Monday, October 11, 2010

Rome in 418 B.C. -- thoughts on soldiers, recruitment, and pacifism

I am currently in book four of Livy's The Early History of Rome; on page 321 of the Penguin edition of Aubrey de Selincourt's translation.

There was no possibility of a pacifistic stance from 1200 B.C., at the beginning of Livy's book one, to as far as I've read in book four, which takes me to 418 B.C. Not only was pacifism not a feasible stance, neither was a lack of patriotism. It wasn't just the willingness of the plebeians to fight that enabled the city of Rome to survive, they needed to fight better than the warriors of the other cities. Back in those times, to lose a war often meant ceasing to exist. In the long run, I suppose, every city on the peninsula and even further afield lost out to Rome and ceased to exist, but in 418 there were quite a few that were still active and still capable of giving Rome a lot of trouble.

Rome had a problem that we in our modern-day Liberal Democracies no longer have, a class struggle between the Patricians and the Plebeians. The Plebeians were needed to fight and the Patricians to lead in battle. The Patricians claimed all the ownable land of Rome for themselves. This struck the Plebeians as unfair. While they were thankful for the loot (soldiers didn't get paid in anything else) they wanted some land for themselves. They had been struggling for quite a long time to get a land-law passed. Patricians didn't own it all. Some was kept in common and the Plebeians wanted it, but the Senate (made up of Patricians) is saved time and time again from passing such a law because new wars regularly broke out.

During each emergency, and Livy tells us it was the rare year when there wasn't a war or the serious threat of one, the Plebeians were forced to set aside their complaints and gird their loins for battle. Adding to their disgust was the fact that they would have to submit to the very people they were complaining about. Not only did the Patricians own the bulk of Rome, they also had the skill to lead in battle. Just why the Plebeians didn't have that skill is a bit of a mystery, but on the occasions when the plebeians were given the right to choose whoever they wanted to lead them into battle, they invariably selected a patrician. They had no affection for most of the patricians but they set that aside when they considered the importance of winning a war. They would rather win a war than win their class struggle. And there was inevitably a talented patrician in the wings who would rather lead them to victory than keep them from gaining a political advantage of some sort.

Sometimes the Roman class struggle made Rome seem virtually defenseless, and at times it very nearly was. They even went to war on more than one occasion without the heart for it. But an ineffective general could be fined most of his fortune and a big part of his job was inspiring his troops to do battle. Also, if he looked really good he might be elected Consul and common soldiers who distinguished themselves might be elected Tribune. Good things happened when they were victorious and bad things happened, sometimes very bad things, when they were not.

In 420 B.C enemies were threatening. They weren't exactly at the gates but they weren't far from them and the patricians and the plebeians were bickering. They were in no condition to go to war. Finally "an interrex [a temporary dictator] was appointed who had the courage to face the situation squarely -- Lucius Papirius Mugilanus; he showed no tenderness to either party, and boldly declared that patriotism was dead, and that without God's providence and the lucky accident of the truce with the Veii and the unadventurious policy of the Aequians the country would long ago have been done for. 'But suppose', he said, 'a threat should come from that quarter --- would you want us to be caught without any patrician in a position of authority? Or without an army -- or a general to raise one? Civil war is hardly a good weapon for repelling an invader; and were we to be faced with both at once, God himself would hardly be able to avert our total destruction. Why cannot each party yield a point and agree upon a compromise?"

The Aequians had done rather well in some battles -- a bit better than the Romans. Also, they had allied themselves with the Labici; so things were looking bleak for Rome. However Rome pulled itself together.

"Success had so far spoiled the Aequians that they were no less careless and arrogant than the Roman commanders had been before their defeat. . . in the very first clash the dictator completely disorganized their front line by a cavalry charge followed by a massed infantry attack . . . So high was the spirit of the Roman troops that the Aequians were unable to hold them; they broke and retreated in disorder to their camp, which was assaulted and taken in even less time and with even less effort. The camp was sacked and the soldiers permitted to keep whatever of value it contained, and immediately afterwards the cavalry returned from its pursuit of the fleeing enemy with the news that the whole force from Labici had been defeated and that many of the surviving Aequians had taken refuge there; on the next day, therefore, the Dictator ordered an advance to Labici which was promptly surrounded, entering by scaling-ladders, and sacked. Thus a week after his appointment the dictator brought his victorious army back to Rome, and resigned. The Senate, at a full meeting, passed a resolution to send settlers to Labici, and 1,500 people left Rome to settle there, with a grant of about one and a half acres of land each. . . ."

