Wars and Empire


As would Jose Ortega y Gasset (The Revolt of the Masses, 1932)



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As would Jose Ortega y Gasset (The Revolt of the Masses, 1932):

"A characteristic of our times is the predominance, even in groups traditionally selective, of the mass and the vulgar. Thus, in intellectual life, which of its essence requires and presupposes qualification, one can note the progressive triumph of the pseudo-intellectual, unqualified, unqualifiable..."

The columnist Chris Deliso notes in Antiwar.com that "since September 11th especially, the country has suffered draconian restrictions on civil liberties and the rapid erosion of judicial and governmental transparency. At the same time, the increasing expenditure of taxpayer dollars has been conducted at variance with traditional ideals of free market competition and avoidance of embedded government cronyism. Now, with the invasion of Iraq, the nadir has been reached: long-suppressed desires for empire have come out into the open."

Deliso ascribes these worrisome trends to "three toxic substances. The first is relentless paranoia of the outside world. According to this, all kinds of civilian restrictions and pre-emptive foreign wars become justified for the sake of 'national security'. Second is the all-pervasive cronyism between government oligarchs and corporations, which retard the practice of a free market economy. Finally, there is a belief in the ineluctable nature of 'progress', i.e., a teleological narrative that describes America's political system as supreme, and destined to supercede and convert those of all other nations."

As others have noted, America's transition from republic to empire is remarkably reminiscent of Rome's. The irony is that as the United States inevitably becomes less democratic - it will also become less elitist. The mediocre and inapt peripatetic representatives of the popular will be replaced not by disinterested technocrats and expert civil servants but by usurpers, power brokers, interest groups, and criminal-politicians.

The Founding Fathers looked to Rome as a model. It is often forgotten that Rome has been a republic (509-27 BC) for as long as it has been an empire (27 BC - 476 AD). Hence the Senate, the bicameral legislature, the institutions of jury and professional judges, the interlocking system of checks and balances and other fixtures of American life.

Rome, like the USA, was a multicultural, multiethnic and inclusive melting pot. The family and religion - the mainstays of the American value system - were also the pivots of Roman society. Their work ethic was "Protestant" and their conduct "Calvinistic": frugality, self-reliance, steadfastness, seriousness, "fides" (good faith and reliability) were considered virtues.

From 287 BC, Rome was a full-fledged democracy and meritocracy - one's acquired wealth rather than one's arbitrary birth determined one's place in life.

The Roman takeover of Italy is reminiscent of the expansion of the United States during the 19th century. Later, Rome claimed to be "liberating" Greek cities (from Macedonian domination and other Middle Eastern tyrants) - but then proceeded to establish a series of protectorates throughout Asia Minor, Greece and today's Israel, Palestine, Syria, Egypt and North Africa.

As Rome's sphere of interests and orbit of alliances widened to include ever growing segments of the world, conflicts became inevitable. Still, early Roman historians, patriotic to a fault, always describe Roman wars as "just" (i.e., in "self-defense"). Rome was very concerned with international public opinion and often formed coalitions to attack its foes and adversaries. It then typically turned on its erstwhile allies and either conquered or otherwise absorbed them into its body politic.

Roman commanders and procurators meddled in the internal affairs of these territories. Opposition - in Carthage, Corinth and elsewhere - was crushed by overwhelming force. Lesser powers - such as Pergamum - learned the lesson and succumbed to Roman hegemony. Roman culture - constructed on Greek foundations - permeated the nascent empire and Latin became the Lingua Franca.

But, as Cato the Elder forewarned, foreign possessions and the absence of any martial threat corrupted Rome. Tax extortion, bribery, political machinations, personality cults, and moral laxity abounded. Income equality led to ostentatious consumption of the few, contrasted with the rural and urban destitution of the many. A growing share of gross domestic product was appropriated for the state by the political class. Rome's trade deficit ballooned as its farmers proved unable to compete with cheap imports from the provinces.

A whole class of businessmen - the equites, later known as the equesterian order (the equivalent of today's "oligarchs") - lucratively transacted with the administration. When erstwhile state functions - such as tax collection - were privatized, they moved in and benefited mightily. The equites manipulated the commodities markets, lent money at usurious rates, and colluded with Senators and office holders.

Sallust, the Roman historian, blamed the civil wars that followed on this wealth disparity. Cato the Elder attributed them to moral decadence. Cicero thought that the emergence of the armed forces and the "mob" (the masses) as political players spelt doom for Senatorial, republican Rome.

