Jorah Mormont, John Brown, and the Bay of Pigs

Advising Daenerys Targaryen on the feasibility of a Targaryen restoration, Jorah Mormont observed:

“The smallfolk pray for rain, health, and a summer that never ends. It is no matter to them if the great lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace. They never are.”

A cynical assessment, and like most cynical statements, largely because of its mordant bite, it’s far too readily credited than it should be. Are the poor, the small, the uneducated, the toilers on farms, and in factories and workshops so apathetic about the fate of their own nation? There are many episodes that support Ser Jorah in his contention.

James Scott, the Duke of Monmouth was a natural (illegitimate) son of Charles II, but on the death of his father, the crown had passed to his uncle James II. Monmouth was a more appealing and certainly a more dashing figure than his uncle. What is more, James’ religion was highly suspect and many feared that in his heart he was a Catholic. An invasion was planned and launched from Holland, and Monmouth landed in South West England where he was extremely popular. A proclamation against James was read, the pretender’s banners were unfurled, and men did flock to these banners. However, in numbers, in armaments, and in training, these men were far inferior to the professional royal armies that came against them. The rebels marched and countermarched; the royal armies pursued and harried them. The rebels were trapped and brought to battle, and at Sedgemoor they were defeated. Monmouth deserted his supporters and fled the field to be himself captured soon after. In spite of his royal blood and his pleas for mercy, he was executed and many of his hapless supporters went to the gallows.

Fidel Castro had overthrown Fulgencio Batista and established his own government on the island of Cuba, but the American government had become convinced that his regime was likely communist in its tendencies and sympathies and decidedly unfriendly to the United States. The CIA planned an operation to topple the regime using Cuban anti-communist exiles to land on the island and lead a revolt against the government. This invasion force was supported by the US Air Force and Navy but their direct involvement was to be limited, and it was hoped that American role in the operation might go unnoticed. The Cuban rebels were landed at the Bay of Pigs, but their forces were so tiny that they were quickly overwhelmed. Kennedy didn’t dare commit the full might of the American military, and the operation could succeed only with a general uprising of the Cuban people. The Cubans didn’t rise against Castro and the invasion turned into a dismal, embarrassing, and damaging failure.

An abolitionist named John Brown and a small group attacked and captured the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. So far successful, Brown and his men had a large store of rifles and pikes at their disposal. They’d planned to use these weapons to arm slaves from the surrounding plantations and ignite a slave revolt throughout the entire South. He expected a host of slaves to come streaming down from the hills, fugitives needing only the arms he could provide to be made into an army of liberation. They never came. The call went unanswered because it went unheard. Isolated in their cabins on plantations that covered wide areas, almost all the slaves around Harper’s Ferry never learned that the day of Jubilee may be on hand. Had they heard that they had a chance to rise and fight for their freedom, would they have been bold enough to take that chance, no matter how dreadful the penalties for defeat and how daunting the odds against them? There is no way to know but the outcome was much the same as that of Monmouth’s Rebellion. Brown’s raid attracted no support and he and his men were surrounded, and those not killed in the fighting were captured and hung.

There are many examples of landings and invasions meant to fire revolts and topple thrones that failed in a similar manner and these three have been selected as representative because they are so widely separated in time, place and circumstance. These all point to one undeniable truth, if you want to be sure of an invasion, you must bring forces sufficient to overcome any opposition. If the smallfolk, hating the present regime or loyal to the cause of the invaders, choose to join the rebellion, all the better. Their aid will make the invasion easier and less costly, but they are to be merely an ancillary force and their involvement may be helpful but it must not be needed. Any undertaking that can succeed only with their support is almost surely doomed.

From this it seems evident that the smallfolk are as heedless, apathetic, and lethargic as Jorah Mormont supposed. They are not. Invasions that count upon their support fail, but those that count on their acquiescence also fail. During the Napoleonic Wars, Spain was torn between the king, the crown prince, and a scheming prime minister. Frustrated that Spain wasn’t upholding his Continental System and needing a better ruler for what had become an ineffectual and undependable ally, Napoleon summoned father and son to Bayonne for a conference. Before long disgusted by both, and convinced they were too stupid and vicious to be of any use, he replaced them. Napoleon had acquired a habit of making kings of his brothers and he appointed one them, Joseph, to reign in their stead. Charles IV had been a bad king and Napoleon was sure that the indifferent and illiterate Spanish peasantry would tamely submit to the replacement. While Charles had been a bad king, he’d been their bad king and Napoleon’s interference and the insult to their national sovereignty touched off a revolt in Madrid. The uprising was suppressed and the French exacted reprisals brutal enough to prevent any further resistance.

