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When do you first set foot on the ladder to greatness? Or on the slippery
slope of treason? Do you know it at the time? Or do you discover it only
"Everybody compares America to Rome," said Averell Torrent to the
graduate students seated around the table. "But they compare the wrong
thing. It's always, 'America is going to fall, just like Rome.' We should be so
lucky! Let's fall just like Rome did -- after five hundred years of world
domination!" Torrent smiled maliciously.
Major Reuben Malich took a note -- in Farsi, as he usually did, so that
no one else at the table could understand what he was writing. What he wrote
was: America's purpose is not to dominate anything. We don't want to be
Torrent did not wait for note-taking. "The real question is, how can
America establish itself so it can endure the way Rome did?"
Torrent looked around the table. He was surrounded by students only a
little younger than he was, but there was no doubt of his authority. Not
everybody writes a doctoral dissertation that becomes the cover story of all the
political and international journals. Only Malich was older than Torrent; only
Malich was not confused about the difference between Torrent and God. Then
again, only Malich actually believed in God, so the others could be forgiven
their confusion of the two.
"The only reason we care about the fall of Rome," said Torrent, "is
because this Latin-speaking village in the heart of the Italian peninsula had
forced its culture and language on Gaul and Iberia and Dacia and Britannia,
and even after it fell, the lands they conquered clung to as much of that culture
as they could. Why? Why was Rome so successful?"
No one offered to speak. So, as usual, Torrent zeroed in on Malich.
"Let's ask Soldier Boy, here. You're part of America's legions."
Reuben refused to let the implied taunting get to him. Be calm in the
face of the enemy. If he is an enemy.
"I was hoping you'd answer that one, sir," said Malich. "Since that's the
topic of the entire course."
"All the more reason why you should already have thought of some
possible answers. Are you telling me you haven't thought of any?"
Reuben had been thinking of answers to that -- and similar -- questions
ever since he set his sights on a military career, back in seventh grade. But he
said nothing, simply regarding Torrent with a steady gaze that showed nothing,
not even defiance, and certainly not hostility. In the modern American
classroom, a soldier's battle face was a look of perfect tranquility.
Torrent pressed him. "Rome ruthlessly conquered dozens, hundreds of
nations and tribes. Why, then, when Rome fell, did these former enemies cling
to Roman culture and claim Roman heritage as their own for a thousand years
"Time," said Reuben. "People got used to being under Roman rule."
"Do you really think time explains it?" asked Torrent scornfully.
"Absolutely," said Reuben. "Look at China. After a few centuries, most
people came to identify themselves so completely with their conquerors that
they thought of themselves as Chinese. Same with Islam. Given time enough,
with no hope of liberation or revolt, they eventually converted to Islam. They
even came to think of themselves as Arabs."
As usual, when Reuben pressed back, Torrent backed off, not in any
obvious, respectful way that admitted Reuben might have scored a point or
two, but by simply turning to someone else to ask another question.
The discussion moved on from there into a discussion of the Soviet
Union and how eagerly the subject peoples shrugged off the Russian yoke at
the first opportunity. But eventually Torrent brought it back to Rome -- and to
Major Reuben Malich.
"If America fell today, how much of our culture would endure? Most
places that speak English in the world do so because of the British Empire, not
because of anything America did. What about our civilization will last? T-shirts? Coca-Cola?"
"Pepsi," joked one of the other students.
"Funny, but trivial," said Torrent. "Soldier Boy, you tell us. What would
"Nothing," said Reuben immediately. "They respect us now because we
have a dangerous military. They adopt our culture because we're rich. If we
were poor and unarmed, they'd peel off American culture like a snake shedding
"Yes!" said Torrent. The other students registered as much surprise as
Reuben felt, though Reuben did not let it show. Torrent agreed with the
"That's why there is no comparison between America and Rome," said
Torrent. "Our empire can't fall because we aren't an empire. We have never
passed from our republican stage to our imperial one. Right now we buy and
sell and, occasionally, bully our way into other countries, but when they thumb
their noses at us, we treat them as if they had a right, as if there were some
equivalence between our nation and their puny weakness. Can you imagine
what Rome would have done if an 'ally' treated them the way France and
Germany have been treating the United States?"
