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Michael Hopf, sums up a stunningly pervasive cyclical vision of history. Dune is just one example of the numerous speculative fiction novels that use the idea, from the Conan stories to dreadful Star Trek episodes. It is so common as a popular theory of history and military power that it has spawned like most bad ideas its own genre of internet memes. It also infects modern strategic thinking, especially about non-Western foes.

Perhaps most famously, after the attack on Pearl Harbor collapsed complacent notions of American superiority, the Allied intelligence community swung wildly from the belief in the Japanese as weak and unmanly to notions of how the harsh conditions of training and life in Japan had churned out apparently unstoppable supersoldiers. More recently, the same trope has reemerged in the invincible insurgent, whose upbringing supposedly renders him immune to the deprivations of combat and campaigning.

Because it contains within it an assessment of the military strength and combative stubbornness of foreign cultures, the mirage naturally brings strategic implications with it. And, after all, it makes a degree of intuitive sense. The divide between supposedly decadent civilization and its supposedly hard and uncivilized opponents reaches back to the development of farming and the state. Early farmers, with their higher population density, seem to have outcompeted their nonfarming neighbors.

It seems that in many, perhaps most, cases, it was farmers who expanded, rather than the practice of farming itself, pushing the surviving nonfarmers onto more marginal lands.

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Likewise, early states, with their complex and specialized hierarchies, generally outcompeted their nonstate neighbors. Urban communities first dominated their countryside and then expanded that dominion outward. Nonstate peoples were often set with a dilemma: develop their own state institutions in order to compete with the brutal efficiency of state violence, or else find themselves violently incorporated into the tributary networks of expanding states.

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Occasionally the frontiers of the zones of urbanized, stratified state-societies broke. Given enough attempts, nonstate people might eventually win. But most of the time, it was the urban armies that were doing the pillaging. Rome is, after all, the byword for decadence and decline in Western discourse.

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Western cultural memory fixes on the Goths, Vandals, and Huns who broke the Roman frontier, but it is quick to forget the rather longer Good guy looking for good times of nonstate peoples broken by the Romans. Of course, there are exceptionslike the early Muslim conquests, the Seljuk Empire, and of course the Mongols, which overthrew long-established and long-successful empires. The horse nomad was a powerful force for a time—but one often incorporated into the armies of conventional states.

But the victims of empire, out there on the fringes, left no memoirs of the disasters inflicted upon them; when the so-called barbarians won, however, it produced entire literary genres lamenting the fall of the great cities. But if this historical trope is a poor guide to either history or modern strategy, where does it come from and why has it proved so persistent? While there are quite a few explanations for the success of nonstate actors most historiographical traditions have at least onethis mirage has its roots in the Greek and Roman ethnographic tradition.

The literary trope goes back at least as far as Herodotus and his of the ill-fated invasion of the Scythia by Darius I, king of Persia, in the 6th century B. Herodotus presents the Scythians as ruthlessly expedient, relying on a scorched-earth campaign and their own relative lack of fixed settlements to exhaust the Persian military juggernaut. Except Herodotus never went to Scythia, and his knowledge about Scythian customs, culture, and even local geography is uneven at best.

Rather, Herodotus is using the Scythians as a prelude to the Greco-Persian wars, mirroring the Greek victory which will also involve strategically giving ground. Indeed, of all of the Gauls, it is not the warlike Helvetians or Belgae who give Caesar the most trouble, but the Arverni, who live in what is today Auvergne, France, right up against the areas of Greek and Roman settlement and right on the trade routes bringing supposedly effeminating Mediterranean goods and culture into Gaul.

Caesar knows this, of course, but his Commentaries is a political document, and he also knows good politics: tapping into stereotypes his audience already believes to build up his military success. Better to brag about defeating the Helvetians, Belgae, and Suebi, which no Roman had done before, than the Arverni, who had fought and lost against Rome once before.

Accuracy was beside the point. In brief, Tacitus describes the Germans as indigenous to their lands without being intermixed with other peoples, contemptuous of wealth, beauty and luxury, singularly focused on military virtuepiousmonogamousand chasteif unsophisticated and uncultured—a product of the harsh lands they inhabit.

Except the Germania is not about the Germans at all, but a critique of Roman decline in the tradition of the Roman historian Sallust, thinly disguised as ethnography. Tacitus himself almost certainly never traveled north of the Alps, did not speak any German, and only possessed, at best, secondhand information about any German customs.

Instead, he constructed his Germans as a foil for what he saw as Roman moral decline, with German virtues to match perceived Roman vices. Decadence and decline would be very slow in coming, indeed. Where the ancients believed barbaric strength and decadence to be caused by place, 19th-century nationalists saw it rooted in race, citing these ancient s as proof that this or that European racial group had always been superior.

A mistaken vision of history and anthropology was effectively etched into the popular consciousness as a guide to understanding the rise and fall of states and the cycles of history. This creeps into modern policymaking and the pop-cultural understanding of war and foreign policy. Meanwhile, commentators engage in endless hand-wringing over the fitness of American recruits. This is a mirage with very real policy implications, even when its evidentiary roots prove ephemeral.

As a consequence, this cyclical model of history, which never explained anything terribly well, is adopted now as hard-nosed wisdom about the world by policymakers and the general public alike. The invincible barbarian or insurgent, or terrorist was always just a mirage, a trap in strategic thinking. So why rehearse its intellectual history? Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.

Argument An expert's point of view on a current event. By Bret Devereaux. Two Afghan mujahideen prepare for prayer in a snow storm in Ghazni province in southern Afghanistan on Feb. May 2,PM. Bret Devereaux is a historian specializing in the Roman economy and military. Tags: HistoryWar. Another danger of warrior culture? Are wars won by fights or by demographic and economic power? Best Defense Thomas E. Trending 1. Latest Analysis. The Taliban Are Breaking Bad Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Argument Steven A. Argument Hal BrandsMichael Beckley. Argument Magdi Semrau. Argument Logan Wright. You can support Foreign Policy by becoming a subscriber. Subscribe Today.

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