It’s been pointed out many times now that the issue of whether to grant a waiver to allow Gen. James Mattis to become Defense secretary goes back to 1950, when Congress granted a one-time exemption to George C. Marshall.
Actually, the issue goes back much, MUCH farther than that, to Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon, which signaled the pending demise of the Roman Republic.
In those days — and through much of history — generals tended to have more or less personal armies, filled with soldiers who felt they owed their fealty to the generals themselves at least as much as they did to the larger political entity that the army supposedly served. That proposed a threat to the stability of the Roman Republic, so they had a law — generals had to keep their armies out of Italy.
Julius Caesar broke that rule by taking his legion south of the Rubicon, and sure enough, republicans’ fears were realized.
I’ve always assumed that the reason I had to move around so much growing up as a Navy brat was that the U.S. military wisely keeps its officers from staying with the same unit or in the same community long enough to form those kinds of dangerous relationships — either with their troops or with local political leadership. My exposure early on to the dynamics of military coups in Latin America persuaded me of this.
(Weirdly, if you Google “why do people move so much in the military,” you don’t get that explanation. Which seems weird to me. Can anyone out there confirm whether MY understanding of the reason is correct?)
Anyway, the ironic thing here is that a lot of folks (including me to a certain extent) are painting Trump’s election as a harbinger of the demise of our own republic, as Americans turn to a strongman who promises to solve all our problems, and who has little grounding in the foundational principles of our society.
Some have drawn the comparison to Julius Caesar’s big move on Rome. Over the weekend, I enjoyed reading this piece by a historian, who wrote in The Washington Post to debunk such comparisons:
These comparisons are common. Former Supreme Court justice David Souter has said that embracing an all-powerful figure who promises to solve the nation’s problems is “how the Roman republic fell.” Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, ended democracy “because he promised that he would solve problems that were not being solved,” Souter said in the 2012 quote, which resurfaced during this fall’s campaign. Along those same lines, a Huffington Post headline claimed: “Rome Had Caesar. America Has Trump. The People Were and Are Desperate.”
But such comparisons are light on scholarship. Simply put, most experts believe there is little to compare. Yes, the United States has seen a rise in populism, but it hasn’t experienced a microgram of the violence that accompanied the fall of the Roman republic. The end came only after numerous civil wars over offices and honor , decades of gang violence in the capital, and waves of sanctioned political murder. By that measure, Trump is no Caesar…
That is somewhat reassuring. The historian is saying, I knew Caesar, and you, Mr. Trump, are no Caesar… And perhaps it’s a good thing to debunk such notions. The Secret Service would not want to see a latter-day Brutus and the rest getting ideas. Nor would I, let me say…
The reason the Trump-as-Caesar analogy strikes me as ironic is that the situation with Gen. Mattis offers the closer parallel to the actual principle involved in requiring the legion to stay in Gaul. And frankly, as I expressed earlier, I find the prospect of someone as qualified as Mattis to be a good and promising thing, by comparison with most aspects of the coming administration.
In other words, Mattis crossing the Rubicon might be a small salvation for our republic, or at least might mitigate some of the damage done by Consul Trump, who recently caused the plebeians to rise up…