For Gaius Julius Caesar, Republican precedent was never an obstacle to his personal ambition. In 59 BC, after a bitter political battle with Cato and his allies, and a bare-knuckles political brawl over a land bill, Caesar began an unprecedented five year term as governor of Spain. Later, his famous campaign in Gaul started with a blatantly illegal action, a conflict with a Gallic tribe not under Roman rule, which violated a law that Caesar himself had authored. His most famously unprecedented action came in 49 BC, when he crossed the Rubicon, violating Roman law, custom, tradition, and core political ethos by bringing soldiers into the province of Italy. Being elected dictator for life, of course, bent Roman traditions completely out of shape, until a cabal of outraged Republicans assassinated him on the steps of the Senate.
And that's not even an exhaustive list of all the times Caesar bent or broke Roman law and tradition. He was, though, hardly unique for his time. Roman leaders had cut themselves loose from the constraints of the Roman state, leading to the epic clashes among great men (Caesar, Pompey, Crassus, Clodius, Milo, Cato, Cicero, Catiline, etc. etc.) that finally trampled the Republic into the imperial dust.
There are other times when law and tradition grow too weak to constrain the ambitions of the notable and powerful. These are never good periods in which to live. For example, the justification for Henry IV's seizure of power from Richard II was pretty threadbare. The fact that Henry re-wrote the rules of dynastic succession to his liking led to a period of political instability that didn't end until the War of the Roses.
Of course, you might be looking for a more contemporary example. Look no further than the last several years of American history. Dick Cheney becomes the first co-president. George Bush's Justice Department pushes a ludicrous "unitary executive" argument for making the President unanswerable to the other parts of the federal government. And this week, John McCain spits in the face of decades of presidential political tradition, announcing that he won't debate his Democratic opponent, nor will his laughably underqualified running mate (another precedent-breaker) debate her counterpart. And he's "suspending" his campaign, something unheard of in American politics, especially since he continued campaigning.
No, I'm not saying we're living in the last days of the American republic. However, I am saying that we should be more than worried when leaders don't feel the weight and thickness of the constraints, both formal and informal, that should bind them.
We should, as citizens, stop pretending that we have no responsibility for what happens, or lie to ourselves that we live in times so extraordinary that the rules no longer apply. These rules--durable because they work--evolved over two centuries, including foreign invasion (the War of 1812), one of the bloodiest civil wars in any country's history, global wars, recessions, depressions, and a period when an impacably hostile foe was pointing thousands of nuclear weapons at us. Even the newer traditions, such as presidential debates, deserve to be treated as sacred rites of American democracy. The rules of American politics are not conveniences, and we should be very frightened of men and women who treat them as such.
But we should do more than recoil with fear or disgust. We must act, so we don't stumble further towards the precipice. (It may be far away, but it's still there.) You're citizens of a democracy--you can figure out what to do next.
Haven't had time to post today, so I'll throw out this quick movie recommendation. If you haven't seen The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, locate a copy for this weekend. Here's why:
A great script--well-written, closer to the story of Jesse James than anything I've seen on film, and gripping.
The right point of view. You see Jesse James through the eyes of Robert Ford, who goes from worshiping the outlaw leader to hating him.
Terrific acting from Casey Affleck. OK, I already knew that Casey Affleck was good, from seeing him in Gone Baby Gone. Here, he shows you the creepy fanboy on the margins of the gang turn into something else. It's his story, so don't expect it to end in the Jesse James story when most movies would.
The best acting from Brad Pitt in any movie he's ever done. Who knew he could be this good? His portrayal of Jesse James combines charisma with terror. Lots of terror. Brrrr.
Beautiful cinematography. You'll want to pause the movie and just stare.
Two fun cameos. I won't spoil the surprises.
You might easily have missed this movie. Don't compound the mistake further. Just be prepared for the pace and tone of a drama--this is not a Western action movie. It's closer to Unforgiven than Silverado in tone and theme.
I sometimes marvel at how generous of spirit I can be. It's a marvel, because it leads me to do stupid things, like give Ridley Scott another chance to convince me that he can make an historical drama.
