Stuff from Way Back #10: A Circle in the Sand

On the eve of the Second Punic War in 218 BC the Roman Republic was essentially an Italian power, controlling the peninsula south of the Po valley and the islands of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica.  In just thirty years Rome then defeated the only other powers in the Mediterranean world that could possible challenge her: Carthage (Second Punic War 218-201), Antigonid Macedon (Second Macedonian War 200-196) and the vast Seleucid Empire (War with Antiochus 192-188).  While Rome still directly controlled very little territory outside Italy and the islands as provinces – the Senate preferred an hegemonic approach – the empire was completely established by 188 in the sense that there was no one left who could even remotely threaten Rome.  Turning clients into provinces would occupy the next couple of centuries.  Just how powerful Rome was by 188 is illustrated by a single incident, one that did not in fact involve any show of force.

After the death of Alexander III (the Great) in 323 his empire collapsed as his lieutenants fought over the spoils for the next for the next half century.  This was the Age of the Successors, and the virtually endless war of the period produced the three major powers of the Hellenistic world, all of them Greco-Macedonian monarchies defended by almost exclusively Greco-Macedonian armies.  The descendants of Antigonus the One-Eyed managed to capture the Macedonian homeland, replacing the now defunct Temenid dynasty of Alexander with the Antigonid dynasty.  Another young officer, Ptolemy son of Lagos, seized Egypt and established the Ptolemaic or Lagid dynasty, the last member of which was the famous Cleopatra VII.  The Asian territory, stretching from the Mediterranean to India, fell to Seleucus, after whom the Seleucid dynasty would be named.

For most of the third century these three states existed in a precarious balance of power, two periodically joining against the third when it seemed to be growing too strong.  Consequently, while there was constant scheming and wars of expansion, the three monarchies continued to exist into the second century.  By the end of the third century, however, Egypt had become a weakling under a series of poor kings and was the priority target of the Seleucids.  Actually, Egypt had always been a target of the Seleucids, and in the course of the third century the two powers had fought five wars over control of Syria-Palestine, a critical strategic area for both states.

The day of reckoning was delayed by Roman involvement in the east, which led to the defeat of Antiochus III (the Great) in 188 and the loss Asia Minor, his most valuable territory.  He died in 187 and was succeeded by his son Seleucus IV Philopator, who was assassinated in 178 and followed by his brother Antiochus IV Epiphanes of biblical fame.  In 170 Eulaeus and Lenaeus, ministers of the underage Ptolemy VI Philometor, prepared for an invasion of Palestine, now under Seleucid control, but were thwarted by Antiochus, who in 169 captured Memphis and Ptolemy himself and had himself proclaimed king of Egypt.  But the population of Alexandria named Ptolemy’s brother king as Ptolemy VII and fortified the city so well that Antiochus retired from Egypt, leaving Ptolemy VI to duke it out with his sibling.  The hoped for fratricidal war of attrition did not occur, however, and the brothers reconciled, leading Antiochus to invade once again in 168.  He easily reached Alexandria and began preparing a siege, when a Roman embassy showed up.

Antiochus was well aware of Roman strength and had followed his father and brother in going out of his way to maintain friendly relations with the Republic.  He knew the Romans were disinclined to see the Seleucid empire expand, but at this time Rome was involved in the Third Macedonian War (171-168) against Perseus, destined to be the last king of Macedon.  There was no doubt of the outcome, but Antiochus presumably believed that Egypt was outside the Roman strategic horizon and that his excellent relations with the Republic would lead them to accept a fait accompli.

The Roman embassy, led by the former consul C. Popillius Laenas, met Antiochus at his headquarters outside Alexandria.  Popillius handed the king a letter from the Senate, a note that said something to the effect that the Senate and the Roman People felt it was in the best interests of everyone for Antiochus to return to Asia and leave the Ptolemaic monarchy intact.  The king asked for time to consider the “request.”  Popillius responded by using his walking stick to draw in the sand a circle around Antiochus and asked him to give his response before he left the circle.  Antiochus, ruler of more territory than Rome, at the head of a victorious army and about to achieve what his family had dreamed of for a century, gathered his forces and marched back to Syria.  So powerful had Rome become.

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Where Are Country Joe and the Fish?

(This does not scan perfectly, but then, neither does the original.  And I’ll be damned if I can figure out how to keep the lines from breaking; like others, WordPress uses vocabulary that is incomprehensible to the non-computer geek.)


Well, come on all of you, big strong men,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Uncle Sam needs your help again.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           We’ve got ourselves in another jam                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              In a place far worse than Vietnam.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              So give up your job and pick up a gun,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   You’re gonna have a whole lotta fun.

And it’s one, two, three,
What are we fighting for ?
Congressmen, they don’t give a damn,
Next stop’s Afghanistan;
And it’s five, six, seven,
Open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain’t no time to wonder why,
Whoopee! you’re all gonna die.

Come on Wall Street, don’t be slow,
Why Haliburton, you gotta know
There’s plenty good money to be made
By supplying the Army with the tools of the trade,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    And you make the dough when you blow up the man,                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Whether or not he’s the Taliban.

And it’s one, two, three,
What are we fighting for ?
Congressmen, they don’t give a damn,
Next stop’s Afghanistan;
And it’s five, six, seven,
Open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain’t no time to wonder why,
Whoopee! you’re all gonna die.

