The Dummy's Guide to Nation Building

As written by the Romans.

I know an Irish lawyer who hates the English because they hanged his grandfather years ago.  The English were trying to pacify Ireland and somebody shot a British soldier.  The English knew his grandfather hadn't done it, he says, but they hanged him anyway in hopes that the townspeople would be nice.

What wimps!  The Romans understood nation building, an art we and the British have forgotten.

When the Romans conquered an area and somebody goofed off, they'd march a legion into town and line up everybody according to height.  Then they'd march down the line counting 1, 2, 3,..  When they got to 10, they'd slice that person's belly open, pick up the count with 1 again, and so on down the line.

Killing one in ten is called "decimation."  Modern thinkers confuse "decimation" with "annihilation" which means killing everybody, not just 1 in 10.

But killing 1 in 10 wasn't the end of nation building.  The key came in the commander's speech afterward.  His speech went something like this:

Listen up folks.  You've seen what we do when we're pissed, piss us off again and we'll do it again.  Let me tell you the rules!

Rule #1 - pay your taxes.  There will be taxes paid here -- whether by you or by someone else doesn't matter -- but there will be taxes paid here.

Rule #2 - be Romans.  We won, you lost, you're Romans whether you like it or not.

Rule #3 - do what you like. We don't care about running your town, we care about collecting taxes.  We don't care who the good guys are, we don't care who the bad guys are, we just want you to be Romans.

You know who the bad guys are; we don't.  You have 3 choices:  1) Tell us who the bad guys are, we kill them.  That's not so good because dead men pay no taxes, but it's better than our coming back to town.  2) You kill the bad guys.  That's better, but the best is 3) get your bad guys to be nice.  Nobody dies, we collect taxes, and you guys learn how to be Romans.

I said you were going to be Romans.  If you act up again, we'll be back.  You know what we did this time, the second time, we do the same, we kill one in ten.

But the third time's different.  If we have to come back a third time, we figure you're too stupid to control your bad guys.  People that stupid are too stupid to pay taxes, so we kill you all.  Then we go someplace that has more people than it needs and we march 'em here.  They take your houses, clean up the mess, and they pay taxes.

It's real simple.  There will be taxes paid here; there will be Romans here - if not you, then somebody else.

Don't make us come back.

History says that the Roman style of nation building worked very well for a very long time over a wide area encompassing many different cultures, customs, and religions.  A bit brisk, perhaps, but it worked.  Considering total deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq, killing 1 in 10 in a village or two and letting the word spread probably ended up killing fewer people than modern methods of nation building.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments

Oh yeah its very easy to say that they should decimate in Iraq and Afghanistan. After all they are not humans. Not Americans at least, same difference. There is what 50 million Iraqi, that is a mere 5 million people killed. But hey they don't want to build a democracy we forced on them.They brought it on themselves. They have to pay.

But if somebody said that that should be done in America he would be whisked away to Guantanamo and never heard from again.

After all we saw how Americans act after 3000+ are killed I am sure 30 mill would be no biggie.  

August 31, 2007 5:14 AM

The point here, I think, was that America cannot win in Iraq or anywhere else because "real nation building" is no longer possible.  It requires what this writer mentioned, and I agree.  Since we obviously aren't going to decimate them, no point in even being there.  On the other hand, he was referring to taking over a nation and making them be like you and pay you taxes.  We are not expecting Iraqi to be Americans, nor are we planning on collecting taxes from them.

August 31, 2007 9:33 AM

Boy, neither of you get it. It's simple. Punish those who don't comply, and don't give anybody any problems.  Put your personal feelings aside and get to work PAYING OUR TAXES AND WE WON"T WIPE YOU SORRY LOT OFF THE FACE OF THE EARTH. Iraq and Afghanistan deserve it, the bunch of goat herders.

August 31, 2007 11:10 AM

As far as I see it, now the only justification for war is that Saddam  was bad. If you do what Mars proposes how are you better. Heck it seems almost better if he was not touched from power doesn't it.

August 31, 2007 2:45 PM

I am sorry that I did not describe Roman policy clearly enough.  The Roman goal was NOT to kill people, dead men pay no taxes.  They wanted people to get with their program.  The plan was to decimate a SMALL village to minimize the number of people who could no longer pay taxes, and LET THE WORD SPREAD.  Word of mouth advertising was as effective then as it is now.

The plan was to make you take care of your own bad guys.  If you heard that they decimated a town near you, and were told why, you would make your bad guys be nice.  Recent history shows that the locals are the only people who can sort out the bad guys; foreigners can't do it.

Iraqis and Afghanis are at least as smart as the Gauls if not smarter.  If a neighborhood in some town had been decimated early on when someone misbehaved, the outcome might have been different, particularly since the word could have been spread via the Internet.

Remember when one of our presidents said, "Speak softly, and carry a big stick"?  What do you think he meant?

August 31, 2007 10:15 PM

Oh, no I understood you the first time. I agree that that approach actually might have some effect. All I am saying that not in todays world it would not.

Another thing to consider if you would feel the same in doing so in America if problems arose.

Finally I find it immensely hypocritical to say that Americans went to war to liberate the populace from the terrors of Saddam, and than advocate decimation as a way of establishing peace that they already had. That is no area in which democracy grows. That is how further dictatorships are made.

September 1, 2007 2:05 PM

P.S. Oh, and I do not think THAT is what Theodore Roosevelt meant by that. Decimation is not the stick he was advocating.

September 1, 2007 2:06 PM

I don't think you can say that America went to war to free Iraqis from Mr. Hussein.  As I recall, leaders such as Mr. Clinton, Mr. Blair, and Mr. Bush believed that Mr. Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Given that he had used poison gas on his own people, we couldn't tolerate his having WMD.

Many Americans wanted to go to war for many reasons, among which was wanting to sell oil, but WMD was the main justification at the time.  Enabling democracy was offered after the fact when the WMD weren't found.

I don't advocate decimation, but as an engineer, I try to point out what works and what doesn't.  I'm not sure that nation-building is possible in the modern world.  The Irish are still mad at each other 300 years after the battle of Orange.  The Yugoslavs MAY have split themselves into enough countries that they won't kill each other, but Tito's efforts at nation building failed.  India wasn't a nation when the British left, it split immediately and has gone through considerable heartache before maybe beginning to emerge as a modern unified nation.  The British didn't turn Iraq into a nation when they ran the place after WW II.

Nation-builders point to Germany and Japan after WW II, but those were already nations.  The allies weren't trying to build nations, they were trying to convert existing nations from using war as an instrument of national policy to using business instead.  Since most people like making money more than they like making war, this is a doable sell.

There were successful nation-building efforts in the past. Frederic the Great united Germany, but a) it already had a common language and culture and b) the stability he offered was better for the people than being citizens of jealously independent city-states.

The Romans didn't start with a common language, it took a generation or two for people to learn Latin and Greek, but a) they established credibility through decimation and b) their legal system, roads, and the Pax Romana were genuine improvements over what the tribes had had before.

How many people died in the American civil war?  We ended up as "one nation, indivisible..." but it cost blood and treasure.

Whenever a Chinese dynasty collapsed, it took 75 to 150 years of warlordism before China could be united again.  Japan became a nation through a bloody process which reminds me of a cross between the NCAA and a bunch of street gangs.

Nation building is a high-risk activity.  History suggests that successful nation building requires a muscular approach.  Thus, my mention of decimation as a cost of getting people to get with the program.  If you're not willing to pay the price of nation building, you'd best not take it on.

As for Mr. Roosevelt's big stick, what was he advocating other than killing people and breaking things, which is our core military competence?

September 1, 2007 4:13 PM
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