Lately whenever I see a reference to General David Petraeus, it makes me wonder about the history of the Praetorian Guard. Yes, I know the names are spelled differently — but I just can’t help putting them together. Am I the only one afflicted with this impulse? It just seems too weird to go without mentioning. Not only is the U.S. re-enacting the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, but the name of the top military commander in the outer reaches of the empire practically screams out for such comparisons.
In the next few days there will be constant references to Gen. Petraeus leading up to his anticipated report on the splendid “progress” we are making in Iraq. This seems like a good time to see what Wikipedia says about the Praetorian Guard. Here are some excerpts (with hyperlinks omitted):
The term “Praetorian” came from the tent of the commanding general or praetor of a Roman army in the field — the praetorium. It was a habit of many Roman generals to choose from the ranks a private force of soldiers to act as bodyguards of the tent or the person….
In time, this cohort came to be known as the cohors praetoria, and various notable figures possessed one, including Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and Augustus (Octavian) …The group that was formed initially differed greatly from the later Guard, which would assassinate emperors ….
With the right amount of money, or at will, they assassinated emperors, bullied their own prefects, or turned on the people of Rome. In 41 Caligula was killed by conspirators from the senatorial class and from the Guard. The Praetorians placed Claudius on the throne, daring the Senate to oppose their decision….
It seems painfully obvious to me that the Praetorian Guard has been in charge of the U.S. for many decades. We've had an assassination of a U.S. President. With the right amount of money, or a commitment to open the U.S. Treasury to military plundering, the Praetorians can elect Presidents too. Is it any wonder that American voters were only given a choice between two pro-war, Yale educated, Skull and Bones initiates in 2004? Is it any wonder that Cong. Ron Paul is the only Presidential candidate that credibly opposes the war in 2007?
The Wikipedia article on Gen. Petraeus also provides disturbing facts that only reinforce the historical theme of the Roman Empire. Take for instance his stint at the Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. The sad legacy of Woodrow Wilson has been recounted again and again at LRC, so I will simply provide a sampling for those who want to look here, here or here.
The bio on General "Praetorian" gets even more interesting for those who want to predict the future, and not merely recount history. As noted by Wikipedia:
On the other hand, Lawrence Korb has called him “the most political general since General [Douglas] MacArthur” and said that “[he] is very ambitious” (adding “and there’s nothing wrong with that”).
It's not entirely crazy to imagine that General "Praetorian" could become President "Praetorian". Think about it. It wasn't too long after the U.S dropped nukes on Japan that the country elected a former General named "Ike" as President. And now it's no longer considered MAD for the Pentagon to openly test proxies for theatre tactical nukes right outside Las Vegas. Of course, the "credible" candidates for President all refuse to take the nuclear option "off the table" with respect to Iran.
The past is prologue. Heck, even our very first President was a General. Maybe W will simply declare himself Caesar for life, only to be deposed by his own "Petraeus" Guard. Caesar Eisenhower warned us about the military industrial complex, and Caesar Washington warned us against entangling alliances and foreign adventures. But the fate of the Republic seems to have been written from the very beginning.
Certainly our founders were conscious of the fate of ancient Rome even as they adopted the fasces as a symbol of our national power. And yes, it's the same symbolism from which Italian fascism derived its name. Guard! Guard! Arrest the President. And the General too! Oh, never mind.
August 27, 2007