Imperial Wars Always Come Home

There’s a person I think about from time to time.

We don’t know his name, his exact age, or his precise occupation. But we do know when, where, and how he died: March 29th, 1461, near the village of Towton, in Yorkshire in northern England, the victim of a massive blow - probably from a poleaxe, a wicked axe blade mounted on a six-foot handle - that destroyed the left side of his face. It left behind only fragments of bone where his eye socket and cheek had been, and probably killed him instantly. His mutilated corpse was then stripped naked and thrown in a mass grave along with several dozen other similarly mangled bodies, where they all remained for the next five centuries.

Towton 16, as the owner of these battered remains is known, died in one of the largest battles of the Middle Ages: the Battle of Towton, one of the decisive engagements of the Wars of the Roses, a decades-long period of civil strife and occasional open war that afflicted England between the 1450s and 1480s.

This was the last battle for Towton 16, but it wasn’t his first. He was an older man, probably in his 40s, and he was no stranger to violence. Just below the caved-in left side of his skull, a long, old gash ran along his jawbone from cheek to chin: a healed cut, probably from a sword, delivered by a right-handed assailant many years before. It would’ve left a vicious band of scar tissue running along his face, the kind of trophy that marked Towton 16 as a hard man amongst hard men.

The Bloody Cost of Medieval Warfare

Towton 16 was one of the older men in the mass grave: Most were between 24 and 30, strongly built, and like him familiar with war and violence. There were many such hard men in England in 1461. England had been at war for generations. Its long conflict with France, the Hundred Years War, had only reached an end eight years before. Prior to that, decades of war had taken thousands upon thousands of Englishmen across the Channel to serve in garrisons in Normandy and Aquitaine or burn and slaughter their way across French-held territory in central and northern France. War was a generational pursuit in mid-15th-century England, a career that produced huge numbers of trained and hardened soldiers.

When that war ended in abject failure in 1453 and English politics exploded in civil war soon afterward, due in no small part to failure in France, those out-of-work soldiers didn’t stop knowing how to do violence. The nobles who had recruited and led them on foreign campaigns remembered how effective raw force could be. Towton 16 was of an age to have fought in France; so were many of the perhaps 8,000-10,000 who died at Towton that day. A great many of the others were the sons or nephews or grandsons of soldiers. Their weapons and equipment - longbows, poleaxes, two-handed swords, armor-piercing daggers, expensive suits of plate armor - had been produced for and developed over the course of that long, brutal conflict in France. Overseas adventurism helped produce both the tensions that tore English political society apart and the bodies of trained and capable men who slaughtered each other in huge numbers in the course of resolving those tensions.

Towton 16’s crushed skull, and the thousands of men who died with him that day, are a good reminder that imperial wars never stay overseas. They always comes home sooner or later.

The last four years have been a period of numbingly rapid change in our politics, a critical juncture containing the seeds of many different potential future paths. That rapid change has built on a much deeper structural foundation rooted in everything from demographic turnover and shifts in partisanship to full-on breakdowns of the formal and informal institutions that make up our political system. This adds up to a full-blown legitimacy crisis for the system as a whole. It’s a great deal to take in, even if we choose to put aside the raging pandemic for the moment and concentrate on the purely political. We won’t be able to grasp the full implications of everything that’s happened for years and even decades to come.

There’s a lot to all this, many different threads leading in a bewildering array of directions and encompassing intertwined themes ranging from race and economic structure to policing and foreign policy. It’s frankly overwhelming, particularly in an age of constant informational bombardment.

There is a common thread tying together many, if not all, aspects of our ongoing series of crises: These things can be understood - at least partially - as the consequences of empire coming home to roost.

Even by the standards of 2020, recent events in Portland, Oregon - a city I know well and deeply love - still have the capacity to shock. They’ve showcased the deployment of unidentified federal agents in military-style camouflage, armed with military-style weapons, who have beaten and tear-gassed protesters. This same paramilitary force has also occasionally snatched people off the street in unmarked vehicles and employed (or plan to employ) mass surveillance tools, including drones. The current administration has indicated that it sees Portland as a testbed for these tactics and deployments, with every intention of using them on a broader scale nationwide.

