighed against a certain Asian country that never bothers anyone yet has to put up with American containment.

The first, though, was a joint colloquium in Newport. It brought together Naval War College faculty with researchers from Brown’s Watson Institute for International Studies. Two panelists from our new partner institution, a pair of Africa hands, offered some striking reflections on the fight against Ebola.

Their presentations put in me in the mind of … classical Greece. Why? Mainly because of Thucydides. Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War isn’t just a (partly) eyewitness account of a bloodletting from antiquity; it’s the Good Book of politics and strategy. Undergraduates at Georgia used to look skeptical when I told them they could learn ninety percent of what they needed to know about bareknuckles competition from Thucydides. The remainder? Technology, tactics, and other ephemera. Thucydides remains a go-to source on the human factor in diplomacy and warfare.

But I digress. Ancient Greece suffered its own Ebola outbreak, a mysterious plague that struck Athens oversea during the early stages of the conflict. And the malady struck, perchance, at precisely the worst moment for Athens, after “first citizen” Pericles had arranged for the entire populace of Attica, the Athenian hinterland, to withdraw within the city walls. The idea was to hold the fearsome Spartan infantry at bay with fixed fortifications while the Athenian navy raided around the perimeter of the Spartan alliance.

Whatever the wisdom of this defensive strategy, it packaged the Athenian body politic for destruction. Crowded cities make good — if good is the right word — incubators for disease. Because medical science was rudimentary at best, no one knew how the infection was transmitted. Contagion spread from victim to victim with ease, and yet seemingly randomly. No one knew who would contract it next.

Many did. Casualty estimates vary, but the plague felled somewhere between a quarter and a third of Athenians in short order. The sociocultural impact of the sickness was immense, applying a solvent to the social and kin ties that bind peoples together. It set brother against brother and citizen against citizen, all while loosening the ethical and moral code that makes civilized societies civilized.

That’s where the parallel between then and now becomes poignant. Thucydides notes, for example, that doctors died “most thickly” from the plague. The Brown presenters noted that, likewise, public-health workers in Africa — doctors, nurses, stretcher-bearers — are among the few to deliberately make close contact with the stricken. Relief teams, consequently, take extravagant precautions to quarantine the disease within makeshift facilities while shielding themselves from contagion. Sometimes these measures fail.

Now as in ancient Greece, furthermore, the prospect of disease and death deters some would-be healers altogether from succoring the afflicted. Selflessness has limits. Some understandably remain aloof — today as in Athens of yesteryear.

Teams assigned to bury the slain also find themselves in dire peril. Perversely, the dead from Ebola are more contagious than living hosts. That makes disposing of bodies in sanitary fashion a top priority. As the plague ravaged Athens, similarly, corpses piled up in the streets. No one would perform funeral rites — even in this deeply religious society. Classicist Victor Davis Hanson ascribes some of Athens’ barbarous practices late in the war — such as cutting off the hands of captured enemy seamen to keep them from returning to war — in part to the plague’s debasing impact on morals, ethics, and religion.

Nor did its corrupting influence stop there. Citizens turned to all manner of debauchery amid the plague, doing things that would make denizens of Las Vegas blush. Religion had been proved false in the eyes of Athenians. The gods had provided no help against the pestilence. Why comply with religious strictures now? Why not live it up now if suffering and death await a day, or an hour, from now? Whatever feels good, do it — before it’s too late.

One hears echoes of ancient Athens today — muted ones, mercifully — in Ebola-stricken regions of Africa, and in Americans’ panicky reaction to those few cases that have made it to these shores. And yet these echoes are distinct. We think about Thucydides’ history as a parable about war and diplomacy, and it is. But doctors, nurses, and government officials of all types — not just soldiers, sailors, and airmen — can benefit from dusting off that old copy of Thucydides.