In September 2003, only four months after our
president's "Mission Accomplished" moment on the USS Abraham Lincoln,
it was already evident to some of us that neocon dreams of establishing a robust
Pax Americana on the planet were likely to be doomed in the sands of Iraq
but that, in the process, the American constitutional system as we've known
it might well be destroyed. The question of just what Rubicon we might have
crossed when American troops first took a bridge over the Euphrates was on my
mind and Chalmers Johnson's as well. He sat down early that September, having
just seen a production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, and wrote out
his own version of the fall of the republic, which he entitled "The Scourge
of Militarism," an essay as resonant today as it was then. It is the second
offering in my Best of TomDispatch 2003 series.
Looking back almost two years later, Johnson writes,
"The American governmental system is no longer working the way it is supposed
to. Many distinguished observers think it is badly damaged in terms of constitutional
checks and balances and the structures put in place by the founders to prevent
tyranny. General Tommy Franks, commander of the American assault on Baghdad,
predicts that another terrorist attack on the United States would 'begin to
unravel the fabric of our Constitution,' and he openly suggests that 'the Constitution
could be scrapped in favor of a military form of government.'
"Another military writer, the historian Kevin Baker, fears that we are not
far from the day when, like the Roman Senate in 27 B.C., our Congress will take
its last meaningful vote and turn over power to a military dictator. 'In the
end, we'll beg for the coup,' he writes. At the same time, the American public
seems apathetic. Most Americans sense that the country is in great trouble,
but evidently don't know how to think about the crisis we find ourselves in.
Having been poorly schooled and without an elementary knowledge of earlier republics,
the problems of standing armies in any form of democracy, and the threat of
militarism (a fear that virtually all Americans shared during our first century
as a republic), the American people today stare blankly at the mounting evidence
that our military is totally out of control. Back in 2003, my 'Scourge of Militarism'
essay tried to lay out some new ways to think about our current dilemmas based
on what happened to an earlier republic faced with similar conditions. Unfortunately,
given what's happened since, there is no reason to be optimistic about this
fate of ours."
At the time, I introduced Johnson's essay this way and I wouldn't change
"We were to be the New Rome. As right-wing columnist Charles Krauthammer
(emphasis always on the 'hammer') wrote in Time magazine near the Ides
of March, 2001 ('The Bush Doctrine, In American foreign policy, a new motto:
Don't ask. Tell'), 'America is no mere international citizen. It is the dominant
power in the world, more dominant than any since Rome. Accordingly, America
is in a position to reshape norms, alter expectations, and create new realities.
How? By unapologetic and implacable demonstrations of will.'
"And that was before the terrorists of September 11th flew into
the picture. In the wake of our president's declared 'war on terrorism' and
an instant 'triumph' in Afghanistan, as the drums of war began to pound again,
from the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal to those of the Washington
Post, the New Rome analogy only grew and prospered. Empire, once a dirty
word in the American lexicon, was suddenly a badge of pride, or at least a Kiplingesque
'burden' (as the New York Times Magazine had it in a cover story) to
be hoisted on our capacious military shoulders. Our world, once we were done
pounding it into shape with 'implacable demonstrations of will,' would put the
Pax Romana and Pax Britannia combined into the shade. There would be nothing
"Of course, along came history, which meant the unexpected, and blindsided
our already dazzled neocon imperial dreamers. Now, Chalmers Johnson, who wrote
a book, Blowback:
The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, which in the wake of September
11th came to seem all too prophetic, suggests that perhaps the imperial dreamers
of this administration picked up the wrong end of the Roman analogy. What if
the applicable part wasn't Pax Romana/Pax Americana, but the fall of the Roman
republic under an onslaught of imperial militarism/the fall of the American
empire under the same?
"Johnson's newest book, The
Sorrows of Empire, takes up the thoroughly underreported, largely ignored
issue of American militarism. Let him now plunge you into a short course in
Roman history and while you're reading, imagine that anyone in this country
ever wanted us to be like the Roman empire in its heyday."
