Mercenaries and Military Virtue
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
This Essay began as a Preface for a David Drake novel, and was then
rewritten into a standalone essay in the anthology THERE WILL BE WAR, Tor
In Europe and especially in England, military history is a respected intellectual discipline. Not so here. I doubt there are a dozen U.S. academic posts devoted to the study of the military arts.
The public esteem of the profession of arms is at a rather low ebb just now--at least in the United States. The Soviet Union retains the pomp and ceremony of military glory, and the officer class is highly regarded, if not by the public (who can know the true feelings of Soviet citizens?) then at least by the rulers of the Kremlin. Nor did the intellectuals always despise soldiers in the United States. Many of the very universities which delight in making mock of uniforms were endowed by land grants and were founded in the expectation that they would train officers for the state militia. It has not been all that many years since US combat troops were routinely expected to wear uniform off post, and when my uniform was sufficient for free entry into movie houses, the New York Museum of Modern Art, the New York Ballet, and as I recall the Met (as well as other establishments catering to the less cultural needs of the soldier).
But now both the military and anyone who studies war are held in a good deal of contempt.
I do not expect this state of affairs to last--in fact, I am certain that it cannot. A nation which despises its soldiers will all too soon have a despicable army.
The depressing fact is that history is remarkably clear on one point: wealthy republics do not last long. Time after time they have risen to wealth and freedom; the citizens become wealthy and sophisticated; unwilling to volunteer to protect themselves, they go to conscription; this too becomes intolerable; and soon enough they turn to mercenaries.
Machiavelli understood that, and things have not much changed since his time--except that Americans know far less history than did the rulers of Florence and Milan and Venice.
For mercenaries are a dangerous necessity. If they are incompetent, they will ruin you. If they are competent there is always the temptation to rob the paymaster.
Why should they not? They know their employers will not fight. They may, if recruited into a national army, retain loyalty to the country--but if the nation despises them, and takes every possible opportunity to let them know it, then that incentive falls as well--and they have a monopoly on the means of violence. Their employers won’t fight--if they would, they needn’t have hired mercenaries.
The result is usually disastrous for the wealthy republic.
After all, it should be fairly clear that no one fights purely for money; that anyone who does is probably not worth hiring. As Montesquieu put it, “a rational army would run away.” To stand on the firing parapet and expose yourself to danger; to stand and fight a thousand miles from home when you’re all alone and outnumbered and probably beaten; to spit on your hands and lower the pike, to stand fast over the body of Leonidas the King, to be rear guard at Kunu-ri; to stand and be still to the Birkenhead drill; these are not rational acts.
They are often merely necessary.
Through history, through painful experience, military professionals have built up a specialized knowledge: how to induce men (including most especially themselves) to fight, aye, and to die. To charge the guns at Breed’s Hill and New Orleans, at Chippewa and at Cold Harbor; to climb the wall of the Embassy Compound at Peking; to go ashore at Betio and Saipan; to load and fire with precision and accuracy while the Bon Homme Richard is sinking; to fly in that thin air five miles above a hostile land and bring the ship straight and level for thirty seconds over Regensberg and Ploesti; to endure at Heartbreak Ridge and Porkchop Hill and the Iron Triangle and Dien Bien Phu and Hue and Firebase 34 and a thousand nameless hills and villages.
It’s a rather remarkable when you look closer and see just how many mercenary units have performed creditably, honorably, even gallantly; how many of those who have changed history on the battlefield have been professional soldiers. For despite the silly sayings about violence never settling anything, history IS changed on the battlefield: ask the National Socialist German Worker’s Party, the Continental Congress, the Carthaginians, the Israelis, the Confederate States of America, Pompey and Caesar and Richard III and Harold of Wessex, Don Juan of Austria and Aetius the last Roman. Yet you could search through the armies of history and you would find few competent troopers who fought for money and money alone.
This is the mistake so often made by those who despise the military, and because they despise it refuse to understand it: they fail to see that few are so foolish as to give their lives for money; yet an army whose soldiers are not willing to die is an army that wins few victories.
Yet certainly there have always existed mercenary soldiers.
