The Fall of the American Empire

sawtreatment
Uncle Sam: No stranger to imperialism (from the Spanish-American War of 1898)

W.J. Astore

Why do empires fall?  Sometimes, it’s easy to identify a cause.  Whether led by the Kaiser or by Hitler, Germany’s Second and Third Empires were destroyed by world wars.  Germany’s ambition was simply too great, its militarism too dominant, its policies too harsh to win long-term converts, its leaders too blinded by the pursuit of power, its enemies too many to conquer or otherwise neutralize.

Other imperial falls are more complex.  What caused Rome’s fall?  (Leaving aside the eastern part of the empire, which persisted far longer as the Byzantine Empire.)  Barbarians and their invasions, say some.  The enervating message and spirit of Christianity, said the historian Edward Gibbon.  Rome’s own corruption and tyranny, say others.  Even lead in Roman water pipes has been suggested as a contributing cause to Rome’s decline and fall.  Taking a longer view, some point to the rise of Islam in the 7th century and its rapid expansion into previously Roman territories as the event that administered the final coup de grâce to a dying empire.

America’s empire, it is clear, is now in decline, and a key reason is imperial overstretch as manifested by endless wars and overspending on the military (with literally trillions of dollars being thrown away on fruitless wars).  An especially fine summary is Alfred McCoy’s article this week at TomDispatch.com.  As McCoy notes:

In effect, the president and his team, distracted by visions of shimmering ships and shiny planes (with their predictable staggering future cost overruns), are ready to ditch the basics of global dominion: the relentless scientific research that has long been the cutting edge of U.S. military supremacy.  And by expanding the Pentagon while slashing the State Department, Trump is also destabilizing that delicate duality of U.S. power by skewing foreign policy ever more toward costly military solutions (that have proved anything but actual solutions) …

In just one extraordinary year, Trump has destabilized the delicate duality that has long been the foundation for U.S. foreign policy: favoring war over diplomacy, the Pentagon over the State Department, and narrow national interest over international leadership. But in a globalizing world interconnected by trade, the Internet, and the rapid proliferation of nuclear-armed missiles, walls won’t work. There can be no Fortress America.

In this passage, McCoy stresses the damage being done by the Trump administration.  But Trump is just the culmination of certain trends, e.g. favoring the Pentagon over the State Department is nothing new, as I wrote about here in 2010.  And America has been in love with shimmering ships and shiny planes for generations, with several administrations supporting the F-35 jet fighter, a program that may end up costing as much as $1.4 trillion.  Plenty of money for weapons that kill; not so much for medicines that cure: that’s imperial America in a nutshell.

I would stress that America’s strength overseas was (and is) always based on its strength at home in areas such as science, education, infrastructure, medicine, manufacturing, and exports.  But what we’ve witnessed over the last 40 years is an immense and wasteful “investment” in wars and weapons even as our country itself has hollowed out. Science is now marked by the denial of facts (such as global warming). Education is all about students as consumers, with an overall decline in standards and performance. Infrastructure is crumbling. Medicine is too expensive and America’s overall health and life expectancy are both in decline. Manufacturing and exports have withered (except for the production and export of weapons, naturally).

As a result of all this, America is running a national debt of roughly 20 trillion dollars.  The future is being sacrificed for the present, a tragic reality reflected in the latest Republican tax cut, which benefits the richest Americans the most, along with big corporations, and which will likely add another trillion to the national debt.

In short, America’s foreign decline is mirrored (and driven) by its domestic decline as reflected by its choices.  Looking at the USA today, you get the sense it’s the best of times for the richest few, and the worst of times for so many Americans struggling with health care debt, student loan debt, and the uncertainty of low-wage jobs that could be outsourced at any moment.  At the same time, the American political scene is driven by fear: of immigrants, of a nuclear war with North Korea, of Russian meddling (real or imagined), of growing Chinese power, and of the perpetually-hyped threat of terrorist attacks on “the Homeland.”

Empires can fall very quickly, as the “thousand-year” Third Reich did, or they can fall ever so slowly, as the Roman Empire did.  But fall they do.  What is in the cards for the United States?  Readers, fire away in the comments section.

