Armies, Mobs, and Peoples
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Categories: Ancient, Modern, Not an expert

Armies, Mobs, and Peoples

a group of men in green uniforms with a speaker in front looking at the camera with one hand in his pocket
The spokesman of a committee of conscripts (mobiks) in Svetly, Omsk, Russia (a town on the Trans-Siberian Railroad)

In my post we the people I pointed out that until the First World War, “the people” normally means free men who can act politically and militarily. It excluded women, children, the poor, and those who were denied political rights such as resident aliens and serfs. On 5 October the Russian media organization TASS showed a remarkable video:

Funds for payments to the mobilized are not enough, admitted authorities in the Omsk region. The authorities of the region agreed with the military registration and enlistment offices to give time to those mobilized to re-register the business (without specifying to whom), TASS reports. The authorities’ statement is related to the public appeal of the mobilized residents of the Omsk region, who complained about the lack of lump-sum payments.

You can find a version of the soldier’s speech with English subtitles on YouTube (I do not know the channel which hosts it, so danger danger Will Robinson!)

If I understand correctly, this video shows a committee of soldiers demanding that the regional government honour its promises to pay their wives and children an allowance so they can eat. I might be wrong, or this video might be a fake, but this week I want to say the same thing I said in that post another way.

Conservatives like the late Sir John Keegan solemnly declare that inside every army is a mob waiting to come out. We have seen what these types of army look like in the wars in Ukraine, Ethiopia, and Iraq, and how the army-as-mob cannot fight, but can kill, abuse, and destroy anyone weak who falls into its hands. An army can become a mob. But it can also become a self-governing people. Any worldly person in the 19th century could list examples.

During the Ionian War, the city of Athens was taken over by a reactionary clique. A large force of Athenian soldiers and sailors were overseas fighting, and when they heard the news they decided that they had just as good a claim to be the people of Athens as the people in Athens. For the next few years there were two Athenian peoples challenging each other’s authority. Since only the people who were present at a central place could vote, an army could do it just as well as a city (and decisions in the city excluded soldiers and sailors overseas).

After making peace with the winner in the civil war between Cyrus the Younger and Artaxerxes, Cyrus’ Greek soldiers kept robbing the people they passed. When Artaxerxes had their generals arrested, the soldiers organized themselves, chose new leaders, and fought their way back to the Aegean. Xenophon wanted them to stop along the way and settle along the shore of the Black Sea, but he was over-ruled. The Ten Thousand soldiers were from many different cities and villages, but they still came together and organized themselves.

During the Golden Age of Piracy (c. 1650-1730), most pirate crews governed themselves. They signed contacts agreeing on shares, duties, and compensation in case of injury. They chose a captain who had power when and only when prey or a warship was in sight. Most pirates came from Europe at a particularly backwards and savage time in its history, when the people who actually did the work were plagued by thugs with titles and wages were as low as they have been in recorded history. They came from the poorest, most marginalized parts of their countries. But they still found a way to govern themselves because each contributed one musket and one life to the cause. I suspect that something very much like this happened in the fifth century CE as the Roman empire fell apart and armies became wandering nations.

The case of the Czechoslovak Legion which fought its way from Ukraine to Vladivostok after the Bolsheviks seized power might also be worth studying.

So inside every army is a mob waiting to get out. But inside every army is a people-in-arms ready to decide where to wander, who to enlist with, or who to rob. Soldiers on different sides of a war often find they have more in common with each other than with civilians at home. Its hard for us to envision this because our armies grew out of the absolutist states of the 18th century and the nationalism of the 19th century. We have all kinds of rules and structures to keep small professional armies obedient to the rest of society, and not the other way around. Wandering armies are not any kinder to the people around them than states are to neighbouring states. But if the people in charge lose control, an army can become either a mob or a nation.

I do not think the Russian government will be overthrown by workers’ and soldiers’ councils. But when he launched this foolish war, Putin put who has power and how it is divided on the table. The dice or cards will decide who has that power at the end of the war.

Further Reading: You can find names which touch on what I am talking about, such as ‘pirate democracy’ and ‘stationary bandit theory.’ I welcome suggestions as to where political scientists, sociologists, and anthropologists talk about it!

(scheduled 5 October 2022)

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1 thought on “Armies, Mobs, and Peoples

  1. russell1200 says:

    Neil Price in his “Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings A History of the Vikings” discusses all sorts of aspects about the Vikings. One very good point he makes is how Viking temporary settlements, raiding expeditions, etc., are very similar to how the later independent Pirates in the Caribbean would organize. Both the Pirates and Vikings were capable of exceptionally large groupings that could take on what looked a lot like a military expedition, and both seemed to win more often than they lost.

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