Tacitus, the Legions and Us

Currently reading Tacitus.  Couple chapters in, covering the period of Tiberius’ ascension immediately after Augustus’s death, circa 14 A.D. Not a pretty time. Couple thoughts:

– The main drama is over, on the one had, controlling the Legions, and, on the other, Tiberius not wanting to do anything that strengthens his (real or perceived) competitors. It’s clear that the good of Rome was not necessarily a top consideration, except in the sense where a Tiberius could convince himself that any amount of violence, injustice and intrigue were OK if they kept him in power, because the alternative – civil war – was even worse. It’s never a possibility that somebody else could lead and do a better job with less violence – alas, he was probably right. And, his life expectancy if someone else – even Germanicus – came to power would be very, very short. As well as those of all of his loved ones (if any – Tiberius doesn’t seem to have been overflowing with fatherly of friendly affection towards anybody).

– The Founding Fathers were certainly familiar with Tacitus, meaning they were very aware of what can go wrong between a state, its military commanders and its soldiers. This lesson is learned (and evidently forgotten) over and over again through history, where well-established governments begin to take their military, and their military’s loyalty to them, for granted, only to have the reality that these are men who want to be treated with respect and honor (and given a healthy share of the booty!) come roaring back into focus. Fail to honor and take care of your army long enough, and bad things happen.

– in the press, coverage consistently misunderstands  what’s going on with military strong men. We start cheer-leading for democracy in places where people have little if any loyalty to a government, but where people with guns are very loyal to the commander who takes care of them. Peace and civil order are arranged by having the strong man make good (good enough) behavior on the part of his troops be a condition of their being held in honor and cared for. In the best of situations, it works OK. In Egypt under Mubarak, the Copts mostly didn’t get murdered or robbed; tourists were safe enough that they came and left some money, and shopkeepers could do business with a fair hope that they’d get to keep a reasonable amount of their earnings. Sure, Mubarak gets insanely rich(1), and nothing gets done unless it runs through the hand of the military (shedding cash along the way) – but it isn’t miserable for most people most of the time. And the military keeps a firm hand on potential sources of unrest and violence – that is their field of expertise.

But we leap immediately from Mubarak to democracy, as if it’s one step from strong man to strong central democratic government. And this isn’t even talking about Islamic radicals.  Then, when it doesn’t work, we act surprised. I don’t thing the Founders would have been surprised.

A large part of our American assumption that democracy will just work springs from the Progressive idea that progress is the natural direction of things, that ‘getting better’ is like gravity, an inexorable pull on things that can only be stopped or slowed by the efforts of men of ill will. Progress = growing entropy, if you will. Heat death is Nirvana, I suppose. On the other hand, if ‘better’ in an anti-entropic state, like holding something up above our heads against the force of gravity, adding order to a system that tends to disorder, then ‘progress’ does not happen by nature (at least, not material nature as understood by Science!), Hegel is wrong and Darwin misunderstood.  Men of good will must *make* good stuff happen, not just *let* good stuff happen.

– So, today, resting in complete untroubled confidence in the loyalty of our troops, our leaders continue to abuse and dishonor both the common soldier and their officers

  1. Psst: soldiers are gunnies. They like guns, have guns, know how to use them. They (along with police) are very likely to own personal firearms. Current attempts to paint gun owners as intrinsically vile and mentally unstable(2)  insult our troops, and drives a wedge between them and our government.
  2. The endless deployments where victory is poorly defined or not defined at all, and is in any event unachievable in any believable sense, leads soldiers to suspect that they are held in contempt and that their lives are held cheaply.
  3. When VA benefits are insufficient to take care of the medical needs of former soldiers, current soldiers find out about it, and it speaks volumes to where they and their needs stand in the eyes of their leaders.

And I’m sure actual soldiers could add plenty to this list.

We’re still pretty far away from the state Rome was in in 14 A.D. But another lesson of history is how fast things can change.

Will report back when I’ve finished the book.

1. discussed here.

2. An example: background checks are not opposed by most gunnies, because a background check asks and answers an objective question about an individual, and is not a blanket judgment against gun owners. But waiting periods are premised on the idea that only an enraged or terrified crazy would want to buy a gun, and if we let them cool off, maybe they’ll change their minds and make the only sane choice and not get a gun. Waiting periods are meant to paint gun owners as bad guys, and that’s how they’re taking it.  (Disclosure: I don’t own a gun and am not planning on getting one. I’ve got some scary kitchen knives, though, so watch out!)


Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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