Sunday, February 29, 2004

Sometimes when I am reading or watching something, I get something that I can only call a "click". It's a flash of insight, where something that I'm focusing on suddenly seems connected to some other bit(s) of knowledge which on it's face seems unrelated, if I had even conciously thought of it. However, on further (concious) reflection, it's clear that they are very much related.

In reading a post at Belmont Club called Darkworld, I felt such a click. He is discussing, as usual, the conflict we find ourselves in. Not just the Iraqi War and it's aftermath, but the entire regional or global struggle. When I read the following early on in the piece, "It's most striking feature is the absence of a Great Power threat to the general peace", I felt that click.

What has happened to all the great empires of antiquity? They have eventually fallen. There seem to be 3 major causes, though they sometimes act in concert: major environmental change (as seems to have befallen Egypt's Old Kingdom, for example), conflict with another great empire (Carthage would seem to be the best example here), or they fell to barbarian hordes (there are many, many examples of this, but the (Western) Roman Empire is what popped into my mind when I had my "click".) I suppose you could also argue a fourth cause due to internal struggles: rebellion, revolution, or succession struggle.

So why did ancient Rome suddenly pop into my head at reading that sentance? Arguably the greatest empire of human history up to the Renaissance was felled by (mostly) uncivilized barbarians. We aren't facing a "Great Power", we are essentially facing the same opponent Rome was. Neither Rome nor the US was/is facing an opponent which is remotely in their/our league in any relevant statistic save perhaps population.

So how did Rome lose when the deck was so seemingly stacked in it's favor, and what can we learn from that? I used a Heinlein quote in an earlier post, and I will again now (and most likely will again, and again, and again...):

"Roman matrons used to tell their sons to come back with their shields or on them. Later that tradition declined. So did Rome."

I did that from memory, so it may be a bit off, but it's essentials are accurate. The Romans became soft, so soft that they wouldn't even put up much of a fight to keep from being slaughtered by the barbarian hordes that over-ran them. This inner decay was a slow process, of course. But ultimately, the Germanic tribes that eventually finished off the old Roman empire really weren't the cause of it's death. It had already rotted from within.

Are we ourselves in that poor of a shape? After Afganistan and Iraq, the answer would seem to be a resounding NO! And yet. And yet ... the seeds are there.

What if a Gore, or a Kerry had been President?

There is a solid number of "Peace at any costers" and "Blame America firsters". These aren't the Conscientious Objectors of earlier wars. Their numbers have doubtless been wildly exagerated by our feckless press corps, but they are there none-the-less, and they have a strong influence within one of the two major political parties.

While I believe the current dearth of politicians' and upper class children in the military is due to a number of causes, it does make you think of Lincoln's son serving on Grant's staff, of wealthy Teddy Roosevelt recruiting his own men to ultimately charge up San Juan Hill, of his sons, Quentin being shot down and killed in WWI and Theodore leading the first assault at Normandy (before dying of a heart attack a few weeks later), or of wealthy JFK and George HW Bush's own dangerous services during WWII.

I don't think that we are in any danger right now of being defeated by today's barbarians. Kerry won't get within spitting distance of Bush in this year's elections. But in 10, 20, 30 years down the road, what will our response be to the barbarians then? While the rot took centuries to topple Rome, things are much more fast paced nowadays - look at the USSR/Russia or Germany in just the space of the 20th Century.

This potential long term problem is another reason why we need to remake the Middle East now. If we take the barbarism out of all the barbarians now, while we still have the will, this possible lack of will in the future may not prove as disasterous as it has to our predecessors.