Grygiel has produced an interesting study of modern “barbarians” and how to deal with them. He defines barbarians as “small, highly mobile groups that often were not settled in a fixed place” (1), explaining their re-appearance by the dissolution of the trends that once favored modern states (1). The new conditions include the availability of “lethal technology, inaccessible spaces that make state governance more arduous, and the appeal of nonmaterial objects” (1). Thus, for Grygiel, barbarism has little to do with culture or level of technology but with mobility and violence. By modern barbarians, he means violent actors; though not specifically naming them, Grygiel is clearly referring to Islamist groups such as the Taliban, isis, and their ilk. He argues that an examination of the methods used by the Roman Empire against barbarians merit consideration in the modern era.
After an introductory chapter that properly lays out the goals of the book, the rest of the book consists of seven chapters (the last being the conclusion): The first chapter examines the “premodern strategic environment”; the second identifies “barbarians” and their character; the third considers whether pre-modern conditions, in terms of states and power, have returned; the fourth chapter covers decentralization; and the fifth chapter studies how three saints (Augustine of Hippo, Sidonius Apollinaris of Gaul, and Severinus of Noricum) dealt with barbarians in a decreasingly decentralized Roman Empire; the sixth reviews settlements, local forces, fortifications, and the alteration of the environment.
Although Grygiel jumps back and forth between the modern and pre-modern eras throughout the book, his argument and analysis remain coherent. He also expands his case studies to include the Comanches on the frontier of the United States and the Spanish Empire, but curiously omits Mexico in the nineteenth century. His final example, which is discussed only in the most general terms, is China’s handling of the steppe groups that largely originated in Mongolia. He seems usually to refer to the Ming but makes the mistake of lumping the policies of various dynasties together without recognizing their differences in vision, power, and intention.
Grygiel makes an honest effort but ultimately falls short. His failure to subject his new barbarians to a thorough examination results in his failure to see the weakness of his model. Groups such as isis and the Taliban are indigenous to their regions. The Taliban remain predominantly Pashtun and isis (at the time of the review) largely Arab-based in Iraq and Syria. To be sure, both groups have received reinforcement from other ethnicities and other countries. Al-Qaeda, being a decentralized entity, is not indigenous to a specific territory, but remains predominantly Arab. None of the groups can be classified in the same manner as the pre-modern barbarians that Grygiel discusses. The pre-modern barbarians were often displaced from their home territories, often by invaders or environmental conditions. Furthermore, Grygiel’s pre-modern barbarians lacked a coherent ideology on a par with that of the modern “barbarians.” Frontier raids against the Roman Empire may have been omnipresent, but the real threat was the immigration of barbarians into the interior.
Grygiel’s hypothesis works only with the premise that the United States shares an identity with Rome and that the other groupings that he views as barbarians always and everywhere correspond to the category of non-states. But this notion overlooks the complex developments (including U. S. involvement) in states like Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan that caused them to become unstable and to displace people. Grygiel also ignores the fact that the Taliban arose in response to disorder and for a brief time even ruled the state (de facto if not de jure, given its control of 90 to 95 percent of Afghanistan) until the events of 9/11. In short, Grygiel’s idea is interesting, but his execution is flawed.