The historian Edward Gibbon, in his monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, discourses at length in the second volume of his history on the corruption of the Roman army’s fighting abilities during the principate of Constantine (A.D. 306-337). More and more, Gibbon observes, officers came to view their personal advancement as more important than the security of the state.

Commands became spoils to be handed out to political favorites, rather than offices earned through combat experience. Speaking the truth to the imperial purple was a hazard to one’s career, an invitation to the most vigorous persecution, and finally a threat to one’s life.

A Growing Divide

The Emperor Constantine

The Emperor Constantine

The growth of governmental power birthed an expansion in the administrative agencies of the state. Over time a distinction emerged two types of military leaders: so-called “palatines” and “borderers.” A palatine was a court officer, one who luxuriated behind the front lines and grew fat in indolence and lethargy while preserving his position through sycophancy. A borderer was a frontier-soldier who did the actual fighting and campaigning. As Gibbon describes it:

From the reign of Constantine, a popular and even legal distinction was admitted between the Palatines and the Borderers; the troops of the court as they were improperly styled, and the troops of the frontier. The former, elevated by superiority of their pay and privileges, were permitted…to occupy their tranquil stations in the heart of the provinces…The soldiers insensibly forgot the virtues of their profession, and contracted only the vices of civil life. They were either degraded…or enervated by the luxury of baths and theatres. They soon became careless of their martial exercises, curious in their diet and apparel; and, while they inspired terror to the subjects of the empire, they trembled at the hostile approach of the barbarians. [Gibbon (J.B. Bury ed.), Ch.XVII, p. 188]

Understandably, the borderers who had to do the actual fighting and dying to preserve the empire deeply resented this imbalance of responsibility. Paid less than palatines, the borderers seethed with repressed rage. It was not unheard of for men to take extreme measures to escape military service or the tax-collector by deserting, or by self-mutilation of their hands or feet, despite the severe punishment decreed for such actions.

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Gibbon’s views are borne out by the original sources. Ammianus Marcellinus (c. A.D. 325-395), a historian of the late Roman Empire and a military man himself, had this to say on the decline of martial virtues in his time:

To these shameful conditions were added major problems in military discipline. In place of military songs, the soldiers devoted themselves to effeminate crooning. The soldier’s beds were not of stone, as in previous eras, but of stuffed down and folding couches, and their cups were heavier than their swords (as they were embarrassed to drink from earthenware)…In addition, the soldiers were arrogant and brutal to their own countrymen, but shrinking and cowardly in the face of the enemy…[Amm. Marc. XXII.4.6]

The comment that the “cups were heavier than their swords” is an apt image to describe the degeneracy of the palatine fighting spirit: comfort was more important than defense. It is true that such gloomy sentiments are commonly found among ex-generals and historians with axes to grind. It is sometimes fashionable to believe that one’s own era is worse than those that preceded it. Pessimism finds ready acceptance with the angry and marginalized. But even discounting for such distortions, I read these passages above with a great sense of unease. The unease grew greater after the news of the terrorist attacks in Paris last week became more generally known.

A Modern Version Of The Problem

Modern analogies to the “palatines” and “borderers” of Roman days are uncomfortably easy to identify. Western militaries have become havens of political correctness and social engineering experiments.

Too many Western leaders see their military forces as places to advance their own pet projects in gender “equality” and social welfare; in place of the hard business of military training, the focus is now on sensitivity and the acceptance of deviant behavior. A small cadre of careerist officers at the top flourish by telling the political apparatchiks what they want to hear, thereby perpetuating the corruption and permitting it to part of the institutional culture. The focus in the US military now is not on combat readiness. The focus now is on:

  • Making women feel comfortable
  • Having the military serve as a petri dish for leftist social engineering experiments
  • Serving as a dumping ground for young people for whom no jobs are available
  • Providing a place where private contractors, mercenaries, and opportunists can overcharge the government for doing little or nothing

The price of all this has not yet been paid. The United States, I argue, has not fought a competent enemy since the Vietnam War in the 1960s. That was over forty years ago. In some ways it could be argued that the last competent enemy was the Communist Chinese in Korea in the early 1950s.

The United States has not been seriously challenged in air or sea power since even further back, during the Second World War. These conflicts are little more than ancient history to most military men today, as lost in time as the Roman frontier conflicts recorded by Ammianus Marcellinus.

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In 1993, the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, Gen. Carl E. Mundy, issued orders that would have banned married men from enlisting in the Marine Corps. His vision was a force that was focused on combat readiness. He did not believe that it was the function of the military to provide day-care services to single mothers, or to molly-coddle families and dependents.

His idea was quickly shelved by an embarrassed President. It is difficult to see such a proposal even being made today. One wonders what Mundy would have made of the vogue of “rape” accusations in today’s military.

It is clear that the leadership of many Western countries has utterly betrayed their responsibilities to their nations. Rather than appreciate the masculine virtues for their role in defending their societies, they chose to denigrate those virtues. Rather than exercise caution in launching ill-advised social engineering experiments in their militaries, they undertook a radical program of “gender equality” enforcement.

The betrayal has been thorough and complete. The generals and senior officers who were tasked with stopping these things did little or nothing. They appeared at the required senatorial hearings, mouthed the platitudes they were required to mouth, and then faded into the background, where they could continue to collect their sumptuous salaries.

The Aftermath Of The Shirkers’ Victory

The epidemic of careerism and political correctness has caused severe damage to the readiness of western militaries. It is sapping their morale, their fighting strength, and their cohesiveness. The current climate seeks to create a force of politically indoctrinated stool-pigeons who are adept at informing on each other, but good for little else. Evidence that contradicts the official line is ignored, and the bearers of such evidence are marginalized or shunted aside.

Far too many palatines have embedded themselves into positions of power, and far too few borderers have been left to do the actual tasks of the real world. Everywhere are shirkers, and nowhere are workers. All the while, obesity rates continue to climb, as well as ever louder calls for more and more social experimentation.

Their cups have become heavier than their swords. The net result of this self-destruction can be concealed for a long time, but not forever. There will come a time when the United States is forced to confront an enemy that is as technologically advanced as it is. When this happens—and it will assuredly happen, sooner rather than later—the outcome of the contest will depend on the individual fighting qualities of each man. And there will be no place in this battle for palatines.

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