The Cost of Empire

Cincinnatus at his plow in Ohio.

W.J. Astore

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.


5 thoughts on “The Cost of Empire

  1. “To entrust affairs of state absolutely to any man is quite incompatible with the maintenance of liberty; and so it is folly to choose to avoid a small loss by means of the greatest of evils. But the perpetual refrain of those who lust after absolute dominion is, that it is to the essential interest of the commonwealth that its business be secretly transacted, and other like pretenses, which end in the more hateful a slavery, the more they are clothed with a show of utility.” Baruch Spinoza (1670)

    Woeful World

    Welcome to the World of Woeful
    Greetings from the dirt and death
    Stay awhile and savor slaughter
    Exhale now your final breath

    Hear the lies like lurid laughter
    Sparkling poison comedy
    See the snake-oil salesmen slurring
    Pitches for their “remedy”

    Pay no heed to bloody bungles
    Never once demand to know
    Why we still employ the vapid
    Expectations set so low

    Reach should not exceed the grasping
    Crony crooks who count their sums
    None should wonder at the wicked
    Something that now this way comes

    Karma works through all intentions
    Bad ones drive the good ones out
    So it comes as no surprise when
    Ruptured ducklings start to pout

    Not the rapture long envisioned
    By the ones now left behind
    Voting in the kind that robbed them
    Hasn’t cured the addled mind

    Now betrayed by honest trifles
    Factoids joined beneath the ken
    Down where lizard language festers
    Atavism conquers men

    Swayed by dark emotion rampant
    Arguing from ignorance
    Proving fallacies by dictum
    Sophistry beguiles the dunce

    No defense through education
    Chartered homeschools dummy down
    Uncle Jim-Bob’s paranoia:
    City slickers come to town

    Back through centuries of struggle
    Abstract danger always near
    Like Caligula on steroids:
    Let them hate, just so they fear

    Going backwards from prevailing
    Onward to beginning soon
    To the rear advancing daily
    Losing Mars to gain the Moon

    Two legs bad and four legs better
    Animals all equal now
    Pigs and men conspire at cheating
    One another any how

    Hope abandoned here on entrance
    You who would not read the sign
    Falsehoods you have swallowed freely
    Truth you’ve chosen to malign

    Now you’ve got what you had coming
    What the duped so often get
    Ripped off by the reigning monarch
    “Winnings” from a lousy bet

    Glad to have you join the party
    Here no exit will you find
    Woeful World indeed you’ve purchased
    With this contract you have signed

    Didn’t read the fine print, did you?
    Mephistopheles feels proud
    Once again his whispered promise
    Vanished in a bloody cloud

    Iraq-Nam now has you stymied
    Having done the dumb deed twice
    Seems you thought the dry and damp heat
    Had some bearing on your vice

    You won’t look into the mirror
    You project your ebbs and flows
    Others who are not your problem
    Can’t save you from what you chose

    If we want to stop, we’ll do it
    Otherwise we’ll stumble on
    Wrecking both ourselves and them who
    Will not play our puppet pawn

    World of Woeful, what a wonder!
    Who but we would waste away
    Life and prospects for the future
    Now, in our own blind today?

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2007


  2. Paul Kennedy in the introduction to “Rise and Fall of Great Powers”
    says:“Great Powers in relative decline instinctively respond by spending more on “security,” and thereby divert potential resources from “investment” and compound their
    long-term dilemma.

    …wealth is usually needed to underpin military power, and military power is usually needed to acquire and protect wealth. If, however, too large a proportion of the state’s resources is diverted from wealth creation and allocated instead to military purposes,
    then that is likely to lead to a weakening of national power over the long-term. In the same way, if a state overextends itself strategically-by, say, the conquest of extensive
    territories or the waging of costly wars-it runs the risk that the potential benefits from external expansion may be outweighed by the great expense of it all-a dilemma which
    becomes acute of the nation concerned has entered a period of relative economic decline.”


    1. Thanks. I used to own Kennedy’s book, but can’t find my copy. The quote is telling for the American moment. Trillions wasted on endless wars, with more than half of federal discretionary spending dedicated to the Pentagon. At the same time, “warriors” are America’s new heroes, as if we’re the inheritors of Sparta instead of Athens. Bread and circuses under Trump, which may soon become blood and circuses.


  3. I like to say that you can always tell when the United States military has lost another war the minute they start calling it “long.” Our generals and their special-snowflake, hothouse-orchid commanders-in-brief persistently claim to have “the finest military ever assembled” and yet they can never finish anything. So, after still more decades of futility and failure, who better to staff an incoming administration than mindless military martinets like Generals Flynn, Mattis, Petraeus, et al. Perhaps they can destroy Fallujah, Iraq, for a third time, since destroying it twice in thirteen years hasn’t seemed to accomplish anything worth mentioning. In other words, lets get ready for yet another round of the U.S. military’s favorite parlor game:

    Moron Whack-a-Mule

    He wanted so to whack some foe
    Just whom it didn’t matter
    As long as he could do it free
    Then “them” he’d bash and batter

    His dad on earth showed little worth
    Unlike his “higher” father
    Who lived “up there” in empty air
    And told him not to bother

    With boring fluff like facts and stuff
    When big sticks wanted swinging
    It seemed way cool to strike and drool,
    His martial mantras singing

    His country, too, its own horn blew:
    Revenge they’d have for little
    As long as they had not to pay
    Their lips would froth with spittle

    They stomped and cheered; they loudly sneered;
    They lined up and saluted
    No thought arose in verse or prose;
    No single lie refuted

    It felt so fine to blast a shrine
    And “let the lesson” sink in
    Our goons then lit a ton of shit
    On fire and breathed the stink in

    Then started soon the choke and swoon;
    As coffins started filling
    The shock and awe broke tooth and claw
    But left the oil wells drilling

    The years pressed on like evil spawn:
    The people took to sleeping,
    While fetid lies like swarms of flies
    Grew fat on wails and weeping

    The hole got deep through mission creep
    Then deeper with more lying
    On down the road the kicked-can load
    Grew larger with the dying

    The pundits polled, the bankers rolled
    The dice on easy credit
    With foreign loans to fund the moans
    The truth proved cheap to edit

    This Whack-A-Mule-or-Moron-Fool
    Has mules and morons guessing:
    Who does the time for all this crime
    While never once confessing?

    The U. S. A. went down to stay
    The dumb kept getting dumber
    The more they chose to take the hose
    The more they paid the plumber

    But now they vote once more by rote
    For candidates selected
    By those who paid to get them laid
    And like them genuflected

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2008


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