Update (1/20/18):  Secretary of Defense James Mattis now claims that China and Russia represent bigger threats than terrorism, along with Congress itself since it can’t pass an extended budget for the Pentagon.  He also claimed the U.S. military’s “competitive edge” is eroding in “every domain of warfare,” despite a defense budget of $700 billion.

None of this is a surprise.  Indeed, this is exactly what happens when you put a retired general and known war hawk in charge of the defense department.  Generals will always want more: more troops, more money, more resources, more authority.  And to support their demands, they will always find more enemies as well.

Bread and Circuses in Rome and America

gladiator 4
Games are hell

W.J. Astore

Back in June 2013, I wrote the following article on “Bread and Circuses in Rome and America.”  It flashed through my mind this morning because of Robert Lipsyte’s post today at TomDispatch.com on Trump, the NFL, violence, race, brain injuries, and patriotism.  I urge you to read it as well as Tom Engelhardt’s introduction, which cites the bread and circuses of the Roman Empire.

A key insight in my article below came from a correspondent, Amy Scanlon, who keenly observed that the Roman Imperium saw compassion, not violence, as a vice.  The gladiatorial games were meant to keep Romans at a fever pitch for war (with the bloody, murderous games being the next best thing to war).  It’s not much of a stretch to think of NFL violence as keeping Americans at a similar feverish pitch; and, not just the NFL, but the commercials during the games, which are often saturated with guns and violence and war.

Here’s my article, unchanged from 2013:

Bread and Circuses in Rome and America

The expression “bread and circuses“ captures a certain cynical political view that the masses can be kept happy with fast food (think Cartman’s “Cheesy Poofs” on South Park) and faster entertainment (NASCAR races, NFL games, and the like). In the Roman Empire, it was bread and chariot races and gladiatorial games that filled the belly and distracted the mind, allowing emperors to rule as they saw fit.

There’s truth to the view that people can be kept tractable as long as you fill their bellies and give them violent spectacles to fill their free time. Heck, Americans are meekly compliant even when their government invades their privacy and spies upon them. But there’s a deeper, more ominous, sense to bread and circuses that is rarely mentioned in American discourse. It was pointed out to me by Amy Scanlon.

In her words:

Basically ancient Rome was a society that completely revolved around war, and where compassion was considered a vice rather than a virtue… [The] Romans saw gladiatorial contests not as a form of decadence but as a cure for decadence. And decadence to the Romans had little to do with sexual behavior or lack of a decent work ethic, but a lack of military-style honor and soldierly virtues. To a Roman compassion was a detestable vice, which was considered both decadent and feminine. Watching people and animals slaughtered brutally [in the arena] was seen as a way to keep the civilian population from this ‘weakness’ because they didn’t see combat…

Scanlon then provocatively asks, “Could our society be sliding towards those Roman attitudes in a bizarre sort of way?”

I often think that America suffers from an empathy gap. We are simply not encouraged to put ourselves in the place of others. For example, how many Americans fancy the idea of a foreign power operating drones in our sovereign skies, launching missiles at gun-toting Americans suspected by this foreign power of being “militants“? Yet we operate drones in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, killing suspected militants with total impunity. Even when innocent women and children are killed, our emperors and our media don’t encourage us to have compassion for them. We are basically told to think of them as collateral damage, regrettable, perhaps, but otherwise inconsequential.

Certainly, our military in the last two decades has put new stress on American troops as “warriors” and “warfighters,” a view more consistent with the hardened professionals of the Roman Empire than with the citizen-soldiers of the Roman Republic. Without thinking too much about it, we’ve come to see our troops as an imperial guard, ever active on the ramparts of our empire. War, meanwhile, is seen not as a last course of defense but as a first course to preempt the evil designs of the many hidden enemies of America. Our troops, therefore, are our protectors, our heroes, the defenders of America, even though that “defense” treats the entire globe as a potential killing field.

Scanlon’s view of the Roman use of bread and circuses — as a way to kill compassion to ensure the brutalization of Roman civilians and thus their compliance (or at least their complacency) vis-à-vis Imperial expansion and domestic policing — is powerful and sobering.

