Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Gates of War: Donald Trump and the Temple of Janus

by Nomad

Keeping the decision to go to war out of the hands of a single person has long been considered a prudent policy, dating back to ancient times. History has plenty of examples of what can go wrong when this restraint on executive power is ignored.
And that's exactly what Congress is doing with Trump.

The Sacred Gates of War

In Roman mythology, the god Janus was always connected to the ideas of beginnings, of gates, transitions, but also conclusions and endings. This duality is usually the reason Janus is depicted as having two faces, with one face looking to the future and the other to the past.

The Temple of Janus in Rome had a sacred custom of opening its great double-doors during times of war and closing them again in victorious peace. Not too surprisingly, the gates of war were rarely closed. There were always wars being waged somewhere, first to expand and later defend the conquered lands.

In the last two centuries before the fall of the Republic, the Senate became the chief governing body in Rome, with responsibility for foreign policy, on legislation, and on financial and religious questions.
And that last point was important. In ancient Rome, religion was, surprisingly, intertwined with foreign policy decisions. Wars could not be declared with a consultation with a body of 20 Roman priestly officials, known as fetials. 
Early Roman society felt the need to provide both religious and moral justification for every war that it fought. The ancient fetial law stated that "no war was acceptable to the gods unless it was waged in defense of one's own country or allies."
The appeal to the gods whose authority underlay the fetials actions was essential to make Rome's wars appear legitimate in the eyes of the people.
While the Senators might decide for battle, one man- the Roman consul- was required to unbolt the gates of the temple. The consul - one of two- was the head of the Senate and the Commander in Chief of the Roman army. To safeguard against corruption, both consuls were elected to a one-year term.

All in all, the declaration of war was considered a serious matter and a sole responsibility of the Senate, with the consuls acting under the Senate's authority.
So, to the groan of the hinge-posts, the highest elected political office of the Roman Republic was charged with calling for a war commence.  

The poet Virgil says these "twin Gates of War" were "hallowed by men's awe" but also dreaded. To open the gates of war with its "hundred bars of bronze, and iron's tough, everlasting strength" was no mean feat.
 If opening the gates of war was a Herculean task, closing them was harder still. The first-century poet, Marcus Valerius Martialis. known in English as Martial, writes:
The terrible iron-constricted Gates of War shall shut; and safe within them shall stay the godless and ghastly Lust of Blood, propped on his pitiless piled armory, and still roaring from gory mouth, but held fast by a hundred chains of bronze knotted behind his back.
Clearly, Martial was a poet, not a historian.

The Temple of Janus sat in the very heart of Rome, the very heart of an Empire. Thanks to the poet, we can just about pinpoint where it once stood. It was situated on a road called Argiletum, one of the most important roads in the city, between the residential areas and the Forum and Senate building (Curia Julia).

This had a kind of symbolic value too. With their minds on the weighty matters of war and peace, the 300 Roman Senators would pass before the Temple of Janus, before or after deciding the fate of the Republic. 

Trump and the Negligence of Congress

In American history, Congress has declared war on 11 occasions, including its first declaration of war with Great Britain in 1812. In modern times, something changed. The last formal declaration of war occurred in 1941. 

This, of course, did not mean that peace reigned supreme. Since that time there have been undeclared wars in Korea, in Vietnam, in Iraq, in Afghanistan and other smaller conflicts in other parts of the world.

As TIME recently noted, America doesn't declare war anymore:
Call it whatever you want: "targeted action," "a systematic campaign," or a "sustained counter-terrorism strategy" - but don't call it war.
This has allowed the president to do pretty much whatever he wanted as long as they don't use the "W" word. Ironically, the president can use the "War" when he mentions non-military issues like a "war on crime" or a "war on drugs."