The executions, however, didn’t have the intended effect, and the Grand Armee was pulled into a ghastly guerilla that dragged on and on, slowly sapping its strength. This irregular warfare set the pattern for the guerillas that came after. Frenchmen who fell out of the column of march, who strayed from their comrades, who went off in foraging parties too small to defend themselves, were taken, tortured, and killed in the most gruesome and painful manner human ingenuity can devise. The French answered these barbarities with atrocities of their own. Civilians were rounded up and put up against the wall to be shot dozens of Spaniards dying for every Frenchmen. Women were raped, towns burned and the inhabitants butchered. The Spanish took every punishment, no matter how grievous, as a provocation, and they fought more bitterly and savagely the more they suffered.

The smallfolk are unpredictable. If a great lord counts on them being sluggish, craven, and harmless, they will be peevish, irascible, and deadly. If the scion of a beloved former dynasty or a more deserving and attractive claimant to the throne will count on their affection and loyalty, they will prove too wise to follow him on his mad escapades but may come by as spectators to his beheading. Their motives are inscrutable and their responses are imponderable and that makes them as dangerous as Littlefinger in all his machinations. If the great lords understood the smallfolk they could manage them. The smallfolk may be taxed, tithed, and levied into forced labor but they can’t be predicted. The high and mighty must tread lightly because they can never know if they will encounter the sheep or the viper.

Federalist Number One: a Prologue and Caution

The Federalist Papers begin with the remark that the subsisting Articles of Confederation had shown themselves to be unsatisfactory. Hamilton alludes to an unequivocal experience and goes on to condemn the present constitution. The inadequacy isn’t put forth as an axiom but it is tendered as an obvious premise. Next, he expatiates on the importance of the deliberations underway and in this he was perfectly correct:

It has been frequently remarked, that it has been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.

By good government established by reflection and choice he clearly means a republican government, and the alternative, government by accident and force can be any form of government that isn’t a republic, but more particularly a hereditary monarchy. Reflection and choice should not be taken to mean that a republic can derive its constitution or its policies from pure reason alone. Politics is not deducible from the laws of logic by themselves. Constitutions will be established and decisions made in a certain time and place.

Is the nation agricultural, mercantile, or industrial? Is one tongue spoken by nearly all or are there many different languages? Is the country broken up into spheres by great swamps, bays, lakes, mountain ranges, or is it relatively contiguous? Are nearly all the people of one faith, or is the nation riven into differing and sometimes contending religions? The unique character of the Swiss constitution is perfectly adapted for a country broken into cantons by the Alps and speaking several different tongues. A small, flat country where nearly all speak the same language, like the Netherlands, may not need to be so loosely confederated. And although Hamilton and the other founders were intent on a separation of church and state, even the mild mentions they made to God might be dangerous in a nation where even a benign remark can be the occasion for a civil war of religion.

And not only in the setting down of the form of government but in the quotidian task of governing itself, chance and situation will play their part. It is undeniable that in a hereditary monarchy operating by primogeniture, it is often the virtues, vices, and capacities of a mere boy that will decide whether the realm has a good king or a bad king. In the selection of a ruler, a republic will have a far wider field of choice, but that does’t ensure that the choice will be a good one. There may be a great many middling men on offer with a few bad ones sprinkled among them, and the best that can be hoped for is that a fool or charlatan doesn’t get himself elected. A republic is just as susceptible to floods, earthquakes, droughts, and pandemics as a monarchy, and in a state where the people have not only a clamant but a decisive voice, these tragedies can enflame feelings and lead to blunders that a sovereign, left alone to let his passions abate and ponder at his leisure, might well avoid.

