The Cost of Empire

With all these generals being called out of retirement to serve as Donald Trump’s “civilian” advisers, whether it’s General James “Mad Dog” Mattis as Secretary of Defense or General Mike Flynn (the real mad dog) as National Security Adviser, it’s difficult to envision the American empire being shrunk anytime soon. The U.S. military is overcommitted around the world, attenuating its strength even as the American taxpayer foots the bill to the tune of over $600 billion a year, not including nuclear weapons, veterans affairs, interest on the national debt related to war and defense spending, and so on.

With its endless wars and global adventurism, the U.S. is slowly bankrupting itself even as President-elect Trump promises higher military spending and more toughness abroad. Imperial over-commitment, for the historically-minded, recalls the fate of the Roman empire. Many moons ago, the classicist Steven Willett wrote the following words to me, words that America’s militarists and imperialists would be wise to read – and heed:

My personal concern is the misallocation of our resources in futile wars and global military hegemony. We are acting under the false belief that the military can and should be used as a foreign policy tool. The end of US militarism is bankruptcy. I agree with [Andrew] Bacevich’s recommendation that the US cut military spending 6% a year for 10 years. The result would be a robust defensive military with more freed-up resources for infrastructure, education, research and alternative energy. Our so-called defense budget is a massive example of what economists call an opportunity cost.

The US is now about where Rome was in the third to fourth centuries. In his magisterial study “The Later Roman Empire, 284-602: A Social, Economic, and Administrative Survey,” A. H. M. Jones shows what a drain the army was on the [economy of Rome]. By the third to fifth centuries, the army numbered about 650,000 scattered along the limes and stationed at central strategic locations. It took most of the state’s revenues, which had long been declining as the economy in the west declined. And even that 650,000 was far too small for adequate defense of the [Roman] empire.

General Mattis, described as a “warrior-monk” with a reputation for a close study of military history, perhaps understands some of this. But can he rein in the American empire and decrease U.S. military spending? The prospects seem grim.

Trying to be strong everywhere is a recipe for being weak when and where it counts. Under the five good emperors, Rome was able to balance imperial ambition with domestic vitality. Any chance Donald Trump is going to be a “good” emperor, a Marcus Aurelius, a man of wisdom? Early signs are unpromising, to say the least.

Of course, America is supposed to be a democracy. We’re supposed to look back to the Roman Republic, not its empire. We’re supposed to be committed to a limited military of citizen-soldiers who are eager to shed their armor and weapons and return to the plow, like Cincinnatus — or George Washington. We’re not supposed to worship warriors and violence.

Imperial decline and cultural decadence march together in step. Under Trump, it appears they’ll soon be marching in lockstep at double-time. Grim times, indeed.

William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools and blogs at Bracing Views. He can be reached at Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.

5 thoughts on “The Cost of Empire”

  1. There is no such thing as a good emperor. All empires are designed for self-destruction and all standing armies are designed to kill for profit. Both should be abolished.

    P.S. George Washington wouldn’t know a plow if it f**ked him in the ass. He had slaves to handle that sh*t. Just sayin.

  2. I don’t think there is actually any way to predict what Trump will be like as President right now. Same thing on Foreign policy. To say that it’s grim times is true, but that isn’t Trump’s fault is it? He didn’t vote for all this crap or put any of it in place. He is now stuck with it and who knows what he is going to do.

    As for “Marching in Lockstep at Double Time” to Cultural Decadence and Imperial Decline!? OK Cultural Decadence, I’m not sure what that means, but it sounds important. Imperial Decline; it might continue or it might not under Trump. You could get imperial collapse, depending on the economy. Trump could cut spending too, maybe he will get on a “Bring our Boys Home” kick.. “All of them from all our bases”!! Who knows what the guy is going to do. He could make a slogan and sell it to the people on Twitter and youtube.

    You would literally need to be a mind reader to guess what Trump will get up too.

    Fun reading the guesses though, so thanks for the article.

    1. Emperors are shaped by the Empire, and empires die. Not fast enough, but they die. As for his posturing of being a non-elitist, and touts how “he” built Trump Tower and all the other exciting work that His Servants built, the workers whose right to organized wage and working conditions, the workers who were Union and the Unions he called Criminals… Because only the wealthy have a right to collective bargaining, well, I don’t believe anything he has to say. My last and indeed all my construction work was not deregulated but not regulated in the first place. A subsidiary of Halliburton, with whom Trump has much business contact, Tidewater Oil, whose subsidiary Industrial Labor Services, also known as a Slave Market, renting out temporary labor. They charged the customers 23 dollars an hour, claimed we had Workmens Comp, union level Safety and any other type of training, and paid me 3.35 an hour and took two dollars out for carfare.
      The last job I got a whole dollar an hour more because it was on a roof.

      I’ll tie this into the Imperialism theme , don’t worry.
      Bottom line on that, his Halliburton cronies were taking out our social security money, and our taxes if we checked the box on the W4 to allow automatic deduction (an interest free loan to the government, minimum wage workers don’t make enough to tax) and not giving any of that money to the government and not even recording that we worked for them.
      They sent me on a roofing job, where the Pendejo (spanish for somebody who is dangerously stupid) boss had the sweet idea to save a buck and instead of buying a second ladder for the second job site just had us walking up and down a conveyor belt to get on and off the roof. When I fell, my right foot looked like Joe Theissmans leg. Broke three bones in the foot and my left tibial plateau. While I was in the hospital the FBI and Treasury were raiding the Slave Market, the prosecution of 3 low level managers who Halliburton, (Trumps fascist Imperialist cronies) threw under the bus, the prosecution went on beyond the two years statute of limitations in Texas. I didn’t have a leg to stand on, and Trump and his Imperialist accomplices sneer at me like a dog because I can’t put any more money in their pockets.

      And, yeah, the Trump-Cheney-Clinton Axis of Evil are certified Imperialists. This is the kind of leadership he’s going to show on any and every issue or policy.

      He says he’s not Elitist but he sure acts elitist. My feet and legs are getting worse, and that fall was 24 years ago. I’m in constant pain. They don’t give three quarters of a fat rat’s ass about any “peasant” because we’re just an expendable resource to them.

      That’s the nature of “our” American Empire and has been for a long time. All my life at the very least, and I just turned 56.

      This is not an apology of any kind but I have a great deal of difficulty
      taking seriously somebody who gains his wealth from the labor of his
      servants, is too lazy to put his own hand to the plow but despises any
      who are NOT too lazy as being “inferior” or calls himself “elite” or any
      synonym thereof.

      Just an easy prognosis, but he doesn’t seem to have repented of his evil in the past month, and it bodes ill for all the ‘citizens’ of the Empire.
      I’d rank him with Nero and Caligula.

    2. Good comments, yes, we can’t second guess Mr Trump, but all the military men makes me feel a little insecure.

  3. Did anybody notice that one of the sponsors on this screen (might be different depending on your google profile) is for a book, a how-to use the same corporate lies and loopholes as Wall Street. “Learn every trick, loophole, and “legal lie” companies tell to pad their numbers”. I know the ads aren’t actually edited by this site but are thrown in by their algorithm of what They believe we want to buy. Just a really spooky omen..

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