I watched Kingdom of Heaven over the weekend. I couldn't finish it. The scenes establishing Orlando Bloom's awesomeness (usually accompanied shots of Eva Green leering at him like an overfed cat) were bad enough. But why, oh why, did the director see fit to mangle the history to no good dramatic effect?
For example, Eva Green's character, Sibylla, was in real life a much more interesting character than the nymphomaniacal sidekick depicted in Kingdom of Heaven. And Bloom's character, Balian of Ibelin, was no medieval Horatio Alger. Had he been depicted as who he really was, the acknowledged son of an Outremer noble, his leading role in the events of Kingdom of Heaven would have made much more sense.
Equally nonsensical was his purported ability to tell the new king of Jerusalem to get stuffed, he wasn't going to join him in the march against Saladin that turned into the hattin disaster. On what grounds, then, was a disloyal subject given the authority to run Jerusalem's defenses? Again, the reality was far more interesting: Balian, who was captured along with other knights at Hattin, swore he would not take up arms against Saladin if he and his family (not depicted in the film) were released. After the citizens of Jerusalem begged him to stay and help defend the city, Balian broke his oath.
Of course, you'd have to give your audience credit for having some intelligence to understand this kind of drama. Instead, Scott gives us ridiculous villains like the fictionalized Guy de Lusignan, who provokes war with Saladin because....um....er....well...It's not altogether clear why, other than he's eeeeeeevil.
Ugh. Will no one ever make a decent movie about the Crusades?
[Before the brouhaha over Wesley Clark's recent comments started, I had planned on posting something about military experience and presidential leadership. I guess it's even more overdue that I thought.]
For the next several months, we're going to hear a lot of debate over how much personal military experience matters when making presidential decisions about foreign policy and national security. Already, it's clear that the typical discussion in the mainstream media makes a lot of incorrect assumptions, so I thought I'd add some perspective.
Certainly, being in combat does teach you important lessons. For example, every infantryman learns quickly exactly how boring the time leading up to a battle can be, and how terrifying it is when it starts. The average ground-pounder also sees how confusing battle can be. The unluck soldiers also learn how quickly a battle can unravel because of bad information, poor training, or weak leadership.
Leaving aside any existential lessons about life and death, do you really learn anything that is relevant to the job of President of the United States? Yes, to a limited degree. You certainly get an appreciation for how difficult the "management of violence" is. The obvious conclusion is to be conservative in your expectations of what soldiers can do, when chance and violence intersect.
Military experience provides lessons about the means of warfare. It doesn't necessarily teach you anything useful about its ends. There are exceptions. Soldiers who have been stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan may have learned something about how counterinsurgency is the ultimate expression of the adage, "All politics is local." Someone stationed at NATO headquarters may absorb by osmosis many of the important dynamics of alliance politics. However, these are hardly all the experiences you might wish someone to have before becoming the commander-in-chief.
In fact, many people go through their military careers being dumb about warfare. Here are a few quick examples from the American military experience:
Mark Clark, the general whose unimaginative, prickly leadership style helped turn the Italian campaign in a slow, bloody crawl up the peninsula.
William Westmoreland, who vainly tried to treat the Vietnam War as the sort of conflict Americans preferred to fight, instead of the type it really was.
George McClellan, who had bursts of inspiration at the theater level of strategy, only to fumble these plans when handling the operational and tactical specifics.
John C.H. Lee, who as the general responsible for supply and logistics in the European theater of WWII, whose laxity and ineptitide almost single-handedly set the war effort back several months (and many thousands of lives).
And we're just getting started with the generals. If you keep going down the chain of command, you'll find countless officers and enlisted men who "saw the elephant" but didn't understand what they were seeing.
While you might prefer your presidential candidates to have served in the military, service is no guarantee of good leadership. For example, while many historians have overlooked Grant's virtues as a general, there's little disagreement that he was a mediocre president.
We also have to be careful not to confuse gratitude with praise. We may be grateful that someone served in the US military. That is not the same as saying that they were good at the military profession, or that they will excel in a different role related to the waging of war.
Here's a typical comment in defense of the monument (from the DCist):
So ridiculous, I'm not even sure where to start...
