When the United States is identified as an empire, albeit of a different sort than some others, it’s common to point to the fate of ancient Rome or the empires of Britain, Spain, Holland, etc., as a warning to the Pentagon or even to CNN debate moderators.
But a closer analogy to the current United States than ancient Rome, in a certain regard, might be the Vikings. The United States doesn’t create colonies in the places it wages war or wields influence. It raids. It pillages. It plunders resources. It manufactures smart phones. It fracks. It sets up isolated settlements, heavily fortified, also known as military bases, embassies, green zones, safe zones, and moderate rebel training camps. It sails for home.
What ever happened to the Vikings anyway?
I’d like to see a survey done on that question. I’m afraid many people would answer that the Vikings died out or got themselves slaughtered or slaughtered each other. That would certainly be an anti-imperial moral for the Viking story. It would also fit with the idea that violence controls people rather than the other way around.
Others might respond that the Vikings mysteriously disappeared, but they actually did nothing of the sort.
Much of what we know about the Vikings comes from literate people in other cultures attacked and raided by the Vikings. Just as people around the world told Gallup in a recent poll that the United States is the greatest threat to peace on earth, people impacted by Viking raids viewed Vikings as warrior beasts. No doubt this produced exaggerations, but there can be no question that the Vikings routinely practiced what we today would call aggressive war or targeted humanitarian regime change, depending on who was paying us to label the acts.
There can also be no question that the Vikings never died out. Current understanding of DNA suggests that a significant percentage of people in Norway, Denmark, and Sweden are descendants of Vikings, as are many people in other parts of Europe and Britain (including over half the older families in Liverpool, for example — Viking Beatles?!).
Well, if they didn’t die out, what happened? Surely, common U.S. wisdom holds that if an evil violent people like, say, the Iranians were to continue to exist, they would continue to launch all the wars they keep launching all over the world. Surely, somewhat better informed opinion holds that the United States wages all the wars it wages because of tragic but unavoidable tendencies buried in our genes. In fact, I’m pretty sure that “Our Genes May Be Violent, But We Can Make a Buck Off That” was once the slogan of Lockheed Martin, or it may have been Raytheon. Surely, if the Vikings were warriors, their descendants must still be warriors.
Annoyingly, the facts are otherwise. The Vikings kept right on living and radically reduced their killing. “The transformation of the Northmen, the ‘scourge of Europe,’ into the architects of the most peaceful region of Europe, Scandinavia, and the designers of strategies and institutions to replace war is an intriguing story,” wrote Elise Boulding. As she tells that story, the Vikings gradually found consensus more useful than conquering, and negotiated trade more profitable than pillaging. They shifted from raiding to building settlements. They adopted some of the more peaceful ideas of Christianity. They began to farm more and sail less.
Other sources expand on this theme. The Vikings had profited by enslaving people where they raided. As the Christian church was established in Scandinavia, it insisted on enslaving only non-Christians, which badly damaged the profitability of European raiding. Viking (or former Viking) violence was redirected into the Crusades against Muslims and Jews. But, make no mistake, the quantity of violence was on a steep downward slope. The peaceful separation of Norway and Sweden in 1905 was a model for other nations that have a hard time accomplishing such feats without wars. The relative resistance of Scandinavia to militarism in recent times, including Sweden’s choice not to fully join NATO — as well as its choice to stay out of the two world wars — is a model as well.
But the real lesson is that the Vikings stopped being Vikings. And so can we.