Bacevich and the Fury of the Legions

In the recent Bacevich op-ed previously quoted by Steve, I noticed the following (partial) quotation from one of my favorite short pieces, “The Fury of the Legions”:

“We had been told, on leaving our native soil,” wrote the centurion Marcus Flavius to a cousin back in Rome, “that we were going to defend the sacred rights conferred on us by so many of our citizens [and to aid] populations in need of our assistance and our civilization.” For such a cause, he and his comrades had willingly offered to “shed our quota of blood, to sacrifice our youth and our hopes.” Yet the news from the homeland was disconcerting: The capital was seemingly rife with factions, treachery and petty politics. “Make haste,” Marcus Flavius continued, “and tell me that our fellow citizens understand us, support us and protect us as we ourselves are protecting the glory of the empire.”

“If it should be otherwise, if we should have to leave our bleached bones on these desert sands in vain, then beware of the anger of the legions!”

Now, I share Bacevich’s concern regarding the danger of perpetual war, and the potential isolation of our standing army from the populace at large.  However, I’m not entirely sure why he decided to quote “The Fury of the Legions.”  At least as I read it, the contents of that piece do not necessarily support Bacevich’s goal of “insisting that Washington abandon its de facto policy of perpetual war” – an agenda which, presumably, would include retreat from our current wars in Iraq & Afghanistan.  On the contrary, they trend in the opposite direction.

The piece – whose authenticity is admittedly open to question – is attributed to “Centurion Marcus Flavinius, Second Cohort, Augusta Legion to his cousin Tertullus in Rome.”  Its full text, which can be found (where I first encountered it) at Jerry Pournelle’s website, reads as follows:

We had been told, on leaving our native soil, that we were going to defend the sacred rights conferred on us by so many of our citizens settled overseas, so many years of our presence, so many benefits brought by us to populations in need of our assistance and our civilization.

We were able to verify that all this was true, and because it was true, we did not hesitate to shed our quota of blood, to sacrifice our youth and our hopes. We regretted nothing, but whereas we over here are inspired by this frame of mind, I am told that in Rome factions and conspiracies are rife, that treachery flourishes, and that many people in their uncertainty and confusion lend a ready ear to the dire temptations of relinquishment and even to vilify our actions.

I cannot believe that all this is true, and yet recent wars have shown how pernicious such a state of mind could be and to where it could lead.

Make haste to reassure us, I beg you, and tell us that our fellow citizens understand us, support us, and protect us as we ourselves are protecting the glory of the Empire.

If it should be otherwise, if we should have to leave our bleached bones on these desert sands in vain, then beware the fury of the Legions. [Emphasis added]

Note the bolded sections:  The soldiers whose sentiment this letter embodies “did not hesitate to shed” their blood, because they were “able to verify” that they were indeed fighting for a just cause.  As for what might bring forth “the fury of the Legions”?  Not the frustrations of perpetual war, nor even contempt for civilians per se.  Rather, it is “the dire temptations of relinquishment”, and the prospect of being forced “to leave our bleached bones on these desert sands in vain”.  In other words, the soldiers believe they are fighting a just war, and in that noble cause have “shed [their] quota of blood,” and “sacrifice[d] [their] youth and [their] hopes.”  However, people far from the front lines are publicly contemplating some course of action – e.g., premature withdrawal, surrender, etc. – that would render the soldiers’ sacrifices “in vain”.  The author of the piece is therefore pointing out that, should the people back home give in to “the dire temptations of relinquishment”, they should “beware the fury of the Legions”, since the soldiers they sent to fight & die “in vain” will be seriously displeased at such a turn of events.

So the danger of inciting “the fury of the Legions” is a risk associated with withdrawal or disengagement from ongoing wars, not war-weariness on the part of the military.  This is not to say, of course, that such a risk should foreclose the option of withdrawal in Iraq or Afghanistan, if such a course of action is truly in our national interests.  It’s not even clear to me whether the troops believe that those wars are just or necessary to the same extent at Centurion Flavinius once did.  If they don’t, then “the fury of the Legions” is a non-issue.  But if they do so believe, then the risk of such “fury” is probably something we should take into account when deciding whether to withdraw.

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