Learn from history or repeat it, the popular maxim goes. The problem is, no one ever seems to learn from history.
Consider the following case in point:
From 264-146 BC, ancient Rome fought a series of major wars against its greatest rival, the city of Carthage. All three of these Punic Wars, as they are known, ended in Roman victories, which ultimately led to Roman dominance of the Mediterranean.
It would be a mistake though to think that these wars were a cakewalk for Rome. Perhaps the greatest danger to the Romans came during the second war when the Carthaginian general, Hannibal Barca, who is widely considered to be one of the greatest military commanders in world history, performed the impossible task of leading an army of men and elephants over the Alps and into Italy where he rampaged around the countryside for 15 years, destroying all the Roman armies sent against him.
Hannibal’s reign of terror was ended when a young Roman general named Publius Scipio launched a counterattack against the city of Carthage, causing Hannibal to be recalled from Italy to Africa, where Scipio defeated him at the decisive Battle of Zama in 202 BC.
Despite this second defeat of Carthage and the application of crushing sanctions and indemnities, many Roman senators could not rest easy while their old enemy existed, even as a shadow of its former self.
The most vocal of these senators was Cato the Elder, who as a young man had fought in the Second Punic War. In his later years, Cato held a variety of political offices, where he was well-known for his enduring hatred of Rome’s ancient rival. He was famous for ending every speech he gave, regardless of the topic, with the exhortation, “Carthage must be destroyed!”
In 149 BC, Cato’s wish came true as Rome declared war once more after Carthage violated the nations’ peace treaty by defending itself against military aggression on the part of Rome’s African ally, Numidia. After a series of hard-fought battles, Roman troops captured the city of Carthage and utterly destroyed it, selling the survivors into slavery. The Punic Wars were over.
Whenever I tell my class the story of the Punic Wars, I am struck by the uncanny likeness between the old curmudgeon, Cato the Elder, and our own American politician, Senator John McCain. Both were once soldiers who served bravely on the field of battle, yet both appeared to have difficulty moving beyond their respective wars. Just as the aging Cato couldn’t get Carthage out of his head until it was annihilated, so the octogenarian McCain seems obsessed with the idea of reigniting the Cold War and even of dragging the United States into a hot war with his old nemesis, Russia.
The following are but a few examples of McCain’s belligerence toward his Eastern foe of yesteryear:
1.) In 2008, when the Russian military intervened in Georgia to help a strongly pro-Russian section of the country assert its independence, McCain famously promised the president of Georgia that the United States would support Georgia against its former Cold War partner, saying “Today we are all Georgians.”
2.) In 2011, McCain—along with Hillary Clinton—pushed for U.S. assistance in the overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, which ultimately led to Gaddafi’s murder and to the collapse of his country into anarchy. The American intervention in Libya was opposed by then-prime minister of Russia, Vladimir Putin, and the bloody aftermath reportedly galvanized Putin against softening his stance toward the U.S. as Gaddafi had done.
3.) In 2013, McCain publicly goaded President Barak Obama to deploy the U.S. military to enforce his “red line” on the use of chemical weapons in Russian-allied Syria, despite a lack of constitutionally required Congressional authorization for the President to do so.
4.) In 2014, McCain declared “We are all Ukrainians” in regard to Russian invasions of the Crimean Peninsula and parts of the Ukraine after the pro-Russian president of that country was driven out by angry mobs spurred on in part by rhetoric from McCain himself, who travelled to Eastern Europe for that purpose.
5.) In 2016, McCain claimed that alleged Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election was “an act of war.”
6.) In 2017, McCain sought to give NATO membership to Montenegro, yet another country in Russia’s backyard, and went so far as to accuse fellow senator Rand Paul of “working for Vladimir Putin” when Paul opposed the move on the grounds that it unnecessarily risked pulling the U.S. into yet another major war.
7.) Finally, John McCain has for years been one of the staunchest advocates of U.S. military action against Iran, a move that would assuredly ignite yet another proxy war between the United States and Russia, much like the one currently raging in Syria.
While he hasn’t yet thumped his fist on his Senate-chamber desk and declared, “Russia must be destroyed,” it’s clear that Senator John McCain—like Cato the Elder two millennia before him—has an obsession with his country’s chief opponent from the days of his youth.
Of course this is not to say that the Russians are merely innocent victims of American aggression as some would have us believe, but neither were the Carthaginians helpless lambs being led to the slaughter by an oppressive Rome. Rome certainly had some good reasons to fight against Carthage, at least during the first two Punic Wars. Despite this, it would behoove us to remember that the Punic Wars cost both Carthage and Rome a tremendous price in blood and treasure, leading to the annihilation of the former and setting the stage for decades of social strife and civil war in the latter.
Despite these historic similarities, there is one major difference between our modern, international situation and that of Cato’s time, of which everyone involved should take note. The difference is that neither Rome nor Carthage had a stockpile of nuclear weapons capable of wiping out humanity.