Reports that President Obama is considering even more troops and bases to fight ISIS in Iraq put me to mind of Roman general Publius Quinctilius Varus. Two millennia ago, Varus committed three Roman legions to the Teutoburg Forest in Germania in terrain that neutralized Roman advantages in firepower and maneuverability. Ambushed and caught in a vise, his legions were destroyed in detail as Varus took his own life. To Rome the shock and disgrace of defeat were so great that Emperor Augustus cried, “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my Legions!”
Ever since 9/11, American presidents and their military advisors have repeatedly committed U.S. troops and prestige to inhospitable regions in terrain that largely neutralizes U.S. advantages in firepower and maneuverability. Whether it’s the urban jungles of Baghdad or Fallujah or Mosul or the harshly primitive and mountainous terrain of Afghanistan, American troops have been committed to campaigns that they can’t win (in any enduring sense), under conditions that facilitate ambushes by an elusive enemy with superior knowledge of the local terrain. The number of U.S. soldiers killed or seriously wounded in these campaigns is roughly equivalent to those lost by Varus, though unlike Varus no U.S. general has yet to fall on his sword.
Unlike Rome, which did learn from Varus’s catastrophe the perils of imperial overreach, the U.S. persists in learning nothing. Perhaps that’s because America’s defeat is collective and gradual, rather than singular and quick. America may lack a Varus or a calamity like Teutoburg Forest, yet the overall result since 9/11 has been no less debilitating to American foreign policy.
Despite setback after setback, American presidents and generals persist in trying to control hostile territory at the end of insecure logistical lines while mounting punitive raids designed to deny Al Qaeda or ISIS or the Taliban “safe havens.” We should have learned the impossibility of doing this from Vietnam, but it seems America’s presidents and generals keep trying to get Vietnam right, even if they have to move the fight to the deserts of Iraq or the mountains of Afghanistan.
Yet seeking to control territory in inhospitable regions like the Middle East or Afghanistan, whether you use American troops or proxy armies, is an exercise in strategic futility. It’s also old-fashioned thinking: the idea that, to exert influence and control, you need large numbers of military boots on the ground. But the world has already moved past such thinking into “borderless” hegemony as demonstrated by the Internet, by global business and finance, and by America’s own practice of drone strikes and cyber-war.
By repeatedly deploying American troops – whether in the tens of hundreds or tens of thousands – to so many equivalents of the Teutoburg Forest, our leaders continue a strategy of overreach that was already proven bankrupt in Vietnam. Meanwhile, despite our own early revolutionary history, our leaders seem to have forgotten that no country likes to be occupied or interfered with by foreigners, no matter how “generous” and “benevolent” they claim to be. Let’s also not forget that boots on the ground in faraway foreign lands cost an enormous amount of money, a cost that cannot be sustained indefinitely (just ask the British in 1781).
America simply cannot afford more troop deployments (and commitments of prestige) that set the stage for more military disasters. When you persist in committing your legions to torturous terrain against an enemy that is well prepared to exact a high price for your personal hubris and strategic stubbornness, you get the fate you deserve.
After Varus’s calamity, the Romans stopped campaigning east of the Rhine. When will America’s leaders learn that persistence in strategic overreach is nothing but folly?
Update (6/21/15): A friend writing from Germany reports that “new archaeological finds near the Elbe apparently show at least one major battle between Roman and Germanic forces in the second century AD. The documentary film’s claim was that the archaeological finds, combined with a few classical source references, show that the Roman armies did engage in major punitive expeditions deep into the territory across the Rhine in the time after Varus, including the one newly discovered which apparently showed a major Roman victory.”
Difficult to see. Always in motion the future, Yoda once said. He might have added that the past too “is always in motion.” Did a punitive raid such as this strengthen the Roman Empire or weaken it? If the Romans won a victory, was it of the Pyrrhic variety? Did the Romans attempt to sustain a presence across the Rhine only to abandon the attempt? It will be interesting to see what new evidence is uncovered by archaeologists working in the area.