Will Mattis cross the Rubicon? Or did Trump already do that?

Caesar pauses at the Rubicon, before casting the die.

Caesar pauses at the Rubicon, before casting the die.

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…


… and then he goes ahead and crosses it, with the Legio XIII Gemina.

9 thoughts on “Will Mattis cross the Rubicon? Or did Trump already do that?

  1. Bryan Caskey

    I’m probably the only person here who reads Duffleblog. It’s like the Onion, but for the military and it’s hilarious. This is one of their articles from 2013, after Mattis was unceremoniously pushed out by the Obama administration.

    WASHINGTON — In an unprecedented turn in American history, retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, several years after being dismissed by the President and exiled to his estate in the countryside, marched on the national capitol early Tuesday morning with an army over one hundred thousand strong.
    This number includes at least ten infantry legions, several aviation and artillery legions, and multiple cavalry cohorts.

    “I come in peace, by myself, in order to hand-deliver a Memorandum of Concern to the Commander in Chief and the Senate,” said Mattis in a press conference. “I am moving on foot at a leisurely pace, with no ill will. If these American citizens choose to take a stroll with me, then who am I to turn down their companionship?”

    The contents of the so-called memorandum are unknown, but are rumored by Mattis’ close advisors to contain paragraphs addressing unconstitutional acts by the administration and the Senate. Alarmed by the amassing of troops sympathetic to Mattis over the last week at Fort Myer, the Senate, the President, and various generals attempted to recall various combat divisions to Washington to defend the city.

    These included the 101st Airborne, 82nd Airborne, 10th Mountain, and 3rd Infantry Divisions, in addition to the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force.

    “We even attempted to contact NAVSURFLANT and SUBLANT,” confided one Senate aide as he packed his Datsun to flee northward. “All we got was laughter and then static.”

    Read the rest at the link.

  2. Bryan Caskey

    Why does the military move people around so much?

    My dad moved every time he got a promotion. He never got a promotion after he went to Ft. Jackson, and left the military after coming back from the first Gulf War, so we ended up in Columbia. Before that, we were in San Antonio (where I was born), Philadelphia (for a very short while) and then Ft. Jackson.

    My brother-in-law (who is a LTC) had to decide whether or not to move based on whether he wanted to go for full-bird Colonel. If he wanted to go for the promotion, he was going to need to have to PCS so he could get some command experience.

    Instead of uprooting his family (his girls are 6 and 9) he’s staying put and will retire as a Lt. Col.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I’ve seen references to that — moving being promotion-related. I don’t think that’s true in the Navy, though. We moved every year or two regardless. There are only five steps from ensign to captain, my Dad’s ultimate rank, and I went to 14 schools from K-12.

      I can think of two cases when my Dad’s new duty assignment entailed a promotion. The first was when we were sent to Ecuador. My Dad was just a lieutenant, and it was a lieutenant commander billet, so he was promoted when we got there.

      Same deal when he was sent to his river-patrol command in the mangrove swamps of Vietnam. It was a full-commander job, and he received the promotion after he got there. Those two were separated by our two years in New Orleans…

      1. Bryan Caskey

        You were an O-6’s kid? No wonder the NCO kids told you that you were different.

        kidding, kidding. 🙂

        All kidding aside, they don’t just make anyone O-6. You gotta work hard for that.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          He was “made post” when he was stationed in Millington. They never gave him command of a frigate or an independent cruise, though, so no prize money…

  3. Phillip

    I don’t know about Mattis crossing the Rubicon, but it certainly seems that this Lt. Gen. Flynn character has long ago crossed over into la-la land.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I’m always kind of shocked when I see former military officers go off the deep end politically.

        The culture they come up in is one in which one is supposed to be ABOVE, or at least separate from, such things. And in my experience, that tends to be the rule.

        Mick Zais shocked me that way. When he because Superintendent of Education, I thought “Fine. Someone who will be pragmatic and not an ideologue.”

        But he was as bad as ANY statewide election official in terms of embracing Tea Party nonsense.

        And now there’s Flynn.

        I still tend to think of them as exceptions that prove the rule…

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