- Steve Addazio's inaugural press conference as Boston College head football coach (pg. 9)
- Wake Forest University president Nathan Hatch's keynote address at the Sesquicentennial symposium "Religion and the Liberal Aims of Higher Education" (pg. 34)
- David B. Couturier, OFM Cap., on "New Evangelization for Today's Parish" (pg. 42)
- Guerilla Orchestra: the Callithumpian Consort and student musicians rehearse John Zorn's Cobra (pg. 10)
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Not necessarily, says Are We Rome? author
On October 17, the New York Times reported that the Department of Defense was pushing to bring the nearly 10,000 armed security contractors working for the United States in Iraq into a clearer line of command—an attempt to tighten the grip on private contractors like Blackwater USA, which had provoked Iraqi fury and congressional hearings for a September shooting incident that reportedly left 17 Iraqi civilians dead. The evening before the story appeared, Cullen Murphy, author of Are We Rome? The Fall of An Empire and The Fate of America (2007), spoke at Boston College about another great military power that contracted with private forces when it could no longer muster enough citizen-soldiers to defend its imperial territories and ambitions.
Speaking to an audience of about 75 in the Yawkey Center’s Murray Room, Murphy projected an image of Hollywood’s Conan the Barbarian onto a screen to illustrate ancient Rome’s habit of hiring mercenary tribes to fight its battles. “This turned out to be a very unhappy long-term solution,” said Murphy, alluding, in part, to the sack of Rome by these same barbarian fighters in 410. Then, Murphy brought up a photograph of a rifle-wielding, boot-wearing soldier belonging to a “tribe called Blackwater,” he quipped; and he then added, with reference to another military contractor: “It’s as if Washington were one day to be sacked by Haliburton.”
Widely known as the former managing editor of the Atlantic Monthly, and now a Vanity Fair editor-at-large, Murphy noted that his title question had been threshed out widely, facilely, and often tendentiously over the years in which the Bush administration has sought to project American power into corners of the globe. His book-length cross-examination of the various claims notes that in some important ways, we aren’t Rome. For one thing, the United States is a democracy, which Rome never was; it also has a middle class, which he says was unknown in Rome. As to cultural traits, Murphy writes in his book that the Romans were “proud” and “arrogant,” while Americans are, as a people, “idealistic” and “friendly.”
In his talk sponsored by CSOM’s Winston Center for Leadership and Ethics, the Office of the Provost, and Boston College Magazine, Murphy made it clear, however, that America does appear to be heading down some Roman roads. Friendliness and idealism notwithstanding, he said, Americans are often pointedly ignorant, even dismissive, of cultures and peoples beyond our frontiers, an attitude that breeds a kind of “blindness toward the outside world” that did not auger well for Rome.
But there’s another parallel that worries him more. Doing as the Romans did, Americans have set out on what Murphy describes in the book as a “privatization binge,” putting more and more traditionally public tasks, such as tax collection and border patrol, into private hands. All of that has the effect of “leeching out the power of government,” he argued in his talk, just as similar schemes eroded Rome’s ability to act with clarity on behalf of the public good. “Blackwater is a tiny example of this,” Murphy said of the private military contractor that he juxtaposes with Vandals and Goths. Privatization is “one of the insidious parallels I see between America and Rome, and one that I think will ultimately do the most damage.”
Responding to Murphy’s remarks were Boston College historian Seth Jacobs and political scientist Tim Crawford. Examining another point probed in Are We Rome?—the estrangement of military culture from the civilian population, and especially from the elites—Jacobs, a historian of the Vietnam War, noted that in that conflict, under the pressure of a military draft, “the best and the brightest” (he cited as examples Senator John Kerry and the Hollywood director Oliver Stone) served in the military. “That’s not the case [today],” said Jacobs, adding, “This two-culture problem may be irreversible.” Crawford was less sure about the extent of this estrangement, noting that some of his recent students at Boston College, whom he counts among the best and brightest, are stationed as soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also raised the question of whether there would be “some kind of regression of international society” if America were to decline as Rome did, but he answered with a brighter scenario. “It might be a gentle decline” on the part of the United States, Crawford suggested, adding that perhaps a new power like the European Union would then take its turn on the global stage.
After the lecture, attendees Kelsey Lescop ’11 and Michelle Cauchi ’10 were asked by a reporter if they ever think of themselves as living in an empire. The two looked at each other and replied together, in earnest, “No.” But Connor Larsen ’11 said he feels like the citizen of an empire whenever he considers that McDonald’s is everywhere. He worries, he said, about “where it all goes from here,” what happens when a superpower “overstretches,” a word that colored Murphy’s remarks about America’s military commitments, and imperial Rome’s.
At the end of his talk, Murphy said that decline and fall don’t have to be the last words of the American story, especially if the United States tries harder to “lead by example” and less by military hardware, a point that Larsen said “really resonated with me.”
William Bole is a writer based in Massachusetts.
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