The gates of Janus

In the Roman Forum once stood the Temple of Janus.  Janus is the two-faced god—one facing forwards, one backwards—from which we get the word "January".  This temple was central to the ideology of the Roman Empire.  During times of war, the doors to the temple stood open; during times of peace, they were shut.  From the time of the semi-legendary King Numa, who built the temple, until the reign of Augustus, Rome's first emperor, the doors to the temple were shut only twice.  The Roman state was in a condition of perpetual war.  From the time of Augustus until the adoption of Christianity and the abeyance of the ritual, the gates of Janus were shut only a handful of times more.  Almost-constant war was the natural state of the empire.

I recall this almost-forgotten part of Roman history as our 11-year-long Afghan War claims more innocent victims.  In the class of "victim" I include the accused soldier. The investigation will provide more information, but we have to wonder how many tours of duty he's served, how long he'd been close to the breaking point, and what finally drove him over the edge into psychosis and murder.  Every soldier who returns wounded, mentally as well as physically, is a victim of our own version of perpetual war.

This link gives a more or less comprehensive list of all US military engagements since the founding of the Republic.  As one can see, the Romans would have been proud of our militaristic bent.  And certainly, since the accession of the first President Bush and his invasion of Panama, we have been in a state of constant war.  Panama was followed by Iraq, and then the maintenance of the no-fly zone; the 90s saw engagements in Somalia, Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo as well.  And since 2001 we've been in Afghanistan and then Iraq; thankfully Iraq was ended, as promised, by President Obama, and Afghanistan is on its way to being wound down.  But war has its own logic, and I fear we'll see more eruptions of this sort before the last troops are withdrawn.  We have been in a state of constant war since 1989, and the reflexes of war are difficult to contain.

The accused will have his day in court.  Or perhaps he'll plead guilty.  We could say that his actions are on a par with the shooting sprees that darken our cities.  But his are worse; he performed his act under the aegis of our occupation.  Following the Quran burnings, it makes the US and Western position in Afghanistan that much more untenable.  President Obama already realized that we had to get out of that conflict; hence his timetable.

But there are those in our political discourse who see the President's march away from conflict as a stain on national honor.  They were aghast when President Obama apologized for the Quran burnings; will they be further horrified by his immediate call to President Karzai after the mass murders?  Is there anything for which this country ever has to apologize when acting in its "national interests" in their eyes?  The answer to that is obvious:  the US is the world's only empire, and being an empire means never apologizing for excesses of the imperial project.

What this President has realized as no US president has since before William McKinley—who started us on the road to empire—is that empires eventually fall.  And their fall is hardly ever pleasant for the core of the empire.  President Obama does not want to see this country become like every other imperial state before it.  Empire is a losing proposition.  But more than that, it is an immoral condition.  What right does the US have to dictate terms to other nations?  Everything this President has done since taking the oath of office has been to reverse the Bush/Cheney doctrine of jingoistic unilateralism.  The previous administration stretched imperial hubris to its breaking point.  It was unsustainable.  This President has reversed course almost completely.  His political opponents speak disparagingly of "leading from behind"; however, it works, and gains goodwill, and effects results.  It protects legitimate US interests, without bankrupting the country, or sending more young men and women off to fight and die for the maintenance of the empire.

Yes, the young men and women who fill the ranks of our military, often out of economic necessity, but many times out of a desire to serve.  They are among the best this country has to offer; but ever since 2001 they have been used shamefully.  First they were sent to Afghanistan, and then abandoned, denied needed support and equipment.  Then they were sent to Iraq in a war that was illegal under every tenet of international law, where a quick conventional victory was followed by years of attritional guerilla warfare, where the enemy melted into the civilian population, and the civilian population didn't want the US there.  The right constantly extols the virtues of the US service-member, holding him or her above the normal citizen; but then, when in power in this century's first decade, used him as the most expendable of cannon fodder.

The accused will have to pay for his crimes, and the country will have to pay for the inevitable blowback engendered by those crimes.  But true justice would be for those who speak so glibly about "military options", who throw the lives of our military around so cavalierly, to be shunned, to be hounded out of the public square as nothing but the most vile of warmongers, not interested in the welfare of the nation, but only in the fulfilment of their own interests, their own fantasies of empire, and willing to sacrifice the nation's sons and daughters, while keeping their own children safely ensconced.  The times are too serious.  As President Obama has said, this is not a game.  Not only must we pray that our gates of Janus will soon be firmly shut, but must work towards making it so.