To put it mildly, this is not good. Portland is hardly under siege by violent anarchists. We’ve seen mild vandalism of federal property and a few businesses in a restricted section of the city, coupled with largely peaceful protests against police brutality (a particularly vexing problem in a left-leaning city with right-leaning law enforcement institutions). For all but the most committed authoritarians, this is not a sufficient reason to deploy what amounts to a new paramilitary federal police force, much less to let them off the leash to beat, gas, and detain American citizens at will.

This is American policing shorn of any accountability and reduced to its most fundamental, animalistic drive: to maintain a particular social order, benefiting a particular group of Americans, through the open application of violence.

This is deeply troubling. It bodes really, really poorly for the future of the United States if we have a ready-made internal security apparatus for a more competent authoritarian to utilize in the future, staffed with people who are willing and able to do violence to their fellow Americans.

I used the term “shocking” a moment ago, but it really shouldn’t be. We saw a dress-rehearsal at Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. last month, preceded by waves of police violence against protesters across the country, preceded by locking up would-be migrants in what amount to concentration camps…it’s a long list of things, whether we choose to focus solely on the past four years or on a longer causal chain stretching back decades. But we can’t make sense of either current events or the longer-term antecedents if we restrict our gaze to the United States proper.

The United States, in its restricted territorial sense, is the seat of a global empire. This shouldn’t be controversial: The country maintains an archipelago of military bases and other holdings everywhere from the Arctic to South America, from the continental US to Central Asia. Its troops are actively engaged in combat operations across the Middle East and Africa. With a couple of hours’ notice, its military forces could be engaged at practically any place in the world on an enormous scale. Technologies change over time, and so do imperial styles; in fact, no two empires - even those existing at the same time - are ever identical in their structures, their ability or willingness to project power, or how they justify their existence to themselves and others. Empire is a spectrum or a continuum, not an either/or proposition, and it’s a little bit like the old saying about pornography: You know it when you see it. The United States is an empire, and nobody who works seriously on the subject of empire would be likely to argue otherwise.

Empires usually benefit the people who live in the imperial core. Trade concessions, direct resource extraction, plunder, imperial administrations that offer employment opportunities to a bureaucratic class, a professionalized and well-funded military: all of these things are inducements to expand and maintain an empire, and there are many more, not the least of which is ideological. Wielding power makes people feel good. Imperial elites, of course, benefit most of all: American empire remains and has been a bipartisan project, one beloved of both parties’ foreign-policy establishments and the Washington, D.C. “Blob” since World War II and at various stages before then. American global hegemony wasn’t an accident, but a consciously constructed and pursued policy that operated on multiple fronts and via many different prongs. It’s embedded in the dollar’s dominance, free-trade agreements, climate regulation (or lack thereof), and many other things. Overseas imperial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the current programs related to the War on Terror are just visible symbols.

But it’s not hard to see that the American imperial project is in trouble. Iraq didn’t end in a resounding victory; Afghanistan is still ongoing; the War on Terror has produced a massive group of special-operations warriors on constant and secretive deployment along with an expansive campaign of unaccountable drone strikes; and the Trump era has sounded the death knell of anything like American soft power overseas.

At times like this, when the empire abroad starts to come apart, domestic blowback is a common consequence. Empires, and imperial failures, rarely stay out of sight and out of mind if they become an ongoing pattern. The tools of empire don’t stay overseas, trained solely on those designated as the empire’s enemies; they find new targets, new uses, in the hands of people looking to grab the shreds of power left behind as the empire collapses in on itself.

Because I spent so long working on the later Roman Empire and its political disintegration, I’m deeply wary of making too explicit a comparison between it and the present-day United States. It’s too easy to make an overdetermined, square-peg-into-round-hole type of argument simply because it’s available and I know it well.

But one area where the comparison makes a great deal of sense lies in the role of the frontier.

