*Aside from the obvious–that it might have caused even higher oil prices.
From almost as soon as city-states began coalescing (around the eighth century, B.C.) into discrete entities on the Attica and Peloponnese peninsulas now comprising modern Greece, there was conflict between and among them. Sparta (in Peloponnese) and Athens (in Attica), the two most prominent of the city states that eventually arose out of the ashes of Mycenaean civilization, more or less constantly contended for supremacy as soon as they were able. Or, they did until there appeared in about 490 B.C. the one thing could unite them—a common enemy. Athens and Sparta and the rest of the city-states finally set aside their bickering when King Darius of Persia, the mightiest empire known of the time, dispatched his forces to teach the Greek forebears a lesson about loyalty, and the prestige and privilege and power attendant to Persian imperial royalty. Darius was enraged that the Greeks had dishonored their word and assisted the revolt of Ionia against Persian rule (Ionia was a province in Anatolia which is in modern-day Turkey, just east of Attica, across the Aegean Sea). Greece, even in its unified state, should have been no match for the Persians. But, taking advantage of superior armor and weaponry and cunning war-fighting strategies, Greece routed the Persians at Marathon, after which the Greek hoplites raced the roughly twenty miles to Athens to protect the city from an anticipated siege by Persian warships (commemorated in today’s 26.2 mile foot races called “marathons”). The siege never came. The Persians gave up the fight, for the moment, and returned home.
Darius was furious, and spent the remaining years of his life preparing to conquer Greece. He died in 486 B.C. before the preparations were completed, so his son and successor to the throne, Xerxes I, was afforded the honor of subjugating the coalition of stubbornly recalcitrant city-states lying like a thorn in the Persian Empire’s western side, just across the Hellespont from its farthest reaches. He too, failed. A Spartan force of only 300 led by Leonidas single-handedly waylaid for several days the massive Persian forces at a narrow pass (Thermopylae) on the eastern coast of central Greece. Their efforts may very well have preserved the democratic ideal of self-determination for the ages. Less than a year after his arrival in 480 B.C., and after suffering the embarrassments at Thermopylae and again at Salamis, Xerxes returned to Persia, leaving behind a still massive army to force the Greeks to capitulation. The Greeks would have nothing of it, and defeated the Persians in land and sea battles the following year, effectively eliminating the Persian threat for another century.
But without the Persians to unite them, the city-states soon resumed their bickering. Athens tried its hand, post-war, at empire, attempting to keep intact under its leadership the coalition, which came to be known as the Delian League (which did not include Sparta or much of the rest of the Peloponnese), that had successfully fought off the Persians. Doing so required, within the span of only a few decades, brutal put-downs of revolts among even its erstwhile closest allies on the Attica peninsula. Athenian Empire proved almost as oppressive for the Attica city-states as Persian Empire might otherwise have been. All the while Sparta watched developments in Athens closely, quickly resuming its rivalry with its sister city-state, though mostly peaceably at first. But by 430 B.C., fifty years after the Spartan three hundred had so magnificently come to the defense of Athens and Attica, the Peloponnesian War began, pitting Athens violently against Sparta, again. The war lasted thirty years, ultimately resulting in Athenian defeat.
After another half-century of Spartan misadventures abroad and bickering with Athens and others of its empire at home, Spartan and Athenian power faded, making them ripe for conquest. This time it came from the most unlikely of sources, Macedonia, to the north. Phillip II defeated an internally weakened Greek alliance in 338 B.C., effectively doing what the Persians were never able to do—subduing and subjugating all of Greece under his rule. The Greek city-states would never again enjoy self-determination as free states, the cause for which they had coalesced and fought so valiantly against the Persians. Alexander, who later became “the Great”, followed his father Phillip to the throne, and managed to very briefly expand the empire beyond even that of Darius or Xerxes’ Persian Empire.
But what does any of this have to do with a tropical weather system churning in the Gulf of Mexico? And how could that have anything to do with what happens in Iran?
Greece needed Darius and Xerxes and the Persian Empire to give its city-states a reason to forfeit a measure of their individual freedom–their democracy that had arisen sua suponte from the Attic and Peloponnese soil, for the common good of fighting off the Persians. The Persians gave birth to Greece by changing the calculus, if only briefly, between conflict and cooperation in such a manner as to greatly favor cooperation. The human animal, and the organizations he fosters, are not innately cooperative, but only cooperate so far as enlightened self-interest allows. The Persians made Greek cooperation imperative if their way of life was to survive.
The United States faces the same dilemma. It is forever in search of a means to keep its disparate racial and ethnic groups quiescent and cooperative with each other. A common enemy, such as a massive hurricane on the coast, provides something of a cohesive reason to cooperate for some measure of the citizens directly affected by it, and provides at least some measure of distraction for those that aren’t. Something small, like Isaac, probably won’t help much on either score.
