Xenox Gallery

Repeating The Mistakes Of Caesar's War On Terror

Created: Wednesday, 22 May 2002 Written by Correspondent
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by M. W. Guzy for TomPaine.com

Once again, high school seniors have been tested to determine their grasp of history. The results were predictably dismal, with most students scoring in the range anticipated for dull-normal members of the amphibian kingdom.
Traditionally, news accounts of such exercises celebrate our collective ignorance. They almost gleefully cite the percentage of 18-year-olds who believe John Wayne to be the author of the Declaration of Independence, or who identified Valley Forge as a heavy metal band. They then quote an alarmed expert as to the dire implications these findings pose for the future of the republic. After the obligatory hand-wringing, this pressing issue is promptly forgotten until the next time the test is given. Indeed, this year’s graduating class scored identically with the last group tested in 1994.

Playing the devil’s advocate, you can question the significance of all this to modern life. America’s military might, for instance, is largely a function of advanced technology. Let’s face it, you really don’t need to know much about the War of 1812 to fly an F-15. Viewed from that perspective, history is reduced to an elaborate edition of Trivial Pursuit -- interesting to read, perhaps, but basically irrelevant to practical existence. What’s the point of demanding its study?

The answer, of course, is that the operators of our wondrous weaponry are also citizens. Like the rest of us, they are expected to vote for the people who will determine the manner in which they will ultimately be deployed. And as philosopher George Santayana warned, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Two-thousand years ago, Rome was the globe’s preeminent military power. Having assumed the throne after quelling the tumult of civil war in the east, Augustus Caesar -- the adoptive son of a previous emperor -- dispatched his 17th, 18th and 19th legions to settle affairs with rebellious tribes on the western frontier. These proud units marched on the Germanic territories under the command of Publius Varus. They are now remembered as the “Lost Legions of Rome.”

During this earlier version of the war on terror, Varus formed alliances with selected provincial chieftains in order to suppress the general rebellion. In 9 A.D., he dispatched his troops into the Teutoberg Forest at the urging of a local ally of convenience named Arminius. Once mired in the nearly impenetrable wilds, the legions were ambushed by an army of confederated German tribes led by none other than the crafty Arminius.

The Romans were slaughtered to a man. A subsequent expedition would bury their skeletal remains some six years later. As a consequence of this disaster, Varus committed suicide and the westward consolidation of the empire was permanently halted at the Rhine.

Flash forward a couple of millennia, and we find the world’s preeminent military power conducting a campaign that bears striking resemblance to the doomed venture recounted above. Having taken office after the tumultuous 2000 election, George W. Bush -- son of a prior president --dispatched troops to Afghanistan to settle affairs with the Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorists. Supported by U.S. airpower, ground action was waged primarily by local proxies coordinated by Special Forces. This strategy limited American casualties but, in retrospect, appears to have yielded an ambiguous result.

A conciliatory interim government has replaced a hostile regime, however, Mohammed Omar and Osama bin Laden remain at large -- due, in part, to the casual habits of Afghan combat. Most Taliban troops, for instance, were repatriated and sent home upon capture. Rival factions simply changed sides as warlords reordered their loyalties to accommodate changing circumstances. Currently, the shooting has abated somewhat, although the locals still occasionally launch rockets at American troops.

Our new ally, Pakistan, remains officially aligned with U.S. interests thanks only to the ruling military junta that suppresses its virulently anti-American civilian population. Meanwhile, expanded prosecution of the war effort has been put on hold until diplomats can bring peace to the Middle East -- an effort undertaken to placate yet other mercurial allies in the Arab League.

Like the Romans, we seek to manipulate indigenous peoples to suit our ends. Which is not to say that we are predestined to suffer the fate of Varus. It’s possible to profit from the lessons of history. To do so, however, you first must learn them.

M. W. Guzy is a former police detective and school teacher who now writes a weekly column for the St. Louis Post Dispatch.