The basic principle of judo, so I have been told, is to use your enemy’s strength against him. I was forced to apply this principle more than once in college, when my athletic friends, invigorated by the joy of youth and a fifth of Jack Daniels, would suddenly realize how pleasant it would be to dangle the first available lightweight from the balcony. They meant no harm, really, but they did not know their own strength. More than one of them, after lurching in my direction, ended up sprawled out on the floor.
I had learned more irenic ways by graduate school. Rather than assault the housemate who refused to wash dishes after one of his dinner parties, I simply boycotted kitchen duty and dined out all of the time. I thought he would see the error of his ways, but he did not, and so I found myself, one chilly day in early May (the seventh, in fact) of 1969, pouring Lysol on a tub of dishes in the backyard and hosing them off. Nelson, my housemate’s college roommate, stopped by to commiserate, and we were joined by an undergraduate from next door, a behemoth of a senior who should have been a lineman for the Tarheels. I shall call him Bill, because that was his name.
“Say,” exclaimed Nelson, “Do you know what day it is today? It’s the 15th anniversary of Dien Bien Phu.”
“You mean,” said I, trying to imitate the Stalinist language of the student left, with which we were all made too familiar in those days, “the final defeat of French colonial aggression in Southeast Asia?”
“That’s not very funny,” Bill grunted ominously. Bill’s family were Goldwaterite textile manufacturers from western North Carolina (Andy Griffith country), and the Vietnam War was sacred to him, though not sacred enough to induce this rich man’s son to volunteer.
“Not funny for the French, certainly,” I quipped.
“That does it,” said Bill, who made a terrific lunge at me. Stepping nimbly aside and taking him by the hand, I escorted him into the air, where his 225 pounds executed a beautiful flip, landing him boom on his back with the breath knocked out of him.
“My God,” said Nelson, looking at the unconscious Bill. “When he gets up, he’ll kill you.” I was thinking fast. My first thought was that, if I stomped on his head hard enough, Bill might never get up, but this seemed a messy and complicated strategy, especially since Bill was simply being Bill. Men who are predictably violent are rarely troublesome, and if they play by the rules, they have my respect.
I had just decided to go into the house and lock the doors and windows when the light came back to Bill’s eyes. Bellowing in rage, he jumped to his feet, and before I could make it to the door, he had grabbed me by the knees, lifted my 130 pounds high over his head, and crashed me face first onto the ground. My head struck a rock, and I was out for some minutes. As I came to, Bill (still smarting from his first-round defeat) stood over me, threatening like a bully out of the Penrod stories: “ . . . and if you think about suing, my old man is president of the textile manufacturers’ association, and in this state, it means the cops can throw you in jail for a year just on his say-so . . . ”
What a world we are living in, I thought, where a bully has to worry about being sued and stoops to bragging about his father’s connections. What could he possibly be thinking of? Perhaps the unfairness of it all, that the rich and powerful must occasionally suffer the pains reserved for the poor and the weak.
I wonder, what were the French thinking after Dien Bien Phu, or the Americans who picked up the discarded torch of European colonialism? Eisenhower, as I recall, had said something about the need to defend American business interests in Southeast Asia, but I have never known what those interests were.
In general, there are only two or three justifications for empire. Some empires have begun when a brave people were forced to defend themselves from aggression; in other cases, a surplus population is sent out in search of new land. Eventually, however, empires confer two benefits on the imperial race: tribute and cheap labor, and the pursuit of taxpayers and slaves is the chief occupation of every empire.
The citizens of ruling nations are not supposed to pay taxes, except for customs duties. The definition of full citizenship, in fact, should include exemption from all taxes except tariffs. To the extent there are full citizens in the United States, they are those people whose lawyers help their servants in the government draw up the tax codes that leave in the loopholes that exempt so much money from taxes that the rich have some left over to spend on Congress to ensure high income taxes for us and low tariffs for them. The CEOs of the airline industry are citizens; the pilots, flight attendants, and passengers are merely subjects.
Cheap labor, the other goal of empire and conquest, used to take the form of slaves. It was the dream of Caesar’s soldiers to catch a couple of healthy Gauls or Germans who could fetch a high price in the slave market.
Wherever the Romans went to stay, they built up the imperial infrastructure: solid roads and bridges over which legions marched and merchants traveled; a postal system that allowed commands to be sent from Milan to Hadrian’s Wall to Damascus with amazing speed, and an increasingly centralized military and bureaucratic structure that relieved the farmers and townsmen from the need to defend themselves or accept responsibility.
In Trajan’s halcyon days, of course, the Roman towns were largely self-governing, and the provincials (many of them only a generation or so away from vigorous barbarity) could defend themselves if necessary. To meet the crises of a shrinking economy and barbarian invasions, however, emperors such as Diocletian had imposed a military command model on the civilized world, so that when the Goths and Avars and Slavs came breaking into the imperial territory, wave after wave, the provincials were as helpless as the decadent people of Rome herself. And the innumerable miles of roads and bridges made it all the easier for the barbarians to raid and pillage their way across the empire. They must have approached Roman towns with much the same spirit as Jesse James entered a fat Yankee bank. Many of them knew the territory, of course, since the Romans had become too self-indulgent to fight their own battles (or plant their own crops) and exploited the sturdy barbarians as a source of cheap labor and expendable soldiers.
