Epistemic Status: Full of sweeping generalizations because I don’t want to make it 10x longer by properly unpacking all the underlying complexity.
[9 minute read]
In 2006, Dr. Atul Gawande wrote an article in The New Yorker about maternal care entitled “How Childbirth Went Industrial“. It’s an excellent piece from an author who consistently produces excellent pieces. In it, Gawande charts the rise of the C-section, from its origin as technique so dangerous it was considered tantamount to murder (and consequently banned on living mothers), to its current place as one of the most common surgical procedures carried out in North American hospitals.
The C-section – and epidurals and induced labour – have become so common because obstetrics has become ruthlessly focused on maximizing the Apgar score of newborns. Along the way, the field ditched forceps (possibly better for the mother yet tricky to use or teach), a range of maneuvers for manually freeing trapped babies (likewise difficult), and general anesthetic (genuinely bad for infants, or at least for the Apgar scores of infants).
The C-section has taken the place of much of the specialized knowledge of obstetrics of old, not the least because it is easy to teach and easy for even relatively less skilled doctors to get right. When Gawande wrote the article, there was debate about offering women in their 39th week of pregnancy C-sections as an alternative to waiting for labour. Based on the stats, this hasn’t quite come to pass, but C-sections have become slightly more prevalent since the article was written.
I noticed two laments in the piece. First, Gawande wonders at the consequences of such an essential aspect of the human experience being increasingly (and based off of the studies that show forceps are just as good as C-sections, arguably unnecessarily) medicalized. Second, there’s a sense throughout the article that difficult and hard-won knowledge is being lost.
The question facing obstetrics was this: Is medicine a craft or an industry? If medicine is a craft, then you focus on teaching obstetricians to acquire a set of artisanal skills—the Woods corkscrew maneuver for the baby with a shoulder stuck, the Lovset maneuver for the breech baby, the feel of a forceps for a baby whose head is too big. You do research to find new techniques. You accept that things will not always work out in everyone’s hands.
But if medicine is an industry, responsible for the safest possible delivery of millions of babies each year, then the focus shifts. You seek reliability. You begin to wonder whether forty-two thousand obstetricians in the U.S. could really master all these techniques. You notice the steady reports of terrible forceps injuries to babies and mothers, despite the training that clinicians have received. After Apgar, obstetricians decided that they needed a simpler, more predictable way to intervene when a laboring mother ran into trouble. They found it in the Cesarean section.
Medicine would not be the first industry to industrialize. The quasi-mythical King Ludd that gave us the phrase “Luddite” was said to be a weaver, put out of business by the improved mechanical knitting machines. English programs turn out thousands of writers every year, all with an excellent technical command of the English language, but most with none of the emotive power of Gawande. Following the rules is good enough when you’re writing for a corporation that fears to offend, or for technical clarity. But the best writers don’t just know how to follow the rules. They know how and when to break them.
If Gawande was a student of military history, he’d have another metaphor for what is happening to medicine: warriors are being replaced by soldiers.
If you ever find yourself in possession of a spare hour and feel like being lectured breathlessly by a wide-eyed enthusiast, find your local military history buff (you can identify them by their collection of swords or antique guns) and ask them whether there’s any difference between soldiers and warriors.
You can go do this now, or I can fill in, having given this lecture many times myself.
Imagine your favourite (or least favourite) empire from history. You don’t get yourself an empire by collecting bottle caps. To create one, you need some kind of army. To staff your army, you have two options. Warriors, or soldiers.
(Of course, this choice isn’t made just by empires. Their neighbours must necessarily face the same conundrum.)
Warriors are the heroes of movies. They were almost always the product of training that starts at a young age and more often than not were members a special caste. Think medieval European Knights, Japanese Samurai, or the Hashashin fida’i. Warriors were notable for their eponymous mastery of war. A knight was expected to understand strategy and tactics, riding, shooting, fighting (both on foot and mounted), and wrestling. Warriors wanted to live up to their warrior ethos, which normally emphasized certain virtues, like courage and mercy (to other warriors, not to any common peasant drafted to fight them).
Soldiers were whichever conscripts or volunteers someone could get into a reasonable standard of military order. They knew only what they needed to complete their duties: perhaps one or two simple weapons, how to march in formation, how to cook, and how to repair some of their equipment . Soldiers just wanted to make it through the next battle alive. In service to this, they were often brutally efficient in everything they did. Fighting wasn’t an art to them – it was simple butchery and the simpler and quicker the better. Classic examples of soldiers are the Roman Legionaries, Greek Hoplites, and Napoleon’s Grande Armée.
The techniques that soldiers learned were simple because they needed to be easy to teach to ignorant peasants on a mass scale in a short time. Warriors had their whole childhood for elaborate training.
(Or at least, that’s the standard line. In practice, things were never quite as clear cut as that – veteran soldiers might have been as skilled as any warrior, for example. The general point remains though; one on one, you would always have bet on a warrior over a soldier.)
But when you talk about armies, a funny thing happens. Soldiers dominated . Individually, they might have been kind of crap at what they did. Taken as a whole though, they were well-coordinated. They looked out for each other. They fought as a team. They didn’t foolishly break ranks, or charge headlong into the enemy. When Germanic warriors came up against Roman soldiers, they were efficiently butchered. The Germans went into battle looking for honour and perhaps a glorious death. The Romans happily gave them the latter and so lived (mostly) to collect their pensions. Whichever empire you thought about above almost certainly employed soldiers, not warriors.
It turns out that discipline and common purpose have counted for rather a lot more in military history than simple strength of arms. Of this particular point, I can think of no better example than the rebellion that followed the Meiji restoration. The few rebel samurai, wonderfully trained and unholy terrors in single combat were easily slaughtered by the Imperial conscripts, who knew little more than which side of a musket to point at the enemy.
The very fact that the samurai didn’t embrace the firing line is a point against them. Their warrior code, which esteemed individual skill, left them no room to adopt this devastating new technology. And no one could command them to take it up, because they were mostly prima donnas where their honour was concerned.
I don’t want to be too hard on warriors. They were actually an efficient solution to the problem of national defence if a population was small and largely agrarian, lacked political cohesion or logistical ability, or was otherwise incapable of supporting a large army. Under these circumstances, polities could not afford to keep a large population under arms at all times. This gave them several choices: they could rely on temporary levies, who would be largely untrained. They could have a large professional army that paid for itself largely through raiding, or they could have a small, elite cadre of professional warriors.
All of these strategies had disadvantages. Levies tended to have very brittle morale, and calling up a large proportion of a population makes even a successfully prosecuted war economically devastating. Raiding tends to make your neighbours really hate you, leading to more conflicts. It can also be very bad for discipline and can backfire on your own population in lean times. Professional warriors will always be dwarfed in numbers by opponents using any other strategy.