There are a lot of different ways of understanding the end of the Roman Empire in the west: barbarian invasions, internal dissension, economic collapse, some combination of the above, or a gradual slip into imperial senescence. The one that’s always made the most sense to me focuses on the imperial periphery.

The Roman Empire’s frontier zones were a space dominated by the Roman army, not just as a military force but also as a cultural and economic institution. When the people living beyond the frontiers - barbarians - interacted with the Roman Empire, they were really interacting with its army. Sometimes they fought it, sometimes they supplied it with food and supplies, and most often, they joined it. The result was a distinctive shade of frontier culture focused on the Roman military, but with a healthy dose of “barbarian” - wearing trousers, using Germanic words, and so on - mixed in. This culture encompassed both sides of the border, creating a zone of intense interaction stretching well into both the barbarian lands and the Roman Empire.

In the later stages of the Roman Empire’s existence in the west, it’s often hard to tell the difference between a force of rampaging barbarians and a Roman field army. Both drew their recruits primarily from people living beyond the frontier. They used the same kinds of swords and wore the same kinds of helmet: Even the famous Sutton Hoo helmet from 6th-century England is just a Roman cavalry helmet (a Spangenhelm) with a cool-looking mustachioed face mask added. Roman soldiers spoke a variety of camp Latin that was generously spiced with Germanic words. Plenty of barbarian raiders had served time in the Roman military; it’s not hard to imagine that some barbarian recruits into the Roman army had probably raided Roman territory at some point before they joined up. Even Roman soldiers recruited inside the empire’s boundaries were often descended from recently settled barbarian groups.

The upshot of all this is that rather than seeing a series of barbarian invasions that brought foreign invaders into the Roman heartlands, we should instead think of what happened as the transposition of frontier culture from the periphery to the imperial core. We can’t really draw a line between the “barbarian” and Roman military, because there wasn’t a firm distinction; the two bled into one another, and it’s easier to think of this as a militarized and ethnically distinct frontier culture. This culture, and people who had been brought up with it and molded by it, was what moved, not a distinct series of barbarian ethnic groups who were unfamiliar with Roman ways and practices.

The Roman frontier was a violent place. It was, after all, a militarized space. When the frontier and its military culture expanded into the formerly peaceful Roman core, violence came with it. A military aristocracy that derived its position from its war-making capacity replaced the Roman civic elite; where the latter survived, it assimilated to the new, militarized aristocratic culture. Armies tramped through the interior, sacking and burning cities like Rome and Carthage. It’s a safe bet that the average folks of lowland Britain, coastal Spain, and fertile North Africa didn’t welcome the sight of the frontier coming toward them; that meant violence, blood-stained swords, armored men rifling through their possessions, burning huts, and much more.

When we see Border Patrol agents wearing camouflage and helmets, carrying M4s with optics, rigged up like they’re about to go on patrol in Ramadi or the Korengal Valley (or deal with a migrant caravan in the southwest), that’s empire coming home. The viciousness of their handling of immigration during the Trump era, complete with threats of gunfire, concentration camps, and consistent dehumanization, has been a preview of their handling of American citizens. So too have been the various misdeeds of American soldiers overseas.

Even leaving aside the fact that the mishmash of federal agencies providing these paramilitary forces are stocked with veterans of overseas conflict - about 30 percent of Border Patrol agents are veterans, for example - the equipment and us vs. them way of approaching conflict are straight out of the imperial frontier. The fact that these paramilitary policemen aren’t actually soldiers isn’t as relevant as the ways of thinking about force and power, and who constitutes a legitimate target for violence, that empire produces. At this point, the periphery has entered the imperial core.

When we see armed agents of the state beating a Navy veteran with batons, tear-gassing moms in bike helmets and the mayor of Portland, and planning further deployments to Chicago and Albuquerque, I can’t help but think of that man who spent five centuries buried in a mass grave at Towton, of his old wound and crushed face. Is that where we’re heading? Is it inevitable that the tools of imperial war will be even more explicitly turned against people here at home?

All empires fall. When they do, the violence and terror they’ve wrought on others has a way of coming back around.