In both monarchies and republics, decisions are made by deciding among alternatives that are set before us by forces beyond our control. Among these alternatives, we may choose well or poorly, but the options themselves arise from the course of events not our chain or reasoning. As to force, every course adopted, no matter how kindly meant or how generally beneficial, will help some and harm others. A good policy will help more than it harms. And while any measure will the welfare or interests of some, a good measure may cost certain citizens but not impoverish them, it may inconvenience some but it shouldn’t ruin them. Yet no one likes to lose money or be caused trouble, and every measure decided upon by the government, whether a legislature, a king, or an emperor, must be imposed by force. In a republic, the force may be applied more gently, softened with condolence, and lubricated with sound explanations and promises of future considerations, yet the force must be applied all the same. Hamilton himself knew this well. In the very beginnings of the United States, he had to head out west to deal with whiskey distillers who refused to pay their taxes. Yet despite these quibbles and caveats, a democratic government may not be categorically different from other forms of government but it will be different.

Having touched on the importance of the issues at hand, Hamilton moved on to the strong feelings that these momentous issues were certain to evoke. He was expecting that the debate was going to be passionate and even vehement, and this was natural and probably laudable. He was also expecting that the debate was going to be often angry and venomous, and he was anxious to forestall such animosities. Our reasoning frequently leads us astray, and while our opponents may be pushing for something we are sure is wrong or harmful, they may be honestly mistaken and working from the noblest of intentions. Conversely, those who are aligned with us on what we take to be the right side of the question may be actuated not by a sincere conviction that this is for the best, but rather by enmity, avarice, envy, or some other base passion.

And if we must allow that our opponents may be mistaken, we ourselves are not infallible, and we must entertain the possibility that we ourselves have erred. In concluding his attempts to temper the coming argument and calm the approaching storm, Hamiloton mentions the violent and intolerant spirit that often animates political parties. He speaks of making proselytes by fire and sword and curing heresies by persecution. The French Revolution was not far off but it had not yet arrived, and these warnings carry notes of prophecy.

Having urged good sense and understanding, Hamilton proposes to heed his own advice and offer the public a series of papers on the subject of the proposed constitution. In cool and reasoned argument, he will point out the utility of the Union, the insufficiency of the present Confederation, the necessity of an energetic government, the conformity of the proposed Constitution with the true principles of republican government, the analogy of the proposed federal with existing state constitutions, and finally the additional security the Constitution will afford.

The subsequent papers will each treat of a specific questions, while this first paper is much more general, serving as an appeal to civility in debate and to reason as the ultimate arbiter of the tremendous issues under consideration. This prologue was meant to embody the very principles it exhorts. Hamilton is hoping for fervor without the taint of malice, earnest argument without recrimination.

Dreadnoughts and Death Stars

When HMS Dreadnought slid off the dock and slipped into Portsmouth Harbor, she was the mightiest and most terrifying weapon mankind had ever created. Admiral Fisher had pushed for the design and construction of a battleship capable of sailing at twenty one knots and armed exclusively with heavy twelve inch guns. This technological terror was intended to make it clear to the world that British supremacy at sea was to be perpetual and unchallenged. The navies of friend, ally, and foe were to look upon her huge guns, gigantic size, and tremendous cost, despair, and relinquish control of the oceans to Great Britain.

The idea for this huge new battleship had been born at the naval review for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Inventor and industrialist Charles Algernon Parsons had invented the steam turbine and to demonstrate its superiority to every other form of propulsion he sent the Turbinia, a ship powered by steam turbines, to crash the greatest massing of sea power the world had ever seen. In celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of Queen Victoria’s reign, the combined might of the Royal Navy was brought together before the eyes of princes, lords, journalists, and foreign dignitaries. The Admiralty meant to awe them all with the stunning spectacle of the planet’s greatest fleet. The Turbinia appeared uninvited and unwanted, racing between, around, and in front of the battleships. As she flew by, she was seen by all the watching luminaries to be far swifter than the proudest vessels of the Royal Navy. A picket boat was sent out to catch her but she easily danced away. To humiliate the admirals in front of the Prince of Wales was a dangerous expedient, but while they may have wanted to throttle Parsons it was obvious that existing ships couldn’t contend with one powered by steam turbines, and they had no alternative but to take his point.

The Dreadnought was designed to be powered by the new engines and she was laid down in thirteen months, faster than any battleship before. Yet as impressive as this feat was, it turned out to be an Ozymandian effort. Her speed and long range allowed her to keep her distance from any enemy ship and tear it apart without taking so much as a scratch and her launching made every other battleship afloat obsolete.  But the other navies of the world didn’t throw up their hands, give up, and concede the seas to Great Britain as the Admiralty had hoped.   Instead they rushed to build and launch their own Dreadnoughts. The introduction of Great Britain’s awesome new weapon touched off an arms race and the governments and navies of the world cast their wealth into the building of Dreadnoughts. Rather than awing other nations into meek submission, the new ships heightened tensions between the great powers. Feeling themselves compelled to match and then to outdo the British leviathan, they all had to give up on the battleships they already possessed and come up with the money to construct brand new and catastrophically expensive ships. Rather than peace and the supremacy of the Royal Navy, exorbitance and belligerence followed in the Dreadnought’s wake.

This outcome should hardly be surprising since every weapon introduced down through the ages has been quickly copied and adopted. Iron, stirrups, chariots, cannon, the Monitor and the Merrimack, and every other technological advance in killing have spread from nation to nation, from army to army. The Philistines managed to keep iron out of the hands of their enemies but such control has always proved to be difficult. The Admiralty had gambled that the ruinous cost of building such a monster might deter the other navies of the world, but in the choice between guns and butter, even the poorest of nations will arm themselves no matter what the consequences. North Korea has demonstrated that even a poor country and a minor power can acquire the most powerful and terrifying weaponry if they are ruthless enough to condemn their own citizens to indigence, famine, and pestilence.

A gigantic floating weapon that will fill any opponent with terror and allow a government to impose its will appears in the movie Star Wars. The Empire built the Death Star to be the ultimate weapon but no weapon is ever really ultimate. The gargantuan battles station turned out to be vulnerable to small fighters and was destroyed by X Wings at the Battle of Yavin. During the Second World War, the mightiest ship in the Royal Navy, HMS Prince of Wales, was sunk in much the same fashion by Japanese torpedo bombers.

X Men, Avengers, and Titus Pullo

In the 2016 film X Men Apocalypse, the villain, actually named Apocalypse, recruits a cadre of disgruntled mutants to destroy the world. As anyone may guess, the X Men set out to stop him and there follows a climactic battle between disgruntled and gruntled mutants. Apocalypse is enormously powerful, as are the mutants arrayed against him, and he easily disposed of the world’s nuclear arsenals and then nearly wipes out all life on the planet. This plot has become a familiar one, but this movie in question is a particularly blatant example. The scale and the stakes involved are ramped up to the highest level possible. The issue is the eradication of all life on the planet, and yet the struggle is kept between the two parties of mutants alone. Despite facing their own extinction, none of the leaders, governments, or armies of humankind take any part in the fight, and stopping Apocalypse is left to the superheroes. Everybody who isn’t enhanced is strangely and unpardonably passive throughout. This passivity shows itself in the X Men and the Avengers movies, and it has become one of the principal features of the whole genre. These movies make it clear that ordinary humans are hopelessly overmatched and it’s best for everyone that the world’s militaries and law enforcement agencies stay out of the fray and leave the work to beneficent superhumans.

In the final acts of these films, the laws, courts, governments, and armies of mankind disappear for all narrative purposes, while the demigods fight it out. The stage is emptied of everything except famous monuments which are left to be wrecked in computer generated spectacles. This void is conspicuous and it precludes any interactions between the superheroes and their ordinary allies. The series of Marvel comics shows on Netflix seem aware of this drawback and they try to avoid setting their final acts in a global vacuum. To keep some sort of context, they’ve scaled back the scope of the conflict and the stakes involved. The amphitheater is now one neighborhood in New York rather than the entire globe, and the villains aren’t out to destroy the world. Kingpin wants to run Hell’s Kitchen, not unleash Armageddon. KIllgrave wants to eat at fancy restaurants and play house with Jessica Jones. This allows the show writers to keep the institutions, players, and settings of ordinary life: courts, politicians, lawyers, journalists, prions, and they all can play an integral role in the story, which can then be more complex and be made up of more moving parts. Kingpin’s empire is threatened by a newspaper reporter. Jessica Jones can’t simply assassinate Killgrave because she needs to exculpate the girl he made kill her own parents. Netflix has cut down the stories and made them smaller, but by doing so, they can tell stories where crooked politicians, district attorneys, cops, journalists, and lawyers can be prominent in the action. The whole world doesn’t need to vanish during the final act, and the ending can unfold in the same world we ourselves inhabit.