Historically, it was never as simple as solely using just one strategy (e.g. European knights were augmented with and eventually supplanted by temporary levies), but there was a clear lean towards one strategy or another in most resource-limited historical polities. It took complex cultural technology and a well-differentiated economy to support a large force of full time soldiers and wherever these pre-conditions were lacking, you just had to make do with what you could get .
When conditions suddenly call for a struggle – whether that struggle is against a foreign adversary, to boost profits, or to cure disease, it is useful to look at how many societal resources are thrown at the fight. When resources are scarce, we should expect to see a few brilliant generalists, or many poorly trained conscripts. When resources are thick on the ground, the amount that can be spent on brilliant people is quickly saturated and the benefits of training your conscripts quickly accrue. From one direction or another, you’ll approach the concept of soldiers.
Doctors as soldiers, not as warriors is the concept Gawande is brushing up against in his essay. These new doctors will be more standardized, with less room for individual brilliance, but more affordances for working well in teams. The prima donnas will be banished (as they aren’t good team players, even when they’re brilliant). Dr. Gregory House may have been the model doctor in the Victorian Age, or maybe even in the fifties. But I doubt any hospital would want him now. It may be that this standardization is just the thing we need to overcome persistent medical errors, improve outcomes across the board, and make populations healthier. But I can sympathize with the position that it might be causing us to lose something beautiful.
In software development, where I work, a similar trend can be observed. Start-ups aggressively court ambitious generalists, for whom freedom to build things their way is more important than market rate compensation and is a better incentive than even the lottery that is stock-options. At start-ups, you’re likely to see languages that are “fun” to work with, often dynamically typed, even though these languages are often considered less inherently comprehensible than their more “enterprise-friendly” statically typed brethren.
It’s with languages like Java (or its Microsoft clone, C#) and C++ that companies like Google and Amazon build the underlying infrastructure that powers large tracts of the internet. Among the big pure software companies, Facebook is the odd one out for using PHP (and this choice required them to rewrite the code underlying the language from scratch to make it performant enough for their large load).
It’s also at larger companies where team work, design documents, and comprehensibility start to be very important (although there’s room for super-stars at all of the big “tech” companies still; it’s only in companies more removed from tech and therefore outside a lot of the competition for top talent where being a good team player and writing comprehensible code might top brilliance as a qualifier). This isn’t to say that no one hiring for top talent appreciates things like good documentation, or comprehensibility. Merely that it is easy for a culture that esteems individual brilliance to ignore these things are a mark of competence.
Here the logic goes that anyone smart enough for the job will be smart enough to untangle the code of their predecessors. As anyone who’s been involved in the untangling can tell you, there’s a big difference between “smart enough to untangle this mess” and “inclined to wade through this genius’s spaghetti code to get to the part that needs fixing”.
No doubt there exist countless other examples in fields I know nothing about.
The point of gathering all these examples and shoving them into my metaphor is this: I think there exist two important transitions that can occur when a society needs to focus a lot of energy on a problem. The transition from conscripts to soldiers isn’t very interesting, as it’s basically the outcome of a process of continuous improvement.
But the transition from warriors to soldiers is. It’s amazing that we can often get better results by replacing a few highly skilled generalists who apply a lot of hard fought decision making, with a veritable army of less well trained, but highly regimented and organized specialists. It’s a powerful testament to the usefulness of group intelligence. Of course, sometimes (e.g. Google, or the Mongols) you get both, but these are rare happy accidents.
Being able to understand where this transition is occurring helps you understand where we’re putting effort. Understanding when it’s happening within your own sphere of influence can help you weather it.
Also note that this transition doesn’t only go in one direction. As manufacturing becomes less and less prevalent in North America, we may return to the distant past, when manufacturing stuff was only undertaken by very skilled artisans making unique objects.
 Note the past tense throughout much of this essay; when I speak about soldiers and warriors, I’m referring only to times before the 1900s. I know comparatively little about how modern armies are set up. ^
 Best of all were the Mongols, who combined the lifelong training of warriors with the discipline and organization of soldiers. When Mongols clashed with European knights in Hungary, their “dishonourable” tactics (feints, followed by feigned retreats and skirmishing) easily took the day. This was all possible through a system of signal flags that allowed Subutai to command the whole battle from a promontory. European leaders were expected to show their bravery by being in the thick of fighting, which gave them no overall control over their lines. ^
 Historically, professional armies with good logistical support could somewhat pay for themselves by expanding an empire, which brought in booty and slaves. This is distinct from raiding (which does not seek to incorporate other territories) and has its own disadvantages (rebellion, over-extension, corruption, massive unemployment among unskilled labourers, etc.). ^
Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan is the second book I’ve read about World War II and culpability. I apparently just can’t resist the urge to write essays after books like this, so here we go again. Since so much of what I got out of this book was spurred by the history it presented, I’m going to try and intersperse my thoughts with a condensed summary of it.
Aside from the prologue, which takes place just after Hirohito’s (arguably) extra-constitutional surrender, the book follows Hirohito’s life chronologically. Hirohito’s childhood was hardly idyllic. He spent most of it being educated. Meiji Era Japan drew heavily from Prussia and in Hirohito’s education, I saw an attempt to mold him into a Japanese Frederick the Great.
I think Dr. Bix is right to spend as much time on Hirohito’s childhood as he does. Lois McMaster Bujold once criticized authors who write characters that pop out of a box at 22, fully formed. It’s even more lamentable when historians do this.
Had Dr. Bix skipped this part, we’d have no explanation for why Hirohito failed so completely at demonstrating any moral fibre throughout the war. In order to understand Hirohito’s moral failings, we had to see the failings in Hirohito’s moral education. Dr. Bix does an excellent job here, showing how fatuous and sophistic the moral truths Hirohito was raised with were. His instructors lectured him on the moral and temporal superiority of the Imperial House over the people of Japan and the superiority of the people of Japan over the people of the world. Japan, Hirohito was taught, had to steward the rest of Asia towards prosperity – violently if need be.
For all that Hirohito might have been a pacifist personally, his education left him little room to be a pacifist as a monarch.
This certainly isn’t without precedent. The aforementioned Frederick the Great was known to complain about his “dog’s life” as a general. Frederick would have much preferred a life of music and poetry to one of war, but he felt that it was his duty to his country and his people to lead (and win wars).
Hirohito would have felt even more pressure than Frederick the Great, because he probably sincerely believed that it was up to him to save Asia. The explicitly racist immigration policies of western nations, their rampant colonialism, and their refusal to make racial non-discrimination a key plank of the League of Nations made it easy for Hirohito’s teachers to convince him that he (and through him, all of Japan) was responsible for protecting “the yellow race”.