The class laughed.
Reuben Malich did not laugh. "The fact that we don't act like Rome is
one of the best things about America," he said.
"So isn't it ironic," said Torrent, "that we are vilified as if we were like
Rome, precisely because we aren't? While if we did act like Rome, then they'd
treat us with the respect we deserve?"
"My head a-splode," said one of the wittier students, and everyone
laughed again. But Torrent pushed the point.
"America is at the end of its republic. Just as the Roman Senate and
consuls became incapable of ruling their widespread holdings and fighting off
their enemies, so America's antiquated Constitution is a joke. Bureaucrats and
courts make most of the decisions, while the press decides which Presidents
will have enough public support to govern. We lurch forward by inertia alone,
but if America is to be an enduring polity, it can't continue this way."
Even though Torrent's points actually agreed with much of what Reuben
believed was wrong with contemporary America, he could not let the historical
point stand unchallenged -- the two situations could not be compared. "The
Roman Republic ended," said Reuben, "because the people got sick of the
endless civil wars among rival warlords. They were grateful to have a strong
man like Octavian eliminate all rivals and restore peace. That's why they were
thrilled to have him put on the purple and rename himself as Augustus."
"Exactly," said Torrent, leaning across the table and pointing a finger at
him. "Of course a soldier sees straight to the crux of the matter. Only a fool
thinks the turns of history can be measured by any standard other than which
wars were fought, and who won them. Survival of the fittest -- that's the
measure of a civilization. And survival is ultimately determined on the
battlefield. Where one man kills another, or dies, or runs away. The society
whose citizens will stand and fight is the one with the best chance to survive
long enough for history even to notice it."
One of the students made the obligatory comment about how
concentrating on war omits most of history. At which Torrent smiled and
gestured for Reuben to answer.
"The people who win the wars write the histories," said Reuben dutifully,
wondering why he was getting this sudden burst of respect from Torrent.
"Augustus kept most of the forms of the old system," Torrent went on.
"He refused to call himself king, he pretended the Senate still meant
something. So the people loved him for protecting their republican delusions.
But what he actually established was an empire so strong that it could survive
incompetents and madmen like Nero and Caligula. It was the empire, not the
republic, that made Rome the most important enduring polity in history."
"You're saying America needs to do the same thing?" asked Reuben
"Not at all!" said Torrent, acting out a parody of horror. "God forbid! I'm
just saying that if America is going to ever matter to history the way Rome
does, instead of being a brief episode like the Sassanid or Chaldean empires,
then it will be because we spawn our own Augustus, to rule where right now
we only buy and sell."
"Then I hope we fall first," said Reuben Malich. He knew as he spoke
that he should have confined this comment to his Farsi notes. This was the
trap Torrent had led him into, by showing him respect; yet, knowing he was
being exposed and would surely be cut apart for it, he could not hold silence --
because if he did, the other students would be sure this soldier longed for
empire, just as Torrent apparently did. "America exists as an idea," Reuben
said, "and if we throw out that idea, then there's no reason for America to exist
"Oh, Soldier Boy, you poor lad," said Torrent. "The American idea was
thrown out with Social Security. We nailed the coffin shut with group rights.
We don't want individual liberty because we don't want individual
responsibility. We want somebody else to take care of us. If we had a dictator
who did a better job of it than our present system, then as long as he
pretended to respect Congress, we'd lick his hands like dogs."
The whole seminar recoiled from his words, though not because they
thought he was wrong; it was because he sounded like some kind of neo-conservative.