How about with the "It looks like a Nazi/Fascist Memorial" complaint:
Newsflash people: European fascists of the early 20th century are
NOT the only people to use Neo-Classical architectural motifs. Fascist
governments did use them, and yes, the Nazis were very good at using
them. That doesn't make any other application of those motifs
inherently fascistic. To the poster who referred to the memorial as
fitting in well with "Mussolini's Rome": Since when does a city with
thousands of years of culture and history get dismissed as belonging to
a dictator who ruled for a smidgen of that?
I'll try, try again to make a simple point: even if the comparison is superficial, or even unfair, a simple artistic choice would have avoided it altogether. Not every monument has to plod along, artistically, following some faux classical motif. Nor does the design have to be as weird as, say, the Pompidou Museum in Paris. There's a lot of architectural possibility between these extremes, none of which would have been reminiscent of the fascist aesthetic.
For example, there's this monument at Omaha Beach. Many Holocaust memorials honor the victims, without suggesting the favorite architecture of the people who killed them. (Here's one in Berlin.) Even this memorial to the Canadians who died liberating Caen has a classical look, without making you think of Albert Speer at all.
Imagine someone building a monument to the West's victory in the Cold War. Hanging from the colossal edifice are 40-foot banners displaying the faces of Reagan, Thatcher, and other Western leaders. In the entrance is a stylized bronze statue depicting a vigorous-looking businessman, sleeves rolled up, briefcase in hand, looking at the distant horizon where history ends (in the Fukuyama sense, not the Marxist sense). I bet a lot of people--not just conservatives--would object to the socialist realist overtones of this design.
Now, back to the WWII memorial: forget the differences among neoclassicism, modern classicism, Soviet classicism, and anything else inspired by the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. Just don't build a monument that has any resemblance to the favorite architectural style of the Third Reich.
A few months ago, Kat over at Castle Argghh! wrote this great post about the Normans' counterinsurgency war in the British Isles, in the years following 1066. While modern revolutionaries like Mao and Lenin might have crafted particular revolutionary strategies, counterrevolutionary challenges go way, way back. For example, the medieval version of an enclave strategy drove the construction of castles across post-Conquest England and Wales in the 11th and 12th centuries.
Reading Max Hastings' Armageddon, which covers the closing years of WWII in Europe, I realized that I was in the thick of yet another account of Operation MARKET GARDEN, the fabled (and failed) "bridge too far" campaign. I've read so many accounts of this particular battle, I can't accurately count them. So why read yet another one?
I'll skip quickly past the usual reasons: no one book adequately covers all the details; military historians get into interesting and important debates; even reading the same book twice may give you a slightly different understanding the second time around. My reason for mentioning the uncountable accounts of MARKET GARDEN is a bit different: you never know when you'll bump into an insight about current events, rounding a corner in an historically familiar neighborhood.
Monty's gamble Here's the short version of Operation MARKET GARDEN: Between September 1944, the Americans and British had chased the Wehrmacht from the Normandy beaches to the banks of the Rhine. Overstrained supply lines, the ingenuity of the Germans on defense, and other factors brought the Allied offensive to a halt. After the seizure of Antwerp, the bulk of British forces faced the Germans in the Netherlands. The top British commander, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, looked across the Dutch landscape and saw an opportunity.
In his sector, Montgomery argued to Eisenhower, the Allies could make a surprise thrust through Holland, cross the line where German defenses were weaker, and then drive into Germany proper. The main problem was the landscape of Holland, which limited any offensive to a single highway, crossing several major rivers. If, in the first days of the battle, the Allies failed to seize all the major bridges around the Dutch cities of Nijmegen, Eindhoven, and Arnhem--and, just as importantly, prevent the Germans from demolishing them--the operation would fail.
The resulting plan, Operation MARKET GARDEN, depended on British and American paratroopers and glider-borne troops to surprise the Germans, secure the bridges, and wait for the British XXX Armored Corps to assault down the highway connecting the three critical cities. Unless the airborne troops moved quickly, the Germans would destroy the bridges. Unless the XXX Corps moved quickly, the Allied troops behind enemy lines would be the lightning rods for devastating German counterattacks.