Little has changed since then, I'm afraid. Chalmers Johnson's books remain
indispensable, and the militarism he addressed so starkly then is hardly less
ignored in our country today (despite the publication of Andrew Bacevitch's
remarkable book The
New American Militarism); and, except at Web sites like Antiwar.com
or LewRockwell.com, the fall of the
republic isn't at the top of many American agendas. (Juan Cole at
his Informed Comment Web site recently argued strikingly that our prison
complex at Guantanamo should be closed exactly "because it was conceived as
the beginning of the end of the American Republic.") One small change: Apologists
for the Bush administration no longer speak or write proudly of our "Roman"
legions marching forth to global battle, and yet the republic, already in shreds
in 2003, remains desperately endangered. This essay was first posted on TomDispatch
on Sept. 9, 2003. Tom
The Scourge of Militarism
Rome and America
by Chalmers Johnson
The collapse of the Roman republic in 27 B.C.
has significance today for the United States, which took many of its key political
principles from its ancient predecessor. Separation of powers, checks and balances,
government in accordance with constitutional law, a toleration of slavery, fixed
terms in office, all these ideas were influenced by Roman precedents. John Adams
and his son John Quincy Adams often read the great Roman political philosopher
Cicero and spoke of him as an inspiration to them. Alexander Hamilton, James
Madison, and John Jay, authors of the Federalist Papers, writing in favor
of ratification of the Constitution signed their articles with the name Publius
Valerius Publicola, the first consul of the Roman republic.
The Roman republic, however, failed to adjust to the unintended consequences
of its imperialism, leading to a drastic alteration in its form of government.
The militarism that inescapably accompanied Rome's imperial projects slowly
undermined its constitution as well as the very considerable political and human
rights its citizens enjoyed. The American republic, of course, has not yet collapsed;
it is just under considerable strain as the imperial presidency and its supporting
military legions undermine Congress and the courts. However, the Roman outcome
turning over power to an autocracy backed by military force and welcomed by
ordinary citizens because it seemed to bring stability suggests what might
happen in the years after Bush and his neoconservatives are thrown out of office.
Obviously, there is nothing deterministic about this progression, and many
prominent Romans, notably Brutus and Cicero, paid with their lives trying to
head it off. But there is something utterly logical about it. Republican checks
and balances are simply incompatible with the maintenance of a large empire
and a huge standing army. Democratic nations sometimes acquire empires, which
they are reluctant to give up because they are a source of wealth and national
pride, but as a result their domestic liberties are thereby put at risk.
These not-particularly-original comparisons are inspired by the current situation
of the United States, with its empire of well over 725 military bases located
in other people's countries; its huge and expensive military establishment demanding
ever more pay and ever larger appropriations from a supine and manipulated legislature;
unsolved anthrax attacks on senators and newsmen (much like Rome's perennial
assassinations); Congress' gutting of the Bill of Rights through the panicky
passage of the PATRIOT Act by votes of 76-1 in the Senate and 337 to 79 in
the House; and numerous signs that the public is indifferent to what it is about
to lose. Many current aspects of our American government suggest a Roman-like
fatigue with republican proprieties. After Congress voted in October 2002 to
give the president unrestricted power to use any means, including military force
and nuclear weapons, in a preventive strike against Iraq whenever he and he
alone deemed it "appropriate," it would be hard to argue that the Constitution
of 1787 was still the supreme law of the land.
Checks and Balances
My thinking about the last days of republics was partly stimulated during the
summer of 2003 by a new book and an old play. The book is Anthony Everitt's
magnificent account of the man who had his head and both hands chopped off for
opposing military dictatorship Cicero:
The Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician (Random House, 2001).