We can piously hope there will be no armies in the future. It is an unlikely hope; at least history is against it. On the evidence, peace is a purely theoretical state of affairs whose existence we deduce because there have been intervals between wars. But I did not speak contemptuously when I spoke of pious hopes; nor do I find it an irony that the Strategic Air Command, whose commanders hold leashed more firepower than has been expended by all the armies of all time, has as its motto “Peace is our profession.” Most of those young men who guard us as we sleep believe in that, believe it wholeheartedly and give up a very great deal for it. I too can piously hope for peace; that we shall heed the advice of the carol we sing annually and “hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing.”
There is no physical reason why the human race should not endure for a hundred billion years; and on that scale our history is short, and all we have learned is little compared to what we shall one day know. There may well be a secret formula for peace, and certainly I hope we will find it.
But to hope is nothing. When Appius Claudius told the Senate of Rome that “If you would have peace, be thou then prepared for war” he said nothing that history has not repeatedly affirmed. It may be wrong advice. Certainly there is an argument against it. But I think there is no argument at all against a similar aphorism: “If you would have peace, then understand war.”
Which is to say, understand armies; understand why men fight; understand the organization of violence.
And that, at last, brings us to this book.
Military science fiction is a highly specialized art form. It is attempted often, but there are few writers who know science, society, and the military well enough to write a good story of war in the future.
This is unfortunate: although science fiction, like all literature, must entertain and divert if it is to have readers, it often has a serious purpose as well: to look at future societies, and the impact of technology on history. Any attempt to look in the future while ignoring war and the military is probably doomed to failure: if five thousand years of recorded history have given us no formula for controlling violence and greed, we would be fortunate indeed if this generation has fought the war to end all wars; if the armies that exist today were the last this planet will ever see.
The United States lost the Viet Nam War precisely because we attempted to fight it as if we were using Legionnaires, mercenary soldiers responsible only to the President and the Executive branch of the government. There was no declaration of war and no attempt to involve the American people. President Johnson was afraid that a declaration of war would take attention and funds away from his Great Society programs.
The result was disaster. The American people have always regarded the Army as their own; it belongs to the Congress, not to the President. The Constitution treats the Army differently from the Naval Forces; we might possibly have sent the Marines into Viet Nam without involving the population, but never the Army. It’s even doubtful about the Marines. In truth, the United States has no Legions, no professional soldiers of the Landsknecht tradition.
Even so, our army did well in Viet Nam. It never lost a battle, except with the American news media. Take the Tet Offensives as an example: only in Hue did we take heavy casualties, for only there did the enemy manage to take possession of any important real estate. By the time Tet ended, the Viet Cong was all but destroyed; it was one of the most decisive victories in history. Yet the new media insisted on portraying it as “tragedy” and defeat.
The truth is that the US Army won its battles; that the “counterinsurgency” actions were totally successful; and that the Viet Cong--the guerillas--were capable of making life miserable for the people of Viet Nam through their savage acts of terrorism; but the Republic of Viet Nam never fell to guerillas. It fell to four North Vietnamese Army Corps of regulars; to an invasion of armored divisions from the north; and to a lack of ammunition and supplies. The Republic of South Viet Nam fell to an invasion--and was defeated by the Congress of the United States, which deliberately refused to allow the President to enforce the Geneva accords.
In fact, though, we had lost much earlier than that. We lost in 1965, when we defeated the guerillas, but failed either to take North Viet Nam or to isolate the battlefield. We tried to defeat hornets by swatting them hornet at a time; a tactic that cannot possibly work. You must either burn the nest or retire behind window screens.
Either strategy would have been feasible. Given the later importance of the Chinese Alliance to the United States, it may be that a rampsdown invasion of North Viet Nam was politically undesirable; but certainly there would have been no great difficulty in building a barrier from the Mekong to the Sea, and, if necessary, extending the barrier further west. Any nation capable of building the Panama Canal in the early part of the century could build minefields, tank traps, barbed wire entanglements, military roads, watchtowers--an Asian equivalent of the Soviet Wall along the Czech--German border.
Yet we did not; and we have not yet seen the result of bringing home a defeated army.
As I write this, the Pentagon is studying the 1982 campaigns: the Falklands debacle, and the Israeli incursion into Lebanon. Two things stand out:
First, without high technology, you cannot wage successful war. You must have electronics and missiles, and they must work.
Second, without good soldiers; without leadership, and initiative, and steadfast devotion to duty; without what we once called professionalism and the military virtues; all the sophisticated equipment in the world cannot save you.
In other words, we learn from the latest wars what we might have learned from history.
History has never been kind to wealthy republics. We can hope we are an exception.