Discussion / History

An End to War: Historical Narrative and the Triumph of Chilcot

Last week, the families of British servicemen killed in the Iraq War threatened legal action over the delayed publication of the official report into the conflict. Reg Keys, who lost his son in Iraq, described the unanswered questions about Iraq as “an open wound” for bereaved families, and said they needed “closure.” Subsequently, Sir John Chilcot, chairman of the Inquiry commissioned to compile the report, replied with a statement that he understood the “anguish” of the families concerned, but that the delays were a result of processes that were vital to the final report’s “accuracy and completeness.”


Sir John Chilcot (http://iraqinquiry.org.uk/)

Debates will continue to rage as to whether the process of Maxwellisation is indeed as necessary as Chilcot insists, and whether this step is even the primary reason why the Inquiry, initially expected to report within two years, has now entered its sixth (the death of one of its five members can hardly have helped). Whether the final report will provide the kind of closure, both legal and emotional, that both Chilcot and the bereaved families seem to hope is still unknown: allegations of a whitewash have plagued the Inquiry from the start, and the permission to include certain information has been an uphill struggle. What everyone seems to agree on, though, is how necessary and important it is to obtain such closure, and that a public inquiry is the way to achieve this. Despite the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq six years ago, there is still much ambiguity surrounding the war, not just in the factors that brought it about, but also in its conduct and conclusion.

When and how a war ends is not as simple a question as it might seem. Not every war has its railway-carriage moment, marking a clear endpoint and result. Even if it does, that symbolic ‘conclusion’ is subject to reinterpretation in light of later events: the railway-carriage armistice ended the First World War, but the subsequent Treaty of Versailles produced a flimsy twenty years of peace. The narrative that politicians, historians and others choose to fit around events also plays a part, and in the case of Iraq, the Chilcot Inquiry will play a huge part in defining this narrative. A glance at the Wikipedia article on the Iraq War soon confirms the difficulties of stating that the war is even over:

This article is about the war that started in 2003 and ended in 2011. For the ongoing war in Iraq, see Iraq War (2014–present). For previous wars in Iraq, see Iraq War (disambiguation).

How distinct is the ‘Iraq War’ from the current conflict with the so-called Islamic State? Or even from other previous wars in the area? Western reluctance to commit ground troops to the current fight against I.S. arises in part because we are unwilling to recommit to a war that we have declared is ‘over.’


Tony Blair addressing troops in Basra in May 2003 (PA)

When British troops were withdrawn in 2009, then-Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, hailed their intervention as ‘a success story.’ American troops remained for another two years: when the flag was symbolically lowered for the last time, President Obama echoed Brown, calling it a ‘moment of success.’ These claims rang hollow to some at the time, but the subsequent situation in Iraq has called them into question even more. The concepts of ‘victory’ and ‘a finished war’ are a matter of perspective. The American withdrawal has recently spawned its own political debate not just over whether it was the right decision, but even over whose decision it was.

Many would argue that this is a very modern feature of wars: conflicts are no longer between professional armies and clearly divided nation states. It didn’t take much propaganda, it could be argued, to make the Battle of Waterloo a conclusive final defeat for Napoleon, and its bicentenary this year has been celebrated as such: it has even become a by-word for nemesis-like decisive conclusions (‘to meet one’s Waterloo’). Modern wars are different: the insurgencies of Iraq and Afghanistan – or even Vietnam – were never going to be brought to a final decisive battle in the same manner, and so victory has to be defined in different terms. It may be true that this has become increasingly characteristic of modern conflicts, but the conclusion of wars has always relied to a large extent on popular perception.

The Roman tradition of the triumph has, like Waterloo, entered into the language of everyday metaphor: the pomp and splendour of a victorious general marching his army through the city in celebration of success is an abiding image of Roman military prowess. Accounts from both ancient and modern commentators have tried to establish the ‘rules’ or ‘criteria’ which made a war or its victorious general eligible for a triumph. The war must have extended the empire, not preserved it; 5,000 of the enemy must have been killed in one battle; the general must have been the highest ranking commander with the army; he must have concluded the war and been able to bring his army home with him. All such qualifying criteria have been shown to be at most occasionally recurring considerations, at worst nonsense, the last particularly so. Indeed, far from requiring a war to be successfully concluded, it has been argued recently that triumphs were much more about symbolic closure than actual events in the field.


The Triumph of Aemilius Paulus, Carle Vernet, 1789 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

By granting a triumph, the senate were publicly proclaiming the continuing success of Rome to her citizens and gods. Sometimes this was entirely justified, but sometimes fairly inconclusive outcomes were rewarded with triumphs in order to fulfil a national narrative. The Romans liked to think of themselves as invicti – undefeated – but, as is easily confirmed, they lost plenty of battles. To be ‘ever-victorious’ involved knowing when to end a war; defeats in the field had to be ‘redeemed’ by an eventual triumph, even if it was granted for little more than an inconclusive stalemate. The triumph served to obliterate the shame of prior defeat and reassert the martial supremacy of Rome. After such a definitive act of closure, the Roman senate were often reluctant to acknowledge the revival, or even continuance, of hostilities in the ‘conquered’ region, declining to authorise levies of new troops, or send their more senior generals. Consequently, as a closural device, a triumph could easily backfire if subsequent events contradicted the triumphal narrative.