It is unfortunate that Hirohito was raised to be an activist emperor, because as Dr. Bix points out, the world was pretty done with monarchs by the time Hirohito was born. Revolutions and First World War had led to the toppling of many of the major monarchies (like Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Germany). Those countries that still had monarchies heavily circumscribed the power of their monarchs. There were few countries left where monarchs both ruled and reigned. Yet this is what Hirohito’s teachers prepared him to do.
After an extensive education, Hirohito entered politics as the prince-regent for his ailing father, the Taisho Emperor. As regent, he attended military parades, performed some of the emperor’s religious duties, appointed prime ministers, and began to learn how Japanese politics worked.
There was a brief flourishing of (almost) true democracy based on party politics during the reign of the Taisho Emperor. Prime Ministers were picked by the emperor on the advice of the genrō, an extraconstitutional group of senior statesmen who directed politics after the Meiji Restoration (in 1868). The incapacity of Hirohito’s father meant that the genrō were free to choose whomever they wanted. Practically, this meant that cabinets were formed by the leader of the largest party in the Diet (the Japanese parliament). Unfortunately, this delicate democracy couldn’t survive the twin threats of an activist monarch and independent military.
The prime minister wasn’t the only power centre in the cabinet. The army and navy ministers had to be active duty officers, which gave the military an effective veto over cabinets – cabinets required these ministers to function, but the ministers couldn’t join the cabinet without orders from their service branch.
With an incompetent and sick emperor, the military had to negotiate with the civilian politicians – it could bring down a government, but couldn’t count on the genrō to appoint anyone better, limiting its bargaining power. When Hirohito ascended to the regency, the army began to go to him. By convincing Hirohito or his retinue to back this candidate for prime minister or that one, the military gained the ability to remove cabinets and replace them with those more to their liking.
This was possible because under Hirohito, consulting the genrō became a mere formality. In a parody of what was supposed to happen, Hirohito and his advisers would pick their candidate for prime minister and send him to Saionji, the only remaining genrō. Saionji always approved their candidates, even when he had reservations. This was good for the court group, because it allowed them to maintain the fiction that Hirohito only acted on advice and never made decisions of his own.
As regent, Hirohito made few decisions of his own, but the court group (comprised of Hirohito and his advisors) began laying the groundwork to hold real power when he ascended to the throne. For Hirohito, his education left him little other choice. He had been born and raised to be an active emperor, not a mere figurehead. For his entourage, increasing Hirohito’s influence increased their own.
I’m not sure which was more powerful: Hirohito or his advisors? Both had reasons for trusting the military. Hirohito’s education led him to view the military as a stabilizing and protective force, while his advisors tended to be nationalists who saw a large and powerful military as a pre-requisite for expansion. Regardless of who exactly controlled it, the court group frequently sided with the military, which made the military into a formidable political force.
Requiring active duty military officers in the cabinet probably seemed like a good idea when the Meiji Constitution was promulgated, but in retrospect, it was terrible. I’m in favour of Frank Herbert’s definition of control: “The people who can destroy a thing, they control it.” In this sense, the military could often control the government. The instability this wrought on Japan’s cabinet system serves as a reminder of the power of vetoes in government.
In 1926, the Taisho emperor died. Hirohito ascended to throne. His era name was Shōwa – enlightened peace.
As might be expected, the court group didn’t wait long after Hirohito’s ascension to the throne to begin actively meddling with the government. Shortly after becoming emperor, Hirohito leaned on the prime minister to commute the death sentence of a married couple who allegedly planned to assassinate him. For all that this was a benevolent action, it wreaked political havoc, with the prime minister attacked in the Diet for falling to show proper concern for the safety of the emperor.
Because the prime minister was honour bound to protect the image of Hirohito as a constitutional, non-interventionist monarch, he was left defenseless before his political foes. He could not claim to be acting according to Hirohito’s will while Hirohito was embracing the fiction that he had no will except that of his prime minister and cabinet. This closed off the one effective avenue of defense he might have had. The Diet’s extreme response to clemency was but a portent of what was to come.
Over the first decade of Hirohito’s reign, Japanese politics became increasingly reactionary and dominated by the army. At the same time, Hirohito’s court group leveraged the instability and high turnover elsewhere in the government to become increasingly powerful. For ordinary Japanese, being a liberal or a communist became increasingly unpleasant. “Peace Preservation Laws” criminalized republicanism, anarchism, communism, or any other attempt to change the national fabric or structure, the kokutai – a word that quickly became heavily loaded.
In the early 1930s, political criticism increasingly revolved around the kokutai, as the Diet members realized they could score points with Hirohito and his entourage by claiming to defend it better than their opponents could. The early 1930s also saw the Manchurian Incident, a false flag attack perpetrated by Japanese soldiers to give a casus belli for invading Manchuria.
Despite opposition from both Hirohito and the Prime Minister, factions in the army managed to leverage the incident into a full-scale invasion, causing a war in all but name with China. Once the plotters demonstrated that they could expand Hirohito’s empire, he withdrew his opposition. Punishments, when there were any, were light and conspirators were much more likely to receive medals that any real reprimand. Dr. Bix believes this sent a clear message – the emperor would tolerate insubordination, as long as it produced results.
After the Manchurian Incident (which was never acknowledged as a war by Japan) and the occupation of Manchuria, Japan set up a client kingdom and ruled Manchuria through a puppet government. For several years, the situation on the border with China was stable, in spite of occasional border clashes.
This stability wasn’t to last. In 1937, there was another incident, the Marco Polo Bridge Incident.
When an unplanned exchange of fire between Chinese and Japanese troops broke out in Beijing (then Peking), some in the Japanese high command decided the time was ripe for an invasion of China proper. Dr. Bix says that Hirohito was reluctant to sanction this invasion (over fears of the Soviet Union), but eventually gave his blessing.
Japan was constantly at war for the next eight years. Over the course of the war, Dr. Bix identified several periods where Hirohito actively pushed his generals and admirals towards certain outcomes, and many more where Hirohito disagreed with them, but ultimately did nothing.
I often felt like Dr. Bix was trying to have things both ways. He wanted me to believe that Hirohito was morally deficient and unable to put his foot down when he could have stood up for his principles and he wanted me to believe that Hirohito was an activist emperor, able to get what he wanted. This of course ignores a simpler explanation. What if Hirohito was mostly powerless, a mere figurehead?
Here’s an example of Dr. Bix accusing Hirohito of doing nothing (without adequate proof that he could have done anything):
When Yonai failed to act on the long-pending issue of a German alliance, the army brought down his cabinet and Hirohito did nothing to prevent it. (Page 357)
On the other hand, we have (in Hirohito’s own words) an admission that Hirohito had some say in military policy:
Contrary to the views of the Army and Navy General Staffs, I agreed to the showdown battle of Leyte, thinking that if we attacked at Leyte and America flinched, then we would probably be able to find room to negotiate. (Page 481)
I really wish that Dr. Bix had grappled with this conflict more and given me much more proof that Hirohito actually had the all the power that Dr. Bix believes he did. It certainly seems that by Hirohito’s own admission, he was not merely a figurehead. Unfortunately for the thesis of the book, it’s a far leap from “not merely a figurehead” to “regularly guided the whole course of the war” and Dr. Bix never quite furnishes evidence for the latter view.
