On the New Roman Army

The Roman Empire was perhaps the greatest civilization in history by power, influence and longevity. The very notion of political and social hegemony today is based in large part on the expanse of classical Rome. As such it also provides the historical prism through which to view the decline or perceived decline of modern powers. The comparisons to modern America are obvious and many. Although such application of past to present is sometimes overstated or oversimplified and often overused by proponents and detractors alike this does not undo the historical imperative of learning the lessons of what has transpired before us.
Roman imperial might was rooted ultimately in the coercive power of its legions and its economic ability to maintain them. For centuries Roman infantry and tactics dominated every battlefield and opponent of the ancient world. All of this changed however on August 9th, 348 at Adrianople. It was here in modern Turkey that the supremacy of the mighty Roman army came to a lasting end at the hands of Gothic tribes. Although the Empire in the West would continue for more than a century it was at this place many agree that the real ascendancy of Rome was lost forever. Though we point to 476 as the official end of the glory that was Rome it was at Adrianople that its fall became a matter of time rather than an avoidable outcome. The Romans at this battle remained the most highly touted infantry in the world but were simply no match for the Gothic cavalry and the new tactics associated with it. The crushing defeat was certainly not the beginning of the end for the fabled army. It was rather the climax of a longer deterioration spread over many years which culminated on the battlefield that day. A clear demonstration that the mightiest military the world had known had become a shadow of its former self. Rome had failed to adapt to change. The end result being the end of Rome itself.
Romans were certainly familiar with innovations in cavalry and other military technology. Their leadership was often in the forefront of its development. They failed primarily to develop these assets however for economic reasons.
-The decline of a strong agricultural base leading to urbanization resulting over time in high unemployment and unprecedented drain on treasure to support basic social services in cities
-A depletion of resources produced by conquest resulting in higher and higher taxes on citizens to support the army
-Strains on resources in an attempt to adapt to the new cavalry model which was prohibitively more expensive than traditional infantry
-An almost constant state of operational deployment along widespread frontiers far from Italy itself
-Army 'reforms' which tended to rely heavily on select units only without proper replacements, rotation or retention policies
-Declining public infrastructure to support growth in commerce as greater resources were diverted to military ends, and
-Escalating public debt and currency devaluation evolved primarily to support ongoing wars on the frontiers.
The factors listed are certainly simplified and hardly exhaustive of the many and complicated issues which led to a long and steady decline of the Pax Romana. There are indeed more associated with just the decline of the army itself. This does provide, albeit limited, a basic and useful general context for understanding the ultimate failure of the army and its role in dissolution of the Empire itself. This is not an exploration of Roman upheaval however. Rome simply provides the backdrop for a viewing of current events. It has been said that the failure of history is a failure to learn its lessons. Looking at the points above one can not help but be struck by the potential enormity of present failings.
The United States Armed Forces are certainly the greatest that have ever been seen to date. Their awesome might unparalleled in the annals of history. Even Roman greatness pales in relative comparison. Yet this global leviathan of American power exhibits troubling symmetry with its long extinct predecessor when viewed through an informed scrutiny of history.
The decline of the American manufacturing base today is akin to the loss of the agrarian base of antiquity. With American manufacturing receding its national trade deficit grows. The comparison of reduced exports can be easily extended to the diminishing treasure of frontier conquest experienced by Rome. When combined with ever-increasing demands on the state for social services from at least the Great Society onwards it paints a clear comparison. The tax burden of government at all levels can only increase markedly in coming decades. The demographic perfect storm of the Baby Boom and entitlement expectations only solidifies this course. The underlying health of the United States economy is in jeopardy.
