Military history

Interlude 3

Clausewitz was unable to recognise an alternative military tradition in the Cossacks’ style of warmaking because he could recognise as rational and worthwhile only one form of military organisation: the paid and disciplined forces of the bureaucratic state. He could not see that other forms might equally well serve their societies, and well defend them — or extend their power, if that was their ethos. The gunpowder armies that he knew were, of course, irresistible by the undrilled, and even by weaker versions of themselves. He could not foresee the stalemate they would impose on each other as they multiplied their firepower during the next century in pursuit of those battlefield victories he laid down it was their purpose to achieve; nor could he foresee that, for example, ‘the Chinese Way of Warfare’ would, in the twentieth century, inflict on Western armies and their commanders, schooled in his teachings, a painful and long-drawn-out humiliation.

Yet Clausewitz had under his eyes examples of military organisation, each rational in its own terms, which differed markedly from the regimental order in which he had trained and served. That of the Cossacks was one; another was that of the opolchenie, the militia of serfs raised by the Russian landowners to harry Napoleon’s retreat. Inadvertently, he admitted the part the opolchenie played in driving the Grand Army’s soldiers to their fate when he noted the ‘armed people around them’.1 He himself was an ardent exponent of the militia principle when it came to freeing Prussia; his Essential Points on the Formation of a Defence Force (January 1813) formed the basis for the raising of the national Landwehr, a conscript force. Equally important were the volunteer JägerandFreischützen units, formed by romantic young patriots eager to wage irregular warfare against the French. Elsewhere in the great mobilisation of peoples that the Napoleonic wars had brought about, Clausewitz would have known a whole variety of allies and auxiliaries, enlisted directly as emigrés, who might have joined for national reasons but more often because they were lost and hungry, or loaned, willingly or unwillingly, as formed units by their home states to the Emperor.2 The best of them were the Swiss regiments, which were transferred under the capitulation arrangements by which the Swiss made a living as mercenaries in many armies of the ancien régime; excellent also were the Polish lancers, whose origins lay in the feudal cavalry of their ancient kingdom. Many excellent regiments were the playthings or personal bodyguards of minor German princes whose independence Napoleon had extinguished. (An officer of one of them, Captain Franz Roeder of the Lifeguard of the Grand Duke of Hesse — in his dabblings with Ossian and Goethe and his Philhellene daydreams by no means untypical of the sort of young German of his time who thought soldiering an occupation for gentlemen — has left us one of the very best memoirs of the retreat from Moscow.)3 The French garrison of Prussia also included regiments of Croat military colonists from the Habsburg Military Frontier with the Turks, who were in fact refugee Serbs from the Ottoman lands, while the Imperial Guard contained a squadron of Lithuanian Tartars, recruited from Turkic remnants of the Golden Horde. The unit most illustrative of the transformations a military organisation might undergo in a single existence was the Bataillon de Neufchâtel. Raised in the Swiss canton of which Napoleon had made his chief of staff, Marshal Berthier, prince and sovereign duke, it survived Napoleon’s fall to be taken into Prussian service, eventually to become the Gardeschützenbataillon of the Kaiser’s Imperial Guard and so in 1919 to yield some of the recruits for the Freikorps, the levies of ex-soldiers with which right-wing generals and Social Democrat politicians put down the ‘Red Revolution’ in Berlin. As it was among the Freikorps veterans that Hitler found the nucleus of the Nazi party’s strongarm units, it is not fanciful to trace a descent from the paintbox little army of Berthier’s principality to the praetorians of the Waffen SS panzer divisions.4

Bodyguards, regulars, feudatories, mercenaries, military colonists, conscripts, serf militias, remnants of warrior tribes from the steppe — to say nothing of the Frenchmen of the Grand Army itself, some of whom had entered service as the citizen-soldiers of the Revolution whose irresistible élan had first fired Clausewitz with his vision of ‘war as the continuation of politics’ — can we impose any order on this medley? To a drillmaster they may have looked merely like soldiers, some good for the hardest tasks, some useful in the special duties of skirmishing or reconnaissance, some scarcely worth their pay, some a danger to their friends and a menace to all peaceful citizens. In the variety one can find much material to illustrate the interrelationship between military and social forms. What theories explain the variety?

