Retire the Neocons

The word out of Washington is that the Ukraine war may last longer than expected, maybe several months, maybe a couple of years, who knows? Sound familiar? Like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and you name it, unending wars with no discernible outcome. Not a thrilling prospect, to be sure, but perfectly satisfactory to that hardy band of zealots known as neoconservatives who believe war is an answer to almost anything and in that regard have driven U.S. foreign policy since the presidency of Bill Clinton.

Their aim is to reshape the world in ways agreeable to the U.S. and Israel, preeminent powers at an historical turning point. They got started with the Clinton Administration in the 1990’s. when weakened by scandal, the President was persuaded to add three new members to NATO – Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic – in clear violation of a pledge of top U.S. leaders at the collapse of the Soviet Union not to expand the military alliance toward a diminished Russia. The fumbling Russian regime of Boris Yeltsin protested but was ignored.

It was an indication of how the neocons would get their way whatever the obstacles. Then the 9/11 attack provided an unexpected opening not only for more NATO members but also for another prized neocon desire – the invasion of Iraq. This was achieved with the help of a compliant media even though the reason for it was mythical. The target Saddam Hussein didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, as was charged, or any connection to the instigator of 9/11, al-Qaeda.

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The result was an ill-advised, protracted war that led along with other conflicts to a million civilian deaths and several million refugees in a disabled Middle East. But the neocons didn’t have to say they were sorry or even lick their wounds. Leading a charmed life. it was just on to the next endeavor. Switching from the Republican Party of a confused George Bush to the Democratic ranks of President Obama they showed that party was no obstacle to ideology.

They established an ideological companion John Brennan as the President’s intelligence chief whose main job was to give political protection to the neocons and allies. He lived up to expectations. Ensconced at the U.S. State Department, neocon Victoria Nuland made sure the U.S. had a central role in an uprising that replaced a pro-Russian regime in Ukraine with a pro-American one. There followed the militarization of Ukraine with abundant U.S. aid and weaponry. Putin retaliated by annexing Crimea and encouraging the independence of portions of Eastern Ukraine with a large Russian population.

President Trump initially resisted the neocons much to their horror and pledged not to start new wars. But then oddly, he chose two or three neocons for top posts who in turn persuaded him to eliminate Iranian General Soleimani, an accomplished strategist with whom Trump might have made a useful deal. The assassination was by way of remote-controlled drone, a rather contemptible form of warfare admired by many on the right.

With the advent of President Biden, it was pure bliss for the neocons who have completely taken over foreign policy. The ever-active Nuland pressed for Ukraine to join NATO, thus threatening to cross Putin’s red line. Given the circumstances the Russian ruler chose to invade Ukraine, with the neocons dreaming of a Russian loss that puts it under U.S. supervision like Ukraine. Neocon National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan says he looks forward to a “weakened and isolated Russia.”

Dream on. So far neocon dreams have led only to chaos. Why should anything be different now? It’s time to retire the neocons from public service and replace them with competent strategists who exist outside of Washington but haven’t been allowed in by the neocon monopoly. Considering the current danger of confrontation between two nuclear armed powers, there’s little time to spare.

The Lessons of Julius Caesar

Seldom, if ever, have we learned of a major war through the one man who brought it on, won it and then described it. Yet for that we are indebted to Julius Caesar, who was determined to conquer Gaul for Rome and then explain it in memoirs of battle and its aftermath that are unparalleled in military writings.

If only it was left like that. But somehow through the ages Caesar became another worldly figure, for some a demi-god, for others evil incarnate that overwhelmed the sturdy soldier beneath. Let his memoirs tell us what he was – an extremely skilled strategist and leader of men who pursued a clear goal on this earth with little reference to the gods or any other external forces. The war was his alone, to win or lose.

Writing of himself in the third person, Caesar becomes a part, if a crucial one, of the battle scene. There’s not a trace of undue pride except in the army he leads, and – no doubt to the astonishment of contemporary war gazers – he often respects the enemy he faces. He writes that one group of Gauls had “such an outstanding reputation for courage” he avoided giving battle until he decided his own troops could be even braver. He says the Gauls may be volatile and imprudent, but he doesn’t indulge the modern habit of name calling. There’s no moral posturing. The word “evil” is not in his vocabulary. He has his values – Rome – but the enemy has theirs.