The Defense budget only continues to bloom in these conditions. With the brief exceptions of demobilization in the 1940's and 1990's after the Second World War and Cold War respectively military expenditure relative to all measures has grown almost unabated for decades. Massive expenditure on procurement continues at quick pace. Competing to stay in advance of real and perceived threats abroad while maintaining massive Cold War-appropriate heavy forces. It is noteworthy that most units and systems known to be among the most effective in recent operations in the Near East and elsewhere did not include traditional massed armor or new fifth generation stealth aircraft. Though these elements account for much of new procurement spending each year they seem to have little battlefield utility. Asymmetrical threats such as those employed effectively by terrorists and supporters on the ground or increasingly against sophisticated and critical information networks have emerged as most urgent. Yet American policy has not adapted well to these new dimensions. Resources are diverted to procure capabilities to counter past adversaries or unlikely scenarios. The United States operates hundreds of installations around the globe to support large formations, operations, deployments, potential deployments, protection of allied interests and so on. A network of neo-imperial outposts in every corner of the world. With many large formations never seeing deployment in combat because they are either unsuitable or deployed in static other units have borne the formidable brunt of the so-called war on terror. The age of the Roman infantryman dominant on the far-flung frontier battlefield is over. American policymakers need to apply this lesson of their forebears.
The combination of decreased revenue and massive expenditure on foreign wars since the start of this century has only ballooned already questionable federal spending, deficits and debt. For those who subscribe to contemporary notions of massive spending reductions without revenue increases there is an unspoken reality apparent. The last decade was one of negligent fiscal irresponsibility on both ends of the spectrum. Republicans funded two major overseas wars and cut taxes simultaneously. Democrats lacked the moral courage or efficacy to act as an effective opposition and then did nothing substantive to reverse course on spending. Both sides are equally responsible for the fiscal crisis today and neither has presented a reasonable alternative. The miniscule expenditure reductions complete with massive revenue increases popular on the left and the revolutionary virtual dismantling of the federal government embodied in the Tea Party on the right are both beyond the rational whatever their guise. What is certain is that the military-industrial complex, as dubbed by no less a heroic hawk than General become President Dwight Eisenhower five decades ago, is not sustainable.
The world is changing. Economic and technological might are becoming not a means to military supremacy but a hegemonic end on their own. This is certainly not to say that there will be no need or use of armed force moving forward. To state this would be naivete in pollyannaish measure. Physical coercion or its potential remains at the root of social and global order. Economic growth, technical innovation and social progress are linked at their most fundamental to this foundation of order. It is in economics, resources, technology and information that we observe the emergence of the new theatres of operations. Where tank battles are replaced by hostile takeovers, invasions become ethnic conflicts within failed states threatening commodity production, and computer viruses hurl virtual megatons against critical military and civil network assets. It is in this space, in a global economy of unprecedented competition between individuals, corporations and nations, and a digital landscape upon which physical security or vulnerability is increasingly dependent, that the future of warfare resides.
The simple fact is that Rome had limited resources for their military endeavors. Their choice was ignorant over-extension. They chose to maintain large infantry formations along the frontiers while attempting to develop more costly cavalry units which combined to form an unaffordable drain on finances. America likewise finds itself in a similar conundrum with infinite demands and finite means. Its forces are deployed in large numbers throughout the world. They remain mired in two major wars after nearly a decade of continuous infantry operations. They consistently provide strategic, C4I and logistical support to overseas allied operations. They operate a strategic umbrella of deterrence for friends and competitors now expanding to anti-ballistic missile systems. They face daunting challenges defending their own territory due to heavy reliance on reserve and National Guard units in foreign operations and related chronic retention issues. A plethora of procurement requirements have been made acute by wear on equipment of all types in a decade of combat. At the same time they face the task of meeting the challenges of future warfare detailed above. All of these factors must also be considered within the context of fiscal and economic crises at home and abroad.
Like Romans of old Americans face difficult times and even more difficult choices. Domestic constituencies, active and seductive lobbying machines, ideology, genuine pride in an impressive military heritage, and collective fear all grip the nation into staying the course of an unsustainable status quo. As in domestic challenges, from unaffordable social entitlements to crumbling social infrastructure, America like Rome lacks the political will and courage of leadership to do the right thing. Americans deserve and more than that are in desperate need of the conviction of country over party and people over self. What is becoming uncomfortably evident is that the United States appears doomed to repeat historic errors without swift and sure correction. Its unsurpassed security apparatus on the precipice of becoming a new Roman army. For if fear of partisan consequence continues to trump the possible national consequence of indecision then American world leadership may be destined like an ill-fated Roman to die upon its own sword.

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