"Again," Torrent reminded them, "I'm not advocating anything, I'm only
observing. We're historians, not politicians. We have to look at how polities
actually function, not how we wish to delude ourselves into thinking they ought
to function. Our short-term politics trump long-term national interests every
time. Can't fix Social Security, can't fix the tax structure, can't fix the trade
deficit, can't fix outsourcing, can't fix anything because there's always
campaign money involved, or demagoguery that blocks the way. Between the
NRA and the AARP, you can't even do things that vast majorities already agree
need to be done! Democracy on this scale doesn't work, it hasn't worked for
years. And as for that American idea, we flushed it away with the Great
Depression, and nobody misses it." Then he grinned. "Except maybe Soldier
Princeton University was just what Reuben expected it to be -- hostile to
everything he valued, smug and superior and utterly closed-minded. In fact,
exactly what they thought the military was.
He kept thinking, the first couple of semesters, that maybe his attitude
toward them was just as short-sighted and bigoted and wrong as theirs was of
him. But in class after class, seminar after seminar, he learned that far too
many students were determined to remain ignorant of any real-world data that
didn't fit their preconceived notions. And even those who tried to remain
genuinely open-minded simply did not realize the magnitude of the lies they
had been told about history, about values, about religion, about everything. So
they took the facts of history and averaged them with the dogmas of the leftist
university professors and thought that the truth lay somewhere in the middle.
Well as far as Reuben could tell, the middle they found was still far from
any useful information about the real world.
Am I like them, just a bigot learning only what fits my worldview? That's
what he kept asking himself. But finally he reached the conclusion: No, he was
not. He faced every piece of information as it came. He questioned his own
assumptions whenever the information seemed to violate it. Above all, he
changed his mind -- and often. Sometimes only by increments; sometimes
completely. Heroes he had once admired -- Douglas MacArthur, for instance
-- he now regarded with something akin to horror: How could a commander be
so vain, with so little justification for it? Others that he had disdained -- that
great clerk, Eisenhower, or that woeful incompetent, Burnside -- he had
learned to appreciate for their considerable virtues.
And now he knew that this was much of what the Army had sent him
here to learn. Yes, a doctorate in history would be useful. But he was really
getting a doctorate in self-doubt and skepticism, a Ph.D. in the rhetoric and
beliefs of the insane Left. He would be able to sit in a room with a far-left
Senator and hear it all with a straight face, without having to argue any points,
and with complete comprehension of everything he was saying and everything
he meant by it.
In other words, he was being embedded with the enemy as surely as
when he was on a deep Special Ops assignment inside a foreign country that
did not (officially at least) know that he was there.
Princeton University as an alien planet. Reuben Malich as the astronaut
who somehow lost his helmet -- and spent day after day gasping for air.
He had to acquire the iron discipline of the soldier who works with the
government -- the ability to stand in the same room with stupidity and say
nothing, show nothing.
The real danger was not losing his temper, however. For in the second
year of his studies, he realized that he was beginning to treat some of the most
absurd ideas as if they had some basis in truth. It was Goebbels in practice: If
you tell the same lies long enough and loudly enough, even people who know
better will despair and concede the point.
We are tribal animals. We cannot long stand against the tribe.
Thank heaven he could go home to Cecily every day. She was his reality
check. Unlike the ersatz Left of the university, Cessy was a genuine old-fashioned liberal, a Democrat of the tradition that reached its peak with
Truman and blew its last trumpet with Moynihan.
It was part of the insanity of their marriage -- the reason his father kept
asking him, right up to the wedding itself, "Do you have any idea what you're
Because not only was Reuben committed to conservative values, he was
also a Serbian by ancestry and upbringing -- an Orthodox Christian with a
native knowledge of the language of Serbia because his parents made sure of it.
And Cessy was Croatian -- Catholic, yes, but also of the tribe that
Serbians hated more than any. Once Serbs and Croats had been the same
people. But the Turks had long ruled Serbia, while Croatia was sheltered
within Catholic Austria-Hungary. What did Croats know of oppression and
suffering? And when the Nazis came, they collaborated with the conquerors,
and the price of their perfidy was paid in Serbian blood.
Nobody forgot things like this in the Balkans. Such injuries were nursed
generation after generation. So when Reuben came home from Ohio State with
a Croatian girl, and then left her with his family while he went off to begin
serving his ROTC obligation to his country, his parents were appalled.
