Were not those that failed to learn from history doomed to repeat it? With Barack Obama gearing up another American surge, this time in Afghanistan, we could afford to look at a bit of history. Let’s take a quick look at one of America’s most influential political, social and artistic predecessors: Rome.
And this is not the Rome of the modern European travel circuit, but Latin Rome that began as an Etruscan influenced city-state ruled by kings from 600-BC onwards. About a hundred years later, the city’s aristocracy established themselves via coup as those enfranchised with power and formed what we could call a republic with the lower classes (who were given nominal representation within this power sharing system). Anyone who was not a propertied male did not have much voice or agency at all. Rome went on to clash with its neighbors, conquering them militarily and savagely working away at consolidating the entire Mediterranean basin into an economic and political unit that became the dominant power in the Western world in the years around the turn of the previous millennium.
However, the original class based republic did not last. Hundreds of years into the republic the (in)famous Julius Caesar declared himself dictator in 44-BC based on his popular and military support, and was promptly stabbed to death by those same enfranchised aristocrats above (on the very floor of the Roman Senate – talk about political theater!), not keen on surrendering power to one member of their class alone. Military struggles between factions ensued, and eventually Augustus Caesar (Julius’ chosen heir) won out in 27-BC, settling on a new constitution that claimed to “restore the republic” but in fact gave the Roman people a monarchical government. Augustus was princeps (first citizen), and his successors called themselves imperator (emperor), and thus the Roman Empire germinates around this time.
America can take some strong points here for its own consciousness; examples that we could keep in mind as we evolve with the paradigm shift (which certainly will not be easy in proud and exceptionalism-minded America) that is coming with a multi-polar world of geopolitics: exampled by our intrinsic lock with China over finances, our historical/socio-cultural/militaristic ties to Europe, and dependence on (often hostile) oil-producing states.
The imperial expansion of Rome introduced the same paradox that the Athenian Greeks faced between democracy (Athens was in fact a class/gender based democracy) and the pursuit of empire and subjugated peoples. The United States soon followed Rome’s precedential path from republic to empire in picking fights with both Mexico and Spain, amongst many others from Asia to Africa throughout its short history — sometimes acquiring vast tracts of territory and population, sometimes acquiring subtler or non-existent gains; look at the mess we caused in southeast Asia. A country which cannot afford or prioritize giving its people healthcare, building decent transportation networks (let alone high-speed trains), or keeping its education system credible cannot afford to militaristically harass far flung peoples. We have and will continue to expend enormous amounts of blood and treasure on our misadventures, clearly stressing our current creaking economic system. Hundreds of years went by for the Roman Empire before they succumbed to internal and external pressures, seeing generals vie for influence through military power struggles, eventually buckling under the immigration influx of what history has branded Germanic tribes, around 400-AD.* As the United States continues to face old and new pressures, such as relative power decline, economic strain and a continued influx of large numbers of immigrants (Spanish speaking peoples mostly, coming back to reclaim much that was stolen during a mid-nineteenth century war?), it will be interesting to see what happens to this country.
And now back to Afghanistan, where we seem to be further investing ourselves in an endlessly violent quagmire. Here we are hideously not learning anything from the historical record. Our predecessors the British in the mid-1800s and the Russians in the 1980s, were two other foreign powers that tried to control Afghanistan forcibly, to disastrous results. Sinking more resources into forcing our conceptualization of the modern state onto a people who are not accustomed to it, let alone did not ask for it, is not going to work out and it serves to only weaken the United States further. It will function as one of the external pressures like those felt by Rome in its twilight period.
*For a hint of more context, this is when the beginnings of our ideas of France/French, Spain/Spanish, Italy/Italian et cetera develop in western Europe.