Friday, June 17, 2005

Non-Natives, the Military and "Empire"

Max Boot wrote a column in which he proposed that illegal immigrants could acquire legal status by joining the armed forces. There's a bit more to it than that, so if you're interested in his acute proposal, read his column. What caught my eye was the portion of Boot's column that called upon 2 bits of history:
In the past, the U.S. military had many more foreigners than we do today. (During the Civil War, at least 20% were immigrants. Now it's 7%.) The British army, among many others, has also made good use of noncitizens. Nepalese Gurkhas still fight and die for the Union Jack despite not being 'culturally bonded' to it. No doubt they would do the same for the Stars and Stripes.

Some letter writers invoke the specter of mercenaries leading to the fall of the U.S. as they supposedly led to the fall of Rome. That's a misreading of Roman history. As classicist Victor Davis Hanson points out, by the 1st century AD, the legions 'were mostly non-Italian and mercenary, and the empire still endured for nearly another 500 years.' If only the Pax Americana were to last half as long!
I've done some research on French Canadians in the U.S. during the Civil War Era, including some on those who served in the Union army, and I'll be going a more in depth treatment on that topic in the future (so keep your eyes pealed). It was the second portion of Boot's piece, concerning mercenaries and the Fall of the Roman Empire, that caught my more immediate attention.

Boot, quoting Hanson, is essentially correct, in that the legions "were mostly non-Italian", but this seems to convey an oversimplification. I'd clarify that they were still "Roman." As the empire expanded, to Gaul for instance, the native populations got "Romanized" and gradually grasped onto the ideal of romanitas. They weren't "Italian" but they most definitely considered themselves to be "Roman." The Late Roman army was a bit different.

The historian Hugh Elton offers this explanation:
The birth of the Late Roman Army is usually taken to be the reforms of Diocletian (284-305) and Constantine (305-337). Their reforms were not completely innovative and forerunners of all their changes can be seen in the institutions and practices of the army of the third century AD. From the early fourth century, the army was a remarkably stable institution with few changes in practice or structure. . .

The major development from the army of the principate was the formal division of the army into two parts, the field army (comitatenses) and the border troops (limitanei). The border troops were organized to defend provinces and were stationed around the edges of the Empire. . .

Many fortifications lined the borders of the empire, garrisoned by troops of the border forces (which included naval units). Many cities within the Empire also had defenses. . .

Individual soldiers served for twenty to twenty-five years and received a discharge bonus. Many of these recruits came from military families and many came from beyond the empire, a process misleadingly described as barbarization.

From the late fourth century onwards, the Romans made increasing short-term use of contingents of barbarian allies, a second process also known as barbarization. These were used to supplement Roman forces, but also as a military necessity. To take a Roman army away from an area containing recently settled barbarians was to invite disaster, especially in a civil war, where one's opponent would encourage them to revolt.
In another piece, Elton delves deeper into the common misconceptions surrounding "barbarization":
The term 'barbarization' is used to describe the use of soldiers whose origins were outside the Roman Empire in the late Roman army. . . . There were two types of this 'barbarization'.

The first type was the recruiting of individual 'barbarians'. Many of the army's recruits did come from beyond the empire, from Frankish, Alamannic or Gothic tribes in Europe, from Persia or Armenia in the east. Their non-Roman names usually make them stand out in our sources but some did change their names. No systematic opposition to recruiting or promoting such men existed and they could and did reach the highest ranks of the army, something which only occurred in the late Roman army. However, their presence in the army as private soldiers was not new and they had been a feature of the army since the first century BC. . . . In number, they may have made up as many as a third of the empire's troops. . .

The second type of barbarization was the short-term use of tribal groups of barbarian allies. These supplemented Roman forces, for the most part in civil wars. Again, this process was not innovative, but such contingents had usually been smaller. What was new was that it sometimes became a necessity. In 382 Theodosius I settled Goths in the Balkans. Then in 388 and 394 he was forced to incorporate them in his army to fight against Magnus Maximus and Eugenius respectively. If he had not, they would have taken advantage of the absence of Roman troops, even without encouragement from his enemies.
As Elton concludes in the first piece to which I linked, it was not the barbarization of the Roman army that led to the fall of the Western Roman Empire (remember, the Eastern Empire, or the Byzantine, lasted for an additional millenia!)
The direct cause was not the loss of the battle of Adrianople in 378, but the failure after this to destroy the Goths who were in the Empire. After their settlement in 382, the external threats did not diminish, but the Goths created an additional internal threat. The second major problem was the loss of Africa to the Vandals, which reduced the financial basis of the western empire. Without money to pay for troops, the military capacity of the west decreased, though the eastern empire remained intact. Loss of territory and financial crises, not a failure in military effectiveness, led to the collapse of the Roman West.
So, while essentially correct, Boot (and Hanson) left a bit out.

Finally, apparently, Matt Welch at Reason's Hit and Run blog (via Chris Bray) took Boot's pithy remark: "If only the Pax Americana were to last half as long!" (in reference to Hanson's remark about the empire lasting 500 years) to be an embracing of the Roman Empire as an ideal to which the U.S. should aspire.
When war enthusiasts are no longer even defensive about comparisons to the Roman Empire, we have arguably crossed over into new territory. I had this exact same conversation over the weekend with a Marine Iraq War vet, and a civilian pro-war guy. They had me on the defensive for a half-hour -- "What's WRONG with being like the Roman Empire?? They lasted a thousand years, didn't they?" Silly me, I was hoping the United States would hold out a little longer than that....
While I think Welch is reading way too much into Boot's aside, the details of his conversation with the Iraq vet and pro-war civilian (and the comments to his post) point out that many Americans, at different levels, embrace the idea of being like the Roman Empire. With a few exceptions, I think this is a very shallow analogy and that most who espouse such haven't exactly engaged in deep critical thinking about the prospect of America becoming something akin to the Roman Empire. I interpret such wishful (or wistful?) comparisons as those of relatively short-lived individuals hoping that their nation maintains its position as world leader (variously defined) for "a thousand years," which to them is essentially "eternity." So while I agree with Welch when he says that he hopes that "the United States would hold out a little longer than that...", I also would offer that this position is not ipso facto contrary to that of the supposed proponents of American Empire. Instead, both positions enunciate a hope that the U.S. continue as a world leader for the imagineable future. Mine and Welch's imaginations just happen to stretch a bit further than others.


Greg said...

Interesting post, but I'm not sure what the point is. Is it that America should continue as a world power for the foreseeable future? Not bad. However, I would point out to anyone who claims that the U.S. should be like Rome should be asked, "Which Rome?" "Rome" as an entity lasted two thousand years under a variety of guises and governments and in varying degrees of power. People think of "Rome" being the ruler of the world, a state of affairs that lasted maybe 200 years (Augustus through Septimius Severus, probably) with Diocletian beginning a "renaissance" of Roman power that lasted 100 years. There are very few things I think the U.S. should emulate about Roman power. Ironically, incorporating "outsiders" is one of them, and I think we've gotten away from that.

Marc said...

In short, yes, we should "keep on, keepin' on". The point was that those who make such a comparison aren't engaging in deep critical thinking: more like surface logic that goes something like "Rome was around for a really long time, I hope America is around for a very long time." I think you get the point. Thus, I don't think that most people are mulling over exactly the kind of Rome to which America should aspire.