Dojo Darelir, the School of Xenograg the Sorcerer

Tag: soldiers’ lot

Commercializing Armed Violence

June 2, 2022

Initially, the decay of primary group solidarity within the leading cities of Italy and of the town militias which were its military expression invited chaos. Armed adventurers, often originating from north of the Alps, coalesced under informally elected leaders and proceeded to live by blackmailing local authorities, or, when suitably large payments were not forthcoming, by plundering the countryside. Such “free companies” of soldiers became more formidable as the fourteenth century [C.E.] advanced. In 1354, the largest of these bands, numbering as many as 10,000 armed men, accompanied by about twice as many camp followers, wended its way across the most fertile parts of central Italy, making a living by sale and resale of whatever plunder the soldiers did not consume directly on the spot. Such a traveling company was, in effect, a migratory city, for cities, too, lived by extracting resources from the countryside through a combination of force or threat of force (rents and taxes) on the one hand and more or less free contractual exchanges (artisan goods for food and raw materials) on the other.

The spectacle of a wealthy countryside ravaged by wandering bands of plundering armed men was as old as organized warfare itself. What was new in this situation was the fact that enough money circulated in the richer Italian towns to make it possible for citizens to tax themselves and use the proceeds to buy the services of armed strangers. Then, simply by spending their pay, the hired soldiers put tax monies back in circulation. Thereby, they intensified the market exchanges that allowed such towns to commercialize armed violence in the first place. The emergent system thus tended to become self-sustaining. The only problem was to invent mutually acceptable contractual forms and practical means for enforcing contract terms.

From a taxpayer’s point of view, the desirability of substituting the certainty of taxes for the uncertainty of plunder depended on what one had to lose and how frequently plundering bands were likely to appear. In the course of the fourteenth century, enough citizens concluded that taxes were preferable to being plundered to make the commercialization of organized violence feasible in the richer and better-governed cities of northern Italy. Professionalized fighting men had precisely parallel motives for preferring a fixed rate of pay to the risks of living wholly on plunder. Moreover, as military contracts (Italian condotta, hence condottiere, contractor) developed, rules were introduced specifying the circumstances under which plundering was permissible. Thus, in becoming salaried, soldiering did not entirely lose its speculative economic dimension.

The Pursuit of Power, pp. 73-74

Emphasis mine.

A Wildly Unstable Environment

September 17, 2021

…[The] soldier’s view [on a battlefield] will also be much more complicated than the commander’s. The latter fights his battle in a comparatively stable environment—that of his headquarters, peopled by staff officers who will, because for efficiency’s sake they must, retain a rational calm; and he visualizes the events of and parties to the battle, again because for efficiency’s sake he must, in fairly abstract terms…. The soldier is vouchsafed no such well-ordered and clear-cut vision. Battle, for him, takes place in a wildly unstable physical and emotional environment; he may spend much of his time in combat as a mildly apprehensive spectator, granted, by some freak of events, a comparatively danger-free grandstand view of others fighting; then he may suddenly be able to see nothing but the clods on which he has flung himself for safety, there to crouch—he cannot anticipate—for minutes or for hours; he may feel in turn boredom, exultation, panic, anger, sorrow, bewilderment, even that sublime emotion we call courage….

John Keegan, The Face of Battle, p. 47

Emphasis mine.

The Despised Foot Soldier

May 1, 2008

Protected by plate armor and the pride of chivalry, the noble felt himself invulnerable and invincible and became increasingly contemptuous of the foot soldier. He believed that commoners, being excluded from chivalry, could never be relied upon in war. As grooms, baggage attendants, foragers, and road-builders—the equivalent of engineer corps—they were necessary, but as soldiers in leather jerkins armed with pikes and billhooks, they were considered an encumbrance who in a sharp fight would “melt away like snow in sunshine.” This was not simple snobbism but a reflection of experience in the absence of training. The Middle Ages had no equivalent of the Roman legion. Towns maintained trained bands of municipal police, but they tended to fill up their contingents for national defense with riff-raff good for nothing else. Abbeys had better use for their peasants than to employ their time in military drill. In any epoch the difference between a rabble and an army is training, which was not bestowed on foot soldiers called up by the arrière-ban. Despised as ineffective, they were ineffective because they were despised.

A Distant Mirror, p. 89

Emphasis mine.

In Every Army There is a Mob Waiting to Escape

March 7, 2003

It is common to assume that battles involving masses of men engaged in close combat were horrifically bloody; in fact, they were rarely so, at least as long as the units remained engaged. When the infantry was arrayed in close phalanx formation, only the first two ranks could actively engage in any fighting, and then not for very long. It has been estimated that the lines of the phalanx could remain engaged in actual combat for less than thirty minutes before exhaustion began to take its toll. Men in the front ranks would be quite fortunate to remain in contact for half that time before being overcome by exhaustion. Moreover, until the introduction of the Marian reforms in the Roman army (100 [B.C.E.]), no army had learned the technique of having its front ranks break contact, withdraw in good order through the other ranks, and be replaced with a fresh line of infantry. For the most part, stamina governed the tempo of the battle….

As long as the men within the phalanx held their ground and remained together, it was difficult for any significant killing to occur. Even the cavalry could not be decisive against infantry formations that held their ground. Cavalry charges were inherently unstable to begin with due to the absence of the stirrup, and horses would not throw themselves against a packed wall of humanity, especially if the spears of the formation were raised against them. Yet, in every army there is a mob waiting to escape, and its motivation is fear. The real killer on the ancient battlefield was fear. Men in combat have their instinctive flight or fight responses held in delicate balance by the thin string of intellect. Continued stress increases the probability that someone within the ranks will lose his nerve and run. Sometimes the actions of a single soldier are sufficient to forge the onset of panic in an entire unit. Once the integrity of the formation began to erode, the ancient soldier was at very great risk of death or injury.

From Sumer To Rome, pp. 83-84

Emphasis mine.

Disease, the Wild Card of History

March 7, 2003

Disease has to be counted as one of the wild cards of history, an unforeseen factor that can, in a matter of days or weeks, undo the deterministic sure thing or humble the conquering momentum. History is full of examples. There was the plague that ravaged Athens for more than a year and led to its capture and the dismantling of its empire in 404 [B.C.E.]. An outbreak of dysentery weakened the Prussian force invading France in 1792 [C.E.] and helped to convince their leaders to turn back after losing the battle of Valmy, thus saving the French Revolution. The ravages of typhus and dysentery are the hidden story of Napoleon’s calamity in Russia. The war-vectored influenza epidemic of 1918 [C.E.] may not have changed immediate outcomes, but how many potential reputations did we lose to it—people who might have made a difference to their generation? Bacteria and viruses may thus redirect vast impersonal forces in human societies, and they can also become forces in their own right.

Robert Cowley (editor), What If?, p. 2