Friday, November 22, 2013

war machines then and now

Historians usually count the Roman general and aristocrat Trajan (98 to 117 CE)  as one of the "good" emperors. Following in the footsteps of his father, a successful military commander and provincial governor, Trajan was happiest leading armies, conquering new territories, and killing people he designated "enemies."

Under his rule, the empire grew to a ridiculous size, reaching its widest extent with Trajan's short lived conquest of Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). Before his Mesopotamian misadventure, he acquired Dacia for the empire, a huge territory north of the Danube in eastern Europe. A 100- foot-high column at Rome, the surface of which unrolls like a long, spiral comic-strip-like narration of Trajan's excellent Dacian adventure, and its gorgeously executed bas reliefs make his monument to himself both an artistic masterpiece and an irreplacable historical document.

Trajan saw himself as a warrior monarch and lived to conquer. Like the criminals of the Bush/Cheney regime, he made war on Baghdad just to be beating on somebody, and under his rule war became the purpose, first love, and main preoccupation of the Roman city state.

Trajan created the greatest war machine of ancient times. War and violence became the reason for Rome's existence, and the source of its downfall. All the human and monetary resources of the state were bent to this purpose, and once established the war machine devoured the state, which as time went on was impoverished by military necessity.

Modern critics of my thesis are sure to point out that the Roman war machine was puny and insignificant compared to ours, After all, we could destroy the world and all life on it if we wanted to, (do we want to?).

However, industrial technique, or "technology" amplifies the dark side of human nature, just as it does the bright, creative side. The evil work of the Roman emperors and its stranglehold on the resources of a once great nation, mirror our own.

In this regard, the history of the downfall of Rome exactly, and creepily, parallels our own. You can't conquer the world without making tons of enemies, nor exhaust the resources of a nation for destructive purposes without growing weaker. And all those enemies are sure to take note of their conqueror's growing weakness as the war machine hollows out the nation.

The reign ofTrajan, one of the "good" emperors, is sometimes counted as the high point of Rome's 1200 year history. Likewise, the US was at the height of its powers in 1945, at the end of WWII. In both cases, the decision to devote the resources of the state to war and the capacity for waging it continuously, led to precipitous declines in power and  prestige. 

The great 18th century historian Edward Gibbon said "the principal architect of the decline of the Roman Empire" was Septimius Severus,  who ruled  100 years after Trajan. But Severus, when he paid huge bribes to the army, by then the only source of genuine power in Rome, was simply bowing to the reality of his situation. Meanwhile, historians wax poetic about :"the glory" of the string of military dictators who followed Augustus, and Trajan generally gets the star treatment.

Some glory. The retired US Marine general and two time Medal of Honor winner Smedley Butler wrote in 1930 that "War is a Racket."  It's a basic observation, just as true in 100 AD when Trajan was putting together the greatest war machine ever seen until that time, as it is today.

I often hear people, including conservaties, saying that "Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it." But it's not enough to know history, and if we want to avoid dropping into the same hell our Roman ancestors and role models endured, we really need to understand history, on top of knowing it.

A war machine is a great evil, and no good can come of having or using one. Inevitably, such an evil device will end up backfiring and destroy those who  wield it. 

1 comment:

Joe said...

One way to look at is that they don't know history well enough to understand it.