Some are comparing the relentlessly increasing weight of the Pentagon since 1941 to the rise to prominence of the military in republican Rome. Yet, this is misleading. The role of the army in the Roman republic was enshrined in the centuriate assembly (the army as a voting collective) and the consuls, magistrates in chief were, invariably, former army generals. Though many American presidents, starting with George Washington, were former generals - the ethos of the United States is individualistic, not military.

Thus, when the tribune Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (133 BC) embarked on a land reform, he was opposed by the entrenched interests of the nobility (the optimi). Undeterred, through a series of piecemeal, utterly legal steps, Tiberius Gracchus sought to transform himself into a despot and neutralize the carefully constructed system of checks and balances that sustained republican Rome. The Senators themselves headed the mob that assassinated him. This was the fate of his no less radical brother, Gaius, ten years later.

These upheavals gave rise to the populares - self-appointed populist spokesmen for the disenfranchised "common man" in the Senate. They were vehemently confronted by the nobility-backed Senators, the optimates. To add instability to earthquake, Roman generals began recruiting property-less volunteers to serve as mercenaries in essentially private armies. Lucius Cornelius Sulla, an impoverished aristocrat turned army commander, actually attacked Rome itself twice.

The turning point may have been the passage of the Lex Gabinia following an attack of Mediterranean pirates on the port of Ostia in 68 BC. It granted Pompey command of the republic's navy as well as untrammeled access to its treasury. It was the first time that the republic relinquished control of its armed forces - but not the last. A decade later, Julius Caesar was granted the same power for his military expedition in Gaul.

To secure popular support, Roman politicians doled out tax cuts, free entertainment, and free food. Ambitious Romans - such as Julius Caesar - spent most of their time electioneering and raising campaign finance, often in the form of 'loans" to be repaid with lucrative contracts and sinecures once the sponsored candidate attained office. Long-established, prominent families - political dynasties - increased their hold on power from one generation to the next.

Partisanship was rampant. Even Cicero - a much-admired orator and lawyer - failed to unite the Senators and equites against assorted fanatics and demagogues. The Senate kept repeatedly and deliberately undermining the interests of both the soldiery and the equites, Rome's non-Senatorial businessmen.

This clash of vested interests and ulterior motives gave rise to Gaius Julius Caesar, a driven and talented populist. Caesar crossed the Rubicon, the river that separated Gaul from Italy, and subdued a rebellious and obstructive Senate. He was offered by an intimidated establishment, the position of dictator for life which he accepted. The republic was over.

Life in Rome improved dramatically with the introduction of autocracy. Roman administration was streamlined and became less corrupt. Food security was achieved. Social divisions healed. The republic was mourned only by the discarded ancien regime and by intellectuals. Rome the city-state was no more. It has matured into an Empire.

And now, to Rome's crippled successor, Byzantium.

The modus operandi of the United States involves ad-hoc alliances with indigenous warlords, drug czars, terrorists, guerrilleros, freedom fighters, and armed opposition groups aimed at ousting unfriendly incumbent regimes, imposing political settlements or military solutions, countering other foreign influences, attaining commercial goals, or securing long-term presence and say in local affairs.

America's "exploit and discard" or "drain and dump" policies consistently boomerang to haunt it.

Both Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Manuel Noriega in Panama were aided and abetted by the CIA and the US military. Later, America had to invade Panama to depose the latter and conquer Iraq for the second time to force the removal of the former.

The Kosovo Liberation Army, an American anti-Milosevic pet, provoked, to great European consternation, a civil war in Macedonia two years ago. Osama bin-Laden, another CIA golem, "restored" to the USA, on September 11, 2001 some of the materiel it so generously bestowed on his anti-Russian outfit - before he was dumped unceremoniously once the Soviets retreated from Afghanistan.

Normally the outcomes of expedience, the Ugly American's alliances and allegiances shift kaleidoscopically. Pakistan and Libya were transmuted from foes to allies in the fortnight prior to the Afghan campaign. Milosevic has metamorphosed from staunch ally to rabid foe in days.

This capricious inconsistency casts in grave doubt America's sincerity - and in sharp relief its unreliability and disloyalty, its short term thinking, truncated attention span, soundbite mentality, and dangerous, "black and white", simplism. It is also a sign of short-sightedness and historical ignorance. All major empires fell prey to rampant mercenaries, erstwhile "allies" turned bitter enemies.