Military sociologists take as their premise the proposition that any system of military organisation expresses the social order from which it springs — and that this holds true even when the bulk of a population is held in thrall by an alien military hierarchy, of the sort that dominated Norman England or Manchu China, for example. The most elaborate of these theories is the work of the Anglo-Polish sociologist Stanislav Andreski — significantly the son of a military emigré — who is best known for having suggested the universal existence of a Military Participation Ratio (MPR) by which, when other factors are taken into account, the degree to which a society is militarised may be measured.5 Unfortunately Professor Andreski’s work is not ‘accessible’ — now, alas, an adjective of contempt in the academic world, where ‘accessibility’ is confused with shallowness — to the general reader, since he has invented an elaborate vocabulary of new-coined words to define his terms. To offset that, he otherwise writes with clarity and panache, while he takes no moral position about his findings: though he clearly prefers to live in a society with a low MPR, where the armed forces are subject to the rule of law, he is refreshingly free of the delusion that military dictatorships can be abolished by writing articles in journals of political science. Indeed, if anything, he takes a pessimistic, Hobbesian view of human nature, holding that struggle is a natural condition of existence and, like Dr Johnson, that ‘no two people can be half an hour together, but one shall acquire an evident superiority over the other’.

Andreski begins with Malthus, the father of population theory, who argued that, since populations increase geometrically, but food and living space do not, life can only be made tolerable if births are limited or if deaths are hastened by disease or violence. He thinks this is the origin of warmaking (had he written after the publication of McNeill’s Plagues and Peoples, which argues that imported diseases are more lethal than fighting, he might not have been so sure).6 In primitive societies, he suggests, strong men limit birth rates by appropriating the women of the weak; but as the upper stratum’s birth rate increases, it must either extrude the surplus into the lower, which it continues to limit in size by violence, or else carry violence into the territory of neighbours. By either means a military class, dominant in its own society or conquering over another, is created. Its relative size — the Military Participation Ratio (MPR) — will then be determined by its success, after having satisfied its own — potentially extortionate — needs of consumption and ownership, in accommodating those of the lower strata.7 In victorious tribes, which subdue their surrounding neighbours, all fit males may be warriors; in economically benevolent conditions, where the ruling stratum can provide for an expanding population from trade, industry or intensive agriculture, the armed forces will shrink to the size merely necessary to defend the people’s good fortune, and something we call democracy may even emerge to disguise the realities of power. It is, however, between these two extremes of MPR, he says, that most social systems lie. Their exact nature will then depend on two other factors: the degree to which the rulers find it necessary or are able to exert control over the ruled — what Andreski callssubordination; and the degree to which those who possess military skills and equipment are united among themselves — cohesion.8

To give some of his examples: the Trek Boers, who left the region of British rule in South Africa at the beginning of the nineteenth century to find free land and hold it against attack by the local Africans, formed a society characterised by high MPR — every man was a mounted shot — low subordination, because the republics they founded were almost without government, and low cohesion, since the patriarchal family remained the unit of loyalty. The Cossacks, on the other hand, had an equally high MPR, low subordination — since leaders had few means to enforce their will — but high cohesion, because the dangers of steppe life held the bands together. More common forms have been low MPR, low cohesion, low subordination — such as the knightly societies of medieval Europe in the long periods of weak monarchical rule — or high MPR, high subordination and high cohesion, which describe the militarised industrial societies of the two world wars.

Andreski’s brief book takes the breath away by its boldness and sweep. In a series of intricate but apparently logical steps, he leads the reader to accept that there can be only six forms of military organisation and then, by a whirlwind gallop through world history, musters every known society, from the most primitive tribes to the most affluent democracies, within one or another. It is only when the reader has come up for air that doubt supervenes. In a general way, Andreski’s scheme looks too mechanistic: though contemptuous of Marx — ‘purely economic factors produce, no doubt, fluctuations in the height of stratification, but … the long-term trends are determined by the shifts of the locus of military power’ — his analysis is brutally dialectic.9 More particularly, if the reader has any precise knowledge of the societies Andreski so peremptorily dragoons, the fit between them and his categories looks less exact. For example: the Boers may appear to have lacked cohesion, and they were and remain a stiff-necked and quarrelsome lot, but no one who has fought them doubts that, what their laws lack, the power of the Dutch Reformed Church supplies; they have a biblical, not political, cohesion. Again, Cossack insubordination had its limits: expulsion from the band, at the dictate of elders or comrades, exposed the misfit to a dangerous isolation.10 Andreski, moreover, accords little importance to what fellow sociologists call ‘value systems’. Though he concedes that ‘magico-religious beliefs [provided] the earliest foundations of social inequalities’, he then drops the subject.11 He takes no account of the deprecation of violence we have noted among some primitive tribes — which attempt to control it through ritual combat — or among monotheistic creeds, such as Islam, which was forced to create a social order of slaves in order to square the demands of power with those of religion, or in Chinese civilisation, which heroically persisted in the belief, however often deflected from it, that ‘the superior man’, by which was meant the ideal ruler, ‘should be able to attain his ends without violence’.