Surrender by the Gallic chieftain Vercingetorix before Caesar

As a result, he is often parleying as much as fighting. Easier to talk an enemy into surrender or compromise than killing or being killed. Not that he would hesitate when the need arose. As he wrote in a rare personal description on the verge of an enemy attack, “Caesar had to see to everything at once. The flag must be unfurled, the trumpet sounded, the soldiers must be recalled from working on the defenses, and all those who had gone some way off in search of material for the earthworks had to be ordered back to camp. He must draw up the battle line, encourage the men, give the signal.” Battlefield victories followed.

Caesar was famous for fast forced marches that caught the enemy unawares and for rapid construction of imposing structures of assault by the enemy’s walls. On one occasion he writes that “never before had the Gauls seen or heard of such immense siege works, and they were so disturbed by the Romans’ speed of action that they sent envoys to Caesar to negotiate surrender.” In ten days with great effort he constructed a bridge to allow his army to cross the Rhine. After spending eighteen days intimidating the Germans on the other side to his “honor and advantage,” he returned to Gaul and tore down the bridge.

Early on, he faced rebellion within. His own troops were intimidated by the size and ferocity of the Germans they were about to face and panic set in. Rather than execute every tenth man Stalin-style, he gave a long reassuring speech in which he cited the weaknesses of the enemy and the firmness of purpose of the Romans. Besides, if they chose not to accept his lead, he would be willing to face the enemy with only those who remained loyal. In the event they all did and won a hard-fought battle.

In eight years Caesar achieved his goal of bringing all Gaul into the Roman polity, an area comprising present day France, Belgium and parts of Germany and the Netherlands. It was an extension that led to empire and the lasting reputation of the conqueror at the cost, to be sure, of untold lives and the occasional barbarity not unique to Caesar.

Instigators and enthusiasts of U.S. wars and proxy wars, by all means read “The Gallic War.”

The Emperor and the Poet

In the dawn of our first century Emperor Augustus brought marble to Rome and peace to the empire after a series of destructive civil wars from which he emerged the victor. At first he pursued vengeance but later turned to forgiveness, a quality that marked his strong, one-man rule over a vast terrain.

One of those he forgave was the poet Horace, who fought against him at the climactic battle of Actium but not very well. He lost his shield in the middle of battle and withdrew in some humiliation. Not one to let politics interfere with poetry in the golden age of Latin literature, Augustus knew Horace would add luster to his own rule and befriended him, even though the poet had a far different view of the good life – not triumph in war or politics but the simple pleasures of close friends and ample wine in a relaxed country setting and not a care beyond.

Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65-8 BC), commonly known as Horace, Venosa, Italy

Snugly terse Latin is not easily translated into expansive English, but author David Ferry brings it off. Horace rebukes a friend for telling too many war stories:

But Telephus, you’re no good at all at telling
How much the wine is going to cost or who
Is going to make the fire to heat the water,
Who’s going to give the party, under whose roof
We’ll be invited in out of the cold.
Let’s have a party. Come, let’s celebrate.

That means with wine which is duly praised:

Your gentle discipline encourages
The dull to be less dull than usual,
And Bacchus, joyful deliverer, reveals
What the sober wise man really meant to say.
You bring back hope to the despairing heart
And you give courage to the poor man, so
He’s neither scared of tyrants in their crowns
Nor soldiers brandishing their scary weapons.

Horace will not budge from his way of life:

The splendid lord of the riches of Africa
Mistakenly thinks he’s better off than I
With my little farm whose crops I’m certain of’
And my little quiet stream of pure brook water.
I don’t have hives of bees from Calabria
Busily making their honey just for me;
I don’t have jars of rare Laestrygonian wine
Slowly maturing itself just for me.
Want much, lack much. That man has just enough
To whom the gods have given just enough.

With Augustus perhaps in mind Horace pays tribute to Rome:

Let the name of Rome be heard across the sea,
Over to Egypt where the great river swells.
Let the Romans go to the limits of the world,
Not for the sake of plunder but for the sake
Of extending Roman knowledge everywhere
From the dervish heat of the desert raving and dancing
To the dripping mists and fogs of the northern swamps.

He and Augustus died about the same time with similar lasting legacies:

I have finished a work outlasting bronze
And the pyramids of ancient royal kings.
Some part of me will live on and not be given
Over into the hands of the death goddess.
I will go on and on, kept ever young
In the praise in times to come for what I have done.