In fact, the US Congress has willingly agreed to forfeit its constitutional responsibility to the executive office. Instead, it has chosen to rely on the resolutions and appropriations and oversight. 
How has that worked?
The twin undeclared wars in Iraq and Afghanistan resulted in nearly 7,000 troops killed and an estimated cost of $ 6 trillion
In 16 years, it is difficult to see what- if anything- has actually been accomplished.America's most costly, most unpopular and longest war can hardly be a recommendation for this policy.  

And yet, when President Obama actually requested permission to intervene in Syria, Congress stepped back. The secret was revealed: Congress doesn’t really want its war power back.   

They would prefer to leave it to the executive branch to make the decision. Exactly contrary to what the Founding Fathers had in mind.

Recent events in the Trump administration show that they were absolutely correct. Only a few weeks ago, President Trump declared in a tweet that war with North Korea was all but a certainty and that his own Secretary of State was wasting time even attempting to negotiate. 
"Save your energy Rex, we'll do what has to be done!"
The Republican members of Congress had very little to say on this remarkable absurdity. A perfect example of the adage of silence being a form of consent. 

There was one exception. Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul attempted to add an amendment to the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The idea was to repeal war authority granted in 2001 and 2002 which gave the president the power to bypass Congress.
As CNBC reported at the time:
He argued Wednesday that the current war authorizations are outdated and that Congress needed to "grab power back" from the executive branch, which he said has been using the war authorizations for "unauthorized, unconstitutional and undeclared war."
Did the Senate hop onboard and take up its responsibility? No, by 61-36 vote, the Senate voted to table the Paul amendment and in legislative terms, that means pulling the plug.
Senator John McCain said that the amendment "would be premature, would be irresponsible and it would threaten U.S. national security.."

That's exactly the wrong message to send a man like Donald Trump. From the things Trump has said, it is clear he possesses an extremely weak comprehension of the constitutional limits of the president.
For him, being commander-in-chief is a something akin to being a warlord whose power cannot be criticized or restricted.

Amid the Ruins

So, to conclude the post, let's return to the sacred Temple of Janus.
When the Republic collapsed after the murder of Julius Caesar, the ceremonial opening and closing of the gates of war gradually and subtly changed. 

The decisive battle of Actium in 30 B.C, was known as The Final War of the Roman Republic for a good reason. The Republic was gone forever.
Three years later, in 27 B.C., Octavius was awarded the honorific title of Augustus by a decree of the Senate. The first emperor would close the doors of the Temple to celebrate his victory and the establishment of peace.

But this was not a victory against a rival empire or a barbarian intruder.
This was, in truth, a power grab. It was the settling of scores that would allow the unelected emperor absolute power for as long as he lived. Although Augustus promised to reinstitute the Republic, it was clear that that was not ever going to happen. 

The term "emperor" was, up to that time, never an official position. It was an honorary title bestowed upon a general by his soldiers, and simply meant "commander in chief." After the fall, it came to mean "king" (ironically, a word that all Romans despised.)

In short order, the Senate became little more than powerless witnesses to the imperial rule. The power of the state was transferred away from the wisdom of old and educated men to the caprice, the ignorance and the narcissism of one man. The Senate chose stability over democracy and ultimately lost both.
In the centuries to come, the short but lethal terms of Caligula, Nero, and Domitian, became reigns of terror and prominent members of the Senate were exterminated. With the Senate gone, nothing could check the power (and the folly) of the emperor.

The elected office of consul- whose duty had been to open and shut the gates of war- became merely symbolic. The emperor no longer felt the need to consult the Senate in order to launch a war.  

All of these systematic weaknesses of the Roman Empire, unbridled excess followed by financial desperation, disastrously corrupt and unfit rulers, a lack of consistency in domestic and foreign policy, and a pervasive public apathy would eventually become impossible to correct. While still the most formidable power on the planet at the time, the Empire's decline was inevitable.

Amid the ruins of that empire, nothing remains of the Temple of Janus. It was apparently absorbed by public squares and a series of monuments designed to celebrate the unlimited power of the succession of emperors.