At the same time, the Obama administration is increasingly couching violent military intervention in humanitarian terms. Deploying troops and tipping wars in our favor is done in the name of defeating petty tyrants (e.g. Khadafy in Libya; Is Assad of Syria next?). Think of it as our latest expression of “compassion.”

All things considered, perhaps our new national motto should be: When in America, do as the Roman Empire would do. Eat to your fill of food and violence, cheer on the warfighters, and dismiss expressions of doubt or dismay about military interventions and drone killings as “feminine” and “weak.”

At least we can applaud ourselves that we no longer torture and kill animals in the arena like the Romans did. See how civilized we’ve become?

The Cost of Empire

cincinnatus_cincinnatorum
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.

 

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.)

Bread and Circuses in Rome and America

Game On!
Game On!

W.J. Astore

Just posted a new article to Huffington Post.  Here’s the link and the article (pasted below):

The expression “bread and circuses” captures a certain cynical political view that the masses can be kept happy with fast food (think Cartman’s “Cheesy Poofs” on South Park) and faster entertainment (NASCAR races, NFL games, and the like). In the Roman Empire, it was bread and chariot races and gladiatorial games that filled the belly and distracted the mind, allowing emperors to rule as they saw fit.

There’s truth to the view that people can be kept tractable as long as you fill their bellies and give them violent spectacles to fill their free time. Heck, Americans are meekly compliant even when their government invades their privacy and spies upon them. But there’s a deeper, more ominous, sense to bread and circuses that is rarely mentioned in American discourse. It was pointed out to me by Amy Scanlon.

In her words:

Basically ancient Rome was a society that completely revolved around war, and where compassion was considered a vice rather than a virtue… [The] Romans saw gladiatorial contests not as a form of decadence but as a cure for decadence. And decadence to the Romans had little to do with sexual behavior or lack of a decent work ethic, but a lack of military-style honor and soldierly virtues. To a Roman compassion was a detestable vice, which was considered both decadent and feminine. Watching people and animals slaughtered brutally [in the arena] was seen as a way to keep the civilian population from this ‘weakness’ because they didn’t see combat…

 

Scanlon then provocatively asks, “Could our society be sliding towards those Roman attitudes in a bizarre sort of way?”

I often think that America suffers from an empathy gap. We are simply not encouraged to put ourselves in the place of others. For example, how many Americans fancy the idea of a foreign power operating drones in our sovereign skies, launching missiles at gun-toting Americans suspected by this foreign power of being “militants“? Yet we operate drones in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, killing suspected militants with total impunity. Even when innocent women and children are killed, our emperors and our media don’t encourage us to have compassion for them. We are basically told to think of them as collateral damage, regrettable, perhaps, but otherwise inconsequential.

Certainly, our military in the last two decades has put new stress on American troops as “warriors” and “warfighters,” a view more consistent with the hardened professionals of the Roman Empire than with the citizen-soldiers of the Roman Republic. Without thinking too much about it, we’ve come to see our troops as an imperial guard, ever active on the ramparts of our empire. War, meanwhile, is seen not as a last course of defense but as a first course to preempt the evil designs of the many hidden enemies of America. Our troops, therefore, are our protectors, our heroes, the defenders of America, even though that “defense” treats the entire globe as a potential killing field.

Scanlon’s view of the Roman use of bread and circuses — as a way to kill compassion to ensure the brutalization of Roman civilians and thus their compliance (or at least their complacency) vis-à-vis Imperial expansion and domestic policing — is powerful and sobering.

At the same time, the Obama administration is increasingly couching violent military intervention in humanitarian terms. Deploying troops and tipping wars in our favor is done in the name of defeating petty tyrants (e.g. Khadafy in Libya; Is Assad of Syria next?). Think of it as our latest expression of “compassion.”

All things considered, perhaps our new national motto should be: When in America, do as the Roman Empire would do. Eat to your fill of food and violence, cheer on the warfighters, and dismiss expressions of doubt or dismay about military interventions and drone killings as “feminine” and “weak.”

At least we can applaud ourselves that we no longer torture and kill animals in the arena like the Romans did. See how civilized we’ve become?

Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and can be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.