The siege of Venezuela

"I never realized that the siege of Troy was for the benefit of the Trojan people."


I taught Greek for 45 years, and never realized that the siege of Troy was for the benefit of the Trojan people. But Bolton tells us that we’re throttling Venezuela “for the benefit of the Venezuelan people.” It is a de facto siege. Equating sanctions to siege warfare has long since been done. The Nation published Joy Gordon’s essay Sanctions as Siege Warfare in 1999.

For many years I taught a course on the Greek historians in English. To attract students, I named the course “Greek Warfare.” (And why not? the Greek historians were generals, and what else did they write about?) The reading list was Thucydides, Polybius, and Xenophon. Sometimes the course got into Julius Caesar. Thus equipped, I add a few observations about siege warfare. 

If a Greek city knew it would be under siege, they would do the following:

Send to Thrace to hire archers.

Raise the city walls higher.

Buy up grain.

Archers shooting from atop the (even higher) walls had the height advantage: it increased the range and the impact of their arrows. Conversely, the energy of a rising arrow would like wise be spent.

One stratagem of a besieged town was to gather every kernel of grain within the walls, pile it in the city square and invite an embassy from the besiegers in to see. The amassed foodstock was to convince the foe that they were wasting their time.

Greece had no tradition of archery, and faced with a need for archers, they went north where archery was part of the culture: Scythia, of course, was what the Greeks called the lands north of the Black Sea. Today’s Venezuela now has alike sought Russian help: two days after President Maduro’s visit to Moscow, two Russian White Swan long range bombers landed in Caracas, and Sunday, two Russian planes arrived with troops and supplies.

Of course, it needs no class in Greek history to know the goal of a siege: block all incoming supplies so that the inhabitants face the choice: die starving, or surrender. So in ancient times the besieging force, to block all chance of incoming help, would even build and fortify a wall around the besieged town. This was such standard operating procedure they had a word for it, in Latin circumvallation, meaning surrounding with a wall.

THAT is what sanctions do. They amount to fiscal and commercial circumvallation. Trade with the sanctioned country is forbidden, and punished, walled off to the extent possible.

Terms could be arranged. After two years, Athens allowed the people of Potidaea to live, leave their town and go wherever they would, with one change of clothing. Athens then resettled the town with their own citizens. This was merciful, a quicker than normal end likely inspired by Athens’ own troubles with the famous Plague of Athens. Letting the victims live and go away free led at home to complaints that their generals had let off the Potidaeans too easy.

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In terms of the time, it was too easy. In Caesar, a town could negotiate until the battering rams touched the gates. After that, the inhabitants were sold into slavery. Who would buy a whole town of people at once?  Traders who followed the army, and the captives were herded by military veterans who got employment with the slave-traders. Vulture-like camp followers were always there following Caesar, and many another ancient army on the move. For today’s Venezuela, the counterpart is obvious, and the reader may sort that out without any help from me..

To return to ancient times,  any wealth left in the town belonged to the besiegers. Often, as grown men would not be safe as slaves, except in field-working chain gangs, the men were slaughtered and the women and children would be sold into slavery. This was the conclusion of the ten-year siege of Troy and it was in fact pretty typical.

In 1995, The Lancet published an estimate from the UN’s FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization) that the sanctions on Iraq had cost the lives of 567,000 children. This is what was behind the infamous “It was worth it” from Madeleine Albright in her Leslie Stahl interview. Since then, other studies on the impact of sanctions on the children of Iraq have debated the numbers, and the debate over the numbers is called “a controversy.” Numbers go from 200,000 to a recent estimate of 350,000 up to the year 2000.

Of course, the debate over the number is stupid.

The plain fact is that US sanctions, like ancient sieges, cause death and suffering. The US even boasts about it “US official says cumulative sanctions have Venezuela in a “Darth Vader” style grip around the throat. The new sanctions come in response to the detention on Thursday of interim president Juan Guaido’s chief of staff, Roberto Marrero.” 

Bolton explains we are sanctioning the entire Venezuela banking sector. This, and the even tougher sanctions he promises with an “or else” are an effective counterpart to the circumvallation of an ancient walled town. And in the accompanying video we hear John Bolton say

“And our aim is to bring this crisis to a conclusion quickly for the benefit of the Venezuelan people to get the Maduro regime to peacefully transition to the Guaido regime so that we can have free and fair elections.

This fool,  of course, is taking his audience, he is taking us, for fools. We would put him to mockery and laugh at him, except for one tragic fact. He speaks for the richest and most powerful country in the world.

Finally, how extensive and fortified is the US circumvallation of Venezuela?

Enter “Venezuela” in the search box for the US treasury Department’s list of sanctions sorted by country and your computer reports this


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