August 21, 2011
Martial Virtues and the Survival of CivilizationsBy James G. Wiles
It's the Silly Season. Yet, in the midst of America's earliest presidential campaign ever, the sultry air is filled with talk of Western societal decline. And our TV screens and the Internet are filled with the reality of it.
The British riots have sparked the question: what happened to Great Britain? It is a fact of history that the English (and the Scots) used to be -- like the Germans, the Arabs and the Japanese -- one of the most pugnacious people in the world. Now, as Frank Miniter wrote in a piece this week entitled "England Used to Be a Country of Men," Brits meekly hand over the clothes on their backs (and backsides) to rioters who request them.
The same humiliation happened, at an earlier time, to the French and the Spanish. Europeans once spoke of the "Spanish fury," and the "French fury." There was even "Gaelic fury." No more.
What happened? Where did the martial spirit which created, first, the Spanish Empire (the original "empire on which the sun never sets") and, later, when Spain had begun its centuries-
long decline, the British Empire go? It can't all have been channeled into football hooliganism.
More importantly: where did it come from?
For English-speaking peoples, the original case study, of course, is Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire published from 1776 to 1787. Rome was the longest-lasting of the Ancient World's universal empires. Some of the others were Persia, the Macedonia of Alexander the Great and China. Gibbon's thesis is well known (and often misunderstood). But the theme of Gibbon's masterpiece might best be summarized as how-Rome-lost-its-martial-spirit.
The first Roman Emperor to die in battle with a foreign enemy was Decius, in 251 A.D. The next was Valerian in 259, captured and killed by the Persians at the Battle of Edessa in what's now Iraq. By the time the Visigoths got around to sacking Rome for the first time in 410, the legions (and their commanders) were themselves mostly comprised of Germans.
Fighting, it seems, had become a type of job which Romans would not do. Plainly, in today's world, all the Western powers except America (and, perhaps, Canada) have lost their martial spirit. Are we losing ours?
What prompts these thoughts is the recent exchange I had on AT's comment page with a reader named Pieter Nosworthy. I had written about the modern relevance of Rudyard Kipling's poetry to our war in Afghanistan and, in particular, to the loss of 31 American soldiers in Afghanistan in the shoot-down of a Chinook helicopter. Since then, it's been gratifying to see other commentators focusing on Kipling's poetry as well, especially his "Gods of the Copybook Headings." The money quote was this stanza:
And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins,
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!
I didn't reference this poem in my AT piece; but I cited several others as being apposite to America's predicament in the War with Jihad. Pieter Nosworthy (who, by way of introduction, said he'd been "in and out of theatre for 10 years"), responded by saying this:
"[T]he only comment worth relating is that war leaves dead and broken men in the wake of its prosecution. As for "Chinook Down," your playful use of words doesn't begin to encompass the nature of an air frame that has a pax of capacity of "one more." When things go bad the consequences are always dire. The American people chose this war as a matter of policy. Did they not think that some of us wouldn't die? Regardless of whether this is good policy or not, we are engaged with the enemy and bad days are part of the profession." (emphasis added).
The translation of that, I thought when I read it, is: suck it up, civilian! It's Kipling's message too. Also of George Orwell's quote about "rough men" who protect our sleep. Not to mention the famous cross-examination of Jack Nicholson's character in the movie, A Few Good Men.
I think Pieter Nosworthy's right. And the text to prove it, unsurprisingly, is another Rudyard Kipling poem, "If." Also Robert D. Kaplan's Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Requires a Pagan Ethos.
So, the question before us is one which historians since Ibn Khaldun have pondered. The inquiry for Americans -- focused on our deficit debate through the prism of next year's election -- is whether America's welfare state is causing America's decline in the world. Of our historical predecessors, only Great Britain presents the example of an imperial power brought low, in significant part, by the cost of an expansive social safety net.
Thus: is it the chicken or the egg? Over at Canada's National Post, Fr. Raymond de Souza reviews Mark Steyn's important new book, After America. De Souza asks the correct question. Did the expanding state wither the individual, or did the withering of the individual lead to an expansion of the state?
In America, the historical answer is clear enough. Here, expansion in business regulation tends to occur after major business scandals -- to correct perceived abuses. Expansions in the social welfare state tend to occur during an economic collapse or immediately after wars. Big wars usually mean big prosperity, which makes the welfare state more affordable.
The first great expansion in the size and scope of the federal government came during the Civil War. The second occurred in the Progressive Era under Teddy Roosevelt's Square Deal and the New Freedom of Woodrow Wilson (who also led America through the First World War). The Great Depression and FDR's New Deal were followed by the Second World War.
The second half of the 20th century saw the same pattern. Harry Truman's Fair Deal, with its attempt to start civil rights reform and enact a form of national health care, was overshadowed by the Korean War and the beginning of the Cold War. LBJ's Great Society and the great expansion of federal regulation under both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon coincided with the Vietnam War.
So far, the 21st century is proving no different. President George Bush's No Child Left Behind program and prescription drug benefit followed on 9/11 and the consequent War with Jihad. Enron and World Com begot Sarbanes-Oxley. The Great Recession begot Dodd-Frank. And -- fulfilling a pledge first made by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his 1944 State of the Union Address, in 2010 we got ObamaCare.
Meanwhile the War with Jihad has become the Long War. As Pieter Nosworthy reminds us, the Long War is far from over. So, we are currently experiencing both economic crisis and war. And the anti-American Left, in the person of President Barack Obama and the Congressional Democrats, have taken full advantage of it. Yet, the Long War has been too small to stimulate the economy.
As I've said here, "the next election can't come soon enough for our children's future." In the meantime, America faces the sobering rise of modern China. Mark Steyn has much to say about that in his new book. One comforting thing which Steyn predicts, based on the demographic evidence, is that -- principally because of the success of the PRC's One-Child Policy -- China "will get old before it gets rich."
But it's also true that, with the return of the Chinese and the Persians (and, to a lesser extent, the Arabs and the Jews) to the global stage, the world's most modern nation is being challenged by the return to history of some of the ancient world's most prominent peoples. A reckoning of sorts may be at hand. Interestingly, "waterfront philosopher" Eric Hoffer was prescient in predicting China's return.
In his 1977 book, In Our Time, Hoffer was writing in the aftermath of the PRC's disastrous Cultural Revolution (and Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger's opening of Beijing to the West). Yet, from our perspective in 2011, the old longshoreman saw the future with stark clarity.
"China," Hoffer wrote, "was to the Far East what Greece and Rome combined were to the West. Like Greece in the West, China was the source of cultural life in its Far Easter sphere -- in Korea, Japan, Vietnam and Mongolia -- and like Rome it served as a model for civilian and military administration. Thus the rebirth of China cannot be viewed merely as an instance of something that is going on at present in the underdeveloped parts of the world. It is more as though Greece and Rome had come back to life, ready to dominate again the Mediterranean basin and Europe beyond the Alps." (emphasis added).
No poetry there. But food for thought in a bleak time.
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