Modern

Posts on events in the last few hundred years

The Cult of Youth

Soccer players in Victoria, BC. Photo by Sean Manning, 19 August 2021

Reading Sir John Smythe and Harold Lamb and Martin van Creveld, I was struck by the fact that sometime in the 19th or 20th century, armies began to fetishize youth. A friend joined the Canadian Army Reserve at 17 and was carrying a rifle in Kandahar a year or two later, and when Martin van Creveld wants to show how Prussian supply officers were inadequate in 1848, he accuses them of being aged from 55 to 69 (Supplying War p. 78). My colleague Jolene McLeod has listed the modern authors who insist that Plutarch cannot be correct that Eumenes’ Silver Shields were all 60 years and older when they marched up to Antigonus’ phalanx and stabbed it to pieces in a few moments of blood and horror (Life of Eumenes 16.4). An American speaker calling for a reform of the relationship between their regular army and National Guard wanted the former to be “young” and focus on warfighting, while the older National Guard soldiers could focus on rebuilding and garrison duty. (It might have been this TED talk by Thomas Barnett but I don’t have energy to re-watch it).

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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
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Rationalists, Empiricists, Rhetoricians

since I am cranky on the Internet this week, how about this picture of a cat in an excavation? Just look at those eyes and that curly tail! Photo by Sean Manning, 19 August 2021.

natural-science types and engineers have completely different intellectual worldviews: the first are empiricists while the second are rationalists. As a biochemist, reading Less Wrong or Slate Star Codex has me screaming at my laptop; not a pretty sight.

rms, comment on “Lawyers Guns and Money” blog, 8 July 2020

C.P. Snow’s two cultures are very English and a bit old-fashioned. I come from a country where most people learn physics and chemistry for 10 to 12 years, and I know both calculus and Latin. This is not so unusual in North America, L. Sprague de Camp was an amateur classicist, a poet, and an aeronatical engineer. So this week, I would like to describe three intellectual cultures which I see.

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Some Thoughts on Rose Mary Sheldon’s “Ambush” (2012)

a neoclassical painting of the Trojan Horse from the cover of Rose Mary Sheldon's book "Ambush"
Rose Mary Sheldon, Ambush: Surprise Attack in Ancient Greek Warfare (Frontline Books: London, 2012) ISBN-13 978-1-84832-592-0 BookfinderBiblio

There is in all of us a repugnance, is there not, for hit-and-run tactics, for skirmishing and ambush? Does there not hide a feeling, however illogical and poorly thought-out, that direct assault between men who, in Brasidas’ words, “stay their ground” is somehow more “fair” and certainly more “noble” an opportunity to show a man’s true character and test it before his peers?

VDH, The Western Way of War (1989) pp. 13, 14

I know what manner of men you are in valour; what need have you to tell the tale of it? For if now all the best of you were being chosen beside the ships for an ambush, in which the valour of men is best discerned– there the coward comes to light and the man of valour, for the colour of the coward changes ever to another hue, nor is the spirit in his breast checked so that he sits still, but he shifts from knee to knee and rests on either foot, and his heart beats loudly in his breast and he imagines death, and his teeth chatter; but the colour of the brave man changes not, nor does he fear excessively when once he takes his place in the ambush of warriors, but he prays to mix immediately in woeful war- not even then, I say, would any man make light of your courage or the strength of your hands. For if you were struck by an arrow in the toil of battle, or struck with a thrust, not from behind in neck or back would the missile fall; but your chest would hit it or your belly, as you were pressing on into the dalliance of the foremost fighters.

Iliad 13.275-286 (cited for a different purpose in WWoW p. 96 / ch. 8)

Ambushes are murder and murder is fun!

Anglo infantry training chant, 1960s-present

In my first book, I said that ancient historians had not really addressed the broader problems with Hanson’s The Western Way of War in print for the general public (pp. 38 and 351 for those of you following along at home). They often share concerns in private, but in public they were much more comfortable talking about the estoerica of infantry combat than about the Greek exceptionalism and breezy generalizations about the orient which motivated Hanson’s book. John Lynn is a specialist in the wars of Louis XIV not Iphicrates or Cao Cao! But one ancient historian has in fact done that work. Rose Mary Sheldon wrote a book on ambushes in ancient Greek warfare and wrapped it in a plea to soldiers and policymakers that wishful thinking about the past will lead to terrible things in the future.

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We the People

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.

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I Love Giovanni dall’Agocchie

Marozzo’s version of coda longa stretta as restored and colourized by Heidi Zimmerman of Draupnir Press http://www.draupnirpress.com/CC/marozzosinglehandCC.html

About ten years ago, I discovered that I loved Giovanni dall’Agocchie’s fencing. It seems like people don’t talk very much about why they love the arts that they do. Online I see more accusations that the old masters taught something impractical or complaints that someone today is WRONG IN THE SALLE. So this week, I would like to talk about his gentle and humane approach to the art of defense.

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Where do Misconceptions About Medieval Swords Come From?

Most misconceptions about ancient Greek and Near Eastern swords come from peer-reviewed books by professional researchers who never opened a site report or spent time really seeing what was behind glass in museums. But the people who really like medieval swords are worried about misinformation too, and they blame some different culprits. Recently, several of them have given talks or written essays where they blame the same three sources. Because their comments are mixed up with other things or scattered across different places, this week I have gathered them together.

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The Nirvana Fallacy in Castle Studies

a keep and church on a foothill over a town in the valley on a foggy day, September 2020
A tower house of unusual size over the old silver-mining town of Schwaz, Tirol.

All kinds of historians commit fallacies, but I often read work in the field of castle studies which commits a specific one. It goes like this: “if a site’s defenses (as visible in the archaeological record) were imperfect, the defenses (which actually existed) were useless and merely for show.” This is related to false dilemmas, the Nirvana Fallacy, and “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” It is linked to the fashion among some Anglo intellectuals for declaring that human life is really governed by arbitrary social conventions and nothing so coarse as contact with the external physical world.

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