She won them over completely. It was hard to believe that anyone could
get past Father's cast-iron hatred of Croats, but Cessy had insisted that she'd
do just fine, now go off and be a soldier for a while. And when Reuben came
home on leave the first time, it quickly became clear that not only did his
family like Cessy, they liked her a lot more than they liked Reuben. Oh, they
said they still loved him best, but he knew it was just to make him feel better.
They adored Cessy.
And that was fine with him. "You should be our U.N. ambassador," he
told her on that first leave. "You could get Hutus and Tutsis to be friends. You
could get Israelis and Palestinians to hug and kiss. Hindus and Muslims,
Hindus and Sikhs, Shia and Baha'i, Basque and Spaniard --"
"Not Basques and Spaniards," she told him. "That dates back to when
there were still mastodons in Europe. That's practically like Cro-Magnon
"I want our babies to be as smart as you and as tough as me," he said.
"I just want them to look like me," said Cessy. "Because having
daughters that look like you would be cruel."
Their daughters did look like Cessy, and their sons had Reuben's lean,
lithe body, and all in all, their family life was perfect. That's what he came
home to every day from school; that was the environment in which he studied.
That was his root in reality that kept calling him back from the brink of getting
seduced into the fantasyland of academia.
Until Averell Torrent decided he wanted Reuben's soul.
Reuben had been goaded by professors before. He goaded them by
wearing his uniform to every class on the first day. They took it as a personal
affront. Why shouldn't they? That's how he meant it.
Some of them simply ignored him the rest of the semester -- until his
coursework forced them to give him an A. Others declared war on him, but
their ham-handed attacks on Reuben always backfired, winning him the
sympathy of the other students as Reuben answered all the attacks with
unflagging courtesy and quiet good sense. Many of the others would begin
defending him -- and, by extension, the military. Thus Reuben would quietly
lose all the classroom battles for the hearts and minds of the students, but win
With Torrent, though, as they worked their way through the ancient
long-lived empires -- Egypt, China -- and the ancient republics -- first Athens,
now Rome -- it became for the other students a class in watching Torrent and
Reuben spar with each other. They weren't angry at Reuben -- they knew that
Torrent always initiated their long, classtime-consuming exchanges -- but they
still resented the fact that Reuben Malich had hijacked their only class with the
Can't help it, Reuben silently answered their huffish attitudes. He calls
on me. What am I supposed to do, cover my ears and hum loudly so I can't
hear his questions?
Though he was getting tempted to do just that. Because what Torrent
was saying about America and empire made perverse sense. While the other
students sidetracked themselves into a discussion about whether Torrent's
statements were "conservative" or "liberal," "reactionary" or "politically correct,"
Reuben could not shake off Torrent's premise -- that America was not in the
place Rome was in before it fell, but rather in the place where Rome was before
civil war destroyed the Republic and led to the dictatorship of the Caesars.
So when Torrent had finally silenced the other students' attempts to put
his remarks into one or another of present-day political camps, Reuben was
ready to speak.
"Sir," he said, "if civil war is a necessary precursor to the end of
"The façade of democracy."
"Then it means our republic, such as it is, is safe. Because we don't
have warlords. We don't have private armies."
"You mean 'so far,'" Torrent said at once. "You mean 'that we know
"We aren't Yugoslavia," said Reuben -- the most obvious example, for
him at least. "We don't have clear ethnic divisions."
Again, a storm of protest from the other students. What about blacks?
They debated that for a while, but Reuben was determined to stay on
track. "We can have riots, but not sustained wars, because the sides are too
geographically mixed and the resources are too one-sided."
Torrent shook his head. "The seeds of civil war are always there, in every
country. England in the 1600s -- nobody would have believed that those
pesky Puritans could provoke a Royalist versus Puritan civil war, and yet they
"So where do you think America might divide itself into two factions that
could fight a sustained civil war?" Reuben demanded.
Torrent smiled. "Red state, blue state."
