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Outside View: America's Roman Army

'We have come very, very far from the virtuous nation-in-arms like Republican Rome. If anything we look more like Rome's mature imperial enterprise.'
By Michael Vlahos
Outside View Contributor
Washington (UPI) Aug 31, 2005
As President George W. Bush presses on with his series of speeches to troops and veterans, reaffirming why we are fighting in Iraq, the recent book "Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity," by J. E. Lendon reminds us of the surprisingly similar Roman army who came to a grim fate in the same land.

Lendon starts surprisingly with the U.S. Marines in Vietnam. He takes his readers to Quang Tri in 1967, as Kilo Company took casualties and new dead, in order to bring out old dead from a previous firefight.

"Soldiers explain the imperiling of live soldiers to bring in the bodies of their dead comrades as fundamental to morale and unit cohesion," Lendon wrote. "American concern for the prompt recovery of soldiers' dead bodies is hardly unique, but it places Americans in the company of peoples with whom they might be surprised to be classed: the Homeric and Classical Greeks, for example"

He continued: "From the perspective of several thousand years in the future, an observer might conclude that our contemporary methods of fighting are scarcely less ritualized than those of the Greeks..."

Toward the end of Lendon's narrative, in what we call Late Antiquity, Rome's Republican model of great popular armies was centuries' dead and gone. Lendon described the late Roman army as a much smaller professional force, yet still "in some respects superior" even to the legions that had won an empire. But, he wrote: "The late Roman Army had difficulty recovering from defeat."

Thus, he wrote: "The army of the fourth century needed to be treasured, to be commanded with care and circumspection, not risked unnecessarily. It needed to be used with calculated finesse, like a rapier: its tragedy was to be commanded by emperors like Julian and Valens, men who used it like a mace, as Roman commanders always had. Julian used it so because of his conscious relationship with an admired past. Valens and other aggressive late-antique commanders were also lashed on by history, even though they may have been less conscious of it.

"What commanders knew is that leading their armies boldly at the enemy was expected and admired behavior -- the legacy of Roman virtus mingled with the Greek legacy of Alexander. There was, in short, a dangerous mismatch between the capabilities of the Roman army of the fourth century and the culture of its commanders, visibly or invisibly guided by the tradition in which they fought."

Comparing America today with Rome is easy. Left and Right, Liberal and Illiberal embrace it. A vigorous war hawk like Victor Davis Hanson, for example, relishes Punic War analogies: "The Romans lost 60,000 at Cannae and came back to win!" If we want to equal Rome's virtus, he wrote, we should welcome the handsome opportunity for sacrifice history offers us in Iraq.

Yet we have come very, very far from the virtuous nation-in-arms like Republican Rome. If anything we look more like Rome's mature imperial enterprise.

Like late Rome, the pool of our defenders shrinks while soldiering societies themselves become more monastic: soldiers marry soldiers, and soldiers' sons become soldiers. Americans in the main do not even think military service is an option. Our soldier-to-civilian ratio is almost exactly that of fourth century Rome. Like theirs, our army is also divided between an active and reserve force, also in about equal measure. We also deploy field armies of the same campaign size, proportionately, as those of Julian, who was kileld and his army defeated in Mesopotamia, modern Iraq, or Valens, who lost his army totally at Adrianople in the Balkans.

More pointedly however, our army's leadership is as swept up with American virtus and glory as any Roman emperor.

Not the field commanders, mind you, nor the uber-HQ, but the Generalissimo himself: the president, and his circle. The American president has in our lifetime become as much the war leader as any chieftain of classical antiquity.

His martial homilies are full of reminders of the glorious deeds of our ancestors -- in fact the speeches of our current war leaders are steeped in the rhetoric of legend and myth. In this sense they are like battle speeches from Xenophon or Thucydides or Caesar -- especially when President Bush, as he so often does, delivers his orations before assembled troops.

Emotive metaphor and allusion makes clear what war's ritual means: it is the celebration and reaffirmation of America's very identity. It is through our struggle to become worthy of our ancestors and through our sacrifice to join them that American identity itself is reaffirmed.

For the leader this is in fact an odyssey of apotheosis. Just as Julian set out to the East seeking Alexandrine transubstantiation, so our leaders seek to rekindle and renew America's unique virtus (Rome) and glory (Greece): to vanquish evil, liberate the downtrodden, and redeem humankind.

Thus our national commanders too are "lashed on by history" to be aggressive and bold. The connection to Alexander is even pointedly -- if surely unconsciously -- underscored by Oliver Stone in his recent unsuccessful movie "Alexander" starring Colin Farrell. "Fortune favors the bold!" was his screenplay's annoyingly noisome leitmotif, as if this was the essence of America's 21st century greatness.

Lendon's insight on a "mismatch" between military capabilities and the commanders' culture ends with a chilling reminder: "This mismatch led the Roman army to defeats from which it could not recover."

How could our splendid army ever be defeated? Because over all other things it has been built to fight the war we desire it to fight: what we call real war, "kinetic" war, and the dazzling spectacle we thrilled to going into Iraq. Our "war" was not designed to transform deeply inimical societies. Thirty months after going in our military still refers to Iraq not as a "war" but as "Phase IV" -- Reconstruction and Stabilization Operations. Even as the president intones war's virtus and glory, our military recoils from fighting what they brand as not-war: unconventional, asymmetrical, irregular.

America's army is far from defeated. But one of the best light colonels I know -- and these are the future of the Army itself -- tells me that we are losing an entire combat battalion every five months, that the Army cannot keep this up another 18 months. Others like him say the Reserves are crumbling, and that the Guard is gone.

We have lost an army before, in living memory. After Vietnam we shrugged off defeat and built a new army, though it took 10 years. But think too on what Lendon says: "The late Roman army had difficulty recovering from defeat ... the fourth century Roman army was small, expensive, and fragile."

If one of the best soldiers in our Army can say, "I know how many combat battalions we have. I can count them; I can see them. The Army cannot keep this up another 18 months," then this becomes our essence of "fragile."

It would be a terrible epitaph for ancient and modern at last to meet -- in the place where Julian led one of Rome's best-ever armies to defeat -- in Iraq.

(Michael Vlahos writes on war and strategy at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.)

(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

All rights reserved. 2005 United Press International. Sections of the information displayed on this page (dispatches, photographs, logos) are protected by intellectual property rights owned by United Press International.. As a consequence, you may not copy, reproduce, modify, transmit, publish, display or in any way commercially exploit any of the content of this section without the prior written consent of United Press International.

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