February 16, 2009


In an op-ed in Sunday's WaPo, CJCS Admiral Mullen advanced the theory that America is a reluctant Empire, a hegemon only because its allies trust it and want it to rescue and protect them...just like ancient Rome. To accomplish this slight-of-hand, he kicks off with a lengthy quote from Thomas F. Madden's book "Empires of Trust: How Rome Built - and America Is Building - a New World" in which vassals of Rome are shown by a Roman account as trusting Rome as a whole even while Rome's appointed overlord is robbing and enslaving them.

It's significant that Mullen chooses as his historian-of-choice a man who appeared in many rightwing venues in the wake of 9/11 explaining how the War on Terror was to be a "defensive war"...like the Crusades, according to Madden. But when it comes to Rome, Madden's revisionist thesis is that Rome, like the United States is so mistakenly believed to be, was an isolationist culture that preferred alliances to the use of force, and was pushed reluctantly into empire building by the desire to defend itself and its friends...because they were just trying to help the poor blue-painted barbarians by crucifying them. (To do this, he has to rely pretty much solely on Roman accounts, almost never hostile ones.) Note he doesn't deny America's empire exists - just the obvious reasons for it. It's simply a retelling of the British Victorian "White Man's Burden" fable for a New American Century. British Imperials compared themselves favorably to Rome too, and often depicted themselves as new, more noble, Romans just like Mullen is now doing.

Neoconservatives loved Madden's version of Empire. David Frum, for instance, noting glowingly how understandingly civilized Rome must have been to have waited 50 whole years before finally burning Carthage, enslaving its populace and ploughing the ground with salt. Others weren't so happy, especially with Madden's conclusion:

If you think the insurgency in Iraq is bad, Madden writes, then you should have lived in Jerusalem in the first two centuries and dealt with Jewish terrorists who believed that their allies the Romans represented an evil that must be destroyed at any cost.

The Romans, after much bloodshed, finally dealt with Jewish factionalism with brute force - legions retook Jerusalem, destroyed the Holy Temple and forced Jews to focus their religion more on synagogues and rabbinic studies than the Temple itself, blunting some of the messianic zealotry responsible for the violence.

Madden believes that the lesson for America from this ancient insurgency is that the war on terror must be fought on the religious front as well. The only way to win both militarily and politically is to modernize Islam as the Romans changed Judaism to fit into their empire.

That is, by sword, flame and exile.

That the senior uniformed officer of America's military is a fan of Madden's feeble excuses for the cruelties of war and empire is worrying. That Mullen is writing neocon-style "Hoo-ah! we're the Roman Empire - and we're proud of it!" op-eds is downright scary.

(Nicole): It's odd to me that these historical analogies seem to stop before their logical conclusion. Doesn't Mullen know that the Roman Empire didn't end so well for the Romans? Is that where he thinks we should go?

Crossposted from Newshoggers

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