I was convinced that Hirohito (along with several other factions) acted to delay the wartime surrender of Japan. His reasoning for this was the same as his reasoning for the Battle of Leyte. He believed that if Japan could win one big victory, they could negotiate an end to the war and avoid occupation – and the risk to the emperor system that occupation would entail. When this became impossible, Hirohito pinned all his hopes on the Soviet Union, erroneously believing that they would intercede on Japan’s behalf and help Japan negotiate peace. For all that the atomic bombings loomed large in the public statement of surrender, it is likely that behind the scenes, the Soviet invasion played a large role.
Leaving aside for a minute the question of which interpretation is true, if Hirohito or a clique including him wielded much of the power of the state, he (or they) also suffered from one of the common downfalls of rule by one man. By Dr. Bix’s account, they were frequently controlled by controlling the information they received. We see this in response to the Hull note, an pre-war American diplomatic communique that outlined what Japan would have to do before America would resume oil exports.
At the Imperial Conference on December 1, 1941, Foreign Minister Tōgō misled the assembled senior statesmen, generals and admirals. He told them that America demanded Japan give up Manchuria, which was a red line for the assembled leaders. Based on this information, the group (including Hirohito) assented to war. Here’s a quote from the journal of Privy Council President Yoshimichi Hara:
If we were to give in [to the United States], then we would not only give up the fruits of the Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War, but also abandon the results of the Manchurian Incident. There is no way we could endure this… [I]t is clear that the existence of our empire is threatened, that the great achievement of the emperor Meiji would all come to naught, and that there is nothing else we can do. (Page 432)
The problem with all this is that Hull cared nothing for Manchuria, probably didn’t even consider it part of China, and would likely have been quite happy to let Japan keep it. By this point, the Japanese conquest of Manchuria had been a done deal for a decade and the world had basically given up on it being returned to China. Hull did want Japan to withdrawn from French Indochina (present day Vietnam) and China. Both of these demands were unacceptable to many of the more hawkish Japanese leaders, but not necessarily to the “moderates”.
Foreign Minister Tōgō’s lie about Manchuria was required to convince the “moderates” to give their blessing to war.
A word on Japanese “moderates”. Dr. Bix is repeatedly scornful of the term and I can’t help feeling sympathetic to his point of view. He believes that many of the moderates were only moderate by the standards of the far-right extremists and terrorists who surrounded them. It was quite possible to have an international reputation as a moderate in one of the pre-war cabinets and believe that Japan had a right to occupy Chinese territory seized without even a declaration of war.
I don’t think western scholarship has necessarily caught up here. On Wikipedia, Privy Council President Hara is described as “always reluctant to use military force… he protested against the outbreak of the Pacific war at [the Imperial Conference of December 1]”. I would like to gather a random sample of people and see if they believe that the journal entry above represents protesting against war. If they do, I will print off this blog post and eat it.
Manipulation of information played a role in Japan’s wartime surrender as well. Dr. Bix recounts how Vice Foreign Minister Matsumoto Shinichi presented Hirohito with a translation of the American demands that replaced one key phrase. The English text of the demands read: “the authority of the Emperor… to rule the state shall be subject to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers”. In the translation, Shinichi replaced “shall be subject to” with “shall be circumscribed by”.
Hirohito, who (in Dr. Bix’s estimation) acted always to preserve his place as emperor accepted this (modified) demand.
Many accounts of World War II assume the civilian members of the Japanese cabinet were largely powerless. Here we see the cabinet shaping two momentous decisions (war and peace). They were able to do this because they controlled the flow of information to the military and the emperor. Hirohito and the military didn’t have their own diplomats and couldn’t look over diplomatic cables. For information from the rest of the world, they were entirely at the mercy of the foreign services.
One man rule can give the impression of a unified elite. Look behind the curtain though and you’ll always find factions. Deprived of legitimate means of conflict (e.g. contesting elections), factions will find ways to try and check each other’s influence. Here, as is often the case, that checking came via controlling the flow of information. This sort of conflict-via-information has real implications in current politics, especially if Donald Trump tries to consolidate more power in himself.
But how was it that such a small change in the demand could be so important? Dr. Bix theorized that Hirohito’s primary goal was always preserving the power of the monarchy. He chose foreign war because he felt it was the only thing capable of preventing domestic dissent. The far-right terrorism of the 1930s was therefore successful; it compelled the government to fight foreign wars to assuage it.
In this regard, the atomic bombs were actually a godsend to the Japanese leadership. They made it clear that Japan was powerless to resist the American advance and gave the leadership a face-saving reason to end the war. I would say this is conjecture, but several members of the court clique and military leadership actually wrote in their diaries that the bombs were “good luck” or the like. Here’s former Prime Minister Yonai:
I think the term is perhaps inappropriate, but the atomic bombs and the Soviet entry into the war are, in a sense, gifts from the gods [tenyu, also “heaven-sent blessings”]. This way we don’t have to say that we quit the war because of domestic circumstances. I’ve long been advocating control of our crisis, but neither from fear of an enemy attack nor because of the atomic bombs and the Soviet entry into the war. The main reason is my anxiety over the domestic situation. So, it is rather fortunate that we can now control matters without revealing the domestic situation. (Page 509)
Regardless of why exactly it came about, the end of the war brought with it the problem of trying war criminals. Dr. Bix alleges that there was a large-scale conspiracy amongst Japan’s civilian and military leadership to hide all evidence of Hirohito’s war responsibility, a conspiracy aided and abetted by General Douglas McArthur.
The general was supreme commander of the allied occupation forces and had broad powers to govern Japan as he saw fit. Dr. Bix believes that in Hirohito, McArthur saw a symbol he could use to govern more effectively. I’m not sure if I was entirely convinced of a conspiracy – a very good conspiracy leaves the same evidence as no conspiracy at all – but it is undeniable that the defenses of the “Class A” war criminals (the civilian and military leadership charged with crimes against peace) were different from the defenses offered at Nuremburg, in a way that was both curious and most convenient for Hirohito.
Both sets of war criminals (in Tokyo and Nuremburg) tried to deny the legitimacy of “crimes against the peace” and claim their trials were just victor’s justice. But notably absent from all of the trials of Japanese leaders was the defense of “just following orders” that was so emblematic of the Nazis tried at Nuremburg. Unlike the Nazis, the Japanese criminals were quite happy to take responsibility. It was always them, never the emperor. I don’t think this is just a case of their leader having survived; I doubt the Nuremburg defendants would have been so loyal if Hitler had lived.