It seems more profitable to proceed by a different method: to accept that there are a limited number of forms which military organisation has taken, and that there is indeed an intimate relationship between a particular form and the social and political order to which it belongs, but that what determines the relationship may be exceedingly complex. Tradition, for example, plays a preponderant role. Andreski admits that ‘an egalitarian society where all men bear arms may resist the introduction of more efficient methods which make universal military service useless’.12 It is more usual, if we take only the samurai and the Mamelukes as examples, for exclusive military minorities to cling to antique skills-at-arms, which they may do quite irrationally for hundreds of years. Such minorities — termed by sociologists ‘élites’, but incorrectly, since they are chosen only by themselves — may on the other hand pursue a relentless and extravagant policy of innovation; thus the officers of the Victorian Royal Navy, once they had accepted the steam ironclad, declared new models obsolete at ever narrower intervals, until warship-building became one of the most contested issues in British budgetary politics.13

Their ‘navalism’ reflected Britain’s geographical circumstances: as a rich island it needed to defend itself against invasion, and as the seat of a maritime empire it needed to protect its trade and overseas possessions. Geography, however, is a universal influence on military forms, which only intermittently is Andreski prepared to recognise: thus he has spotted that it was Egypt’s peculiar isolation that retarded its transition from stone to metal weapon technology and spared it the burden of maintaining a standing army until late in its civilised life. He seems to have missed, however, that it was Europe’s exposure to irruption from the steppe — or later from Viking sea raids — that gave the knightly class so much of its power, that the unchanging steppe habitat made the nomads, once they had bred a man-carrying horse, what they were, that land hunger called the Scandinavians from their narrow coastal fields to go ‘Aviking’ or that it was the absence of any other secure natural harbour in the Adriatic that allowed Venice — a military power that interests him — to dominate that sea and then extend its commercial tentacles as far away as Crete and the Crimea.14

Above all, he discounts the allure that the warrior life exerts over the male imagination. This is a failing common among academics who interest themselves in military affairs but never leave their university surroundings. As those who know soldiers as members of a military society recognise, such a society has a culture of its own akin to but different from the larger culture to which it belongs, operating by a different system of punishments and rewards — the punishments more peremptory, the rewards less monetary, often, indeed, purely symbolic or emotional — but deeply satisfying to its adherents. I am tempted, after a lifetime’s acquaintance with the British army, to argue that some men can be nothing but soldiers. The feminine parallel is with the stage: some women are fulfilled only theatrically — as prima donna, diva, icon of the photographer or couturier — yet, through that fulfilment, embody a universal ideal of femininity that earns the adulation of women and men alike. Such adulation is not enjoyed by male actors, however much admired; a stage hero merely simulates the running of risks. The warrior hero is admired by both sexes for running real risks; but the man of soldierly temperament — how blinkered social scientists are to the importance of temperament — will run risks whether admired by the outside world or not. It is the admiration of other soldiers that satisfies him — if he can win it; most soldiers are satisfied merely by the company of others, by a shared contempt for a softer world, by the liberation from narrow materiality brought by the camp and the line of march, by the rough comforts of the bivouac, by competition in endurance, by the prospect of le répos du guerrier among their waiting womenfolk.

