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August 15th, 2002

  Vae Victis!


I am coming under considerable pressure from my reader base to lighten up. My last few columns have been too gloomy, they tell me. Don't I know that this is the land of hope and opportunity? As a new-minted citizen, I should shuck off the cynicism and pessimism of the Old World and lift my eyes to the Radiant Future. Well, fiddlesticks. Before proceeding further, I order you to go here and read why you should listen with patient attention when I give you the bad news about human life.

Done that? Good. Now, having firmly laid down my general principles, I shall throw you a bone. I shall make some small amends by seeking out news items that I, personally, find cheering. There must surely be a few such? Yep, here's one.

Speaking to Pentagon employees about the Middle East the other day, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said the following thing:

My feelings about the so-called occupied territories are that there was a war. Israel urged neighboring countries not to get involved in it once it started. They all jumped in and they lost a lot of real estate to Israel because Israel prevailed in the conflict.

Well, that made me smile. Not only was I smiling at the spectacle of a senior cabinet officer speaking plain truth — not something that happens all that often — I was also recalling one of the better stories in classical literature. This one can be found in Book Five of Livy's History of Rome.

The events of the story occurred in 390 B.C. At that time, Rome was little more than a city-state rising to dominance in west-central Italy. Most of Europe was dominated by the Gauls, a Celtic people. In the year in question, these Gauls crossed the Alps, ravaged the valley of the Po, then marched over the Appenines to sack Rome. They actually burned a large part of the city, and the Romans were besieged at last on their one remaining hill, the Capitoline. However, "the Gallic race," says Livy, "was accustomed to dampness and cold," and could not stand the hot, dry climate of Rome, aggravated by smoke from the burning parts of the city. They were smitten with plague, until they could no longer bury their dead properly but had to cremate them in heaps. The Gaulish leaders were therefore willing to cut a deal with the Romans. The Romans, for their part, were hoping for the siege to be lifted by an allied army that had been away on campaign; but when the relievers didn't show up and food ran low, the Romans were willing to deal, too.

Negotiations were undertaken. The leader of the Gauls, a man named Brennus, agreed that for payment of a thousand pounds of gold, he would withdraw his army. A table was set up with a set of scales to weigh out the gold. Now, the Gauls were a rough crowd, with an easy-going approach to accounting principles: you can think of them as the WorldCom execs of the early fourth century B.C. They brought their own sets of weights for weighing out the gold. When the Romans complained that these weights were too heavy, one of the Gaulish warriors tossed his sword into the balance pan, uttering the words: Vae victis! — "Woe to the vanquished!"*

Clearly Donald Rumsfeld was in a vae victis frame of mind when he made his speech the other day. There was a war. You lost. Suck it up. Of course, this doesn't play very well with the Arabs. It would have played even worse if Rummy had spelled out the full truth: There were in fact four wars, and the Arabs got whipped in every one of them. Vae victis, guys — to the fourth power.

When you write anything about the Middle East you get a flood of e-mails arguing the two sides of the matter at great length and with much passion. I've read a million of the darn things. It's been a while since I encountered anything new on this topic, and I don't have anything new to say here. What I have to say is something old and basic, though neither as old nor as basic as Vae victis.

I have mooted before in these columns my suspicion that the Arabs are suffering from a mass psychosis, with the corollary that our — the civilized world's — best course of action is to: "Do what you do when you find yourself in a roomful of glittering-eyed lunatics down at the local funny farm. Keep smiling, talk softly, don't make any sudden moves, keep nodding and smiling, and keep a tight hand on the stun-gun in your pocket."

After Rummy's little outburst of honesty, I'm not so sure about this. Perhaps we should try yelling in their ears. Perhaps that might be more effective, by way of opening their eyes to plain reality. "YOU LOST FOUR WARS! GET OVER IT!" Though we should still, of course, keep a tight hand on the stun-gun.

* Pronounced "WHY WEEK-tis," at least since German classicists overhauled the pronunciation of Latin in the 1890s. I note, by the way, for those who like to see hubris brought low, that Brennus never actually got his gold. The Roman relief army showed up before the ransom could be handed over, and the Gauls were massacred. The Romans went on to build their tremendous empire; the Celts got some rain-swept moorland in the north and west of Britain, a boggy republic in the eastern Atlantic, and a few seedy bars in Boston and the North Bronx. Vae victis.