Learning from Caesar's rapid deployment force

Defense Secretary Weinberger's recent decision to speed up establishment of the rapid deployment force (RDF) coincided with my reading the exciting translation by Anne and Peter Wiseman of Julius Caesar's "Commentaries" on "The Battle for Gaul." Caesar's campaign throughout ancient Gaul and Britain lasted eight years (from 58-50 BC) and raises some strikingly contemporary issues about the foreign policy costs and consequences of a rapid deployment force. Unlike most, I read the book from the viewpoint of the Gallic tribes with whom Caesar was allied. I wanted to know what impact this ancient RDF had on their security.

The Romans had long expected tumultus Gallicusm (i.e., trouble) from the fierce tribes in Gaul (i.e., France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Germany), much as we expect that upheavals in key third-world countries in the sensitive regions of the Middle East, Southwest Asia, Africa, and Central America will threaten our security in the 1980s. Caesar's force thus had two missions: to protect vital interests (e.g., key tribes with whom the Romans were allied and the strategic lines of communication the Romans had established between southern and northern Europe) and to respond rapidly to the outbreak of crisis.

"Rapid" in Caesar's time meant achieving in a matter of days what took other armies weeks. So startling were his logistical feats that some of his enemies believed that the "Romans must have divine help in fighting wars." Caesar attributes his success against adversaries who were master guerrilla war fighters and who designed ingenious defenses (in the form of hedges and hilltop redoubts) to "speed and power."

Caesar deployed his forces only half the year. Winter bases had to be found each year, and the task never proved easy. Grain was a constant source of worry (in camp and on the move), as were the alliances required to provide such encampments and transit rights without provoking a local tribe into a war. Morale was also hard to maintain during idle months.

Caesar's forces consisted of legions of Roman soldiers equipped and trained for the proverbial "last war." As a result, Caesar discovered that he had to invent his tactics as he went along. He wrote (of his battle with the Nervii of present-day Belgium in 57 BC): "The formation of my troops was dictated more by the features of the site, the slope of the hill, and the demands of the immediate occasion than by the theories of any military rule book."

By the middle of his campaigns, Caesar had developed the tactics, maps, logistics, and "base-rights" agreements that gave his legions the capability to move throughout most of northwestern Europe. But the exercise of military power -- rather than the safeguarding of Roman interests -- increasingly came to characterize the activities of Caesar's RDF.

Ultimately, the need for secure bases led the RDF to become an army of occupation rather than an instrument of crisis management. Its crossing the Rhine and attacks on the tribes of Germany and the landing in Britain in 55 B.C. , for example, were designed as preemptive. Such strikes were brutal; as Caesar wrote: "There was much slaughter."

In short, the temptation to use the force Caesar had assembled became too difficult to resist. Rather than thinking of his legions as a weapon of last resort, Caesar used them to extend Roman territory, expand his power, and refine his weapons systems. And the tribes with whom Caesar made his alliances became more vulnerable as a result.

No wonder, then, that people in whose territory an RDF would operate today raise questions about the purposes and the security provided by such forces.

Like the ancient and fiercely independent tribes of Gaul, our allies in the Middle East and elsewhere would be prudent to calculate the costs along with the benefits of an RDF -- and our policymakers should take their concerns into account. Three basic questions probably figure prominently in determining the reaction of a leader who would be a potential host to the forward bases and prepositioned supply platforms that are essential to the RDF:

* Do the US and I (or are we likely to) share the same appreciation of what threatens my nation's security?

* How committed over the long termm is the US to protecting my country?

* Is the US prepared to help me stay in power?

At present the US has no reassuring answers to these questions, whether posed by Saudi princes or other key leaders in sensitive regions.

It would be a mistake to focus our diplomatic efforts on developing better answers. Our interests (and dangers) are notm identical with those who would welcome our RDF or whom we want to court. And we should not commit ourselves to support regimes whose values and sociopolitical traditions differ widely from our own.

The RDF is, thus, a bad idea both from our perspective and, more important, from that of those whom we would save from tumultus.m The days of Pax Americanam are past. The RDF is an extension of a foreign policy that has not served us well. And, if Caesar's experience is in any sense prologue, it will not serve well those alliances we wish to cultivate in the third world.

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