Old Iranian kāra- and spada-, Greek laos, Latin populus, German Heeresvolk, Babylonian uqu “the militarily and therefore politically significant part of the community” –Manning, Past Approaches, Future Prospects (2021) p. 138
In my first book, I touched on something which is obvious to military historians but might not be as clear to other kinds of people. When people from the Iron Age to the 19th century spoke of <the people>, they meant the militarily and therefore politically significant part of the society. Political change had to be literally fought for- if not by revolution then by a new section of the population doing something so conspicuously useful in war that the people who ran things had to give them a voice. One reason why combined-arms tactics were harder in practice than theory was that they required integrating the poor with stones and darts, the middle sort with bows and spears, and the rich with horses and swords. Often, the thing which was tactically advantageous was politically disadvantageous for the people who were currently living easy on others’ work. The French lost the battle of Coutrai in 1302 because their crossbowmen and javelin-men were breaking up the Flemish pikemen on their own, and the French lords decided that they needed to charge so they could say they had really won by themselves. French aristocrats lost battle after battle which was unfortunate for individual aristocrats, but aristocrats as a class kept control of French society at the expense of the peasants and the burgers. There was a vicious political battle after 479 BCE about whether working-class rowers or leisured hoplites had saved Hellas from the Mede. People who seized power often disarmed their opponents and dissolved their militias. That might make society as a whole less able to defend itself, but it made the losers in the power struggle less able to defend themselves against the winners.
We do not talk about this often in public because it is harsh. In the past two weeks, the people of Afghanistan have been teaching us how it works. The men with the machine guns and RPGs talked it over and decided that there would be a new government sooner rather then later. A Kabuli baker or a Herati schoolteacher might have had different opinions about whether the Taliban should run the country, but they were not militarily significant so they did not have a say. From the Bronze Age to the 19th century, “we the people” rarely included women. No wonder that decisions and laws tended to systematically favour men! But once a society has adopted this logic, it is hard to shift it out of it. By the beginning of July, women in many cities in Afghanistan could see what was coming and made the logical answer: they took up weapons and demanded the right to fight and a voice in what was about to happen to their country. So far those women have not succeeded. But my attempts to organize groups larger than a dozen buddies or shape my society have been total and utter failures too. If you can bear to look at events in Afghanistan or the history of the Iron Age, they have something important to teach us about how societies work and what realities are hidden behind glinting words.
In lieu of a donation, if you are from one of the countries which sent soldiers to Afghanistan between 2001 and 2021, please contact your political representative about letting in as many people who want to leave Afghanistan as want to.