As of 418 B.C. Rome was still just a city and not a nation or an empire. We see that a neighboring city, Labici, when it was defeated ceased to exist. The Labici land was used to alleviate one of Rome's problems. The Plebeians wanted land? Let them have Labici land. Labici was about 20 miles from Rome and 1,500 people may not have been an insignificant number since the census in 464 B.C. was 104,714 registered citizens "apart from widows and orphans."

COMMENT: We have come a long way in one respect. Nations don't cease to exist quite as readily as cities did back in 418 B.C. Germany and Japan were defeated but went right on existing, and it is hard to imagine a circumstance in which a nation or even a group of nations would drive another nation out of existence. Both the Germans and the Russians moved large groups of people but they didn't destroy an entire nation.

And as we have seen, it is now possible for a nation to take a stance (although they wouldn't describe it as baldly as I do) that might be described as follows: "What difference does it make whether we win or lose? No difference at all. So why shouldn't we surrender before the war starts -- or at least give up before it has gotten very far along? We'll save lots of lives that way -- many more than if we seriously contend with our enemy."

In effect that is what France did during World War II. Their Vichy period is a good test case for that approach. In retrospect there probably aren't any Frenchmen who still think that it made no difference whether they seriously contended against Germany. De Gaulle came sweeping in after the war and redefined everything. Those with the Vichy mentality weren't French after all. Only De Gaulle and his Free French warriors were entitled to the name. But De Gaulle and most of the intensity surrounding their Vichy period is dead and it is possible to view that period for what it was: an experiment in going to war half-heartedly, much as the Romans did before they appointed their interrex. When they appointed him, they got very serious about winning. The French never did.

In 418 B.C. all the city states were equal in regard to weaponry, but that isn't true today. Osama bin Laden had a point when he taunted the U.S. about being unwilling to shed its blood. I believe it was during the Clinton administration when he said that. America was still suffering from the political fallout over body bags from the Vietnam War; so high-altitude bombing seemed the best way to avoid more of them from Kosovo or wherever else we fought. Bin Laden said his forces weren't afraid of shedding their blood and because America was, his forces and ideology would surely win. He was a bit premature in that assessment. America showed in Afghanistan and Iraq that it wasn't afraid to shed its blood, but even then, to move behind bin Laden's taunt, we have a tremendous advantage. Even when we aren't engaging in high-altitude bombing we have technology that places almost any conceivable enemy at a disadvantage.

But even with this technological advantage we need soldiers who are willing to fight with the same degree of enthusiasm and competence as the Roman soldier. Even with a technological advantage, the American soldier will sometimes need to move into harm's way where he may very well shed some blood. Bin Laden was wrong. We can still field an army with a sufficient number of soldiers who are willing to shed their blood if necessary. The technological advantage allows these soldiers to understand that they are far more likely to shed an enemy's blood than the reverse.

I could almost say that the political squabbling and bickering Livy describes is very like that going on amongst the Left and Right, Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. -- except with a population of only 104,714 registered citizens apart from widows and orphans in 464 B.C. everyone able to do so was expect to fight in Rome's wars. Maybe the Senators no longer fought, but they did when they were young. Every able-bodied Roman male citizen was expected to fight when there was a war. In modern-day America that isn't true. There are all sorts of ways to avoid military recruitment. Furthermore, because so many wanted to avoid going to Vietnam and the Leftist press was so effective at denigrating our efforts there, we are at present trying all-volunteer military forces. The Marines always preferred that. They didn't want anyone that didn't want to be a Marine, but the other forces recruit people who didn't want to go to war. Now, enough young people, both men and women, have volunteered so that present-day operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have not suffered.

If the time ever came when insufficient numbers of men and women volunteered; then recruitment drafts would have to be resumed in emergencies. With that in mind, I would think it prudent of Left-wing and Pacifistic critics should reverse their political positions in this respect. As long as America produces men willing to volunteer to fight our wars, then the Left-Wingers and Pacifists can stay safely home and avoid them. But if their political arguments eventually silence the opposition, and no one is willing to volunteer, then when the next emergencies occur, America will have to resume recruitment drafts and they will have to go to war, like it or not.

They seem rather like the Islamists in one respect. Whenever they win the political control, they destroy the confidence of the people who elected them. No doubt that's unfair of me to say in light of the Left's current disappointment in Obama, but even if he had been as wonderful as they hoped and even if they found some way to vote him interrex, he would one day die and whatever was wonderful about him and his reign would be replaced by something else.

No comments: