Another Tack: The Pliny perspective

A host of retired generals and cocky military types obsessively dictate this country’s agenda and belittle all that should alarm us.

bust of Nero_521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
bust of Nero_521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Nothing in our regional setting is what it was. No premise which underpinned assorted assumptions, under which we labored for decades, was left unscathed by the tempest raging around us. This is time for the most extreme caution and the most exhaustive reevaluation of everything we believed and took for granted.
But the box of conventional thinking has become a comfort object, in the best case a psychological security blanket for those disinclined to face unfamiliar situations and uncertain prospects. It may be the easiest fallback option for those incapable of original reassessments. Charlatans are in an unconscionable category all of their own because they evidently don’t misread reality but knowingly hawk the worn and useless, thereby putting the country at risk for their own fleeting advantage.
Things are bad enough without attributing malicious motives to the host of retired generals, cocky military types and prolific know-it-alls who obsessively dictate this country’s agenda and persistently belittle all that should profoundly alarm us. That still doesn’t make them any less dangerous.
Look at all the ex-chiefs of General Staff who feel duty-bound to opine before any available microphone. Besides voluble braggart Ehud Barak, not a day goes by in which Shaul Mofaz doesn’t put his two cents in (most of all to beset and upset Tzipi Livni, whom he strives to replace at Kadima’s helm). Also piping in loudly is another rising Kadima star, Dan Halutz. The chattering generals have now been joined by the latest former Soldier No. 1, Gabi Ashkenazi, who in so many words urged us to make peace with Syria and the PA – as if all impediments to that end are Israeli-made.
MOST GALLING is the fact that unsolicited recommendations for the chanciest concessions to date come just as the merit of previous concessions is called to question. Until we know whether the peace with Egypt will survive whatever regime changes take place in Cairo, can we really gamble on far more perilous payoffs to far more sinister here-today-gone-tomorrow Arab potentates?
Installing Tehran’s Damascene bedfellow on the shores of Lake Kinneret, or Ramallah’s figurehead on hilltops overlooking our densest population centers, will make us incalculably more vulnerable than ceding the Sinai Peninsula ever did. The Sinai constitutes a sizable buffer zone with early-warning scope, which Kalkilya or Tulkarm don’t. Anything shot from Fatahland will be a surefire hit. No town will be safe; no road will be secure; no flight will take off from or land at Ben-Gurion Airport. Israel’s jugular would bleed fatally.
Is it only misplaced political expediency which leads our top brass of yore to babble to distraction? It’s probably something seriously deeper. Tacitus documented this syndrome in antiquity. Pliny the Elder, commander of Rome’s imperial naval base at the Bay of Naples and one of the foremost scholars of his day, was unimpressed by the clouds of smoke and incandescent ash which Mount Vesuvius belched in 79 CE.
As Pompeii townsfolk began fleeing in horror, Pliny bathed, dined and allayed the fears of his companions, assuring them that Vesuvius’ leaping flames were nothing but bonfires left by ignorant panicky peasants.
Likewise, Israel’s supercilious Pliny knockoffs of our day intimate that it’s benighted commoners who disturb their peace (or dreams of peace). Pliny’s spiritual heirs and their ever-obedient media mouthpieces not only dismiss the significance of the portents of devastation that our Vesuvius spectacularly spouts, they divert attention from the true nature of its thunderous retching, misrepresenting it as benign purgative heaving.
Like the original Pliny, they seek optimistic spins. They wax ecstatic about burgeoning Arab democracy while we witness little more than an aggregate of internal counter-coups – as distinct from authentic stirrings of popular liberation.
Egypt, for instance, had been ruled by its army from 1952 and the army continues to rule it. Having judged Hosni Mubarak a lost cause, the generals deposed him and the street protests dissipated. In fact, the Egyptian army’s hold is more powerful, having done away with the constitution and various governing frameworks. What happened was that Mubarak’s generation of generals was replaced by another set of generals – for now at least.
The picture in neighboring Libya is not dissimilar. Indeed, it would have been quite recognizable to Pliny. He wrote an extensive contemporary history of Nero – Rome’s emperor from 54 to 68 – most of which is lost, save for references which survived in Pliny’s Natural Histories.
Most of our current conceptions of Nero, including the bit about his fiddling nonchalantly while Rome burned, are probably the legacy of tendentious historiography (hardly a modern invention). Nonetheless, there’s little doubt that he was the Gaddafi of his era – flamboyant, eccentric and a bombastic grandstander.
Nero raced a 10-horse chariot in the 67 Olympics, played the lyre and sang his own compositions in public, was a ruthless mass-executioner but could be charitable when apparent magnanimity enhanced his image. He flirted with the lower classes and seemed obsessed with being popular. He was a flashy spendthrift and an extravagant builder.
Nero’s downfall was sparked by rebellions in the provinces. When even the Praetorian Guard turned against him, he fled Rome, could find no refuge and finally drove a dagger into his throat.
Most important of all, Nero wasn’t replaced by anything remotely resembling a return to the values of the old republic. Nero’s excesses were followed by what gained notoriety as the Year of the Four Emperors. Rome was gripped by ongoing civil strife in which four emperors grabbed power in swift succession (the last, Vespasian, destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem when putting down the Jewish revolt). The political and military anarchy ushered in cyclical disturbances that shook the ancient world.
Comparable chaos is the rough pattern for what we can expect in the Arab world. What will surely not flourish will be a democratic idyll. The premature celebration of newfound human liberties is as preposterous as the hindsight righteous denunciations of miscellaneous Arab tyrants, who were never disqualified as peace partners while they imperiously ruled.
The very headliners of our public discourse, who fraudulently extolled Yasser Arafat’s reliability, keep downplaying Mahmoud Abbas’s Holocaust-denial because “peace must be made with enemies.”
Post factum they discerned the ills of Mubarak’s regime but sycophantically hung on to his every syllable only several weeks earlier. Now they trash Mubarak but urge us to sacrifice our security to the likes of Iranian proxy Bashar Assad.
They luxuriate in pretense, swagger as experts and arrogantly pontificate with the authority seemingly invested in them by past military rank – as Pliny did. Like him, they sit below a rumbling Vesuvius, oblivious to spewed fragments of pumice and flashes of lightning. Some even applaud the fury, while others sabotage our collective defenses.
At this rate our future seems as secure as Pliny’s own. Hours after he pooh-poohed the exploding volcano, he awoke frantically to a dawn blacker than night and was soon asphyxiated by a blanket of dense sulfurous fumes.