Of course, there is a potential parsimonious explanation for everyone having their stories straight. Hirohito could have been entirely innocent. Except, if Hirohito was so innocent, how can we explain the testimony Konoe made to one of his aides?
Fumimaro Konoe was the last prime minister before the Pearl Harbour attack and an opponent of war with the United States. He refused to take part in the (alleged) cover up. He was then investigated for war crimes and chose to kill himself. Of Hirohito, he said:
“Of course His Imperial Majesty is a pacifist and he wished to avoid war. When I told him that to initiate war was a mistake, he agreed. But the next day, he would tell me: ‘You were worried about it yesterday but you do not have to worry so much.’ Thus, gradually he began to lead to war. And the next time I met him, he leaned even more to war. I felt the Emperor was telling me: ‘My prime minister does not understand military matters. I know much more.’ In short, the Emperor had absorbed the view of the army and the navy high commands.” (Page 419)
Alas, this sort of damning testimony was mostly avoided at the war crimes trials. With Konoe dead and the rest of Japan’s civilian and military leadership prepared to do whatever it took to exonerate Hirohito, the emperor was safe. Hirohito was never indicted for war crimes, despite his role in authorizing the war and delaying surrender as he searched for a great victory.
Some of the judges were rather annoyed by the lack of indictment. The chief judge wrote: “no ruler can commit the crime of launching aggressive war and then validly claim to be excused for doing so because his life would otherwise have been in danger… It will remain that the men who advised the commission of a crime, if it be one, are in no worse position than the man who directs the crime be committed”.
This didn’t stop most of the judges from passing judgement on the criminals they did have access to. Some of the conspirators paid for their loyalty with their lives. The remainder were jailed. None of them spent much more than a decade in prison. By 1956, all of the “Class A” war criminals except the six who were executed and three who died in jail were pardoned.
The business and financial elite, two groups which profited immensely from the war got off free and clear. None of them were even charged. Dr. Bix suggests that General McArthur vetoed it. He had a country to run and couldn’t afford the disruption that would be caused if all of the business and financial elite were removed.
This leaves the Class B and Class C war criminals, the officers who were charged with more normal war crimes. Those officers who were tried in other countries were much more likely to face execution. Of the nearly 6,000 Class B and Class C war criminals charged outside of Japan, close to 1,000 were executed. A similar number were acquitted. Most of the remainder served limited criminal sentences.
Perhaps the greatest injustice of all was the fate of Unit 731. None of them were ever charged, despite carrying out bacteriological research on innocent civilians. They bought their freedom with research data the Americans coveted.
For all that their defenses differed from the Nuremburg criminals, the Japanese war criminals tried in Tokyo faced a similar fate. A few of them were executed, but most of them served sentences that belied the enormity of their crimes. Life imprisonments didn’t stick and pardons were forthcoming once the occupation ended. And as in Germany, some of the war criminals even ended up holding positions in government. Overall, the sentences gave the impression that in 1945, wars of aggression were much less morally troubling than bank robberies.
I had thought the difficulties Germany faced in denazification – and holding former Nazi’s accountable – were unique. This appears to be false. It seems to be very difficult to maintain the political will to keep war criminals behind bars after an occupation ends, as long as their crimes were not committed against their own people.
In light of this, I think it can be moral to execute war criminals. While I generally oppose the death penalty, this opposition is predicated on there being a viable alternative to execution for people who have flagrantly violated the social contract. Life imprisonment normally provides this, but I no longer believe that it can in the case of war criminals.
The Allies bear some of the blame for the clemency war criminals received. Japan’s constitution required them to seek approval from a majority of the nations that participated in the Tokyo trial. Ultimately, a majority of the eleven nations that were involved in the tribunal put improved ties with Japan over moral principles and allowed clemency to be granted. This suggests that even jailing war criminals outside their country of origin or requiring foreign consent for their pardon can be ineffective.
With both of these options removed, basic justice (and good incentive structures) seem to require all major war criminals to be executed. A rule of thumb is probably to execute any war criminal who would have otherwise be sentenced to twenty years or more of prison. It’s only these prisoners who stand to see their sentence substantially reduced in the inevitable round of pardons.
I also believe that convicted war criminals (as a general class) probably shouldn’t be trusted with the running of a country. To be convicted of war crimes proves that you are likely to flagrantly violate international norms. While people can change, past behaviour remains the best predictor of future behaviour. Therefore, it makes sense to try and remove any right war criminals might otherwise have to hold public office in a way that is extremely difficult to reverse. This could take the form of constitutional amendments that requires all victimized countries to consent to each individual war criminal that wishes to later hold public office, or other similarly difficult to circumvent mechanisms.
This is one area where the International Criminal Court (ICC) could prove its worth. If the ICC is able to deliver justice and avoid bowing to political pressure in any of its cases, then the obvious way of dealing with war criminals would be to send them to the ICC.
The section of the book that covers the war crimes trials and post-war Japan is called “The Unexamined Life”. I think the title is apt. There’s no evidence that Hirohito ever truly grappled with his role in the war, whatever it was. At one point, in response to a question about his war responsibility, Hirohito even said: “I can’t answer that question because I haven’t thoroughly studied the literature in this field”. This answer would be risible even if Hirohito were completely blameless. If there was anyone who knew how much responsibility Hirohito bore for the war, it was the man himself.
In the constitution promulgated by the occupying Americans, Hirohito became a constitutional monarch in truth. Dr. Bix reports that Hirohito was miffed to find that he could no longer appoint prime ministers and cabinets. He adjusted poorly to his lack of role and spent most of the fifties and sixties hoping that he could be made politically useful again. This never happened, although some conservative prime ministers did go to him for advice from time to time. His one consolation was the extra-constitutional military and intelligence briefings he received, but this was a far nod from the amount of information he received during the war.
Ultimately, the only punishment that Hirohito faced was his irrelevance. That is, I think, too small a price to pay for launching (or at the very least, approving) wars of aggression that killed millions of people.
The last section of the book also includes the only flaw I noticed: Dr. Bix cites a poll where 57% of the population (of Japan) thought Hirohito bore war responsibility or were unsure whether he did. Dr. Bix goes on to claim that this implies that Hirohito’s evasive answers were out of step with the opinion of the majority of the Japanese population. I think (although I can’t prove; the original source is Japanese) that this is probably obscuring the truth.
This shades into the larger issue of trust. How much should I trust Dr. Bix? He obviously knows a lot more about Hirohito than I do and he can speak and read Japanese (I cannot). This makes this book more authoritative than previous books by Americans that relied entirely on translations of Japanese scholarship, but it also makes verifying his sources more difficult.
