An Old Line of Argument
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Categories: Ancient, Medieval, Modern

An Old Line of Argument

The commander (imperator) as head of state and father of the fatherland: a statue of Augustus from Prima Porta. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Military historians often admire professional armies whose members have no trade but war. These armies can learn their art well, carry out clever manoeuvres, and don’t start arguing with each other when their general wants them to be making some decisive attack (before the 1980s, military historians tended to identify with the generals). In Europe this tradition goes back to Xenophon in the 4th century BCE and can be traced through wanna-be army builders like Sir John Smythe of Little Badow or J.F.C. Fuller the British general, tank visionary, fascist, and mystic. This line of argument has its virtues: the history of the past 500 years is dotted with sad tales of keen but untrained and poorly equipped fighters marching into the bullets and shells and being mowed down. But it usually summons a counter-argument about what those young, aggressive, highly trained men will do when there is no war to fight. I can trace this tradition back to Kabti-ilani-Marduk’s Erra Epic, which was composed sometime in the 8th or 7th century BCE as the Assyrians were sowing blood and flesh to plant the first world empire. Erra has Seven terrifying weapons, and they are feeling bored:

Warrior Erra, why do you neglect the field for the city?
The very beasts and creatures hold us in contempt!
O warrior Erra, we will tell you, though what we say be offensive to you!
Era the whole land outgrows us,
You must surely hear our words! (80)
Do a kindly deed for the gods of hell, who delight in deathly stillness,
The Annuna-gods cannot fall asleep for thge clamor of mankind.
Beasts are overrunning the meadows, life of the land,
The farmer sobs bitterly for his [field].
Lion and wolf are felling the livestock, (85)
The shepherd, who cannot sleep day or night for the sake of his flocks, is calling upon you.
We too, who know the mountain passes, we have [forgotten] how to go,
Cobwebs are spun over our field gear,
Our fine bow resists and is too strong for us,
The tip of our sharp arrow is bent out of true, (90)
Our blade is corroded for want of a slaughter!

Epic of Erra, tablet I, from Benjanim Foster, Before the Muses, pp. 775, 776

Franco Sacchetti tells a fable about the famous contractor John Hawkwood and some beggar friars.

This was the merry answer which Messer Giovanni Augut (John Hawkwood) gave to two friars minor (Franciscans) who, going to him on some business at one of his castles where he happened to be, and coming into his presence, said, as was their custom: “God give you peace, my lord.” To which he replied instantly: “May God take away your alms.” The friars in alarm said: “Signor, why do you speak so to us?” Hawkwood replied: “Why did you then speak so to me?” The friars replied: “We thought to be kind.” And Hawkwood said: “How could you mean to be kind when you come to me and say: ‘May God make you die of hunger’? Do you not know that I live by war, and that peace would be my undoing, and that as I live by war so you live by alms, and that the answer I made to you was the same as your salutation!” The friars shrugged their shoulders and said: “You are right; forgive us. We are stupid men.” . . . And certainly it is true that this man fought in Italy longer than any other man ever did—he fought sixty years, and nearly every part became his tributary. So well did he manage his affairs that there was little peace in Italy in his days. And woe to those men and peoples who believe too much in his kind, because peoples and cities live and grow by peace, and these men live and grow by war.

Franco Saccetti, Novelle as transcribed by Will McLean

In March 2021, a veteran of the Cold War peace movement realized that someone was wrong in the papers:

General Lord Richards, former head of the British armed forces, … went to bat at the weekend to argue against cuts to the British army (down 10,000 soldiers to only 72,000). “I’m thinking Russia and China,” said General Richards. “I don’t necessarily buy that they’re about to start World War Three with us, but they still possess large numbers. If all we’ve got is hi-tech stuff, and they’ve got half a million troops that can come across the border at you, then hi-tech capabilities aren’t going to be much good.” But what border is that? Russia’s western border is almost 2,000 km away, and Britain is an island. The nearest Chinese territory is 3,500 km away.

Gwynne Dyer, “The ‘Defense’ Follies” 25 March 2021

Britain had just left the European Union which also raised questions about whether British troops would die to save continentals from a hypothetical invasion.

If you have to fight a war, a professional army will do it while losing the least men and giving storytellers the fewest anecdotes to laugh about. But between the wars, that army is likely to exaggerate threats or pick fights to get more resources or practice their hard-earned skills or just break the tedium. Fighting can be a lot of fun for the fighters, which is one reason why human beings fight war so often. Its not so fun for everyone else. Full-time fighters also threaten to take over the city or kingdom, but that is another story.

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(scheduled 9 April 2021)

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5 thoughts on “An Old Line of Argument

  1. Eleanor Konik says:

    This reminds me of why I hate Achilles so much. Or rather, I hate how our society thinks he’s such hot shit. Given a choice between being happy with a family and living to a ripe old age, and dying young in a relatively stupid war so that his name will be remembered throughout the ages, he chose fighting and dying “gloriously” and I detest that it’s considered a hero for that.

    Give me (pre-Avengers) Hawkeye any day, lol.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Humh, I have seen a wide variety of people present Achilles’ choice as a model!

      Its striking how some people can take figures who the ancients were divided on (like Achilles or Alexander the Great!) and present them in such positive terms.

      1. Eleanor Konik says:

        At least with Alexander the Great, it’s being presented as an open question in history classes that assess using the DBQ model. It’s practically a whole category on Teachers Pay Teachers, heh.

  2. russell1200 says:

    Niccolò Machiavelli tried to create his citizens militia about 100 hundred years after Hawkwood and it didn’t work too well.

    If you take the peak period for conscripts as starting in the Napoleonic Era and going up through WW2, it is rather obvious that a lack of professional armies, just means bigger armies, and more bloodshed.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      I guess “obvious” depends on where you are. If you are in Taiwan or Argentina or Egypt, you probably see things more like the typical Anglo attitude in the 18th or 19th century (which grew out of how Parliament’s New Model Army ended throwing Parliament out the doors). If you are in other places with other recent history, you probably see things differently.

      Quite a few international tensions exist because someone needs an excuse to justify their next budget request. The individual analysists may be sincere, but they get paid and promoted to find reasons why their branch of their military needs money. And the more power they have, the more of a threat they are to their neighbours, so their neighbours are tempted to arm up and form a counter-alliance, so the analysts in the first country raise their budget request … its a dance older than humanity.

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