Operation MARKET GARDEN suffered many problems, all of which contributed to a costly debacle. The Germans delayed the airborne troops from seizing their objectives as quickly as planned (especially difficult, since the parachute and glider drops took more than a single day to put all the troops into the battlezone). The tanks of the XXX Corps could not leave the highway to drive overland, given the risk of bogging down in the soft Dutch terrain. The armored advance, therefore, remained only a few tanks wide across its entire length, making it relatively easy for the Germans to bring it to a halt at any point. This geographic limitation, combined with a strange lack of urgency at key points in the battle, made it impossible for the XXX Corps to link up with the British 1st Airborne division in Arnhem, where the "Red Devils" fought a courageous but doomed defense. Aside from massive casualties, the Western Allies also suffered months of delay in finally defeating Nazi Germany.
The biggest problem with MARKET GARDEN, however, lay in the plan itself, not its execution. Montgomery's plan--unusually risky, for a general famous for his caution--depended on every element succeeding. If the Allies seized the bridges around Eindhoven, and if they seized Nijmegen, and if they seized Arnhem, and if the British armored column reached all three cities in time, MARKET GARDEN would be a success. If any link in this chain of events failed, the entire campaign would fall apart.
Bush's blunder MARKET GARDEN, therefore, is a cautionary tale to which the practitioners of war should regularly return. Whenever someone feels tempted to take this sort of risk, they can sober up quickly just by remembering the American paratroopers crossing a river in small boats, in broad daylight, into German machine gun fire, because it was the only chance to seize the next link in the chain. Or, you might remember the slow death of the 1st Paras in Arhhem, fighting a delaying action from house to house, with inadequate weapons to combat the German tanks blasting their hiding places into rubble.
Of course, there's nothing stopping people who are ignorant of history from violating its lessons. There's also no firm barrier between ambition and sense. Just as Montgomery imagined he saw a chance for the British to claim the great prize, the killing blow to Hitler's Reich, George W. Bush and members of his Administration thought they found the moment to deal, once and for all, with the Ba'athist regime in Iraq.
As anyone could and should have seen at the time, Operation IRAQI FREEDOM depended on too many military and political "ifs" going exactly according to plan. If Iraq forces collapsed quickly, as the proponents of "shock and awe" had hoped...If a roaring success in Iraq could silence any domestic and international critics...If Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld's promises that the American forces committed to both the invasion and occupation proved to be correct...If the Iraqi populace felt more gratitude for the occupation than resentment...If the Iraqi exiles, or their counterparts who remained in Iraq, could quickly assemble a functional government...Then, of course, Operation IRAQI FREEDOM would be a success.
Again, you might fault many aspects of this military operation's execution. Had the US officials been more concerned about the shadowy insurgency than capturing Saddam Hussein, the critical first few months of the occupation might have muted the violence to come. Had the same officials thought more carefully about how the motley insurgent groups might react to American actions, instead of treating them as if they were target dummies waiting to be shot and then collected, the Americans and Iraqis might have avoided wasting the first few years of fighting a counterinsurgency war.
These questions of execution can mislead us into believing that there was just a tactical adjustment here, a few extra resources there, that might have led to a happier outcome. The problem with Operation IRAQI FREEDOM was just the same as with MARKET GARDEN: too many elements had to succeed for the overall plan to be anything but a failure.
Refusing to take the sucker's bet The major difference, of course, was who bore the responsibility for stopping the needlessly risky enterprise (or radically re-designed it to the point where it was a different campaign entirely). In 1944, Eisenhower should have said no to his nominal subordinate, Montgomery, even if this refusal put greater strain on the American-British alliance. In 2003, the Congress--the President's Constitutional peer--plus the American press, and ultimately the American public, should have recognized a bad plan for what it was. Even if few of them were experts on Iraq, they could have asked the obvious question: "What's the fallback plan if any part of this strategy should go awry?"
For anyone who doesn't see the point of revisiting the failures of 2003, military history poses an obvious question. If, in 2003, Americans were willing to ignore the bloody, awful lessons of 1944, what are the chances that we've really learned the lessons of 2003 yet?