Thursday, August 23, 2007

America and Rome, Part II

If I didn't think I would write Part I of this post, I certainly didn't expect to find myself writing Part II. However, my blogfriend Judith Weingarten stopped by to comment. I began responding in that thread, but it was getting so long that I decided to make it a new post.

She writes, "OK, I know it's facile but one parallel with ancient Rome gives me nightmares: an over-mighty mercenary military. Think Septimius Severus, the 3rd century, and onwards."

What an image! GHW Bush counseling GW and Jeb Bush with his dying breath, "Keep the army happy and ignore the rest." My money's on GW as the Caracalla of that scenario, but I may be underestimating Jeb.

American military leaders might wish they held that kind of sway over the executive. Though I'll gladly defer to Judith's expertise, it seems to me that the Roman army and American military have less in common than some other analogous institutions.

Aside from the American military's diminished kingmaking ability (which was, unlike Rome, nearly always a function of the electorate's positive perceptions of military service...I could imagine MacArthur marching on Washington, but not Ike), I doubt the mindset of the American soldier very closely resembles that of a Roman legionary. U.S. rank and file soldiers aren't in it for the money, which is mediocre. If you're able to become a U.S. soldier, you are also able (if the economy is even somewhat vibrant) to find any number of other jobs that pay better and don't require such dramatic commitments of time and freedom.

If not money, then what? Adventure, respect, vocational cachet, and, even in these dark days, patriotism. Check out this new recruitment ad for the U.S. Marines:

And if you do join, by God, they'll make an epic Anglo-Saxon hero out of you:

How important were ideas like this to young men in the 3rd and 4th century empire? I don't know, but now I'll have to do some reading.

One similarity I'll grant is the manner in which the modern American army is becoming disproportionately composed of 1st and 2nd generation immigrants who see military service as one avenue to greater acceptance into American society. They are eagerly received by recruiters who have a tough time selling the volunteer military to a disinterested native populace that is preoccupied with its own entertainment (and is, at best, dimly aware of the ways that events on the world stage affect daily life). When the McDonald's-eating sons of America do enlist, they often can't handle basic training. The end result, says former soldier Brian Mockenhaupt, is that standards and soldiers are both getting softer.

In any case, I don't think the military is especially "over-mighty" or "mercenary" these days, at least, not when compared to the Romans or even to itself in the 1950s. As for the current administration, it didn't follow Septimius Severus's legendary advice: it has spent far more energy ensuring the loyalty of the corporate sector than that of the military. I guess it doesn't see David Petraeus as a threat to march on Washington. Eh, he wouldn't look good in purple, anyway.


Judith Weingarten said...

David, I didn't mean that the USA was there yet, but that it might be the direction of the future army.

Yes, the number of foreign-born soldiers is one similarity with the 3rd-century Roman army; another is extending citizenship in return for military service -- to whom will these men owe their loyalty? To the army, perhaps, not to the country.

That soldiers are not very well paid is relative to what they could earn in the civilian world. And Roman grunts weren't paid much either. Alexander Severus supposedly said: "A soldier is not to be feared is he is clothed and armed and shod, and has a full stomach and something in his money-belt" (which didn't help him since he, too, was murdered in a military coup).

Add in to the brew the enormous, quite literally mercenary 'army' of security contractors in Iraq. What will happen to all these guys after this war is over?

Let's just hope it stays the stuff of bad dreams.


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Judith Weingarten said...

Not that it makes it more true (or more false), but the rather bigger blogger Tom Engelhardt has just posted this on TomDispatch:

A chasm, unimaginable when the U.S. still had a citizen's army, has emerged between American society and a military increasingly from the forgotten towns of the rural hinterland (as the lists of the dead regularly remind us) and new immigrant communities, an all-volunteer military that has become ever less like the public it defends, ever more mercenary (as huge "quick-ship" bonuses are used to attract the reluctant "volunteer") and ever more privatized. These days, the U.S. military and the vast mercenary legions of private contractors who accompany them to war are beginning to take on something of the look of the Roman imperial legions in that empire's last years when they were increasingly filled with Goths and other despised "barbarian" peoples from the empire's frontier regions.

Perhaps we're both optimists without hope.


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