Are We Rome? the Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America

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Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America Cullen Murphy, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007.

This is a devious and snarky book. The title should appeal immediately to Conservatives, ready to wax nostalgic about the glories of Rome and charmed by the notion that Washington, DC, might somehow be considered the "new" Rome, not merely the center of the nation, but of the world. Seems to me, however, that this book is really about Imperial overreach, offering us a moral lesson about our problems in Iraq. Rome lasted for two thousand years, arguably, if one dates the ultimate "fall" to 1453 and the collapse of the Byzantine Empire, which was, after all, originally the East Roman Empire. Even Cullen Murphy has doubts about the exact dating of the "fall" of the West Roman Empire: was it 476 AD, he wonders, or was it 455, when the Vandals sacked Rome, or 410 when the Visigoths sacked Rome, or maybe 378, when the Roman army fell to the "barbarian hordes" at Adrianople? More to the point, perhaps, the Roman Republic came to an end in the year 31 AD, giving it a shelf life of merely 750 years. Now, that's about 500 years longer than it has taken for Presidential power to swallow up individual and Constitutional freedoms in present-day America, surrendered by a frightened and terrorized populace more interested in security than dignity and freedom. Apparently Rome faced problems similar to present-day America. Although the analogy is not always spot-on (as Murphy realizes, and admits), it is close enough to convince me that this book surely deserves to be a best-seller.

In fact, this book is as much about America in Iraq as it is about Rome, and also Afghanistan, where Bagram Air Base is "located on a sere plain beneath snowcapped spurs of the Hindu Kush, about thirty miles north of Kabul. Alexander the Great founded a city, Alexandria of the Caucasus, a few miles north of the air base" (59), which is today an "outpost of American, not Hellenic, civilization." This is astonishing evidence that America might be following Rome's Imperial example. But Rome lasted at least a thousand years. When will our decline begin, or has it already begun? Are we Rome?

A generation ago Norman Mailer asked the question "Why are we in Vietnam?" More and more frequently, the same question is being asked about Iraq (though for many, the obvious answer seems to be "oil," which would seem to be reason enough to fear electing a President from the state of Texas). Anyone who follows national events carefully should have reason to worry about the consequences of Empire-building, particularly the need for security and military strength. Politically one imagines the country split between the so-called red and blue states. Military culture is reflective of "red" state values, the Christian South, the new Bible-belt, as seen reflected in American enclaves in Iraq. After Vietnam and the end of conscription, fewer educated soldiers are going into military service. …

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