Archives for: June 2012, 13
According to contemporary historians, the tyrant Nero started off as fairly popular. He degenerated into a sort of echo chamber, hearing only the advice he wanted to hear. He eventually became so detached from reality, he lost touch with the opposition his cruelties generated. When even the Praetorian Guard turned against him, the perpetually frightened Roman Senate finally declared him an enemy of the people and ordered his execution. Nero beat them to the punch and committed suicide, a good career move.
The next year and a half saw a dizzying series of emperors, each seizing power, each losing his life to the next. Military combat was the only available method of succession. You don't like the new Caesar? Welcome to another war.
It looked as if the violence might end when the Emperor Otho declined to engage in final battle to defend his position. He ordered his men to surrender and killed himself to avoid more conflict. That was a bit of a surprise. The Roman Senate hailed General Vitellius as the new emperor.
The new emperor immediately threw a party. Then another and another. He partied ALL the time. He was the Animal House Caesar.
Most of Rome quickly came to regret Vitellius. They didn't much mind that he liked to party, but it turns out he had a short fuse. He started killing anyone he imagined might turn into a rival, or anyone who might become a backer of any potential rival, or anyone to whom he owed money from all the partying, or anyone he could intimidate into making out a will naming him as an heir. It looked like another Nero was in the works. Scary.
Here is the lesson:
The victorious Vitellius purged all of Otho's loyalists from the Praetorian Guard and installed his own men. The Praetorians were a highly trained force, and the purge left a lot of experienced, battle hardened, armed, furious legionnaires unemployed. Idle hands being the devil's workshop, they found sponsorship in the ranks of an aspiring leader, Vespasian. Vespasian went up against the brutal Vitellius and the new Emperor became the very dead ex-Emperor. The party was over.
Future emperors would avoid messing with the Praetorian Guard. In fact, a custom was established that lasted a long, long time. A new ruler would celebrate by awarding a generous bonus to the Guard, and to other legions. Money soothes a lot of hurt feelings.
A couple of millennia later, the United States, along with a coalition of the symbolic, invaded Iraq. After taking over, mission accomplished and all, Donald Rumsfeld decided to purge all the bad guys from the Iraq armed forces and police departments. Members of Saddam's Baathist party were shown the door.
Now, a lot of those people had not been entirely enthusiastic members of the Baath party. If you didn't join the party during the Nero like reign of Saddam, you didn't get employed. Anger does seem to promote enthusiasm, however. So Iraq suddenly had thousands of highly trained, experienced, battle hardened, armed, furious, unemployed people with little to do.
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was a military revolutionary of sorts. He didn't hold much to traditional methods. So he challenged established ideas. He didn't hesitate to shake things up. That can be valuable in an institution that has to stay effective in changing times.
Rumsfeld was not known as a nuanced individual. He had purged most of the top leadership of the US military and installed personal favorites, all Rumsfeld loyalists. One senior officer was interviewed anonymously. He was asked if he liked Secretary Rumsfeld. His answer was quoted widely: "Like is such a strong word." And, like President Bush and Vice President Cheney, he was decisive. He made decisions quickly. His snap judgments were in line with his bosses. Thoughtful examination of evidence, of alternatives, thinking things through, were the practices of the weak, the reserved, the hesitant.
Knowledge itself was generally denigrated. Pro-invasion visitors to the White House later reported a degree of surprise at President Bush. He was bewildered by the news that there were religious divisions among Muslims in the Middle east. He seemed never to have heard of Shiites or Sunnis. He had no idea that the attitude of the groups toward each other was analogous to that of Catholics and Protestants for many years in Ireland. Snap decisions don't need information.
So the United States invaded Iraq and let a trapped Osama bin Laden get away at the Battle of Tora Bora. Other opportunities, lesser opportunities, to get bin Laden were vetoed by Rumsfeld or his loyalists. There were bigger issues to be dealt with.
Knowledge was not power. Knowledge was weakness. Decisions were made quickly in Rumsfeld's world. Nuance was rejected by the strong. So the purging of the Baathists was carried out without question.
Much later, after Rumsfeld was gone, after the Vice President's influence had waned, after George W. Bush pretty much took over the executive branch, becoming ... you know ... President, the surge was presented to a skeptical American public as a minor increase in US military force. But there were other steps. One was amnesty for ex-Baathists, an amnesty accompanied by a restoration of military pensions. Welcome to ancient Rome in the time of Vespasian.
The surge, derided by many including me, turned out to be a substantial part of America's exit from active military action in Iraq. Afghanistan became the focal point. Attacks in Pakistan targeted terrorists. And bin Laden was escorted to his new home at the bottom of the Atlantic.
A couple of weeks ago, Secretary Rumsfeld surfaced again from wherever he resides. He attacked President Obama as projecting a weak image. "He doesn't seem to feel that the United States has and should continue to be playing an important role in the world in contributing to peace and stability."
A grateful nation thanks the former Secretary of Defense for his past service. And we move on.