The intoxication of the warpath helps to explain to us the ethos of the primitive warrior. Success on the warpath explains also why some primitives became warrior peoples. The rewards of success — if not outright conquest, the appropriation of territory and the subjection of outsiders, then booty or at least the right to trade on dictated terms — are enough in themselves to validate a rejection of settled ways. Yet it is important not to exaggerate the drives to the warrior life. As we have seen, many primitives strove to contain the impulse to violence, while even the most ferocious peoples ascended their pyramids of skulls in the more tentative footsteps of others; Tamerlane could not have become what he did had not earlier horse peoples tested the limits of civilisation’s powers of resistance. Warrior peoples, moreover, have always been a minority among all peoples, whatever the allure — so much overlooked by the bellicose Anglo-Saxons, who prefer to regard themselves as donors to others of parliamentary institutions — of possessing a name that inspires awe; while warriors always form an absolute minority within populations which have passed beyond the primitive stage. There is what sociologists call a countervailing tendency in human nature, which opposes resort to violence. Aldous Huxley said that an intellectual was a person who had discovered something more interesting than sex. A civilised man, it might be said, is someone who has discovered something more satisfying than combat. Once man moved beyond the primitive, the proportion of those who preferred, to fighting, something else — tilling the soil, making or selling things, building, teaching, thinking or communing with the other world — increased as fast as the resources of the economy would stand. One must not idealise; the least fortunate found themselves bound to service or even servitude, while the privileged, as Andreski robustly points out, always rested their position on the power of arms, borne by themselves or loyal subordinates. Post-primitive man, however, did accord a particular value to the unviolent life, exemplified by that of the artist, scholar and, above all, holy man and woman. It was for that reason that the atrocities of the Vikings in particular, despoilers of monasteries and convents, aroused such disgust in the Christian world; even Tamerlane, who had respectfully received the great Arab scholar, Ibn Khaldun, did not descend to their bloody level.15

To modulate Andreski’s analysis, therefore: let us concede the prevalence of warmaking in the primitive world — while making allowance for the existence of peoples who scarcely knew warfare, and for the attempts to moderate it by ritual and ceremony among those who did — and proceed forthwith to the post-primitive world. Our survey of military history so far reveals six main forms that military organisation may take: warrior, mercenary, slave, regular, conscript and militia. It is purely coincidental that Andreski also believes in the existence of six forms, which he calls homoic, masaic, mortasic, neferic, ritterian and tellenic (all neologisms), since few of the categories match. The warrior category is self-explanatory, but I use it to include such groups as the samurai and the Western knightly class, the nucleus of which may almost always be identified as the remnant of a warrior tribe, alien or native; warrior cults, like the original Muslims and the Sikhs, and self-made warrior polities, like the Zulu or Ashanti, include themselves. Mercenaries are those who sell military service for money — though also for such inducements as grants of land, admission to citizenship (offered by both the Roman army and the French Foreign Legion) or preferential treatment. Regulars are mercenaries who already enjoy citizenship or its equivalent but choose military service as a means of subsistence; in affluent states, regular service may take on some of the attributes of a profession. We have already examined the slave system. The militia principle lays the duty of performing military service upon all fit male citizens; failure or refusal to do duty usually entails loss of citizenship. Conscription is a tax levied upon a male resident’s time at a certain age of life, though to citizens payment of such a tax is also usually represented as a civic duty; selective conscription, especially if for long periods of service to an unrepresentative government — twenty years was the term in Russia before the emancipation of the serfs — is difficult to differentiate from the slave system.

How warrior societies came into being does not require elaboration, nor do we need to examine how warrior groups acquired or perpetuated their power over non-warriors. Typically they monopolised the use of an expensive weapons system — as the chariot conquerors did — or perfected a difficult skill-at-arms, which was the reason for the horse peoples’ long reign of terror. It is the transitions to the alternative forms which have a more complex rationale. That such transitions are necessary if a society is to evolve is self-evident, since warrior governments tend to be intensely conservative. They, like the samurai, Manchu and Mamelukes, fear to tamper with anything in the system they control, lest in so doing they bring the whole edifice down. As we have seen, however, obsolete military systems cannot resist change in perpetuity; when change comes, however, the new rulers — who may be the enlightened survivors of the old warrior order — confront two central problems. One is how to pay for the new military system. The other is how to assure the loyalty of those who belong to it. The two are intimately connected. Warriordom supports itself by direct exaction, either on the rest of society or on outsiders; hence the horse peoples’ obsessions with taking booty or tribute or demanding the right to trade on dictated terms. Once the military specialism is devolved away from the direct centre of power — which is the beginning of warriordom’s dilution — an intermediate method of rewarding soldiers has to be found. Genghis was scrupulous in seeing that all booty was centrally collected and equally distributed.16 Even in his own lifetime, however’, as the empire expanded, he was obliged to grant local powers to trusted subordinates and soon after his death such men acquired the right to tax as well as to rule. Genghis’s tax-collectors had brought the revenues to a central treasury; that was an important reason why the Mongol army remained so formidable in his lifetime. In the time of his grandsons, a sort of feudalism had begun to emerge and with it the decline of Mongol power.

