A Quiet Mediterranean?
An unusual calm for history’s constant cauldron.

USS Nimitz underway in the Mediterranean Sea (Seaman Raul Moreno Jr.)


Victor Davis Hanson

From the deck of a ship on the Mediterranean, the islands that pass by appear as calm as the weather. Huge yachts, not warships, are docked in island ports. I haven’t seen a naval officer in ten days. But it has rarely been so in the sea’s brutal past.

The Mediterranean (“in the middle of the earth”) has been history’s constant cauldron. It provided too easy access between three vastly different and usually rival continents — Asia, Africa, and Europe. And it helped birth and spread three major and often warring religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Without it, there would have been no Roman or Ottoman Empire.

Most of the Mediterranean’s history, then, is one of abject violence. The unfortunate islands situated in the sea’s vortex — especially Cyprus, Crete, Malta, and Sicily — were invaded, occupied, and fought over constantly by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, Franks, Ottomans, British, Italians, and Germans. To chronicle these islands’ history is to study massive castles and walls, which are still what first greet any visitor to port. The Ottoman Siege of Famagusta on Cyprus, the defense of Malta by the Knights Hospitaller, the German air drop on Crete, and the Allied invasion of Sicily mark some of the most audacious battles in military history.

Gibraltar — which governed who made it into the Mediterranean — and Constantinople — which determined who went in and out of the Black Sea — were often the linchpins of empire. With the completion of the Suez Canal in the 19th century, the Mediterranean revived in the Industrial Age, as the canal soon would become Europe’s shortcut to the oil fields of the Middle East.

For the last 70 years, the Mediterranean has been quieter than at any other time in its long history — at least since the second century a.d., during the reign of the five so-called “good” emperors of Rome, when all the shores of the three continents were tranquil and interconnected by what the Romans called “mare nostrum” (our sea).Why?

Largely because of American warships. Except for the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, and occasional violent spillage offshore of the various Middle East wars, the U.S. Sixth Fleet, based in Naples since shortly after World War II, has been able, with its NATO partners, to keep pirates out, aggressors down, and peaceful nations in.

Amid the current violence of the Arab Spring on the shores of North Africa, the Middle East fighting in Gaza and Syria, and Russia’s aggression in Crimea, the Mediterranean nevertheless remains calm. No one today thinks of storming Malta, as did the Ottomans and the Nazis. Sicily is quiet in a way it had never been before 1945. Cretans fear neither Muslim invaders nor German paratroopers. Unlike elsewhere on the seas of the world — the rising tensions in the South China Sea, Iran’s ascendance in the Persian Gulf, the piratical raiding on the Red Sea — there are no active troublemakers on the Mediterranean.

Will that always be so?

If the U.S. recedes and lowers its naval profile, it is not hard to see how the Mediterranean could once again heat up. Amid the relative peace of a divided Cyprus, we forget that the island’s fate has never been resolved. An increasingly Islamist Turkey is becoming neo-Ottoman in its relationship to Greece and Israel. If Vladimir Putin’s Russia continues to rebuild its military as the U.S. continues to downgrade its own, it is not hard to envision Russian ships leaving their now-permanent Crimean ports on new missions out of the Dardanelles. China is expanding all the way to African and South American shores, but it so far keeps out of the Mediterranean. But will it always? Iran is wary of sending its warships into the Mediterranean only because of the U.S. fleet.

The great European fleets of the past — the Spanish, the French, and the British — are shadows of their former selves. Some of the worst violence in the world today — the civil war in Syria, the bloodletting in Libya, the war in Gaza — takes place on the shores of the Mediterranean, but so far has not spread to sea.

Americans might think the Mediterranean is too distant to care much about. But from our very beginnings that sea had an odd ability to draw us into its turmoil. “To the shores of Tripoli” is a refrain known to most Americans, and we also remember the Barbary Coast — the scene of our nation’s first foreign fights and our most recent, in Benghazi. The first landing of American soldiers against Germany during World War II was in North Africa, not too far from where Ronald Reagan ordered the Air Force to bomb Libya.

As we dismantle our military, we should remember that history’s natural order of things unfortunately is not peace, but instability and war. Peace, as a character in Plato’s Laws remarked, is a brief “parenthesis.” It occasionally breaks out because aggressors are deterred by the superior military forces of those committed to the general peace — and all nations understand the consequences of weaker aggressive nations’ stirring up trouble. Barack Obama is relearning that ancient lesson as he sends forces back into Iraq against Islamic extremists (whom he once foolishly dismissed as “jayvees”) after he needlessly pulled all deterrent U.S. peacekeepers out of the country and squandered an inherited quiet.

We can see the results of the new lower profile of the U.S. fleet also in the South China Sea, as Japan squares off against China, and South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines anxiously watch. As the world heats up, and as the U.S. global deterrent forces erode, there is no intrinsic reason why history’s most contested sea might not be so again. We should remember that when we talk of defense cuts, and before we pull too many American ships out of a maritime intersection where peace has usually been the exception.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.