On a whole, this has left me somewhat unsatisfied. I’m convinced that Hirohito was more than a harmless puppet leader. I’m also convinced he didn’t wield absolute power. By Dr. Bix’s own admission, he acted contrary to his own wants very often. For me, this doesn’t jibe with autocratic power. My best interpretation of Dr. Bix’s research is that Hirohito was an influential member of one organ of the Japanese state. He wielded significant but not total influence over national policy. I do not believe that Hirohito was as free to act as Dr. Bix claims he was.
I do believe Dr. Bix when he says that Hirohito’s role expanded as the war went on. If nothing else, he became the most experienced of all of Japan’s leaders at the same time as the myth of his divinity and benevolence became most entrenched. Furthermore, Hirohito and his retinue were most free to act when the army and navy were at loggerheads. This became more and more common after 1937.
Dr. Bix actually posits that these disagreements were the ultimate reason that Hirohito could grasp real power. The cabinet (which included civilian, army, and navy decision makers) was supposed to work by consensus. Where there were deep divisions, they would paper over them with vague statements and false consensus, without engaging in the give and take of negotiation that real consensus requires. Since everything was done in Hirohito’s name, he and the court group could twist the vague statements towards their preferred outcomes – all the while pretending Hirohito was a mere constitutional monarch promulgating decisions based on the advice of the cabinet.
This system was horribly inefficient and at least one person tried to reform it. Unfortunately, their “reform” would have led to a military dictatorship. Here’s a quote about the troubles facing one of the pre-war prime ministers:
“Right-wing extremists and terrorists repeatedly assailed him verbally, while the leading reformer in his own party, Mori, sought to break up the party system itself and ally with the military to create a new, more authoritarian political order.” (Page 247)
I’m used to seeing “reformers” only applied positively, but if you’re willing to look at reform as “the process of making the government run more effectively”, I suppose that military dictatorships are one type of reform. I think it’s good to be reminded that efficiency is not the only axis on which we should judge a government. It may be quite reasonable to oppose reforms that will streamline the government when those reforms come at the cost of other values, like fairness, transparency, and freedom of speech.
It’s my habit to try and draw lessons from the history I read. Because Dr. Bix’s book covers so troubled a time, I did not find it lacking in lessons. But I had hoped for something more than lessons from the past. I had hoped to know definitively how much of the fault for Japan’s role in World War II should lie at the feet of Hirohito.
Despite this being the whole purpose of the book, I was left disappointed. It is almost as if Dr. Bix let his indignation with Hirohito’s escape from any and all justice get the better of him. Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan tried to pin almost every misdeed during Hirohito’s reign on the emperor personally. In overreaching, it left me unsure of how much of itself to believe. I cannot discount it entirely, but I also cannot accept wholesale.
It doesn’t help that Dr. Bix paints a portrait of the emperor so intimate as to humanize him. While Dr. Bix seems to want us to view Hirohito as evil, I could not help but see him as a flawed man following a flawed morality. As far as I can tell, Hirohito would have been happiest as a moderately successful marine biologist. But marine biology is not what was asked of him and unfortunately, he did what he saw as his duty.
Here I again wish to make a comparison with Eichmann in Jerusalem. Had Hirohito not been singularly poor at introspection, or had he not had “an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else” (while Hannah Arendt said this about Adolf Eichmann, I think it applies equally well to Hirohito), Hirohito could have risen above the failings in his moral education and acted as a brake on Japanese militarism.
Hirohito did not do this. And because of his actions (and perhaps more importantly, his inaction), terrible things came to pass.
The possibility for individuals to do terrible things despite having no malice in their hearts is what caused Hannah Arendt to coin the phrase “the banality of evil”. Fifty years later, we still expect the worst deeds humans can commit to only come from the hands of monsters. There is certainly security in that assumption. When we believe terrible things can only be done deliberately and with malice, we allow ourselves to ignore the possibility that we may be involved in unjust systems or complicit in terrible deeds.
It’s only when we remember that terrible things require no malice, that one may do them even while being a normal person or while acting in accordance with the values they were raised with, that we can properly introspect about our own actions. It is vital that we all take the time to ask “are we the baddies?” and ensure that our ethical systems fail gracefully.
Obviously, Hirohito did none of this. That’s all on him. No matter how you cut the blame pie, Hirohito did nothing to stop the Rape of Nanjing, the attack on Pearl Harbour, the Bataan Death March, and the forced massed suicides of Okinawans. Hirohito demonstrated that he had the power to order a surrender. Yet he did not do this when the war was all but lost and Japanese cities were bombed daily. He delayed surrender time and again, hoping for some other option that would allow him to cling to whatever scraps of power he had.
For all that Dr. Bix failed to convince me that Hirohito was one of the primary architects of the war, he did convince me that Hirohito bore a large measure of responsibility. I agree that Hirohito should have been a Class A war criminal. I agree that Hirohito escaped all but the faintest touch of justice for his role in the war. And I agree that Hirohito’s escape from justice has made it more difficult for Japan to accept the guilt it should bear for its wars of aggression.
Yonatan Zunger has an article in Medium claiming that the immigration executive order from last Friday is the “trial balloon” for a planned Trump coup. I don’t think this is quite correct. While I no longer have much confidence that America will still be a democracy in 50 years, I don’t think Trump will be its first dictator.
I do think the first five points in Dr. Zunger’s analysis are fairly sound. I’m not sure if they are true, but they’re certainly plausible. It is true, for example, that it is unusual to file papers for re-election so quickly. Barack Obama didn’t file his re-election form until 2011. Whether this means that Trump will use campaign donations to enrich his family remains to be seen, but the necessary public disclosures of campaign expenses make this falsifiable. Give it a year and we’ll know.
Unfortunately, the 6th point is much more speculative. Dr. Zunger believes that it is likely that Trump received a large share in the Russian gas giant Rosneft in payment for winning the election and (presumably) lifting Russian sanctions in the future. Dr. Zunger relies on a recently announced and difficult to trace sale of 19.5% of Rosneft, which is close to the 19% claimed in the Steele papers (which should be the first red flag). But the AP article he links sheds some serious doubt on this claim. It makes it clear that it isn’t the whole 19.5%, €10 billion stake in Rosneft that has disappeared, only a “small” €2 billion portion of it. Between this contradiction and the inherent unreliability of the Steele papers, I’m disinclined to believe that this represents a real transfer of wealth from Russia to Trump .
This point, although relatively minor, represents an inflection point in Dr. Zunger’s post, where it shifts from insightful analysis to shaky speculation.
As Dr. Zunger goes into more detail on Trump’s supposed next step, incongruities pile up.
