The Torture Was the Message

Proud Acolytes of the Roman God of War

W.J. Astore

Leading figures in the Bush Administration — Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz — fancied themselves to be the new Vulcans.  As in Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and the forge, armorer for gods and mortals.  In the aftermath of 9/11, they didn’t look to Darth Vader in their journey to “the dark side” — they looked to Ancient Rome. They believed that Rome had prospered because of its willingness to use force with unparalleled ruthlessness.  As the “new Rome,” the new hegemon of the globe, America too would prosper if it proved willing to use brutal force.

Call it “shock and awe.”  In the process, they sowed the dragon’s teeth of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and indeed throughout the world.  In attempting to intimidate the enemies they saw everywhere, they tortured widely as well.

In her book Rome and the Enemy (1990), historian Susan P. Mattern noted that:

Rome’s success, its very safety, ultimately depended less on the force that it could wield, which was not necessarily large or overwhelming, than on the image of the force it could wield and on its apparent willingness to use that force at whatever cost.

The American Vulcans, people like Cheney, concluded the same: they had to be willing to use brutal force at whatever cost.  Image was everything.  They had to be willing to project an image of ruthlessness, because the language of brutality was the only language “they,” the enemy, could and would understand.  It wasn’t necessary to sacrifice democracy to defend democracy, since to the Vulcans, America wasn’t really a democracy anyway.  No: America was the new Rome, the new global hegemon, and it had to act like it.

To the Vulcans, torture was not an aberration.  It was method.  A method of intimidation that sent a message to barbarians about America’s willingness to use whatever force was necessary to defend itself.  Whether torture yielded reliable intelligence was beside the point.  The torture was the message.

That’s why you’ll hear no apology from Dick Cheney or the other Vulcans.  They speak the language of naked power. A fiery power that consumes.  And they’re proud of it.

Two millennia ago, in a riposte to Rome’s utter ruthlessness, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote a critique using Calgacus, a Celtic chieftain, as his mouthpiece.  In Agricola, Tacitus wrote:

The Romans’ tyranny cannot be escaped by any act of reasonable submission.  These brigands of the world have exhausted the land by their rapacity, so they now ransack the sea.  When their enemy is rich, they lust after wealth; when their enemy is poor, they lust after power.  Neither East nor West has satisfied their hunger.  They are unique among humanity insofar as they equally covet the rich and the poor.  Robbery, butchery, and rapine they call ‘Empire.’  They create a desert and call it ‘Peace.’

This may not be quite the self-image that America’s new Vulcans had in mind, but it is the reality when you set yourself up as acolytes of the god of fire.  But fire is an especially capricious and elemental force, impossible to master, raging treacherously as it consumes everything in its path.  Beware when you play with fire, for even the Roman Empire burnt itself out.

(With thanks to the reader below who reminded me of the different roles Vulcan and Mars played in Roman mythology.)

13 thoughts on “The Torture Was the Message

  1. If a republic such as ours does not prosecute those who violate the law we are a nation of men, not of law. Men whose political power make them immune to the law are truly above the law, a privilege bestowed by all of government including Congress, representatives of the people. The more politically powerful you are the less the law applies to you is the lesson that has become reality for the republic. The law is not blind, it winks at some pretending to be blind.


  2. Excellent post, Col. Astore! Cue Monty Python’s “Life Of Brian”: “Right, okay, other than the aqueduct, public sanitation, roads and wine…what have the fu*king Romans done for us?!?” My point here is that Roman military success in the first phase of the Empire depended on the application of scientific principles in war-making. But eventually the “barbarians” learned to copy the fantastic “engines of war” that helped breach the walls of fortresses and the like. The accepted wisdom on the decline of the Empire is that ambition exceeded the practical bounds of territory over which control could be maintained; too much debt was taken on to maintain operations (this one’s sure gonna bite the USA on the ass one of these days!); discipline weakened after defeated opponents were absorbed into the military and proved to have questionable loyalties, etc. Plus there was the “little” matter of internal resistance from those pesky early Christians. Inequality in wealth distribution? Ah, another item that rings all too familiar today. If Reason rather than Greed was the American Creed, imagine what all the money wasted on wars of choice since the end of World War II could have given us: clean energy, affordable housing and public transportation, genuine education for all, reduced crime rates leading to reduced prison populations, even–perish the thought?–a national health service! Tragically, this is not the road that was pursued. The electorate was content to keep choosing between TweedleDem and TweedleGOP and the powers that be went their merry way. Welcome to the American Empire in decline.