Defending America
National Review presents its monthly look at the men and women of America’s armed forces on combat and training deployments around the world. Pictured, an Army soldier with Second Squadron, 38th Cavalry Regiment, Phantom Recon, pulls security during training at Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo. ( Photo: Sergeant Cody Barber)
ARMY: Soldiers with First Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, Fourth Infantry Brigade Combat Team, First Infantry Division, interact with role players during a situational-training exercise in Exercise Western Accord 14. (Photo: Sergeant William Gore)
Specialist Kevin Nguyen, Charlie Company, Fourth Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, Second Stryker Brigade Combat Team, Second Infantry Division, takes part in training at the National Training Center. (Photo: Specialist Charles Probst)
Sergeant Juan Jackson, 493rd Military Police Company, inspects his shot group on the M16 zero range during the 2014 Army Reserve Best Warrior Competition at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J. (Photo: Sergeant First Class Michel Sauret)
Oregon Army National Guard Sergeant Justin Sheffield, Charlie Troop, First Squadron, 82nd Cavalry, 41st Infantry Brigade Combat Team, fires his M4 rifle while wearing a chemical protective mask during weapons qualification at Orchard Combat Training Center, near Boise, Idaho. (Photo: Sergeant First Class April Davis, Oregon Military Department Public Affairs)
Soldiers with Charlie Company, Fourth Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, Second Stryker Brigade Combat Team, Second Infantry Division, load into a Stryker during Decisive Action Rotation 14-08 at the National Training Center on Fort Irwin, Calif. (Photo: Specialist Randis Monroe)
Military police with the 72nd Brigade Military Police Detachment, 91st Brigade Engineer Battalion, First Brigade Combat Team, First Cavalry Division clear a town during a partnered training exercise at Hohenfels Training area, Germany, during Combined Resolve II.
Private First Class Jerome Cuthbert (right) and Specialist Daniel Malek, Company B, First Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade, fire 60mm mortar rounds during training at Pabrade Training Area in Pabrade, Lithuania. (Photo: Specialist Brett Hurd)
Crew members prepare the CH-47F Chinook heavy-lift helicopter before sling-load training with the 1569th Transportation Company. (Photo: Sergeant Michael K. Selvage)
Soldiers with Fourth Battalion, 118th Infantry Regiment, South Carolina Army National Guard, hang from a tether attached to an MH47G Chinook with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) during Special Insertion Exfiltration System training at McCrady Training Center, Eastover, S.C. (Photo: Sergeant First Class Kimberly D. Calkins)
Special Warfare Combatant-craft crewmen from Special Boat Team 12, with the help of aviators from Fourth Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, conduct a maritime external air transportation system training evolution in Moses Lake, Wash. (Photo: Sergeant Christopher Prows)
NAVY: Lieutenant Wes Smith signals the launch of an EA-18G Growler assigned to Electronic Attack Squadron VAQ-139 (the “Cougars”) on the flight deck of USS Carl Vinson, underway in the Pacific Ocean. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Second Class George M. Bell)
Sailors prepare to launch an F/A-18F Super Hornet with Strike Fighter Squadron VFA-213 (the “Fighting Black Lions”) aboard USS George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Third Class Joshua Card)
An F/A-18F Super Hornet with Strike Fighter Squadron VFA-213 (the “Fighting Black Lions”) veers left as sailors prepare to launch an EA-6B Prowler with Electronic Attack Squadron VAQ-134 (the “Garudas”) aboard USS George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Third Class Joshua Card)
An aircraft director signals the pilot of an E-2C Hawkeye with Airborne Early Warning Squadron VAW-115 (the “Liberty Bells”) on the flight deck of USS George Washington. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Third Chris Cavagnaro)
Chief Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Handling) Jackie Valasco observes as Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Handling) Third Class Madeline Bettincourt, signals a C-2A Greyhound with Fleet Logistics Support Squadron VRC-30 (the “Providers”) from the flight deck of USS Ronald Reagan. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Second Class Chelsea Kennedy)
Sailors aboard the amphibious dock landing ship USS Rushmore direct an MV-22 Osprey with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron VMM-161 (the “Greyhawks”) onto the flight deck during exercise Rim of the Pacific. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Second Class Amanda R. Gray)
Lieutenant Junior Grade Casey Strouse checks the deck for an MH-60S Seahawk with Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron HSC-9 (the ”Tridents”) on the flight deck of USS Arleigh Burke. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Second Class Carlos M. Vazquez II)
Sailors aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Kidd man the helm during a general quarters drill. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Second Class Declan Barnes)
Sailors conduct a firefighting drill on the flight deck of USS Nimitz, underway in the Pacific Ocean. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Third Class Aiyana S. Paschal)