The play was a modern-dress production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
seen at San Diego's Old Globe theater. The curtain opened on a huge backdrop
of Julius Caesar looking remarkably like any seedy politician with the word
"tyrant" scrawled graffiti-style beneath his face in red paint. At play's end,
after Octavian's hypocritical comments on the death of Brutus, who was one of
the republic's most stalwart supporters ("According to his virtue let us use
"), the picture of Caesar dropped away, replaced by one of Octavian soon
to become the self-proclaimed god Augustus Caesar in full military uniform
and bearing a marked resemblance to Arnold Schwarzenegger. In fact, Octavian's
military rule did not actually follow at once after the suicides of Brutus and
Cassius at Philippi in 42 B.C., and Shakespeare does not say it did. But that
is what the play and the history are all about: killing Julius Caesar on
the Ides of March, 44 B.C., only prepared the ground for a more ruthless and
The Roman republic is conventionally dated from 509 to 27 B.C. even though
Romulus' founding of the city is traditionally said to have occurred in 753
B.C. All we know about its dim past, including the first two centuries of the
republic, comes from the histories written by Livy and others and from the findings
of modern archaeology. For the century preceding the republic, Rome had been
ruled by Etruscan kings from their nearby state of Etruria (modern Tuscany),
until in 510, according to legend, Sextus, the son of king Tarquinius Superbus
("King Tarquin"), raped Lucretia, the daughter of a leading Roman family. A
group of aristocrats backed by the Roman citizenry revolted against this outrage
and expelled the Etruscans from Rome. The rebels were determined that never
again would any single man be allowed to obtain supreme power in Rome, and for
four centuries the system they established more or less succeeded in preventing
that from happening. "This was the main principle," writes Everitt, "that underpinned
constitutional arrangements which, by Cicero's time [106 to 43 B.C.], were of
a baffling complexity."
At the heart of the unwritten Roman constitution was the Senate, by the early
years of the 1st century B.C. composed of about 300 members from whose ranks
two chief executives, called consuls, were elected. The consuls took turns being
in charge for a month each, and neither could hold office for more than a year.
Over time, an amazing set of "checks and balances" evolved to ensure that the
consuls and other executives whose offices conferred on them imperium
the right to command an army, to interpret and carry out the law, and to pass
sentences of death did not entertain visions of grandeur and overstay their
time. At the heart of these restraints were the principles of collegiality and
term limits. The first meant that for every office there were at least two incumbents,
neither of whom had seniority or superiority over the other. Officeholders were
normally limited to one-year terms and could be reelected to the same office
only after waiting 10 years. Senators had to serve two to three years in lower
offices as quaestors, tribunes, aediles, or praetors before they were eligible
for election to a higher office, including the consulship. All officeholders
could veto the acts of their equals, and higher officials could veto decisions
of lower ones. The chief exception to these rules was the office of "dictator,"
appointed by the consuls in times of military emergency. There was always only
one dictator, and his decisions were immune to veto; according to the constitution,
he could hold office only for six months or the duration of a crisis.
Once an official had ended his term as consul or praetor, the next post below
consul, he was posted in Italy or abroad as governor of a province or colony
and given the title of proconsul. It is absurd for journalistic admirers of
the U.S. military today to pretend that its regional commanders-in-chief for
the Middle East (Centcom), Europe (Eucom), the Pacific (Pacom), Latin America
(Southcom), and the United States itself (Northcom) are the equivalents of Roman
proconsuls.(1) The Roman officials were seasoned members of the Senate who had
held the highest executive post in the country, whereas American regional commanders
are generals or admirals who have served their entire careers away from civilian
concerns and risen to this post by managing to avoid making egregious mistakes.
After serving as consul in 63 B.C. (the year of Octavian's birth), for example,
Cicero was sent to govern the colony of Cilicia in present-day southern Turkey,
where his duties were both civilian and military. Over time, this complex system
was made even more complex by the class struggle embedded in Roman society.