Feudalism is a common stage in the transition of warrior societies to other forms. It appeared in two principal varieties. One, which characterised its rise in the West, was the grant of land to military subordinates, on condition that they supported on it the appropriate military force to be brought into the sovereign’s service when required, but carrying with it the right to bequeath the land, under the same conditions, to the feudatory’s descendants. The other, more common outside Europe, was that of the non-hereditary fief, which could be taken back into the sovereign’s hands at his dictate; it was prevalent in the Islamic world as the iqta system, and was much used by the Seljuks, Ayyubids and Ottomans. Both had their disadvantages. The iqta, because it was non-hereditary, encouraged the holder to enrich himself while the going was good; his taxpayers were exploited and his military obligation skimped.17 Feudal vassals in the West, on the other hand, though they had an interest in the good management of their fiefs, since one might be passed on to a son, had an equally strong interest in improving a fiefs military value. A vassal thereby strengthened his position in any dispute over rights or duties with his sovereign; by taking on vassals of his own and building castles, he might hope eventually to raise his house, in fact if not law, to sovereign status itself. Such was to be the history of much of western Europe between the division of the Carolingian empire in the ninth century and the coming of the gunpowder kings in the sixteenth.

Feudalism in whatever form was therefore a blind alley in the move away from warriordom. A much more effective system was the regular. It first appeared, surprisingly early, in Sumer and was brought to a scarcely improvable form by the Assyrians. The Assyrian army, as we have seen, included contingents of all the varieties of soldier then available, including, besides infantry, charioteers, mounted archers, engineers and waggoners. Its core, however, was the royal bodyguard, in which the origins of regular service may lie. The army of Sumer was probably first a royal bodyguard, around which other units congregated as need arose, and such ‘nearest guards’ were to persist thereafter in every state where power was personalised, however symbolically and however representative the basis of government, even down to our own times.

Bodyguards nevertheless were to follow a line of separate and sometimes divergent development from those of other regular forces. Those of rulers who set up fixed places of residence tended to become sedentary themselves, often to lose their warlike functions and sometimes to become kingmakers; rulers in consequence frequently recruited their bodyguards abroad, from warrior peoples who did not know a language in which to conspire with native malcontents. An example that readily suggests itself is that of the Varangian guard of the Byzantine emperors, originally formed of Swedes and Norwegians who had followed the trade routes of the ‘Rus’ down the great Russian rivers to Constantinople, but after 1066 largely of emigré Anglo-Saxons. They developed a patois of their own and have left their most celebrated memorial in the runes carved on the Lion of St Mark, exported as booty from the Piraeus after its capture from the Turks by Francesco Morosini in 1668, which now stands outside the Arsenal at Venice.18 Other famous foreign guards were the Scottish Archers of the French kings, the Arab Guard of Frederick II Hohenstaufen (General Franco raised a Moorish Guard from the Moroccan regulares who did so much to win the Spanish Civil War of 1936–9), and the Swiss guards of several European sovereigns, including, of course, the popes. It is a little advertised function of the modern Special Air Service (SAS) Regiment to provide bodyguards to foreign rulers the British government has an interest in keeping in power.19

Such bodyguards, but also those recruited from a ruler’s subjects which became sedentary in a capital, regularly tended to fossilise, often in a grotesque form: the British Yeomen of the Guard and the Papal Swiss Guard exhibit the trait, as did the vanished Bavarian Trabanters, who carried battleaxes into the nineteenth century. Some monarchs actually raised archaic guard units to exaggerate the length of their lineage, as the Hohenzollerns did with the Schlossgardekompagnie, which attended the last Kaiser dressed as if for the court of Frederick the Great. Not unnaturally, well-born young men of spirit turned their noses up at such service. They preferred to show their loyalty to a ruler in a ‘nearest guard’ that closed with the enemy. Some bodyguards thereby survived as fighting-units and many others were raised on the same model: the Prussian and Russian — Preobajensky, Semenovsky — regiments of footguards belonged to that tradition, as the British still do.