At its peak, the Ottoman Empire ruled most of the Balkan, up to the very gates of Vienna, Hungary, Serbia, Bosnia, Romania, Greece, Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Israel, Egypt, North Africa including Algeria, and most of the Arab Peninsula. It lasted 600 years.

The Ottomans invaded Europe while still serving as a proxy army of mercenaries and guerilla fighters. When not at war with Byzantium, they were often used by this contemporary superpower (Byzantium) to further its geopolitical goals against its enemies - very much as the Afghan Mujaheedin or the Albanian KLA collaborated with the USA and its sidekick, the EU, during the last two decades of the twentieth century.

Not unlike the Moslem Afghani warriors of 1989, the Ottomans, too, turned on their benefactors and brought on the demise of Byzantium after 1000 years of uninterrupted existence as a superpower.

The Ottomans were named after Osman I, the Oguz (Turkmen) tribal leader, the off spring of a noble Kayi family. They were ghazis (Islamic Turkish warriors).  Fleeing from the Mongols of Genghis Khan, they invaded Anatolia in the second half of the 11th century. They immediately and inevitably clashed with Byzantium and delivered to it the first of a string of humiliating and debilitating defeats in the battle of Manzikert, in 1071.

They spread inexorably throughout the fertile Anatolia, confronting in the process the Byzantines and the Mongols. They were no match to the brute efficacy of the latter, though. They lost most of Anatolia to the Mongols and maintained a few autonomous pockets of resistance in its eastern fringes. One of these anti-Mongol principalities (in the northwest) was led by Osman I.

Osman's was not the strongest principality. Its neighbour to the east, the Germiyan principality, was much stronger and more sophisticated culturally. Osman, therefore, drove west, towards the Bosporus and the Marble (Marmara) Sea. His desperate struggles against the corrupt and decadent Byzantines, made him the Robin Hood, the folk hero of the millions of urban unemployed, nomads, and dislocated peasants turned brigands - from Syria to the Balkan. Osman offered to these desperados war booty, a purposeful life, and Islamic religious fanaticism. They joined his armies in droves.

Byzantium, his avowed enemy, was no longer prosperous and powerful, but it was culturally superior and vital, Christian, and modern. But it was decaying. Its social fabric was disintegrating, corroded by venality, hubris, paranoia, avarice, inter-generational strife, and lack of clear religious and cultural orientations. Its army, much reduced and humbled by defeats and budget cuts, was unable to secure the frontier. Economic, religious, and social discontent undermined its consensus.

Gradually, it lost its erstwhile allies. The Ilhanid dynasty in Persia refused to back it against its tormentors. Byzantium, high handed and conceited, was left to fight the Islamic terrorism on its borders all by itself. Mercenaries imported by the Byzantines from Europe served only to destabilize it further. Osman's successors tore Byzantium to hemorrhaging shreds, conquering the rest of Anatolia and the Balkan. They even employed Christian mercenaries against the Byzantines.

When Orhan, a successor of Osman, secured a territorial continuum and access to the Sea of Marmara, he took on another Turkmen empire, based in Aydin.

The people of Aydin were mercenaries at the service of competing factions in Byzantium (Thrace versus Constantinople). Orhan wanted to cut into this lucrative business. He started by defeating emperor Andronicus III and his advisor, John Cantacuzenus in the battle of Pelekanon in 1329. This unleashed the Ottoman troops upon Nicaea (1331) and Nicomedia (1337).

Faced with the loss of the historic heart of their empire, the Byzantines accepted a Faustian deal. They made peace with the Moslem Turks and recruited them as allies and mercenaries against the Christian enemies of Christian Byzantium - the Serbs, the Italians, and the Bulgarians. Orhan became the principal ally of the young and dynamic Byzantine politician (later emperor) John VI Cantacuzenus, thus gaining entry, for the first time, into Christian Europe.

Andronicus III died in 1341and another civil war broke out in Byzantium. John Cantacuzenus, deprived of the much expected regency, confronted Alexius Apocaucus, the patriarch John Calecas, and the powerful and cunning empress mother Anne of Savoy.

The Serb king Dusan wavered between support and rejection for Cantacuzenus, who was crowned as Emperor John VI in Thrace in 1346. The new emperor, aided by hordes of Turkish troops, demolished the coalition set against him. A revolution erupted in Thrace and Macedonia. "The Zealots", having seized power In Thessalonica, declared an independent community which lasted till 1350.