During the first two centuries of the republic, what appeared to be a participatory
democracy was in fact an oligarchy of aristocratic families that dominated the
Senate. Not everyone was happy with this. After 287 B.C., when the constitution
was more or less formalized, a new institution came into being to defend the
rights of the plebs or populares, that is, the ordinary, non-aristocratic
citizens of Rome. These were the tribunes of the people, charged with protection
of the lives and property of plebeians. Tribunes could veto any election, law,
or decree of the Senate, of which they were ex officio members, as well
as the acts of all other officials (except a dictator). They could also veto
each others' vetoes. "No doubt because their purpose in life was to annoy people,"
Everitt notes, "their persons were sacrosanct." Controlling appointments to
the office of tribune later became very important to generals like Julius Caesar,
who based their power on their armies plus the support of the populares
against the aristocrats.
The system worked well enough and afforded extraordinary freedoms to the citizens
of Rome so long as all members of the Senate recognized that compromise and
consensus were the only ways to get anything done. Everitt poses the issue in
terms of the different perspectives of Caesar and Cicero; Caesar was Rome's,
and perhaps history's, greatest general; whereas Cicero was the most intellectual
defender of the Roman constitution. Both were former consuls: "Julius Caesar,
with the pitiless insight of genius, understood that the constitution with its
endless checks and balances prevented effective government, but like so many
of his contemporaries Cicero regarded politics in personal rather than structural
terms. For Caesar the solution lay in a completely new system of government;
for Cicero it lay in finding better men to run the government and better laws
to keep them in order."
"Remember That You Are Human"
Imperialism provoked the crisis that destroyed the Roman republic. After slowly
consolidating its power over all of Italy and conquering the Greek colonies
on the island of Sicily, the republic extended its conquests to Greece itself,
to Carthage in North Africa, and to what is today southern France, Spain, and
Asia Minor. By the 1st century B.C., Rome dominated all of Gaul, most of Iberia,
the coast of North Africa, Macedonia (including Greece), the Balkans, and large
parts of modern Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon. "The republic became enormously
rich on the spoils of empire," Everitt writes, "so much so that from 167 B.C.
Roman citizens in Italy no longer paid any personal taxes." The republic also
became increasingly self-important and arrogant, believing that its task was
to bring civilization to lesser peoples and naming the Mediterranean Mare
Nostrum (our sea), somewhat the way some Americans came in the 20th century
to refer to the Pacific Ocean as an "American lake."
The problem was that the Roman constitution made administration of so large
and diverse an area increasingly difficult and subtly altered the norms and
interests that underlay the need for compromise and consensus. There were several
aspects to this crisis, but the most important was the transformation of the
Roman army into a professional military force and the growth of militarism.
During the early and middle years of the republic, the Roman legions were a
true citizen army composed of small, conscripted landowners. Differing from
the American republic, all citizens between the age of 17 and 46 were liable
to be called for military service. One of the more admirable aspects of the
Roman system was that only those citizens who possessed a specified amount of
property (namely, a horse and some land) could serve, thereby making those who
had profited most from the state also responsible for its defense. (By contrast,
of the 535 members of Congress, only seven have children in the U.S.' all-volunteer
armed forces.) The Roman plebs did their service as skirmishers with the army
or in the navy, which had far less honor attached to it. At the beginning of
each term, the consuls appointed tribunes to raise two legions from the census
roll of all eligible citizens.
When a campaign was over, the troops were promptly sent back to their farms,
sometimes richer and flushed with military glory. Occasionally, the returning
farmers got to march behind their general in a "triumph," the most splendid
ceremony in the Roman calendar, a victory procession allowed only to the greatest
of conquerors. The general himself, who paid for this parade, rode in a chariot
with his face covered in red lead to represent Jupiter, king of the gods. A
boy slave stood behind him holding a laurel wreath above his head while whispering
in his ear "Remember that you are human." In Pompey's great triumph of 61 B.C.,
he actually wore a cloak that had belonged to Alexander the Great. After the
general came his prisoners in chains and finally the legionnaires, who by ancient
tradition sang obscene songs satirizing their general.
By the end of the 2nd century B.C., in Everitt's words, "The responsibilities
of empire meant that soldiers could no longer be demobilized at the end of each
fighting season. Standing forces were required, with soldiers on long-term contracts."
The great general Caius Marius undertook to reform the armed forces, replacing
the old conscript armies with a professional body of long-service volunteers.