The loyalty of such units — that of the Gardes françaises in 1789 after it had been rotted by overlong residence in Paris was an exception — rarely fell into doubt. The difficulty remained, however, of how to pay for such forces, and was even more acute in the case of the regulars of the ordinary field army. It is a central element of the contract between ruler and regulars that they are fed, housed and paid in peace as well as war. Rich states with an efficient taxing power may succeed in doing so for long periods; if militarily over-ambitious they may nevertheless overtax their inhabitants, while it is frequently the case that the attempt to reduce the size of an expanded regular force at the end of a long war drives it to mutiny, as the Irish Free State found in 1923. It is therefore a temptation, particularly felt by rich states of small population, to sidestep the burden of supporting a regular army and, instead, to buy in military services as needed. That is the basis of the mercenary system. It is not the only basis; historically, many states have supplemented their forces by hiring mercenaries, often on long-term contracts, with results perfectly satisfactory to both parties, as the former relationship between the French and the Swiss, and that current between the British and the Gurkhas of Nepal, demonstrates. It is also possible to buy into a well regulated mercenary market, to which hirelings return after the expiry of their term of service; such a market existed at Cape Taenarum in the Peloponnese during the fourth century BC, supplied by landless soldiers thrown out of work after the city-state wars of the previous century, and it worked perfectly well as long as the demand for military professionals held up in Persia and then the Hellenised East.20 Alexander the Great employed some 50,000 Greek mercenaries in 329, many recruited by the market system.

The danger inherent in the resort to mercenaries is that the funds necessary to support them may dry up before the contract reaches its agreed term, or that a war goes on longer than expected, with the same result, or that, if a state has been so miserly, complacent or supine as to depend exclusively on hired soldiers, the mercenaries come to see that they constitute the effective power within it. That, of course, was the issue in several Italian city states of the fifteenth century, where citizens had become too mercantile to do duty themselves but were too mean to pay for a standing force. In such circumstances it is their employers rather than the enemy that mercenaries confront with threat: they take sides in internal quarrels, they strike or blackmail for outstanding or extra pay, they may even go over to the enemy; at the very worst they seize power for themselves, as the condottieri Pandolfo Malatesta, Ottobuono Terzo and Gabrino Fondulo did, respectively, in Brescia, Cremona and Parma.21

Some earlier city states, as if they had foreseen the dangers of reliance on mercenary hire, though that was not the reason, chose an alternative method of providing for their defence: they made it a condition of citizenship that all free men of property should purchase arms, train for war and do duty in time of danger. This was the militia system. It may take other forms. The term is loosely applied to the levies of peasants raised by sedentary states of many kinds, including the Chinese and Russian empires, over long periods of history; it also includes the fyrd of Anglo-Saxon England and its equivalents in continental Europe, which were based on the principle, later known as the jus sequellae or Heerfolge, that free men must bear arms. It had been brought from Germany by the barbarian invaders, was carried on by the kingdoms which succeeded to Roman rule and remained in force until, in the military crises of the ninth and tenth centuries, it was overtaken in importance by the summons (ban) to the horse-keeping vassals. In remote regions with weak aristocracies, such as Switzerland and the Tyrol, it survived much longer; indeed, in Switzerland it survives to this day.

Yet it is not with the barbarian but the classical world that we associate the militia idea; with the phalanxes of Greek farmer-citizens who fought each other in their small states’ quarrels, but who might combine against a common danger, such as that offered by the Persian empire in the sixth and fifth centuries BC. It is tempting to imagine that the Germans and the Greeks derived their idea of the freeman’s military duty from a common source, even more tempting to propose that the Greeks’ principal contribution to warmaking — that of the pitched battle, fought on foot at a fixed site until one side or the other conceded defeat — made its way back to the Germans, via Rome, in barbarian times. The evidence, however, may not stand such a weight of supposition. What does seem certain is that Rome, in pre-republican years, imported its tactics from the Greeks and that the Roman army of the Servian Constitution, from which that of the Caesars descended, therefore had its origins in phalanx warfare.22 Politically and culturally thereafter Greece and Rome were to diverge. Rome’s farmer-soldiers would progressively yield place to paid professionals, as it set its course for empire. The Greek ‘genius for discord’ would preserve the individual city militias, thus ensuring that a stronger power, that of the semi-barbarian Macedonians, would eventually do them all down. Nevertheless, as with so much else that was Greek, the militia idea would survive. With the rediscovery of classical learning in Renaissance Europe, it came to seem as good as that of the rule of law or civic pride, with both of which it was of course intimately connected. Machiavelli, whose political thought was rooted in the perception that sovereignty derives from arms, did not merely write books on the subject; he actually drafted the Florentine militia law (the Ordinanza of 1505) which was intended to liberate his city from the mercenary scourge.23