  3. Not too different from fascist Germany when Hitler decided to conquer the world. The town of Lidice, in Czechoslovakia, was the first extra territorial brazen demonstration of the brutality the Germans were ready to unleash against anyone opposing their ascendancy. Lidice was their “message” to the world to get out of their way because they no longer kept within moral grounds. . They destroyed the entire town and mass murdered its citizens in reprisal for the assassination of the German ‘gauleiter’ for that region. It was enough to strike fear into the English Chamberlain government to cut a deal for “peace in our time” with HItler. Of course that was not enough for him.

    As with the short lived German ‘ Third Reich’ the world soon saw that the German ‘Vulcans’ could not be appeased and within five years the Third Reich was just a memory of a horrible example of blind German hubris.

    Our current “Vulcans”, and I include the Obama administration , have the same hubris as the Germans and can see no blowback, but is is coming. The imperial push to impose our will on the world is destroying not only our economy but that of our feckless “allies” who stupidly allow us to bully them into military and economic misadventures. Like Rome, we will fall unless our citizens get smart and push back.


    1. Well actually it was completely and totally different from Nazi Germany. The USA has responded to an open attack (911). To compare that, whether you agree/disagree with tactics/strategy, with Nazi Germany is being intellectually dishonest. Or a deliberate attempt to obfuscate one’s agenda.


      1. Well, actually Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. For Bush43 to claim it was an intelligence failure-mistakenly stating Saddam had WMD (irrelevant anyway) shows that $trillions of dollars buys failure without accountability. We are a superpower with weak and often non-existent checks and balances which calls into question the reliability and even security of two political parties having a lock on the system.


      2. Leland..And exactly what did our illegal invasion of Iraq have to do with 9/11? Nothing except for OIL! And what did the invasion of Afghanistan have to do with anything important other than as a transit for an oil pipeline from Central Asia to a port in Pakistan. And Obama’s “pivot” of the fleet and other military resources have to do with anything other than protecting our client states fro Chinese power. In actuality our overreach for world hegemony exceeds Hitlers wildest dreams.
        Like us , Germany waned oil and the place to get it was east. Ploesti in Romania and Baku in Central Asia. So they invaded Poland and then Russia. Find any similarities there?


  4. Rome was holding sadistic games when the barbarians over came it, it was weakened by its sadism not strengthened by it, only cowards and fools love torture.. Rome gained strength when it adhered to Grecian Democracy and Grecian love of learning but as it fell into wanton tyranny and sadistic perversion it lost strength and undid all the gains it had made. When a nations citizens turn to love of perversion (love of torture) its a sure sign of that nations decline, America ensures its ruin with every act of torture it commits


  5. Could the torture have been an effort to violently force false confessions, witness to terrorist involvement in 9/11 to seal the coverup of an inside job, plus false testimony of a connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda (the “terrorists” who carried out 9/11), thereby justifying the Iraq War.
    Then, when will the “28 Pages” relating to Saudi involvement become declassified.


    1. You’re right! My slip … and no excuse since I played Hephaestus, the Greek God of the forge, in a school play. Of course, Hephaestus/Vulcan was the armorer or weapons maker for gods and mortals; that’s what I should have said. Thanks for the correction


  6. If you consider water boarding, being confined to small spaces and being slapped around torture: then you should do something about all the US Citizens being tortured every day in California, Maine and other places. I know because I was one of the “victims”.


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