Well, come on generals, let’s move slow;
Endless war is what you know.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Now you can go out and bomb ragheads                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                ‘Cause the only good Arab is the one that’s dead,
And you know that peace can only be bad
When so many jerks are on jihad.

And it’s one, two, three,
What are we fighting for ?
Congressmen, they don’t give a damn,
Next stop’s Afghanistan;
And it’s five, six, seven,
Open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain’t no time to wonder why,
Whoopee! you’re all gonna die.

Come on White House, don’t stay your hand,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Freedom now for Afghanistan.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Come on Congress, and don’t hesitate                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     And vote more money before it’s too late.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               And you can be the first to hold your seat                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                For turning Afghanis into dead meat.

And it’s one, two, three,
What are we fighting for ?
Congressmen, they don’t give a damn,
Next stop’s Afghanistan;
And it’s five, six, seven,
Open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain’t no time to wonder why,
Whoopee! you’re all gonna die.

And It’s One, Two, Three, What Are We Fighting For?

Even what little information about the situation in Afghanistan that dribbles out of our increasingly coy and entertainment-oriented media suggests, at least to a reasonable and non-politically warped person, that things are not going all that well for the freedom-loving saviors from the West.  Our soldiers continue to be blown up in areas declared secure, and well organized strikes take place in Kabul itself.  More telling, the number of attacks on “NATO” troops (this is clearly an American war) by members of the Afghan military and security forces we are training is increasing.  Reports of Afghan officials departing the country with suitcases full of money abound, and the “democracy” we are building charges rape victims with adultery.  And the word is that the Pentagon and White House are annoyed with the pessimistic reports coming out of the CIA, reports which are of course classified.

Well, suspicions are confirmed by an intelligence report leaked in Germany, where Berlin is painting the same rosy picture as Washington, Chancellor Merkel having as much political capital as President Obama invested in a war that has precious little to do with American security and absolutely nothing to do with German interests.  Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst, has issued a report on the situation in Afghanistan and the prognosis for the next two years, and though it is marked “classified/confidential” because it so at odds with what both the German and American governments are saying, it has been leaked.

Both governments are claiming that no more combat troops will be needed after 2014, only trainers for the Afghan army, which of course is killing Americans on a regular basis now.  According to the BNDreport, at least 35,000 troops will be required to stabilize the country, and “stabilize” hardly suggests creating a state that can stand alone.  The analysis also found no evidence that the Taliban is willing to enter serious negotiations, especially with the government in Kabul, and is just biding its time.

Afghan President Karzai is the target of particular criticism.  His main goal appears to be maintaining power, not just for himself but also his family: he is positioning his brother to succeed him as president.  His government is thoroughly corrupt, and despite assurances by himself and by Washington he has implemented no reforms, nor is there any evidence that he intends to.  He is certainly willing to deal with the Taliban in order to secure his position, which hardly sounds promising for Afghan women.  But the US must defend him as the democratic reformer, since abandoning him would be an admission of a failure that has cost us a trillion dollars and the lives of more than 2000 soldiers.

Of course none of this is surprising for anyone familiar with Afghan society, which has not changed since the British – and probably Alexander – were there.
The “country” is occupied by several ethnic groups that share a tradition of mutual hostility, and corruption and nepotism are ingrained in Afghan society.  The Afghanis are accustomed to rule by petty kings, tribal leaders and warlords, and it is questionable whether democracy could work even were the country not facing the Taliban and sundry religious whackos coming out of Waziristan.  Even a cursory knowledge of Afghan history would have strongly suggested that attempting anything more than bombing the Taliban and supporting a friendly warlord was complete folly, but the Congress and the White House, motivated by political considerations, have traditionally paid little or no attention to the actual experts in the State Department.  You would think that the British at least would know better, which they probably do, but when Washington speaks Europe must listen.

The prosecution of this war has become positively surreal.  A growing majority of Americans us want to leave immediately, and the vast majority of the citizens of our NATO allies never supported the war in the first place.  The Afghanis, while traditionally hospitable to guests, are also traditionally hostile to foreign soldiers in their land, and they practice a religion that requires conduct seemingly impossible for westerners to adhere to.  We are allied with and provide huge amounts of money to Pakistan, whose people hate us more and more and whose intelligence service is actually aiding the people we are fighting.  And as a breeding ground for international Islamic terrorism Pakistan now leads the world, although the ideological underpinning, Wahhabism, emanates from Saudi Arabia, another of our friends and one of the most oppressive countries on earth.  Finally, while the Taliban government sheltered international terrorists, for which reason we blew them away, they had no real grudge against the US.  They probably do now.

So why are we still there?  Primarily, I suspect, because no politician will ever admit the failure of a policy he is associated with, and everyone was associated with this clearly failed policy of turning Aghanistan into a democratic civilized nation.  But also because neither party, especially those wimpy Democrats, wants to look weak on terrorism (it used to be communism), even though most Americans could not care less, especially since they appear to have forgotten the war altogether.  A true leader in the government could easily make the case that not only is this war an incredible waste of lives and money, but it also actually damages our security by squandering military resources and producing new jihadis by the thousands.  But when was the last time you saw a serious leader among our political class?  Besides, our politicians are all dependent upon big money, which includes the people who make immense profits feeding Mars.

So, for two more years Americans and others will continue to die in some god-forsaken place that has nothing to do with our security and where everyone hates us.  And all because politicians in Washington are afraid of being castigated, not by the voters but by the other party.  Vietnam is beginning to seem like a sensible war:

And it’s one, two, three
What are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
Next stop’s Afghanistan.