Gunner's Mate Second Class Andrew Carpenter fires a 25mm machine gun during a live-fire event aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Roosevelt, underway in the Gulf of Aden. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Second Class Justin Wolpert)
Boatswain's Mate Second Class Robert Pucel, Beachmaster Unit BMU-1, signals a Landing Craft Air Cushion with Assault Craft Unit ACU-5 during an equipment transfer between USS Rushmore at Marine Corps Base Kaneohe Bay. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Third Class Dustin Knight)
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A pair of Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt IIs with the 188th Fighter Wing fly in formation over Kansas. (Photo: Senior Airman Sierra Dopfel)
Staff Sergeant Zackery Coder, 36th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, checks computer data from an F-16 Fighting Falcon during Red Flag-Alaska 14-2 at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. (Photo: Senior Airman Peter Reft)
Captain Phillip Chapman, 302nd Airlift Wing, taxis into position on the runway during Maple Flag exercises in Edmonton/Cold Lake, Alberta, Canada. (Photo: Master Sergeant John R. Nimmo, Sr.)
Senior Airman Sergio Verdin, 82nd ERQS, provides security during a training exercise with members of the 303rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron and the French Air Force’s 311th Fighter Squadron in Djibouti. (Photo: Technical Sergeant Lakisha A. Croley)
Tactical response force members approach a launch facility during a recapture and recovery exercise in North Dakota. (Photo: Senior Airman Brittany Y. Bateman)
An A-10 Thunderbolt II with 25th Fighter Squadron performs a show of force during Red Flag-Alaska 14-2 over the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, Alaska. (Photo: Senior Airman Zachary Perras)
Four F-16 Fighting Falcons prepare to return to their Baltic Operations Exercise mission after receiving fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker in the skies over Germany. (Photo: Airman First Class Kyla Gifford)
An F-22 Raptor from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, approaches a KC-135 Stratotanker over the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex during Red Flag-Alaska 14-1. (Photo: Senior Airman Joshua Turner)
An F-15E Strike Eagle from Royal Air Force Lakenheath in England taxis at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia. (Photo: Technical Sergeant Russ Scalf)
A QF-16 is prepared for takeoff during an unmanned live fire exercise at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M.. (Photo: Airman First Class Aaron Montoya)
MARINE CORPS: Captain Christopher Orr, Third Battalion, Eighth Marine Regiment (left), fires an M4 service rifle as part of live-fire training during Agile Spirit 14 at Vaziani Training Area, Georgia. (Photo: Lance Corporal Samantha A. Barajas)
Lance Corporal William Long, First Platoon, Charlie Company, First Battalion, Second Marine Regiment, provides security during an operation in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. (Photo: Corporal John A. Martinez Jr.)
Corporal Justin Diaz, Black Sea Rotational Force 14.2, Third Battalion, Eighth Marine Regiment, provides security during a platoon attack exercise at Babadag Training Area, Romania. (Photo: Lance Corporal Samantha A. Barajas)
Corporal Connor J. Adlington, Company K, Battalion Landing Team, Third Battalion, Fifth Marines, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, climbs over a wall after emerging from a river during the Jungle Endurance Course at Camp Gonsalves. (Photo: Corporal Henry Antenor)
Sergeant Nicholas Garton, Bravo Company, First Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment, Marine Rotational Force Darwin, radios in a position report while on a patrol during a week-long squad competition at Kangaroo Flats Training Area. (Photo: Corporal Scott Reel)
A Marine with Battalion Landing Team, First Battalion, Sixth Marine Regiment, 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, shoots at targets with an M240B machine gun from a light armored vehicle during Exercise Eager Lion 2014. (Photo: Sergeant Austin Hazard)
Marines with Company E, Second battalion, Fourth Marines, Fifth Marine Regiment, board a CH-53 helicopter for extraction at the Mountain Warfare Training Center. (Photo: Corporal Charles Santamaria)
Marines with Bravo Company, First Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment, board a CH-53E Super Stallion with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 466 in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. (Photo: Corporal Joseph Scanlan)
Republic of Korea and U.S. Marines with Company C, Third Law Enforcement Battalion, III Marine Expeditionary Force Headquarters Group, III MEF, advance through a haze of smoke during urbanized terrain training at the MOUT training center in Pohang, Republic of Korea. (Photo: Lance Corporal Drew Tech)
Marines with Force Reconnaissance Detachment, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, conduct live-fire exercises aboard the USS Makin Island at Camp Pendleton, Calif. (Photo: Lance Corporal Laura Y. Raga)
A Marine with Force Reconnaissance Detachment, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, climbs up a caving ladder on USS San Diego during approach, hook, and climb exercises off the coast of Southern California. (Photo: Gunnery Sergeant Rome M. Lazarus)
Updated: Jul. 10, 2014