Ghost Soldiers
Written by
Categories: Ancient, Modern

Ghost Soldiers

Since early in the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, critics have warned about ghost soldiers. A significant part of the payroll of the old Iraqi and Afghan armies was soldiers who had never existed, or had died or deserted, or were just collecting pay but had never expected to do anything dangerous for it (or never been trained to fight). This was an easy way for the people in charge of an army or navy to get rich. I talked about this timeless swindle in my first book, Armed Force in the Teispid-Achaemenid Empire:

The temple archives imply that some officials abused their positions to enrich themselves or hurt their enemies: the notorious Gimillu, a lowly širku of Ištar at Uruk, is a famous example. Matthew Stolper has collected a series of tablets where officials complain that they do not have a full allotment of supplies or workers, but are still expected to achieve the same amount of work, or that other officials have taken their workers and not replaced them. Even if Babylonians had distinguished between ‘civil’ and ‘military’ service, CT 22, 74 shows that officials also argued about who had jurisdiction over particular groups of soldiers. In Thucydides’ day, Greek observers worried that Tissaphernes might call a royal fleet into his satrapy in order to make money in exchange for release (ἐκχρηματίσαιτο ἀφείς 8.87.3). Xenophon’s Socrates also mentions bad garrison commanders who “neglect their commands or make money from them” and are punished by the king (Xen. Oec. 4.7 ἢ καταμελοῦντας τῶν φρουραρχιῶν ἢ κατακερδαίνοντας). Both writers’ Greek is vague and colloquial, but in other armies leaders have let soldiers return home in exchange for a fee or for keeping their salary, charged for exempting them from unpleasant duties, sold things and recorded them as lost in action, assigned soldiers to work which makes money for the commander, or embezzled money meant for pay and supplies. These scams are documented in the armies of the past 500 years, but also in Roman documents and literature, and it would be very unlikely that the Achaemenids managed to prevent all of their officials from abusing their position in these ways.

Manning, Armed Force in the Teispid-Achaemenid Empire: Past Approaches, Future Prospects (2021) pp. 201, 202

In 1590, Sir John Smythe called wages for soldiers who had died or deserted but were still on the payroll “dead pays.” (See the J.R. Hale edition of his Discourses Military, not the expurgated text on Early English Texts Online).

We often want to put numbers on ancient armies or economies. But many times, nobody actually knew the strength of an army or how much of the king’s income was actually being spent on the king’s works. Augustus was notorious for keeping the details of the empire, such as the number and location of the legions and cohorts, to himself so senators could not ask awkward questions and governors could not size up their chances in a revolt. In the 17th century, the fate of the Anglo-Dutch Wars may have hinged on the chance that a certain Samuel Pepys got a sinecure in the British naval office and started actually doing his work and making sure that money was spent where it was supposed to be spent. Most Englishmen of his day would have just visited the office once a month or so while their subordinates stole everything but the dockyard walls. A king or city could be wealthier than its rival but less effective at turning that wealth into military power under a particular king. But by the nature of things embezzlement and fraud are hard to measure. Aaron Beek talks about this puzzle in a review of a book by Michael Taylor.

Cities and kings developed various strategies to prevent ghost soldiers from eating up all their money. One strategy was to push expenses on the soldiers themselves. If soldiers had to equip themselves, they would probably manage their money better than officials would manage an equipment allowance from the king. Greek and Roman soldiers before Augustus usually had to equip themselves with their personal equipment. If you gave soldiers land instead of pay, they would be responsible for getting an appropriate income out of it. Another strategy was to frequently gather the soldiers and sailors together and count them and their equipment. Xenophon describes Cyrus the Younger doing this. A third strategy was to pay for something which was easier to count. At one point the King’s governor decided to pay his Ionian allies a flat rate for every trireme. It was easier to count hulls than to count how many men were aboard them (and make sure that nobody claimed to be part of more than one crew or disappeared after the count was finished). In the 16th and 17th century, western Europeans often multiplied their best estimate of the number of soldiers by a standard multiple to get the baggage and ration allowance. (My MA thesis cites examples). This was not precise, but it was simpler than trying to trying to count all the different kinds of people and estimate their different needs. But the Iraqis and Afghans who figured out how to take money to pay people who did not exist were engaged in a very old scam.

Help pile this blog ever higher with a monthly donation on Patreon or or even liberapay

(scheduled 7 September 2021)

paypal logo
patreon logo

1 thought on “Ghost Soldiers

  1. Things I Don’t Know About the Russian Invasion of Ukraine – Book and Sword says:

    […] build up (the Russian army is a mix of conscripts and volunteer “contract soldiers”). Ghost soldiers on the roster were hidden. That meant BTGs were far greener. When these hit a city or made contact […]

Write a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.