Byzantium was reduced to penury by these events and by the Black Death of 1347. It fought with Venice against Genoa only to lose tax revenues hitherto paid by the Genoese. Foreign powers - the Turks included - manipulated the hopelessly fractured Byzantine ruling classes to their advantage.

In the meantime, Orhan was introduced to Europe's modern weaponry, its superior tactics of laying siege, and its internecine politics by his Byzantine masters. After he helped Cantacuzenus grab the Byzantine throne from John V Palaeologus, the new emperor granted him the right to ravage both Thrace and his own daughter, Theodora, whom Orhan married.

Ottoman raiding parties between Gallipoli and Thrace became a common sight. The loot was used to attract all manner of outcasts and dispossessed and to arm them. Byzantium was thus arming and financing its own worst enemy, facilitating its own demise.

In 1354, Ottoman mercenaries occupied and fortified the earthquake shattered Gallipoli. The Ottomans crossed permanently into Europe. When Orhan's son, Suleyman, transformed Gallipoli into an ominous base from which to overpower Christian Europe - the emperor (and other Christian nations) protested.

The Ottomans ignored them and proceeded with their expansionary preparations. They raided the Balkan as far as Adrianople. Cantacuzenus was toppled and denounced for his collaboration with the Turks. Europe woke up to the nightmare on its doorstep. But it was way too late.

It was the emperor John V Palaeologus who forced Cantacuzenus to abdicate and to retire to a monastery. John V appealed to the Pope, and through him, to the Western world, for help against the Turks. But the Popes were more concerned with the three centuries old schism between the Roman Church and the Church in Constantinople. John V has begged for help for more than a decade. In 1366, he visited Hungary and pleaded for assistance, but in vain.

The Ottomans embarked on three centuries of unhindered conquests, arrested only at the gates of Vienna in the 17th century. Recurrent international (read European) alliances and crusades failed to constrain them. The Serbs, the Bulgars, the Hungarians were all routed in bloody battlefields.

Cut off from its grain supplies and tax base, proud Byzantium accepted the suzerainty of the Ottomans, their former mercenaries. When emperor John V united the churches of Constantinople and Rome in a vain and impetuous effort to secure the military involvement of the West - he only succeeded to fracture Byzantium further.

Murad, the Ottoman ruler, incorporated large parts of Christian south-eastern and central Europe into his burgeoning feudal empire. Local kings and emperors were left to govern as administrators, vassals to the Ottomans. They paid annual tribute and provided contingents to the Ottoman army. These achievements were consolidated by later Ottoman rulers for centuries to come.

In 1449 the sultan Mehmed II prepared to assault Constantinople. The West wringed its hands but provided no material or military help. The union of the two churches - Rome and Constantinople - was celebrated in the magnificent church of in Hagia Sophia in 1452. But the people of Byzantium revolted and protested against this opportunistic move. Many said that they preferred the rule of the Turks to being enslaved by the Latin West. Soon their wish would come true.

On May 29, 1453 Turkish soldiers forced their way into the shattered city. Most of the commanders (among them Venetians and Genoese) were dead or wounded. Constantine, the last emperor, fought, on foot, at one of the gates and was seen no more.

Constantinople was plundered and savaged for three long days and nights by the triumphant Turks.

The Encyclopedia Britannica (2002 edition) sums it up thus:



"The Ottoman Empire had now superseded the Byzantine Empire; and some Greeks, like the contemporary historian Critobulus of Imbros, recognized the logic of the change by bestowing on the Sultan all the attributes of the emperor. The material structure of the empire, which had long been crumbling, was now under the management of the sultan-basileus. But the Orthodox faith was less susceptible to change. The Sultan acknowledged the fact that the church had proved to be the most enduring element in the Byzantine world, and he gave the Patriarch of Constantinople an unprecedented measure of temporal authority by making him answerable for all Christians living under Ottoman rule.

The last scattered pockets of Byzantine resistance were eliminated within a decade after 1453. Athens fell to the Turks in 1456-58, and in 1460 the two despots of Morea surrendered. Thomas fled to Italy, Demetrius to the Sultan's court. In 1461 Trebizond, capital of the last remnant of Greek empire, which had maintained its precarious independence by paying court to Turks and Mongols alike, finally succumbed; the transformation of the Byzantine world into the Ottoman world was at last complete."




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