"That's cheap media graphics. You might as well say rural versus
"I do say that. But the geographical division is still clear. The Northeast
and the West Coast against the South and the middle, with some states torn
apart because they're so evenly balanced."
"No one's going to fight over those differences."
Torrent smiled his maddening superior smile. "The rhetoric today is
already as hot-blooded and insane and hate-filled as it was over slavery before
the first Civil War -- and even then, most people refused to believe war was
possible until Fort Sumter fell."
"One thing," said Reuben. "One tiny thing."
"Yes?" said Torrent.
"The U.S. Army is absolutely dominated by red-state ideals. There are
some blue-staters, yes, of course. But you don't join the military, as a general
rule, unless you share much of the red-state ideology."
"So because the red-staters control the Army, you think there can't be a
"I think it's unlikely."
"Don't hedge on me."
Reuben shrugged. He wasn't hedging, he was specifying; but let Torrent
think whatever he wanted.
"What if the White House were in the control of blue-staters?" asked
Torrent. "What if the President ordered American troops to fire on American
citizens who fought for red state ideals?"
"We obey the President, sir."
"Because you're thinking you'd be called to fire on neo-fascist militia nut
groups from Montana," said Torrent. "What if you were told to fire on the
Alabama National Guard?"
"If Alabama was in rebellion, then I'd do it at once."
"If," said Torrent. "We just got our first 'if' from Soldier Boy. You would
obey the President 'if.'" Torrent grinned in triumph. "Civil wars are fought
when leaders find out what those 'ifs' are and exploit them. I would only shoot
at my neighbor 'if.' And then a politician tells you that the 'if' has happened."
They all regarded Torrent in silence, waiting for the clincher that they
knew was coming.
"The ideology doesn't matter. You're right, no one cares enough. So
here's when you'll get ready to shoot your neighbor: When you're convinced
that your neighbor is arming himself to shoot you."
Reuben well knew how that worked. Few Serbs, Croats, or Muslims in
the old Yugoslavia even imagined they could go to war -- the intermarriage rate
was so high that it was obvious you could never sort out one group from
But all it took was a handful of nuts with guns shooting at you because
your parents were Croats, even if you never cared. If they're attacking you
because you're part of a group, then when you fire back, you do it as a member
of that group. "You get forced onto one side or the other whether you want to
or not," said Reuben, "once the bullets start to fly."
"The bullets don't even have to fly," said Torrent, nodding. "You just
have to believe they're trying to shoot you. Wars are fought because we believe
the other team's threats."
"Which suggests," said Reuben, "that wars are also lost because one side
didn't believe until it was too late."
"There we have it," said Torrent, looking around triumphantly at the rest
of the class. "Right here in this class, I have persuaded a highly trained soldier
who hates the idea of civil war to think about the possibility."
The others laughed and looked at Reuben Malich with some mixture of
mockery and sympathy. He had fallen into Torrent's trap.
Only Reuben knew better. Torrent was a serious historian. So was
Reuben. Torrent was right. A civil war could be fought anywhere, if somebody
had the will, the wit, and the power to pull the right strings, push the right
buttons, light the right fires.
The class ran ten minutes over -- which was common with Torrent,
because nobody wanted him to stop talking. And after class, many lingered to
talk to him about the papers they were writing. Everyone was terrified of his
acid pen, firing volleys of savage criticism across their pages. They wanted to
get it right on the first draft.
Reuben didn't care about grades, mostly because he earned A's in
everything. So when class ended, he always left at once. Today, though,
Torrent waved him over before he could leave. By staying, Reuben was blowing
off Contemporary African Conflicts. But when a man like Torrent calls, you
come because it matters what Torrent thinks about everything. Even you.
Finally they were alone in the room.
"Major Reuben Malich," Torrent said. "It's not so much that I like the
way you think, it's that I like the fact that you think at all."
"We all think, sir."
"No, my good soldier, we do not all think. Thinking is rare and growing
rarer, especially in the universities. Students succeed here to the degree they
can convince idiots that they think just like them."
"The professors aren't all idiots."
