Arms in the decline and fall

I have recently been reading a lot about the potential for rapid collapse of idustrial society. As an exercise in compare and contrast I decided to read the classic Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Gibbon.

Gibbon is of course a man of his times. His prejudices, in favor of monarchy over republican forms of government, against people of color (Arabs, Orientals, barbarians), the clucking of his Puritanical mores, all seem intrusive at times. But he is great for his pithy zingers as well:

History… is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.


As it is impossible for the most able statesman to subdue millions of followers and enemies by their own personal strength, the world, under the name of policy, seems to have granted them a very liberal indulgence of craft and dissimulation. Yet the arts of Severus cannot be justified by the most ample privileges of state reason. He promised, only to betray, he flattered only to ruin; and however occasionally he bound himself by oaths and treaties, his conscience, obsequious to his interest, always released him from the inconvenient obligation.

His history is first and foremost a study in the class struggles of the various classes, and the factions within them, in the Roman Empire. He delineates the power of the people (usually with deprecation as the multitude or mob), the Aristocracy, the Senate, the Army and the Emperors.  And in that he is useful as a touch point for thinking about the contours of what is happening today.

The one area which we don’t think about much is: what will happen with the large armies of the US, the Chinese and the Russians under the scenarios of collapse? Excluding a nuclear conflagration, the loyalties of the men at arms will be, as it has been throughout history, to their paymasters. In Gibbon’s history the Army and sometimes factions within the Army such as the Praetorian Guard, were decisive in the election of an Emperor, and often in his subsequent assassination.

Under scenarios where peak oil, climate change, financial collapse and industrial collapse test and eventually break the power of politics as usual to function how will armed force be employed? In the world today we see the resort to arms more and more in the service of policy. We see in the civil wars in Iraq and Ukraine, in which ethnic political aims are pursued. But also in the more complete breakdown of failed states which become regions subject to the vicissitudes of warlords, much like how Gibbon saw the world outside the borders of the Empire. Warlordism, is the lowest level of armed politics.

In semi-stable client states such as Myanmar, Thailand, Egypt, Israel, we see the Armies having a large say in who will be the leaders of the civilian government. This could also be argued in the case of China the largest state in the contemporary world where the Army (using a synecdoche for all armed forces) has a significant say in politics. A Praetorian, Army led state, may be a stable configuration for some of the post-collapse societies. In these states, the difficulty will be to contain factions within the Army. as the successions of Caracalla, Macrinus and Elgalbalus showed in 198-220 C.E.  And the second challenge for these states: to maintain the satisfaction of the needs of the troops in both primary needs of food and shelter but moreso in the status needs of wealth and power to the extent that rebellion of the Army is contained. Gibbon chronicles how the Emperors were constrained to provide greater and greater donatives to the troops on their ascension to the throne, and to insure their well being in order to keep their heads.

Much of the West today is under a Pax Americana. However, deficient this has proved to be in the edges of the Empire, we still see unity and peace in Western Europe, the Americas and the United States. In these places the military, in the normal course of events has little sway over politics. In the United States the capture of the Congress by the military-industrial-intelligence complex that so worried the ex-General, President Eisenhower, is so complete that it is now, for all intents, invisible and insensible to democratic control.

Western Europe since World War II is almost completely demilitarized. In Western Europe, it is not clear to me that the Army  is involved at all in everyday policy, except when a decision to intervene in multilateral forces is required. This demilitarization may make it weirdly vulnerable to wars under the scenarios of industrial collapse. When Pax Americana can no longer be reliably deployed to Europe the arms of the East and even the arms within Europe may lead to struggle for territory and spoils.

Devolution may occur in America. When large scale disruption of the society occurs the various armed factions of police, homeland security, national guard and armed forces will probably at first come under central (Imperial) control. But as states, Mexico, Canada and smaller militant groups assert independence a civil war  may occur here. At the end the natural boundaries of river systems and mountain passes will dictate a new division of governable areas of the American continent. Complete devolution into warlordism is even possible in areas which have few natural boundaries for defense.

Further in time de-industiralization will hit the military forces as well. The large strategic systems of missiles, satellites, radar and global communications will degrade. Nuclear powered ships may remain viable longest. But of significant concern is the long term security in breakdown scenarios of nuclear arms, plants and waste. This is hard to foresee and very worrisome. Large tracts of land around nuclear plants will become desolate, no-go areas. Hanford in Washington state seems to be on its way to becoming a piece of irradiated sacrificial land.

As oil depletion become severe tanks, trucks, planes and boats that run on fossil fuel will become scrap metal. Towards the end, ammunition will become scarce for small arms. I expect that there will be small reloaders, craft armorers, who will continue to make ammo for some time even when we are reduced in the main to horse power and foot soldiers. But then the sword and pike and bow may once again become the arms of future armies, putting us back tto the state that Gibbon was writing about.

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