[Caveat: the following criticism of American military policy is not a reflection whatsoever on the men and women who serve or have served in the military]
As a lover of history, I can’t tell you how disturbing the parallels are between the U.S. and the Roman Empire.
Rome was built on the strength of its legions, a fighting force without equal. Nothing compared to its might and the scope of its influence and reach. For over 1,000 years it dominated the Mediterranean World and ushered in a period called the “Pax Romana,” Latin for “Roman Peace.”
The irony of the Pax Romana is that this “peace” was a false one. It was not an era in which societies coexisted in harmony. Instead, those who found themselves under Roman rule and on the periphery were intimidated into submission out of fear.
Rome was brutal, efficient, and total in its war-making. When quelling a rebellion or engaging in conquest, complete annihilation of opposing forces and demoralization of the civilian populace was preferred, often resulting in mass crucifixions lining streets.
As one might suspect, this didn’t engender feelings of good will for Rome. Early Christians issued many of their harshest rebukes towards the Empire and its policies.
This long-festering indignation and outright hatred of Rome contributed to its eventual fall.
[As an aside, Edward Gibbon noted five marks of the Roman decaying culture in his 1788 work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “Concern with displaying affluence instead of building wealth; obsession with sex and perversions of sex; art becomes freakish and sensationalistic instead of creative and original; widening disparity between very rich and very poor; increased demand to live off the state.” Make of that what you will…]
Hopefully it is fairly evident that the more one person punches another in the face – literally or metaphorically – the less the person is going to be liked.
Which brings us to American military policy, post-World War II.
Since the end of the last World War, across both political parties with very little deviation, the U.S. has imposed its will – often through military force – on much of the rest of the world.
Not all of those instances were necessarily “bad.” Some were quite likely the best course of action within difficult circumstances.
But not all of them. Probably not the majority.
From a selfish standpoint, this is a problem for Americans in the same way it was a problem for the Romans: if left unchecked, it will likely contribute to the waning of the civilization.
More importantly, from a humanitarian standpoint, it is a problem when we have contributed more to world instability than stability; when we have caused suffering for others in an attempt to increase our own power or geopolitical advantage.
No nation is by default always on the morally correct side of a situation.
The only difference in military policy from Truman through Obama has been the number of American boots on the ground in foreign wars. Through every president and every session of congress, the U.S. has supported regime changes, coups, and launched missile strikes and covert military operations across the world.
Why do most Middle East nations hate us?
It isn’t entirely the fault of the U.S., to be sure. Some of the blame lies on improper responses by other nations and people.
But without question much of it has to do with uninvited intervention in their world, directly causing the suffering and death of hundreds of thousands of people – from stamping down a democratic revolution in Iran and reinstating an oppressive dictator; to supplying munitions to both sides in the Iraq / Iran War; to directly destroying a central nation (well, two) with no viable plan to replace it; to countless numbers of bombs dropped without warning.
If the situations were reversed, how would we feel?
Our primary response to foreign issues has been nearly identical to Rome: send in the military. Annihilate opposition. Break the will of our enemies.
How’d that work out for Rome?
What, then, is the alternative?
As far as national self-interest is concerned, military responses are of course called for from time to time, so the answer almost certainly is not to cease all military operations.
But use of the military as a primary means of international relations needs to end lest we stumble down the Roman Road.
Violence is always the surface issue of root problems, yet violence can directly cause more problems.
Take the horrible trouble with ISIS as an example.
There are millions of reasons why ISIS exists: a power-vacuum in Iraq; interpretations of Islam congruent with its historical origin; and poor socioeconomic factors relegating numerous people to little hope and little opportunity unless something drastically changes.
What would a complete response to the breadth of the entire issue ISIS represents entail? For those adults in ISIS who are already true believers, military reprisals are likely inevitable based on their offensive goals. But, the entire apparatus is supported by the myriad underlying factors listed above.
Working to correct root causes is the only way to permanently end the cycle: providing humanitarian aid to nations that are economically troubled in order to induce higher standards of living; encouraging and providing outlets for broadcasting the messages of more progressive Islamic theologians and scholars; and not contributing to the destabilization of nations without properly accounting for all contingencies.
With those root causes addressed in meaningful ways, ISIS and movements like it will dry up through loss of internal inertia: no new recruits will flow into their ranks, and they will disappear as the existing true believers either die in war or eventually give up.
None of this is meant to imply these responses are easy, only to suggest that they may prove far more effective than the demonstrated long-term ineffectiveness of war.
There will always be nations that are envious and jealous of others, but it is possible to envision nations and cultures that don’t have legitimate reasons to hate the U.S. with the depth of their being.
These aren’t utopian dreams: nations will always have enemies of one sort or another, as an inclination of human nature is towards conflict. But hopefully the general, overall welfare of humanity can be raised to a sufficient standard so as to eliminate the obvious motivations for fanatical responses such as holocaust, genocide and jihad.
The question remains for us whether we will choose to continue down the same paths nations have always traveled to their ultimate demise or if, in keeping with the principles on which the U.S. was founded, we will commit to trying something new.