Caesar, Burning Boats, Modern Politics

Posted on Tuesday, July 19, 2022
by AMAC, Robert B. Charles

Julius Caesar was a warfighter before a politician. He was not given to panic. Some lessons he taught are worth recalling, especially since they are often misremembered, misapplied, and can misguide. The idea of making everything life-and-death, creating fear, and “burning the boats” for victory is a fallacy. Caesar never did that. In so many words, as a warfighter, he was a conservative. 

In short, not every perilous situation in which we find ourselves is the end of the world. Modern America tries to suspend us between extremes, either lots of social change and unstoppable stuff, or a fight to the death. Reality, however, lies between these extremes.

Yes, some things must be accepted to keep society civil. Benjamin Franklin would start with “death and taxes.” We can add grouches and critics, lousy elections and neighbors, loudmouths in power, tolerance for people who walk about “woke,” inventing words, disavowing life, science, gender, and free speech. We call that civic tolerance makes us stronger.

On the other hand, some threats must be fought with resolve, including government attacks on core rights, respect for life, liberty, laws, and everyone’s pursuit of civil happiness. We also must confront malicious global threats, including those posed by Iran, North Korea, China, and destructive ideologies.

But not all threats – domestic or foreign – fit these categories. Most do not. While inconveniences must be endured and direct threats rebuffed and deterred, everything is not the end of the world, despite media, social media, and political histrionics. Reason still works.

One is reminded of Caesar, the warfighter and writer. He supposedly decided to “burn the boats” when facing overwhelming odds on the shores of Great Britain. That would have been rather odd for him.

In truth, the historical record suggests – for good reason – that he did not panic, instill the fear of dying in his army, force them to fight for their lives rather than the cause, and did not “burn the boats.” He wrote extensively on his campaigns, and his tactics tended to be far different. He never suggests that one.  

He was exceptional at homework, understanding proportions, challenges, and organizing to deploy for objectives, neither surrendering nor turning housecats into lions. 

What Caesar, the military planner and fighter, did was approach threats in perspective. There are lessons here, not just for warfighting but for modern politics.

First, he did not allow emotion – in his warfighting days – to overrun analysis, cause loss of focus, sideline rational decision-making, upset his calm or confidence mid-battle. He moved with care. 

Second, he did not claim victory or admit defeat before starting, did not assume he was sure before he was, but imagined, created, refined his options. The modern Pentagon imagines contingencies, and that is how right-minded, reasoning pursuers of truth do it, in politics and elsewhere.

In 55 BC, on that British coast, Caesar was outnumbered, did fight the British until a draw and retreat, but then came back. He had assessed the situation rationally, and did not burn his boats.

Third, like picking which issues to defend, Caesar knew where, when, how, by what means to join battle, and when to sidestep a battle. George Washington did that – which is how we got liberty. Caesar would often deter a big war by picking his battles, as with the Germans. Not every issue has to be joined.

Fourth, he was sure of what he was defending – he did not defend the indefensible. As in modern politics, war in Caesar’s time produced high ground, areas worth defending – the rest he let go.

Conservatives today defend the Bill of Rights, freedom of speech, worship, the right to keep and bear arms, rights at trial, free markets, national security, election integrity, and limited government. These are the high ground, worth defending. What happens at the margins is secondary.

Fifth, Caesar made a point of keeping his own counsel, knowing his mind, trusting his instincts, history, and common sense – learned not to accept the enemy’s narrative. When a food crisis hit in 54 BC, Caesar had to divide his army to survive. The Gauls convinced one part of his army all Gaul was in revolt, their choices limited, and they would get safe passage – but then ambushed them. Caesar learned not to trust the enemy’s narrative. A good lesson for today.

Finally, Caesar taught – learning the hard way: Be prepared. Every Boy Scout knows it. Reagan and Trump framed it as “peace through strength,” deterrence through recognition, that a direct conflict is either unwinnable or sure loss.

Preparing to win in politics means knowing the facts, how to communicate, understanding audiences with whom you speak, understanding their unique fears, hopes, and history, then applying timeless, shared principles to persuade. In war, litigation, and politics, little outflanks preparation.

Bottom line: Modern politics aims to spin us up, inflame passions – since rational discussion often cuts conservative. Thus, dispassionate debate cannot be allowed. This is one reason free speech is attacked – since it is how reason works its magic.

Caesar the warfighter had many invitations to panic, distrust his team, trade inspiration, confidence, preparation, and care for fear, defaulting to histrionics, “burning the boats” to win. He chose inspiration over fear, facts over fiction, won more than lost. Caesar the warrior was – in essence – conservative. His warfighting lessons still apply, if properly understood. This is a good time to ponder them.