When their contracts expired, they expected their commanders, to whom they were
personally loyal, to grant them farms. Unfortunately, land in Italy was by then
in short supply, much of it tied up in huge sheep and cattle ranches owned by
rich, often aristocratic, families and run by slave labor. The landowners were
the dominant conservative influence in the Senate, and they resisted all efforts
at land reform. Members of the upper classes became wealthy as a result of Rome's
wars of conquest and bought more land as the only safe investment, driving small
holders off their property. In 133 B.C., the gentry arranged for the killing
of the tribune Tiberius Gracchus (of plebian origin) for advocating a new land-use
law. Rome's population continued to swell with landless veterans. "Where would
the land be found," asks Everitt, "for the superannuated soldiers of Rome's
During the last century before its fall, the republic was assailed by many
revolts of generals and their troops, leading to gross violations of the constitution
and on several occasions to civil wars. These included the uprisings of Marius
and Sulla and of the failed revolutionary Catilina. There was also the Spartacus
slave rebellion of 73 B.C., put down by the immensely wealthy Marcus Licinius
Crassus, who in the process crucified some 6,000 survivors. Crassus was a member
of the First Triumvirate, along with Pompey and Caesar, which attempted to bring
the situation under control by direct cooperation among the generals. Everitt
"During his childhood and youth Cicero had watched with horror as Rome set
about dismantling itself. If he had a mission as an adult, it was to recall
the republic to order.
[He] noticed that the uninhibited freedom of speech
which marked political life in the republic was giving way to caution at social
gatherings and across dinner tables.
The Senate had no answer to Rome's problems
and indeed sought none. Its aim was simply to maintain the constitution and
resist the continual attacks on its authority.
The populares had lost decisively
with the defeat of Catilina, but the snake was only stunned. Caesar, who had
been plotting against Senatorial interests behind the scenes, was rising up
the political ladder and, barring accidents, would be consul in a few years'
Caesar became consul for the first time in 59 B.C., enjoying great popularity
with the ordinary people. After his year in office, he was rewarded by being
named governor of Gaul, a post he held between 58 and 49, during which he earned
great military glory and became immensely wealthy. In 49, he famously allowed
his armies to cross the Rubicon, a small river in northern Italy that served
as a boundary against armies approaching the capital, and plunged the country
into civil war, taking on his former ally and now rival, Pompey. He won, after
which, as Everitt observes, "No one was left in the field for Caesar to fight.
His leading opponents were dead. The republic was dead too: he had become
the state." Julius Caesar exercised dictatorship from 48 to 44 and a month before
the Ides of March had arranged to have himself named "dictator for life." Instead,
he was stabbed to death in the Senate by a conspiracy of eight members, led
by Brutus and Cassius, both praetors, known to history as "principled tyrannicides."
Shakespeare's recreation of the scenes that followed, based upon Sir Thomas
North's translation of Plutarch, has become as immortal as the deed itself.
In a speech to the plebeians in the Forum, Brutus defended his actions. "If
there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of Caesar's, to him I say that
Brutus' love to Caesar was no less than his. If then that friend demand why
Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: Not that I lov'd Caesar less,
but that I loved Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living, and all die slaves,
than that Caesar were dead, to live all freemen?" However, Mark Antony, Caesar's
chief lieutenant, speaking to the same audience, had the last word. He turned
the populace against Brutus and Cassius, and as they raced forth to avenge Caesar's
murder, said cynically, "Cry 'Havoc!' and let slip the dogs of war."
Who Will Watch the Watchers?