If Trump is planning a coup and building a parallel power structure, why did he pick General Mattis as his SecDef? The military is one of the most popular institutions in America. The military was more popular than the presidency, even when the relatively popular Obama was president. You better bet it’s more popular than Trump. This gives the military moral, as well as practical authority to stop any Trump coup. Given that there’s no way that Trump will be more popular with the soldiers and officers who actually make up the army than Gen. Mattis is, he’s in an excellent position to shut down any coup attempt cold.
Gen. Mattis could stop a coup, but it’s his character that suggests he would. He has a backbone made of solid steel and seems to be far more loyal to America than he is to the president. See as evidence his phone calls to NATO members and support for maintaining the Iran deal.
The DHS isn’t plausible as a parallel power structure. Sure, 45,000 employees sounds like a lot, until you realize that the total staff of the NYPD is almost 50,000. Even in a scenario where the army stays neutral, the DHS would be hard pressed to police New York, let alone the whole country.
I also don’t think preparation for a coup is the only reason to ignore court orders. In Canada, we saw the Prime Minister routinely oppose the courts, culminating with a nasty series of public barbs directed at the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. This wasn’t a prelude to Mr. Harper trying to seize power. It was the natural result of a perennially besieged and unpopular head of government fighting to pass an agenda despite heavy opposition from most civil society groups. I would contend that the proper yardstick to measure Trump against here is FDR. If Trump goes beyond what FDR did, we’ll have cause to worry.
All this is to say, if Trump is planning a coup, he isn’t being very strategic about it. That said, if he found some way to ditch General Mattis for someone more compliant, I would take the possibility of a coup much more seriously.
Instead of viewing Trump as a Caesar-in-waiting, we should think of him as analogous to Gaius Marius. Marius never seized power, but he did violate basically every conventional norm of Roman government (he held an unprecedented 7 consulships and began the privatization of the legions). Gaius Marius made the rise of dictators almost inevitable, but he was not himself a dictator.
Like America, Rome in the 1st century BCE found itself overextended, governing and protecting a large network of tributary states and outright colonies. The Roman constitutional framework couldn’t really handle administration on this scale. While year long terms are a sensible way to run a city state, they don’t work with a continent-spanning empire.
In addition to the short institutional memory and lack of institutional expertise that strict term limits guaranteed, Rome ran up against a system of checks and balances that made it incredibly hard to get anything done .
Today, America is running up against an archaic system of checks and balances . America has fallen to “government by kluge“, a state of affairs that has seriously degraded output legitimacy. From Prof. Joseph Heath on Donald Trump:
In response to the impossibility of reform, the American system has slowly evolved into what Steven Teles calls a kludgeocracy. Rather than enacting reforms, people have found “work-arounds” to the existing system, ways of getting things done that twist the rules a bit, but that everyone accepts because it’s easier than trying to change the rules. (This is why, incidentally, those who hope that the “separation of powers” will constrain President Trump are kidding themselves – the separation of powers in the U.S. is severely degraded, as an accumulated effect of decades of “work arounds” or kludges that violate it.)
Because of this, the U.S. government suffers a massive shortfall in “output legitimacy,” in that it consistently fails to deliver anything like the levels of competent performance than people in wealthy, advanced societies expect from government. (Anyone who has ever dealt with the U.S. government knows that it is uniquely horrible experience, unlike anything suffered by citizens of other Western democracies.) Furthermore, because of the dysfunctional legislative branch, nothing ever gets “solved” to anyone’s satisfaction. All that Americans ever get is a slow accumulation of more kludges (e.g. the Affordable Care Act, the Clean Power Plan).
Most people, however, do not think institutionally. When they see bad performance from government, they blame the actors that they see readily at hand. And their response then is to send in new people, committed to changing things. For decades they’ve been doing this, and yet nothing ever changes. Why? Because the problems are institutional, outside the control of individual legislators. But how do people interpret this lack of change? Many come to the conclusion that the person they sent in to fix things got coopted, or wasn’t tough enough, or wasn’t up to the job. And so they send in someone tougher, more radical, more vociferous in his or her commitment to changing things. When that doesn’t work out, they send in someone even more radical.
A vote for Donald Trump is a natural end-point of this process.
For Rome, Marius was the end-point. He held more power, for longer, than anyone who came before. The crucial distinction between him and those who came after, however, was that he acquired this power through legitimate means. Still, in order to govern effectively, he was forced to apply more kluges to the already disintegrating Roman constitution. It couldn’t hold up.
The end result of Marius was Sulla, who tried to bring Rome back to its “old ways” and repair the damage to the constitution. Interestingly, he did this almost entirely through extra-constitutional means. His reforms failed, although not just because of how he did them. Sulla tried to remove the kluges from the underlying system, but the result was an even more unworkable system.
Sulla was followed by the Triumvirate, a private power sharing agreement that divided up the empire and allowed effective governance at the cost of the constitution. The triumvirate led to civil war and dictatorship. And a bureaucracy capable of running the empire.
Looking back at history, I see three ways forward for America:
It can slowly become an autocracy, which will break the gridlock in Washington at the cost of democracy.
It can abandon its role as the world’s hegemon, retreat to isolationism, and see if its government is capable of handling the strain of this reduced burden.
It can radically change its system of government. A parliamentary system (whether first past the post or mixed member proportional) based on the confidence of the house would probably prove much more responsive to the crises America faces.
I no longer believe in the great man theory of history. Instead, I’ve begun to see history as a series of feedback loops between people, institutions, and places. Geopolitical realities can exert as much pressure for change on institutions as people can.
If we didn’t have Trump this year, we’d have someone like him in four years or eight. The stresses on the American system of government are such that someone had to emerge as the “natural endpoint” of failed reform. But I don’t think it’s this person’s fate to become America’s first dictator. That part is reserved for a later actor and there is still hope that the role can be written out before they step onto the stage.
 I’m a Bayesian, so I’ll quite happily bet with anyone who believes otherwise. ^  For more information on the transition of Rome into a dictatorship and the forces of empire that drove that transformation, I recommend SPQR by Prof. Mary Beard. ^  I’m certainly not opposed to checks and balances, but they can end up doing more harm than good if they make the act of governing so difficult that they end up ignored. ^
I just finished reading SPQR, by Professor Mary Beard. As a history of Rome, it’s the opposite of what I expected. It spends little time on individual deeds; there is no great man history here. More shocking, there is very little military history. As part of an audience taught to expect the history of Rome to be synonymous with the history of its military, I was shocked.
This book is perhaps best understood as a conversation with Romans masquerading as a political and social history of Rome. Prof. Beard sums this up in her epilogue: “I no longer think, as I once naively did, that we have much to learn directly from the Romans… but I am more and more convinced that we have an enormous amount to learn – as much about ourselves as about the past – by engaging with the history of the Romans.”
