2000 years ago today, Caesar Augustus died. That’s right, in the month named after him. More or less how you know you’ve arrived. Since Augustus both 1) won a brutal civil war and 2) behaved fairly well afterwards, he is remembered as one of the greatest leaders of all time rather than one of Rome’s many warlords, pretenders, and brutal tyrants.
His status of Greatest Of All Time (G.O.A.T.) is hardly unquestionable, however. He is rightly recognized for ending the civil wars that had wracked the Roman Republic and putting the Empire on a much firmer foundation, which lasted peacefully for two hundred years, more erratically for two hundred more, and as the Byzantine Empire for a thousand years after that. However, the institutions Augustus left behind were not unquestionably better.
The institutions of the Classical World were hardly perfect, but were better than the Medieval ones that displaced them. Classical institutions were generally legalistic and governed by impersonal rule – e.g., the Athenian assembly and the Roman Senate. The Roman civil code was a masterpiece that is the ultimate root for Western legal systems, including accountability for political leaders and protection of private property. It also included slavery, but hey, no one’s perfect. This legalistic and impersonal rule is generally taken to be a prime prerequisite for stable government and economic growth in the modern world. Augustus’s takeover supplanted impersonal legalistic rule with personal autocratic rule, which incentivizes instability by making it much more rewarding to get to the top of the heap. Think the Game of Thrones – “you win or you die”. Personal leadership and its attendant institutional instability dogged the Western World from Augustus until the Early Modern Era (16th/17th century) and much longer in some places.
Might Augustus be responsible for sending the West on a 1500-year-long journey down a developmental dead end? That would probably qualify him as the W.O.A.T.
The world is terrible today. The US has just begun bombing in Iraq, the Russians are still menacing Ukraine, Syria remains in shambles, the African ebola outbreak continues to worsen, the Israel-Hamas ceasefire has collapsed, and to top it all off Azerbaijan seems to have decided the time is right to declare war on Armenia in a rerun of one of the deadliest conflicts of the Soviet collapse. This may just be a bluff, it may be serious, or it might be both. Not coincidentally, last week we just commemorated the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. The amazing thing is that (except for the ebola outbreak) all of the above crises can be traced back to the events of a hundred years ago.
The wreckage of World War I still marks these conflicts. The fall of the Russian empire set off vicious wars amongst the various nationalities – including the Azeri-Armenian war and the failed Ukrainian War of Independence. The Soviet takeover froze those conflicts, but the fall of the USSR booted them right back up and they continue to play out. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a direct consequence of the British seizing Ottoman Palestine and opening it up to Jewish settlement. Iraq and Syria are creations of the war as well, and the weakness of these multi-ethnic, loosely-bound states are the legacy of heir creations as ad-hoc colonial divisions. In some sense, the blurring of the border under ISIS control may be more stable than the rigid state boundaries that existed before.
World War I deeply broke the prevailing international system, and a century later the consequences are still playing themselves out at the cost of many, many lives. Something that you should keep in mind when anyone confidently predicts the outcomes of military action.
2014 is upon us, officially marking a century since the beginning of World War I. The thinkpieces should be intolerably thick on the ground around August and September. I worry that most of them will be ignored – which is a shame, because World War I was probably the single most important event in modern history. World War II was also a rather big deal, but at least the European component of it was pretty clearly a natural outgrowth of World War I.
It’s also tragically understudied. As a matter of history, World War II is too tidy – some mostly good people on one side, some very bad people on the other, and a narrative that even a child can understand. On the other hand, the story of World War I is a gigantic mess. Even a century later, people still have strong and basic disagreements on why the war happened and who was responsible. There are no evil men to lay the blame on, just people who were scared and nervous and trying to do what was best for their country.
Every single thing about the war is a numbing endless lesson that history is messy and complicated and horrible. The combat was monstrous and inhuman. The politics were messy and venal. There are no heroes, just old men who sent millions of young men to die for no clear reason. There were no great values at stake, no immortal principles at risk, just industrialized slaughter. The absurdities of the war are staggering – for example, the whole French army collapsed in 1917. Roughly half the divisions in the army decided to ignore all orders and squat down in their trenches for the rest of the war. Probably a good decision.
There’s a common myth that the fighting stopped in 1918. That would be tidy. The war ended for the Russian Empire in 1917 when the Empire fell and the USSR made peace. It started up again for the Russians (and Latvians and Ukrainians and Poles) in 1918 as the Germans started to retreat from the eastern territories they had conquered. The Soviets in 1918 actually set out on a mission of world conquest, one reason why the US sent the Army to Russia to fight them off in vain. Not a part of history you tend to learn in high school. Even before finishing the Russian Civil War the Soviets had decided it was time to bring the Revolution to the West, and they only stopped because they ground to a stop in Poland. Everything the war touched it destroyed.
Most importantly, World War I is a powerful reminder that policymakers should be humble and should fear war above all else. The lesson politicians take from World War II is simple and powerful – that every adversary is Hitler, and that it’s always Munich 1938. If more people truly understood World War I, they wouldn’t be so quick to get involved in things that might spin terribly, horribly out of control. The world of 1914 was far from perfect, but it was a world of peace and trade and rapid growth and rising living standards. It seemed as though nothing could shake Europe from the course it was on…until a few weeks in August when a few politicians decided to take some risks.
Then everything went to shit.
I think it may be time to consider diversification of personal efforts. I’ve been working on a startup idea with a friend of mine, and I think it has some potential. However, I’m less of a technical guy and I’m most likely going to be more hands-off until we leave the coding/development stage and enter the business-development stage. So, I’m kind of casting about and trying to figure out something I can do outside of work to keep myself occupied and to lend a bit of purpose to my life.
I’m considering the idea of a book. It’s a big thing to start off, but everyone who ever did it had to start with a first step. I also did write a book-length thesis for college, and that suggests to me an actual book is within reach. That leaves a pretty big question: about what? Fiction is right out – I’d be terrible at it, I’m fairly sure. Which is unfortunate, since I love the world-imagination aspect of science fiction and keep running personal notes about my thoughts on the topic.
This leaves nonfiction. Judging by Amazon, the trick to book sales is a self-help book about how Jesus/self-actualization helped you meet your spouse/start a business/write a best-selling book. I am not cynical enough to write one of those books in cold blood. I have little practical expertise other than two years of management consulting, which frankly is pretty boring and not great book material. My academic background is in history, which I think is where I would go. This, then, suggests a book oriented towards politics, current events, or history.
Of course, without the research resources of Harvard it will be substantially more difficult to write one. No huge library full of abstruse secondary (and sometimes primary) sources, no JSTOR, no ProQuest. There’s a lot available online, but there’s definitely a pretty high barrier to entry to write without academic resources. I will be moving to SF, and I can purchase access to the Cal library for $100/year. This would provide adequate material resources and might be worth considering if I do pursue this.
Of course, I still have to figure out a subject where “room” exists – ie, space for an original contribution. Authors with more established personal brands can get away with retreading subjects. That would be a difficult subject. Political polemics are played out, though I suppose there would always be a market.
I’m also curious whether there’s a market for “serious” self-published work in the ebook market. Most of the real success stories so far have been for people writing self-help books or trashy romance novels. I suspect that publishing a successful book in the serious nonfiction world still requires establishing a personal brand first. Most likely through traditional established channels. For now.