There was, however, a military defect in the militia system. Because it laid duty on the property-owning alone, it thereby limited the number of men a state could put into the field to a number lower than that of all its able-bodied male residents. The Greeks accepted that limitation for two reasons; the first was that it solved the besetting problem of how to pay for the army, since the soldiers in effect paid for themselves; the second was that it ensured the army’s reliability: the property test united those who passed it, whatever their political differences, against all who did not, the landless and the enslaved, who as non-citizens were not allowed to bear arms. When emergency struck, however, such élitism could prove a crippling disadvantage, as the Spartans — who took to extremes the principle of exclusivity — found in the war with Thebes in the fourth century BC.

Conscription is not exclusive; by definition, it includes all who can march and fight, irrespective of wealth or political rights. For that reason it has never recommended itself to regimes which feared armed subjects might take power, nor to those which found difficulty in raising funds. Conscription is for rich states which offer rights — or at least the appearance of rights — to all. The first state to meet those conditions in full was the First French Republic. Some others — Frederick the Great’s Prussia, for example — had imposed something like conscription before, but it had worked only by using the regular part of the army to recruit the rest. In August 1793, the French Republic declared that until the moment ‘when enemies have been driven from the Republic’s territory, all Frenchmen are permanently requisitioned for the service of the armies’; a former property test, which limited duty only to ‘active citizens’, had already been abolished.24 Henceforth all Frenchmen might be soldiers and by September 1794 the Republic had 1,169,000 under arms, a size of force never before seen in Europe.

The whirlwind successes of the Revolutionary armies designated conscription as the military system of the future; they were, after all, what prompted Clausewitz to argue that ‘war was the continuation of politics’; the grave drawbacks of the system — that it militarised society and entailed enormous costs — went unforeseen or were disguised. The Revolutionary armies paid for themselves for long periods by loot (Bonaparte’s Army of Italy, at the time when the Republic’s paper notes had driven coin out of circulation, became its principal source of hard currency); the other European governments that adopted conscription from the mid-nineteenth century onward concealed from themselves the financial burden by paying conscripts less than pocket money.

It is in that sense that conscription may be seen as a form of tax. Like all taxes, however, it had ultimately to make a beneficial return to those who paid. In France the benefit was citizenship for all who served. The monarchical governments that adopted it during the nineteenth century could not concede that weakening of their power. They offered the exhilarations of nationalism as a substitute, in the German states with great success. Nevertheless, the French idea that only the armed man enjoyed full citizenship had taken root, and rapidly became transmuted into the belief that civic freedoms were both the right and the mark of those who bore arms. Thus in some states where civic freedoms were already enjoyed but conscription was not imposed, such as Britain and the United States, there arose in mid-century the odd phenomenon of citizens foisting themselves on governments as volunteer soldiers; and in those struggling to resist the growth of representative institutions while imposing conscription, particularly Prussia, the middle-class militias brought into being by the wars against Napoleon sought to survive as outposts of rights against the powers of the king and his regular army.

In the long run, the establishment of universal conscription in the advanced states of continental Europe was matched by the extension of the vote, though for parliaments generally less responsible than those of the Anglo-Saxon countries, and by processes that had no direct and visible connection. The result, however, was that, at the outbreak of the First World War, Europe was composed of states in most of which some form of representative institutions existed and all of which maintained large conscripted armies. The loyalty of such armies, headily reinforced by national feeling, was to hold up throughout the first three years of the war’s terrible ordeal. By 1917, the costs, psychological as well as material, of making every man a soldier began to have their inevitable effects. There was a large-scale mutiny in the French army in the spring of that year; in the autumn the Russian army collapsed altogether. In the following year the German army went the same way; at the November armistice, on its return home, the army demobilised itself and the German empire was thrown into revolution. It was the almost cyclical outcome of a process begun 125 years earlier, when the French had rescued a revolution by appealing to all citizens to support it with arms. Politics had become the extension of war and the age-old dilemma of states — of how to maintain efficient armies that were both affordable and reliable — had revealed itself to be as far from solution as when Sumer had first laid out its revenues to pay for soldiers.

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