The weather reporting on Isaac, making a relatively minor hurricane of the type that regularly sweeps through the Gulf of Mexico into something like an alien invasion, tells the tale of how desperately people want their lives bound together by a common purpose. It is not the fault of the weather reporters (though they profit handsomely thereby) to exaggerate a hurricane’s potential. They are simply playing to their audience, and their audience needs a hurricane, or some other disaster, to be massive, and especially so at this particular moment in American life, when the empire is retreating from its military engagements in the Middle East and it otherwise faces no real existential threat. It is not for nothing that President Obama wasted no time in pledging assets and assistance to those affected by the storm, even before the storm had much afflicted anyone with anything more than some run-of-the-mill windy, drenching downpours.
But natural disasters only operate very temporarily, if at all, to bind people to a common purpose. And it is common purpose that is the lacking ingredient in American society today. There is no reason for America’s being without which there is a common enemy or common danger whose defeat or repulsion or endurance will bind the people together in pursuing a common end (such as defeating Nazi Germany in World War Two or the Soviet Union during the Cold War; punishing al Qaeda after 9-11; tornado outbreaks in 2011; Katrina, etc). The common purpose around which the nation originally coalesced, that of subduing the harsh wilderness of the frontier and pursuing a destiny which seemed manifest, can hardly be expected, in these days of bountiful plenty when the manifest destiny to expand seems as fulfilled as is possible, to provide the ties that bind. These days, there is no common enemy, no viable existential threat, and thereby no tie that binds the American people, and particularly her government, to a common vision, which is why this election is so unimportant, yet so rancorously disputed.
People find meaning and purpose for their lives in believing they belong to something larger than themselves, and especially so during times of plenty, when survival is all but assured. The idea of collectively suffering the depredations of a common enemy, be it a hurricane, or perhaps the threat of nuclear annihilation, etc., provides that feeling of commonality, of believing that one’s life matters beyond their own point of space and time in which they immediately exist. Governments are succored by this human instinct to tribalism, to seeking meaning and purpose outside of the individual. But governments that had once satisfied the instinct by acting as a conduit for its expression through war or natural disaster relief or such other more or less valid means will turn to any purpose they can contrive in order to remain meaningful and relevant to people’s lives. Once the Leviathan of government gains purchase, it gives ground only haltingly, if at all. Once the Persians were defeated and ultimately sent packing, Athens tried, at great cost, to keep intact the coalition which had defeated the Persians, but which was no longer necessary. That they failed ultimately to do so speaks to the relative lack of an entrenched Athenian bureaucracy interested in its continuation that was able to convince the people of its value.
For the United States government, staying meaningful and relevant in its citizen’s lives after the existential threat of nuclear annihilation passed with the decline of the Soviet Union has meant the constant expansion of its writ, both at home and abroad. It filled the power vacuum left by the fall of European empire subsequent to World War Two, and eventually, of the Soviet Union, with its military might. It actively sought skirmishes on the vanguards of empire (Iraq I, Afghanistan, Iraq II, etc.) to ensure its people never wondered whether there was any point to it anymore. And it turned itself into a gigantic insurance company, ensuring individuals, and even corporations, did not unduly suffer from health problems or economic problems or from the vicissitudes of nature, or even from those of man. The American government has seemed since the fall of the Soviet Union to be continually thrashing about, trying at every turn to convince its citizens of its value.
Which is why, some 2,500 years after Darius and Xerxes, the remnants of the ancient Persian Empire will likely again provide the tie that binds a people. No piddling hurricane, nor even a massive one, nor undertaking the role of nanny for its citizens, can operate to keep a government meaningful and relevant like the threat presented by a belligerent extra-national adversary. And the people, who will have nothing to bind them to common purposes once the great and meaningless election season passes, will accept conflict with Iran, perhaps even welcoming it, as a vehicle for belonging to something bigger than themselves, as an exercise imbuing their lives with meaning and purpose again.
The Attic (Athenian) Greeks of the fifth century B.C. hadn’t yet been individually conditioned to seek higher meaning and purpose for their lives through imperial government coalitions contrived to face specific threats. Once those threats receded, they reengaged with the life they had fought so valiently to defend. The Peloponnese (Spartan) Greeks were much more collectivist in their thinking, believing that the individual existed solely to serve the Spartan nation, but their collectivist thinking did not extend past their own fetishistic Sparta. Only Sparta mattered to the Spartans, even when Sparta disastrously embarked on its own imperial quests. Alexander changed the thinking in Greece and the Mediterranean by demonstrating that coalitions can be formed for more than just defensive measures. His ostensible, and original, purpose for marching east was to avenge another Persian invasion of Greece. But it was a contrived purpose to justify his own megalomaniacal designs, like the Maine in Havana Harbor, or the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam, justified American expansionism. Alexander sought glory and honor for himself, and made his newly reunified Greece the vehicle for gaining it.
Even if no latter-day Alexander arises to press into the service of megalomaniacal designs the extant machinery of empire in the US, America will likely still find itself in armed conflict with Iran before the passing of another year, perhaps even before the end of the calendar year. Natural disasters, nor much of anything else, serve to satisfy the individual and collective need for a reason to exist that warfare so profoundly fulfills in the individual and collective heart.