The Second Triumvirate, formed to avenge Caesar, ended like the first, with
only one man standing, but that man, Caius Octavianus (Octavian), Caesar's 18-year-old
grand nephew, would decisively change Roman government by replacing the republic
with an imperial dictatorship. Everitt characterizes Octavian as "a freebooting
young privateer," who on Aug. 19, 43 B.C., became the youngest consul in Rome's
history and set out, in violation of the constitution, to raise his own private
army. "The boy would be a focus for the simmering resentments among the Roman
masses, the disbanded veterans, and the standing legions." Cicero, who had devoted
his life to trying to curb the kind of power represented by Octavian, now gave
up on the rule of law in favor of realpolitik. He recognized that "for all his
struggles the constitution was dead and power lay in the hands of soldiers and
their leaders." In Cicero's analysis, the only hope was to try to co-opt Octavian,
leading him toward a more constitutional position, while doing everything not
to "irritate rank-and-file opinion, which was fundamentally Caesarian." Cicero
would pay with his life for this last, desperate gamble. Octavian, allied with
Mark Antony, ordered at least 130 senators (perhaps as many as 300) executed
and their property confiscated after charging them with supporting the conspiracy
against Caesar. Mark Antony personally added Cicero's name to the list. When
he met his death, the great scholar and orator had with him a copy of Euripides'
Medea, which he had been reading. His head and both hands were displayed
in the Forum.
A year after Cicero's death, following the battle of Philippi where Brutus
and Cassius ended their lives, Octavian and Antony divided the known world between
them. Octavian took the West and remained in Rome; Antony accepted the East
and allied himself with Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt and Julius Caesar's former
mistress. In 31 B.C., Octavian set out to end this unstable arrangement, and
at the sea battle of Actium in the Gulf of Ambracia on the western coast of
Greece, he defeated Antony's and Cleopatra's fleet. The following year in Alexandria,
Mark Antony fell on his sword and Cleopatra took an asp to her breast. By then,
both had been thoroughly discredited for claiming that Antony was a descendant
of Caesar's and for seeking Roman citizenship rights for Cleopatra's children
by Caesar. Octavian would rule the Roman world for the next 45 years, until
his death in 14 AD.
On Jan. 13, 27 B.C., Octavian appeared in the Senate, which had legitimized
its own demise by ceding most of its powers to him and which now bestowed on
him the new title of Augustus, first Roman emperor. The majority of the Senators
were his solid supporters, having been handpicked by him. In 23 B.C., Augustus
was granted further authority by being designated a tribune for life, which
gave him ultimate veto power over anything the Senate might do. His power rested
ultimately on his total control of the armed forces.
Although his rise to power was always tainted by constitutional illegitimacy
not unlike that of our own Boy Emperor from Crawford, Texas Augustus proceeded
to emasculate the Roman system and its representative institutions. He never
abolished the old republican offices but merely united them under one person
himself. Imperial appointment became a badge of prestige and social standing
rather than of authority. The Senate was turned into a club of old aristocratic
families, and its approval of the acts of the emperor was purely ceremonial.
The Roman legions continued to march under the banner SPQR senatus populus
que Romanus, "the Senate and the Roman People" but the authority of Augustus
The most serious problem was that the army had grown too large and was close
to unmanageable. It constituted a state within a state, not unlike the Pentagon
in the United States today. Augustus reduced the army's size and provided generous
cash payments to those soldiers who had served more than 12 years, making clear
that this bounty came from him, not their military commanders. He also transferred
all legions away from Rome to the remote provinces and borders of the Empire,
to ensure their leaders were not tempted to meddle in political affairs. Equally
astutely, he created the Praetorian Guard, an elite force of 9,000 men with
the task of defending him personally, and stationed them in Rome. They were
drawn only from Italy, not from distant provinces, and were paid more than soldiers
in the regular legions. They began as Augustus' personal bodyguards, but in
the decades after his death they became decisive players in the selection of
new emperors. It was one of the first illustrations of an old problem of authoritarian
politics: create one bureaucracy, the Praetorian Guard, to control another bureaucracy,
the regular army, but before long the question will arise: Quis custodiet
ipsos custodes? (Who will watch the watchers?)