Prof. Beard starts her history with the foundational myths of Rome: Romulus and Remus, the Rape of the Sabine Women, and the Seven Kings. She looks at themes of these myths and turns the speculations of ancient historians on its head. Rome was not beset by conflicts between powerful men because of a lingering proclivity for fratricide inherent to the successors of Romulus. The story of Romulus resonated and was passed down because Rome was beset by conflicts with powerful men. She shows us how this story was shaped by current events in every retelling, highlighting the differences in the versions told in the first century BCE and the first century CE.
This isn’t the only relationship Prof. Beard calls us to rethink. Ancient writers praised Romulus’s vision for Rome: somehow he picked the perfect spot for the city. We now know that Rome was not “founded” in the mythological sense, that it did not begin as barren hills colonized by a single pair of brothers. But Rome’s location shaped Rome’s development such that the location was indeed an ideal spot for the city Rome became. The spot seemed perfect in retrospect because it had created a people who would view it as perfect.
Prof. Beard later reminds us that Rome’s expansion wasn’t really planned either. While Hollywood may encourage us to think of Romans as motivated by a manifest destiny that caused them to attempt to rule the whole world, the historical reality was rather different. There was no cabal of senators in 300 BCE with a master plan for Roman expansion. Rome’s early expansion was done piecemeal and by accident. It was always in response to some crisis, to protect the commercial interests of some wealthy Roman, or because some consul wanted to be sure of a triumph when he returned to Rome. Manifest destiny came later, after Rome was already a far-flung empire.
And this far-flung empire was as responsible for shaping the politics of Rome as the politics of Rome were for shaping the empire. Republican institutions could not cope with the challenges of empire. There was a century of chaos as the empire grew beyond its ability to be governed and then a realignment of the government with the emperor at its head that ensured 200 years of stability and (internal) peace.
Of the traditions the emperor usurped, the most interesting was the right to be a voice for the people. Prof. Beard talks about the challenges of representation the Romans faced, challenges familiar to us even today, namely: what is the purpose of legislators? Should they be a conduit for the voices of their constituents? Or should the try and do what is best for their constituents? A source of instability in the first century BCE was populist politicians who cleaved to the first view.
By ending elections, the emperors didn’t disenfranchise the people as much as they broke the bonds between the populist politicians and the people. The emperor (in theory and often in practice) stood up for the common male citizen of the empire. The elites, on the other hand, were left to derive favour and legitimacy solely from the emperor. They lost their connection to the people and therefore lost any ability to challenge the emperor for popular support.
We see a similar thing today in one party rule (where dictators often style themselves “Protector of the People”) or in “democratic dictatorships”. These dictators try and set up a myth that only they will look out for the majority of people. They’ll claim that others can’t be trusted because they are in the sway of special interest groups and economic, racial, sexual, or religious minorities (the Jews are a perennial favourite here).
Speaking of racial and religious minorities, Prof. Beard covers them in some detail. She reminds her readers that Rome was a cosmopolitan and diverse city. Imagining classical people as monolithically white is just as much a mistake as imagining their buildings that way. But Prof. Beard cautions us to avoid swinging our perceptions too far in the other direction. Rome was unusually welcoming of foreigners for a classical culture, but it still had discrimination based on provincial origin. Provincials would never be truly Roman in the eyes of all of the senate. This didn’t stop some of them becoming emperor, including Septimus Sevurus from North Africa, but it did mean they would have faced snide remarks.
I wish I could describe how provincials below senatorial rank were treated, but Prof. Beard has little to say about this. I don’t think it’s her fault. She is explicit that the history we have is largely the history of the elites. It’s their letters and proclamations, monuments and mausoleums from which we gather the majority of our understanding of life in ancient Rome. From the common people, we must make do with far less evidence.
Evidence is a common thread throughout this book. It is in some places as much a work of historiography as history. Prof. Beard cautions us against too good to be true stories (they probably are) and against being too eager to make even simple conclusions, like believing that a certain bust is actually of a certain historical figure. She also drove home in a way that I had never experienced before the sheer paucity of evidence we have for Roman life and deeds before the mid-200s BCE.
Nowhere does evidence and its paucity become as important as understanding the emperors. She describes autocracy as “in a sense, an end of history… there was no fundamental change in the structure of Roman politics, empire or society between the end of the first century BCE and the end of the second century CE”. And given this, she devotes at most a few pages to the combined individual achievements of the first 14 emperors (the book only covers up to 212 CE).
Instead of giving the normal account of the lives of the emperors, their battles and their victories, Prof. Beard focuses on the structure of the empire. She takes advantage of its relatively fixed nature during the rule of the first 14 emperors to go into detail on various facets of life in the empire. What was it like in the provinces? For the urban poor? The provincial elites? The slaves? The women? Many of these people left little historical mark, but Prof. Beard tries her best to give them some voice.
Prof. Beard views the emperors as largely interchangeable. Instead of fixating on “good” and “bad” emperors and turning their lives into moral lessons, she looks at what caused emperors to be described as good or bad in the first place. She believes it is all about legitimacy. When the succession was orderly, the successor could draw legitimacy from his predecessor, so it was in his interest to trumpet his predecessor’s virtues (and imply that as the rightful successor, he too possessed them). When the succession was disorderly (say, as the result of assassination), then this route to legitimacy was closed and the new emperor had to instead frame his reign as a break with a worse past. His predecessor would be smeared to turn the irregularity of his succession to the throne into an advantage.
As evidence, Prof. Beard points out that most of the vices found in “bad” emperors (from infidelity to wanton murder of senators) can also be found in the “good” as long as you read their biographies closely. She contends that this shows a difference in what is focused on, not a difference in behaviour. She points out how imposters to Nero would periodically show up in the provinces long after his death. Hucksters wouldn’t impersonate a universally reviled man.
Even if this isn’t true, Prof. Beard has one final beef with the theory of good and bad emperors: only the senate really cared. We don’t see any historical evidence of incompetence gross enough to touch the empire, it did just as well under Nero as it did under Hadrian. So even if the emperor was as liable to kill senators as talk with them, this was largely a problem for a few of the very wealthiest Romans in Rome.
To the common people in Rome it wouldn’t matter if the emperor was a saint or a psychopath, because they would never interact with him. This was doubly true for the people in the provinces. The plight of the poor was just as bad under Marcus Aurelius as it was under Nero.
Had you told me at the start that the author believed we had nothing to learn directly from the Romans, I probably wouldn’t have started this book. That would have been a grave mistake. I’m left with a deeper understanding of Roman history, the challenges posed in constructing it, and the challenges Roman history poses to us in the present day. I am left prepared to more readily question the beatification of leaders and foundational myths. I am left more alert to the nuances of people power in populism. And I’m left with a colossal respect for Professor Beard’s skill both as a historian and as a popularizer of history.