Why was the conquest and conversion of the Fascist countries after the second world war so complete, compared to some other military efforts we could name? Why is it that a successful invasion and conquest can sometimes produce an effective rule and colonization, and some other times produce ISIS?

One time on Mythbusters, the crew attempted to harden a hammer to extreme levels, by heating it up red hot, then quenching it in a tank of used motor oil, in hopes of simultaneously quench-hardening, and increasing the carbon content of the exterior of the steel by the introduction of the carbon waste in the oil. The comedy was introduced when the gasoline present in the oil burst into flames; somebody swiftly blasted it with an extinguisher and the fire was out. But two seconds later it was back. Another blast from the extinguisher, another pause, another pillar of flame; the cycle of life continues. You see, the temperature of the steel was high above the flashpoint of the gasoline; the extinguisher briefly excluded oxygen and dropped the surface temperature of the mess down below that point, but as soon as the gas from the extinguisher dissipated, conditions returned to exactly those necessary for ignition. Without the hot hammer submerged in the tank of oil, the extinguisher would have worked. And this is the scene I feel best illustrates the frustration of foreign policy: Policymakers do not understand what they are doing, or what conditions they need to alter to achieve their goals. They simply grab the tool that says on the label “Puts out fires” or “stabilizes regions” and if it doesn’t work, they use it again.

I’m in the exploratory phase of this idea, so forgive the incompleteness: I suggest that the reason for the seemingly arbitrary successes and failures of military occupations has to do with the attitude of the conquered toward conquest. For instance, probably the most effective rule by the sword that has ever occurred is the Roman domination over all those tribes. A second case might be the recivilization of Europe after Fascism. The outstanding thing about both of these cases, at least to me, is the extent to which the conquered were absolute worshipers of conquest themselves. One might imagine a defeated chieftan remarking to the centurion, “Ah, I see your point.” It had been part of his attitude all his life to say that some men rule others by strength and violence, that the stronger was due not only fear, but a sort of awe or even loyalty. He recognized the validity of the battle the way an American might recognize the validity of an election as a way of choosing rulers.

And this is even more true of the Fascists, who set out to rule the world through superiority in war. Once defeat was final, their attitude seems to have been, “Well we were planning to be kings of the world by being the best at tank and aerial warfare, but turns out it’s actually YOU that’s best at that stuff. Sorry about the confusion, right this way your majesty.” The idea that everyone should respect and obey you, because of your power of violence is very easily converted into the idea that you yourself owe respect and obedience to others because of their power of violence.

And perhaps, in the trend of declining effectiveness of military occupations, of instability and insurrection right under the noses of the greatest military machines the world has ever seen, there is a related message. You see, it’s very difficult to apply enough military or police power to actually directly enforce mass compliance; effective enforcement relies on people complying when they’re not being watched, or participating in the watching themselves. But without this kind of cooperation, the manpower requirements scale out of control very quickly, as the prison situation should illustrate. The possibility is so tenuous that I hesitate to even state it, but it might be that the respect, the superstition, that the chieftan felt about the Roman swords, might be going out of the world. It might be, I dare to hope, that someday a bombing campaign will be a thing like an earthquake; when an earthquake devastates a city they get to work on rebuilding, they do not seek to suit their customs and practices to the tastes of earthquakes. A disaster does not command admiration, we do not feel guilt for rebuilding in defiance of the wishes of the earth. The respect and obedience that human beings have offered up to wielders of force is far more than mere fear or practicality would dictate; humanity has been ruled by the sword because it has been foolish enough to worship the sword.

Yet innumerable experiences offer this tantalizing hint of what might be possible; just as we live in a society practically devoid of the master/slave order, once regarded fundamentally natural and essential to humanity, so some humans in some future might live in a world where invasion has been rendered wholly ineffective practically, by the indifference of the populace to the “authority” of a conqueror. Politicians will propose military campaigns and receive the objection, “What good would that do? We don’t have enough soldiers to watch every citizen, and they’re just going to disobey us whenever we’re not looking.” Indeed the same objections could be raised against foreign war as are now raised against the drug war.

I feel an intense urge to criticize what I’m writing, talking about some sort of paradise of peace as if it could come to be on this earth, foolishness! Yet there is that practical reality of Indian independence and Afghan ungovernability, and the mysterious phenomenon of giant militaries occupying tiny countries, scratching their heads and saying “I don’t get it why won’t they listen? How did the Romans do this?”