Empires fall because of their own weaknesses, but the enemies of empire do not have to understand that. So long as they can play anti-imperial judo by using the empire’s strength against itself, and the more civilized and developed the empire is, the more vulnerable it is to conquest, once its people begin to lose the will to resist. The Roman Britons, menaced by Germanic and Scandinavian pirates, appealed repeatedly to Rome for protection. Their final answer came in the sad message telling them they had to look out for their own defense. If there is any truth to the story of Arthur, he was a civilized man, perhaps a Roman officer, who defended his little fragment of civilization by fair means and foul.
So here we are, the master nation of a nearly global empire that is envied and hated around the world. We have turned our own citizens into tribute-paying subjects, and we are spreading the “American way of life” across the world in an endless quest for cheap labor. We no longer make our own cars and shoes, and for the most part, we are unwilling to fight our own battles. In suppressing our frontier brush-wars, we rely on the high-tech weapons of mass destruction that are a confession of impotence, and to staff the army that hardly ever fights, we turn increasingly to men who do not belong to the cultural and ethnic majority: African Americans, Mexican Americans, and even Mexican Mexicans. Many of these soldiers are fine men, proud to be serving America. Some of them will wake up one day to despise the spoiled suburban weaklings who expect others to do their fighting for them. Then, when it is too late, an American president will contemplate the fate of Romulus Augustulus, the puppet-emperor the Germans learned to do without.
America is different, people tell me. Yes, of course, we are bigger, and we went from being healthy primitives to corrupt effeminates in a mere hundred years. In the West, the Romans hung on in one form or another for a millennium and a half (if we confine ourselves to their traditional dates). We have been in North America for less than four centuries, and we have been a nation-state for only two. At this point, the Romans were just hitting their stride.
But we are bigger, and our imperial infrastructure is exponentially greater (though not as solidly built) than anything the Romans dreamed of: globally integrated markets, travel, and communication, and a bureaucracy that presumes to set the rules and lay down the law “from China to Peru.” The bigger they are, the harder they fall—as in judo. Our postal system turns out to be an excellent vehicle for spreading deadly microbes; with just a little force applied to a symbol like the World Trade Center, our integrated markets can be forced to hemorrhage investors’ money; and our vast network of air travel enables a Pakistani terrorist to take time off from his German university to consult with his superiors in Afghanistan before jetting off to plot a bombing in America, and the plane in which he flies turns out to make the best of all possible weapons. It is as if the Goths fought their way to Rome by beating the Romans to death with the bricks from their own roads.
The lessons of history are plain, but they will not be read by smart people like Donald Rumsfeld (“the sexiest man in America,” according to a conservative magazine whose editors thought they were paying a compliment). Mr. Rumsfeld, Paul O’Neil, and the entire Bush Cabinet, which is filled with smart, competent men, see the globe as a set of interrelated markets to be controlled and manipulated from Washington, D.C., and a few satellite centers. Diocletian was a smart man, too, and a patriotic imperial soldier. He tried to save the world by carrying it on his shoulders and on the shoulders of the men he appointed Augustus or Caesar, and so long as there were a few men as good as himself or Constantius Chlorus, the scheme was made to work, though not for long.
Diocletian took his name from a Roman municipium, Doclea (or Dioclea), later called Duklja. The ruins are just outside modern Podgorica, formerly Titograd, formerly Podgorica, the capital of the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro. By car, it is a few hours from the Adriatic coast and not too much farther to Diocletian’s great palace at Split, where he retired to plant cabbages. By some time in the seventh century, Slavic invaders had marched down the Roman roads leading from Singidunum (Belgrade) and Naissus over the mountains to Doclea, and they had taken over Dalmatia.
Within a few centuries, the Slavs and Latins had constructed a fairly brilliant Christian civilization, both Orthodox and Catholic, that was reaching its height in the final years of the 14th century, just when the Turks arrived. Marching up the same old Roman roads that the Slavs had gone down, softening up the population with a series of terrorist raids that were the usual Muslim preliminary to major invasions, the Turks looted and raped (both men and women) their way across the Balkans, turning their victims into slaves or tribute-paying peasants.
Of course, the Turks took advantage of internal instabilities, and of the divisions between Bulgars, Greeks, and Serbs, but they could also use their victims’ civilization against them. People with much to lose will come to accommodation. In Bosnia, Turks made converts or stole the Christian children; elsewhere (as among the Greeks), they recruited clerks and bureaucrats. Many noblemen were willing to acknowledge Turkish suzerainty in return for a fragile right to retain their own property. In the end, however, as the saying goes, il Turco è sempre Turco. And the only choice they and other Muslim rulers presented was to convert or to fight, and fight hard. It has often been said of Turkish subjects who did not renounce their faith that he who would not be a slave must be a savage.
The ominous fact of the past few months is the number of nominal Christians in Britain and America who are renouncing their faith. Since September 11, Islam has increasingly higher approval ratings in opinion polls. This is partly a tribute to the gullibility of Americans who believe what they see on TV or read in the New York Times, but—who knows—it may also be a nod of respect for the winning religion from a people whose love of winners and contempt for the underdog is well known.
Montenegrins were made of different stuff, and when the Turks overran their country at the end of the 15th century, they took to the mountains and lived like wolves, fighting against their own people who had converted to Islam. They lured armies into the hills and pushed boulders upon their heads before swooping down on the scattered Turkish forces. Three hundred years ago on Christmas Eve, they rose up and gave the renegade men the same choice the Turks had given. Savage they were. But they were free and Christian. What are we?