Something of the sort seems to have happened in the middle of the Second Century BC in Spain. In about 155 BC, the Lusitani, a Spanish tribe, revolted against Roman rule and over two years inflicted a series of embarrassing defeats on minor Roman commanders. One of these, Lucius Mummius,1 then praetor, did subsequently manage to regroup and inflict heavy casualties on Lusitanian looting parties. Appian gives the Spanish casualties as 15,000, which (if true) is a considerable loss and may have given the impression that the tide had turned in Rome’s favour. In any case, the senate seems to have rushed to draw a line under the affair and granted Mummius a triumph.


The Death of Viriathus, Jose Madrazo, 1806-7 (Museo del Prado)

It was presumably hoped that the remaining resistance could be mopped up quietly in the following year or so, but a combination of guerrilla tactics on the part of the Lusitani, and incompetence and cruelty on the part of the Roman commanders saw the war reignite. Several more defeats would be inflicted on Roman troops, as the conflict that Polybius dubbed ‘the Fiery War’ smouldered on for another twenty years. Several times Roman commanders in the field were cornered into accepting humiliating settlements that the senate subsequently refused to authorise. The Romans resorted to ever-greater brutality and treachery in their attempt to give the war a triumphal conclusion, but even the mutilation of prisoners and the assassination of the Lusitanian leader, Viriathus, were not enough. Our evidence is patchy, but it seems the senate did not award any more pre-emptive triumphs before the final remains of the insurrection were stamped out with the destruction of Numantia in 133 BC.

The award of a triumph was not just a symbolic statement that a war had been ended, and won; it also gave a retrospective legitimacy to the reasons for the conflict. In many cases, this was a natural, uncontroversial consequence: most generals were sent out with express instructions and objectives. Sometimes, however, they overstepped their remit. Such was the case of Gnaeus Manlius Vulso. Elected consul for 189 BC, he was appointed to an ongoing war against Antiochus III, King of the Seleucid Empire. However, when he arrived in Asia to take over his army, Vulso discovered that his predecessor had already agreed a peace with Antiochus. Robbed of his chance at glory, he led his army into the territory of the ‘Gallograeci,’ recent Celtic immigrants to Asia and allies of Antiochus. The result was an easy victory and plenty of loot.


Reverse of a silver denarius of 82 BC depicting Lucius Cornelius Sulla as a ‘triumphator’ (British Museum)

On his return to Rome, Vulso asked the senate for a triumph. His opponents (according to Livy) immediately brought charges of blatant war-mongering, flagrant profiteering and strategic incompetence. They claimed Vulso had tried to provoke Antiochus into breaking the peace he had just signed, and when that failed, he chose to launch an illegal war against a soft target. Vulso defended himself by pointing out that the declaration of war on Antiochus had included all his allies, and that the Gallograeci were a threat to the newly liberated cities of Asia: thus the war was legally justified, even though it was not his express mission. Who was right? It’s impossible to say conclusively, and in any case such a judgement would depend on what criteria one chose to use. Is a legal war also a moral one? Is a ‘pre-emptive strike’ ever justifiable? In any case, the Roman senate left their meeting with Vulso inclined to reject his triumph and censure his actions: it was only when Vulso’s friends and relatives interceded on the following day that ‘shame’ at refusing honours to a victorious general swayed the senators, and Vulso got his triumph.2

Roman historians made much of the retrospective legitimacy this gave to Vulso’s war: they claimed it was the first sign that greed and luxury were corrupting Roman morals. By vindicating Vulso’s actions, the Roman senate was conceding that the foundation of their empire could be the pursuit of profit and personal glory. What was at stake for the Romans over the start and end of such wars was essentially a matter of public relations. As the new masters of the known world, the Romans had to demonstrate the justification for their position: it was much better for their international standing if they were seen as defending their neighbours against injustice or responding to external threats, rather than as aggressive expansionists. Which of these more closely reflects the true picture of Roman imperialism has troubled modern scholarship for decades (for the book that kicked it all off, see here).

In the case of the Iraq War, whether or not the conflict was legal may have more immediate consequences for those involved (or so those branding Tony Blair a ‘war-criminal’ hope), but many of the same issues are at stake. Establishing ‘the truth’ about a war is a question of national importance, as is writing its narrative into public consciousness. It would take, one suspects, the most comprehensive of whitewashes to turn the Chilcot Report into a vindicating triumph for the Blair government, but that does not mean that the processes are dissimilar. War has a profound effect on a society and often it seems to take a national act of recognition (be it celebration or scrutiny, or even both) to make sense of it and provide closure after the trauma.

If you would like to read more on Roman attitudes to war, defeats and triumphs, you might like to look at Triumph in Defeat: Military Loss and the Roman Republic by Jessica H. Clark and The Roman Triumph by Mary Beard. War and Society in the Roman World (ed. Rich & Shipley) collects a number of interesting articles on the subject, as does Roman Imperialism: Readings and Sources (ed. Champion).

1: Who would later defeat the Achaean League and sack Corinth, finally subsuming Greece into the Roman Empire.

2: At least according to Livy, and most other authorities. Florus claims Vulso’s triumph was refused.


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