The year was 216 BC and the place a small town called Cannae in Southeastern Italy. Hannibal, the brilliant Carthaginian general had crossed the Alps, defeated a succession of Roman armies and was threatening Rome itself. The Roman Republic, terrified by the threat of annihilation fielded eight legions, an unprecedented force and marched out to battle.
What ensued was one of the greatest military defeats in Roman history. Hannibal enveloped the Roman forces from both flanks and trapped them in a circle of death. By the time the day was done eighty percent of the 70,000 Romans who took the field were dead. Not until World War One would the world again see slaughter on such a massive scale.
As horrifying as the Roman losses were, however, perhaps even more significant were the losses amongst the Roman elite. At the time, the Roman Senate consisted of 300 men. Eighty of those died on the field of battle. One of the two Roman serving consuls, the executives who presided over the Republic was killed. Two previous consuls were killed. Twenty-nine of the forty-eight tribunes, the most senior officers in the Roman legions, died as well.
Rome, despite the loss, went on to win the war. Try as he might, brilliant as he might be, Hannibal could not break Rome. He could not bring it to its knees. The Romans remained steadfast, raised new armies, devised new tactics and persevered. They could not be defeated, and the reason is evident in the very horrifying statistics cited above.
Rome did not send armies of mercenaries to war. Rome did not send armies composed of the poor and downtrodden to war. The wealthy in the Republic did not sit by idly while the children of poor families went to fight and die. When the Republic committed to conflict, it was all in. Everyone served. A Roman Senator considered it an honor and a duty to put his life on the line and to defend his homeland.
We would do well to remember the principle and to ponder how far we have strayed from it in our own recent history.
Since 9/11 we have engaged in seventeen straight years of war. Yet, less than one percent of our population is serving in the military at any one point in time. Senators, Congressmen and the privileged of our society are (for the most part) not dying in Afghanistan, Iraq and the other myriad places around the globe to which we have troops deployed. Those doing the fighting, bleeding and dying are virtually all young men serving in the enlisted ranks, at the beginnings of their lives and without influence and power.
In Congress, the number of veterans elected continues to decline. As recently as the early 1980's two-thirds of Senators and Representatives had worn the uniform at some point in their lives. The percentage of our representatives who have served now is just over 18% and falling every election cycle. The men and women making the decisions about defense spending, where, when and how we will intervene increasingly have no skin in the game and no idea of the reality of war.
The results are occasionally shocking. Witness the recent comments of former President Obama mocking what he called "conspiracy theories" about Benghazi. A Commander in Chief who abandoned men to die on the field of battle without lifting a finger to help them and then immediately turned to concocting lies to cover his own inadequacy and excuse the actions of murdering fanatics ought to spend the rest of his life in shame not brazenly ridiculing those who had the audacity to call him out and expose his perfidy. But, then this is a man who never served, who never put his life on the line and in all likelihood has no contact with that class of men and women who still salute the flag, love their country and proudly put their lives on the line to defend her.
To pass this off in the usual way as purely a matter of a few liberal Democratic politicians who "don't love America" however is to give it short shrift and diminish the significance of what is happening. Our ruling class, because that is what it is in danger of becoming, from both major parties no longer serves in the military, but in a much larger sense increasingly it does not think of itself as really American at all. Its loyalty is now to self-interest and self-aggrandizement.
We go to war in Afghanistan and undertake an ill-advised, poorly conceived and ruinously expensive mission to convert a 12th century society to Switzerland in South Asia. Thousands of our service men and women are killed and hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer's funds are squandered. Our representatives do not clamor for victory nor do they demand an end to the fighting. They are not dying. Their families are not bearing the burden. Their wealthy campaign donors, the heads of huge defense contractors are rolling in cash and counting record profits. The war can go on forever.
We adopt ruinous trade practices that hollow out our manufacturing base, exaggerate income disparity and leave the average American trying to get by on multiple part-time jobs with no benefits. Our Congress does not demand those policies end, and when a new President takes even the initial steps toward forcing a level playing field and bringing good manufacturing jobs back to the United States the howls begin to be heard all across our capital city.
Our supposed representatives do not work for us anymore, and they do not put the interests of the republic first. They work for the people who have gotten rich from offshoring, whose sons and daughters never worked blue collar jobs anyway and who value their profits more than they cherish the nation in which they live. What bothers them are not dying industrial cities and decaying urban areas, it is declining stock prices for companies that are just as much at home in Beijing as they are in Detroit.
Our southern border sits unprotected. Drugs pour across daily. Terrorist groups and international gangs are provided an easy path into the heartland of this great nation. Mexico spirals into chaos. Its murder rate is out of control and in large areas citizen militias are now forced to provide security to preserve some semblance of stability.
The danger is real and immediate. Our Congress does not spring into action. In fact, it works overtime to block efforts at controlling the border, ending illegal immigration and safeguarding our citizens. The reason is not some sense of brotherhood or desire for a stateless world. The reason is that a great many people in this nation have made huge amounts of money from employing an underclass of illegal workers who will accept less than minimum wage and cannot report violations of their rights. Wealthy Americans care more about preserving that supply of "slave" labor than they do the impact on their fellow citizen, and our representatives care more about that than they do about us.
The commonly accepted date for the fall of Rome is 476 AD. That date corresponds to the year in which a Germanic King deposed the last Roman Emperor in the west. That date, however, marks the end of the Roman Empire - a brutal, tyrannical entity dominated by ruling elites and despots.
The Republic died over four hundred years before that when armies stopped being composed of citizens fighting for a common cause and became mercenaries following individual leaders, and when powerful, ruthless men began to put their own advancement and profit before the well-being of the nation as a whole. We stand on the verge of following the same trajectory. To avoid that fate we must regain that sense of unity, cohesion and patriotism that helped the Romans best Hannibal and which made us the great nation we are today. Only together, in good times and bad, do we succeed.