This restriction in scale seems to be worth the sacrifice if the payoff is a more complex and interesting narrative. Yet is the reduction really necessary? Must the setting become parochial, and the struggle lessened in its importance? Can’t a larger superhero story keep its human context and not become a saga of titans battling in an empty firmament? There is an approach that will achieve all of this but the narrative vehicle isn’t found in comics but instead in the HBO series Rome. Like Matt Murdoch and Jessica Jones, Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo are formidable without being invulnerable or all-powerful. Yet the actions is spread over a wider scene, and Caesar, Pompey, and Mark Antony are fighting for control of the entire known world. And like their Marvel counterparts, they must contend with rules, laws, and figures of authority. And like their Marvel counterparts, they’re citizens rather than demigods. Matt Murdoch went to university, took and passed the bar exam, argues cases in a court of law, rents offices in one building an apartment in another. Jessica Jones is arrested by the police and is held pending trial. They have Social Security numbers, driver’s licenses, credit histories, bank accounts, and the myriad other connections with the organizations and institutions of the modern world.

Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo are members of the Thirteenth Legion, and as such they are subject to military discipline and regulations. On the social ladder, they sit near the bottom and they are far below many of the other characters. Not only in their dealings with Julius Caesar, but even in interactions with lesser characters, they must remain deferential and obedient. Dangerous men and capable killers, they are nevertheless figures of little importance. In the very first episode, they come to the rescue of a very creepy Octavian, a boy with the mind of Tywin Lannister in the body of Joffrey, winning themselves the gratitude and patronage of his reptilian mother, Atia who herself closely resembles Cersei. When taken out of the urban setting and marooned in the wilderness, these constraints of caste and birth are removed. Pompey is surpassingly and unquestionably their social superior, but far from Rome, away from its mores and its laws, acting on their own, they kill his captors and set him free. Yet once they return to the world and report back to Caesar, they must confess their effrontery in taking it upon themselves to save and then release his archrival and suffer the consequences. In their lowly station, they must be humble and biddable, doing as Atia bids and defying her only at the behest of someone yet more powerful than she.

Not only must they obey their aristocratic betters, the two men are also at the mercy of forces more powerful than they are. Vorenus follows Mark Anthony out of duty but he’s incapable of deciding or even of significantly influencing their shared fate. He sees his leader giving way to dissipation, losing his fighting skills, and leading them both down a path that will end in their death but he’s powerless to do anything about it. He doesn’t have the rank or the power to alter the outcome and he can only keep his word and faithfully attend his master as Anthony sets about getting them both killed. Neither he nor Pullo are in control and they’re borne along by irresistible tides of history and destiny. They aren’t strong enough to save the world all on their own.

 

They’re not simply spectators, but they’re also actors in the greatest events of their time. They stand at the elbow of the high and mighty, and they are pulled into the biggest happenings of their age. In this respect, they’re much like Forrest Gump. Like the affable Alabaman, they’re in the right place at the right time, or in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they’re in the thick of things as history is made all around them. They encounter and serve JFK, John Lennon, LBJ, Elvis, Octavian, Caesar, Cicero, and Pompey. Rome shows us both ends of the social spectrum, queens, imperators, and consuls, and their lowborn bodyguards and assassins.

One of the earlier episodes is entitled “How Titus Pullo brought down the Republic” and it recounts how one small action of Pullo’s has enormous repercussions. Pullo didn’t set out to bring down the Republic but he inadvertently touches of a series of events that change the world forever. He doesn’t turn the course of history because he has godlike powers, but through the butterfly effect. One step leads to a cascade of mistakes, chances, and accidents which results in the collapse of the Republic. This was one deed of one small actor among many, rather than the colossal heroics of a tiny number of nearly omnipotent saviors. Titus Pullo inadvertently destroyed a system of government, and in much the same manner a protagonist might save a life, avert a disaster, or diffuse a crisis and end up saving a country or the world.

Rome HBO DVD Polly Walker Kerry Condon Kevin McKidd Ray Stevenson James Purefoy