"Grad school is like junior high: You learn to get along. That's half of
who ends up in grad school in the first place -- the suck-ups and get-alongs.
You're only here because you were ordered to come. You'd rather be in the
Middle East. Leading troops in combat. Yes?"
Reuben didn't answer.
"Very careful of you," said Torrent. "I have just one question for you. If I
told you that the civil war I'm talking about were being planned right now, just
how far would you go?"
"I'd do nothing to help either side, and anything to prevent it from
"But those are the two sides, before the fighting starts -- the hotheads on
one side, the rational people on the other, trying to rein them in."
"Soldiers don't have the power to prevent wars, sir, except by being so
invincible that no enemy would dare to engage."
"Are you willing to trust your life -- the lives of your family -- on that
belief -- that civil war is impossible?"
"Exactly, sir. I already trust my family's life to that belief. It's like an
asteroid colliding with Earth. It certainly will happen, someday. But right
now, there's no urgency about figuring out how to avoid it."
"And when an asteroid does come toward Earth, how will you know? See
"No, sir, I'll trust to astronomers to let us know. And I know where
you're going -- you believe you're the astronomer who's warning us about a
social and political collision."
"More like a weatherman, tracking the storm and watching it grow to
"Standing in front of the camera in the rain, strapped to a lightpole?"
Torrent grinned. "You understand me perfectly."
"What are you proposing, sir?" said Reuben. "You were proposing
"There are those who are trying to prevent the civil war. People who are
in a position to share key information, to keep dangerous weapons out of the
hands of those who would use them to provoke this war that nobody wants."
"Working on a doctorate at Princeton isn't exactly a key position."
"But you graduate after this semester, n'est-ce pas?"
"And go back into the Army, sir. I already have my assignment,
protecting American interests abroad."
"Yes, I know," said Torrent. "Special Ops. Nice work in that country-we-cannot-name."
Reuben had run into this before -- people pretending to have inside
information in order to try to get the information from him.
"I don't know what you're talking about, sir. I'm not in Special Ops."
"I think you were dead right to open fire when you did, and you should
have gotten the Oscar for the way you wept over that dead old man."
So maybe he did know something. That didn't mean Reuben could trust
him. "I'm not much of a weeper, sir."
"You'd be the first person ever to win an Oscar for a performance that
actually saved lives."
"I believe you're trying to compromise me, sir, and I won't do it."
"Dammit," said Torrent, "I'm trying to find out if you'd be interested in a
covert assignment to help hold this country together and prevent its collapse
into pure chaos."
"And its passage into empire."
"If there were some way you could help in an effort to prevent civil war, to
preserve the republic, such as it is, how far would you be willing to go?"
"I'm a major in the United States Army, sir. I will never do anything
contrary to my oath."
"Yes," said Torrent. "Yes, that's what I'm counting on. You're a superb
student, you know that. The best I've had in years. And I know people, within
and outside the government, who are involved in quiet efforts to prevent civil
war. You have my solemn oath that anyone who contacts you in my name will
never ask you to do anything that would violate yours."
"I'll listen. That's all I promise."
"Then listen to this. The first test is whether or not you tell your wife."
"I tell Cessy everything that isn't classified. If you don't like that, count
"What if the knowledge might get her killed?"
"Then I'd be sure to tell her. Because if somebody thinks I might have
told her, they'll kill her whether I really did or not. So she might as well
understand the risk."
"Glad to hear it," said Torrent.
"That was the test. If you'd betray your wife and do something like this
behind her back, you'd betray anybody." With a grin, Torrent picked up his
now-stuffed briefcase and left the room.
Reuben headed for his next class, hopelessly late, with his mind racing.
He just recruited me. I don't even know what the conspiracy is, and he
recruited me just by appealing to my intelligence, my loyalties, my desire to be
in on the action.
The trouble was, this did appeal to him in all those ways and more
He's got me pegged, Reuben realized. The only question remaining was:
Is Torrent a good guy? If I join whatever clandestine work he's got going, will I
be on the right side?
Copyright © 2006 Orson Scott Card