Morris: Politics, slow and steady does it

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Leo Morris

Today, let’ s pay tribute to one of history’s little known but highly influential figures: Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, a Roman statesman and military commander of the third century BC.

His nickname was Cunctator, roughly translated as “the delayer,” earned for the tactics he employed against the invading Carthaginian forces of Hannibal during the Second Punic War. Facing an army of vastly superior numbers and training, the “Fabian strategy” avoided decisive battles, instead waging a war of attrition.

Fabius sent small units to attack Hannibal’s supply lines, harass his troops and generally wear down their morale. It was a hit-and-run strategy designed to deprive the enemy of a major victory and make its soldiers weary of the fight.

As a result, Fabius is credited with originating many of the tactics used throughout history in the guerrilla warfare waged by native populations against superior invading forces. Americans used them against the British during our War for Independence (Gen. Washington was known as the American Fabius – there’s a Final Jeopardy answer for you). Refusing to learn from history, we allowed the same tactics to be used against us in Vietnam.

That fills in some of the “little known” part.

For the “influential” segment, let us turn to Victorian England and Thomas Davidson, a Scottish philosopher who founded a group having as its goal the establishment of a democratic socialist state in Great Britain. It was named the Fabian Society, paying honor to the Roman general by adopting his tactics.

The Fabians favored evolution rather than revolution, aiming to transform society through its own war of attrition, in the words of Encyclopedia Britannica, advancing its goal of socialism through education of the public “by means of meetings, lectures, discussion groups, conferences and summer schools; carrying out research into political, economic and social problems; and publishing books, pamphlets and periodicals.”

And it worked. The society’s membership was never very large – only about 8,400 members at its peak in 1946 – but its importance “has always been much larger than its size might suggest … a large number of Labour members of Parliament in the House of Commons, as well as many of the party leaders, are Fabians.”

We live in Fabian times, do we not?

Having just survived another session of the Indiana General Assembly and wearily awaiting another presidential election, it is easy to imagine the mass of ordinary citizens being manipulated from behind the scenes by a tiny but powerful bunch of determined zealots.

Perhaps it is the small band of well-heeled lobbyists in back rooms of the Statehouse. Or maybe it’s the permanent cadre of career bureaucrats who stay in Washington regardless of which political party is in power. Of course, we must consider the minuscule number of rightwing fanatics who use Fox News and talk radio to dominate millions of mindless Republicans. And then there are the extremist liberal wackos who, despite their small numbers, have used Twitter and Facebook to systematically dismantle traditional institutions and values.

On the other, hand, perhaps you are the next Fabius. If you and your friends just stick to your beliefs and keep plugging away, maybe the tide will turn your way, and you will find yourself in the vanguard. All you need is patience and fortitude.

Food for thought.

As a footnote, it should be remembered that Fabian Strategy worked only up to a point. At the decisive encounter of the Falerian Plain, Fabius thought he had blocked Hannibal’s exit from the valley. But the wily Hannibal and a few of his men attached flaming torches to 2,000 head of marching cattle. Thinking he was chasing Hannibal’s entire army, Fabius moved his troops in that direction. The bulk of Hannibal’s army was then able to escape through an unguarded pass, almost without loss. A great opportunity was thus denied to Fabius.

Tactics can win battles. Wars, not so much. For that, something more is needed.

I love history.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at [email protected].