Augustus is credited with forging the Roman Peace (Pax Romana), which
historians like to say lasted more than 200 years. It was, however, a military
dictatorship and depended entirely on the incumbent emperor. And therein lay
the problem. Tiberius, who reigned from 14-37 AD, retired to Capri with a covey
of young boys who catered to his sexual tastes. His successor, Caligula, who
held office from 37-41, was the darling of the army, but on Jan. 24, 41 AD,
the Praetorian Guard assassinated him and proceeded to loot the imperial palace.
Modern archaeological evidence strongly suggests that Caligula was an eccentric
maniac, just as history has always portrayed him.(2)
The fourth Roman emperor, Claudius, who reigned from 41 to 54, was selected
and put into power by the Praetorian Guard in a de facto military coup. Despite
the basically favorable portrayal of him by Robert Graves (I, Claudius,
1934) and years later on TV by Derek Jacobi, Claudius, who was Caligula's uncle,
was addicted to gladiatorial games and fond of watching his defeated opponents
being put to death. As a child, Claudius limped, drooled, stuttered, and was
constantly ill. He had his first wife killed and married Agrippina, daughter
of the sister of Caligula, after having the law changed to allow uncles to marry
their nieces. On Oct. 13, 54 AD, Claudius was killed with a poisoned mushroom,
probably fed to him by his wife, and at noon that same day, the 16-year-old
Nero, Agrippina's son by a former husband, was acclaimed emperor in a carefully
orchestrated piece of political theater. Nero, who reigned from 54 to 68, was
a probably insane tyrant who has been credited with setting fire to Rome in
64 and persecuting some famous early Christians (Paul and Peter), although his
reputation has been somewhat rehabilitated in recent years as a patron of the
The Short, Happy Life of the American Republic
After Augustus, not much recommends the Roman Empire as an example of enlightened
government despite the enthusiasm for it of such neoconservative promoters of
the George W. Bush administration as the Washington Post's Charles Krauthammer,
the Los Angeles Times' Max Boot, and the Weekly Standard's William
Kristol. My reasons for going over this ancient history are not to suggest that
our own Boy Emperor is a second Octavian but rather what might happen after
he is gone. The history of the Roman republic from the time of Julius Caesar
on suggests that it was imperialism and militarism poorly understood by all
conservative political leaders at the time that brought it down. Militarism
and the professionalization of a large standing army create invincible new sources
of power within a polity. The government must mobilize the masses in order to
exploit them as cannon fodder, and this leads to the rise of populist generals
who understand the grievances of their troops and veterans.
Service in the armed forces of the United States has not been a universal male
obligation of citizenship since 1973. Our military today is a professional corps
of men and women who join up for their own reasons, commonly to advance themselves
in the face of one or another cul de sac of American society. They normally
do not expect to be shot at, but they do expect all the benefits of state employment
steady pay, good housing, free medical benefits, relief from racial discrimination,
world travel, and gratitude from the rest of society for their military "service."
They are well aware that the alternatives civilian life in America offers today
include difficult job searches, no job security, regular pilfering of retirement
funds by company executives and their accountants, "privatized" medical care,
bad public elementary education systems, and insanely expensive higher education.
They are ripe, it seems to me, not for the political rhetoric of patrician politicians
who have followed the Andover, Yale, Harvard Business School route to riches
and power but for a Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, or Juan Perón
a revolutionary, military populist with no interest in republican niceties
so long as he is made emperor.
Regardless of the outcome of the next presidential election, the incumbent
will have to deal with the Pentagon, the military-industrial complex, our empire
of bases, and a 50-year-old tradition of not telling the public what our military
establishment costs and the devastation it can inflict. History teaches us that
the capacity for things to get worse is limitless. Roman history suggests that
the short, happy life of the American republic is in serious trouble and that
conversion to a military empire is, to say the least, not the best answer.
The first two books in Chalmers Johnson's Blowback Trilogy Blowback:
The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, and The
Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic
are now available in paperback. The third volume is being written.
1. See, for example, Dana Priest, The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace
with America's Military (New York: Norton, 2003).
2. Shasta Darlington, "New Dig Says Caligula Was Indeed a Maniac," Reuters,
August 16, 2003.
Copyright 2003 Chalmers Johnson