Scared of a world war over the Ukraine? Read your Romans

What have the Romans ever done for us? As posed by Monty Python, the question was never meant to be serious.

The Romans have given us quite a lot, including some basic lessons in how to avoid war.

Back in the fourth or fifth century, when neither Russia nor the Ukraine existed, the Roman military thinker Vegetius wrote “Si vis pacem, para bellum”. If you want peace, prepare for war.

The saying became proverbial, and the Germans even blended the last two words together to name their 1913 MG14 machine gun. Perhaps they thought the weapon would prevent the impending war. More likely, they thought the gun would help them win it.

Neither thing happened, the machine gun became obsolete, and the word ‘parabellum’ moved on to describe some new pistol rounds. However, the lesson taught by the original words was still valid.

Unfortunately Western powers ignored it, and parabellum rounds were then used by the Germans to pierce uncountable heads, many of them belonging to innocent victims.

The lesson is still there, and it’s still being ignored. If you want peace, prepare for war. The adage holds just as true in reverse: if you want war, prepare for peace.

The proverb works so unfailingly both ways because predators are always on the prowl. They may be outnumbered by their potential victims, but that doesn’t matter.

Predators always look for an opening to pounce, but the potential victims, especially if no one has pounced on them for a while, grow soft.

They don’t want war and they don’t prepare for it. They thus vindicate Vegetius by making sure it’s going to come. Examples of this are numerous throughout history, none so dramatic as the Second World War.

In the run-up to it Europe was cursed with two major predators, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, both dreaming of world conquest and gearing up for it.

Western nations, still demob-happy after the previous carnage, didn’t prepare for war. That’s why they were denied peace.

The two predators set the world on fire by joining forces to attack Poland, with the West unable to respond properly until most of Europe was overrun and German planes (flying on Soviet fuel) were raining bombs (many of them Soviet-made) on London.

Since at some point the two predators jumped on each other’s throats, some four years and 50 million deaths later their number was halved: Nazi Germany was put down.

Yet the Soviet Union, the other equally culpable predator, survived and thrived. It’s still going strong, even though for a short while, some 20 years or so, the wolf had shed its grey fur and was sporting a designer sheepskin.

The West again went demob-happy; again it refused to prepare for war. Even the United States, the backbone of NATO, was cutting its defence budgets drastically. In Europe they were almost peace-dividended out of existence (the average EU spend on defence is a puny 1.4 percent of the budget). 

The diminution of arsenal was accompanied by the erosion of will, with the West again growing soft and complacent. Once that became obvious, down into the bin went the designer sheepskin – the old predator, its fangs bared, has re-emerged.

Ever since the transfer of power from the Communist party to the KGB (the operation going by the codenames of ‘glasnost’, ‘perestroika’ and ‘collapse of the Soviet Union’), Russia has been run by the inner sanctum of the KGB, at present fronted by Col. Putin.

It was these men, rather than the token Russian government at large, who used their professional expertise to assess the situation and decide that the time had come to put the Humpty Dumpty of the old Soviet Union together again. For starters.

The decision to “probe Europe with a bayonet”, in Lenin’s phrase, was specifically taken by a small cabal including Col. Putin himself, Sergei Ivanov, his chief of staff, Nikolai Patrushev, head of the security council, and Aleksandr Bortnikov, the current director of the KGB (codename FSB). All of them served together in the KGB Leningrad branch in the 70s and 80s.

In their professional capacity these officers judged that the West was unprepared both physically and morally to stop the predator in its tracks. So far their judgment has been vindicated.

Yet again the West is inviting war by failing to prepare for it. Yet again Westerners are asking the same question they asked in 1939: “Will he or won’t he?”

Wrong question. The right one would be “How can we make sure he doesn’t and, if he still does, how can we wipe him out?” But we lack strength, cerebral, muscular or testicular, either to pose this question or certainly to answer it properly.

“It’s déjà vu all over again,” in the words of the American answer to Mrs Malaprop, the baseball coach Yogi Berra. Let’s just pray it won’t be exactly that.


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