Saturday, 8 June 2013

The Universal Soldier

Some of you are probably painfully aware that I have been banging on about period specific rule sets and the inaccuracies of assuming that a bloke with a pointy stick and shield in 4th Century BC Greece is the same as a bloke with a pointy stick and shield in 14th Century AD Scotland. Some people, at least so far as the comments go, agree with me more or less, and some do not.  That is fair enough, there is debate in academic circles about the issue as well, and perhaps we should not be prescriptive about which model (for models they both are) we should be using.

 I have, however, recently run across a book that supports my point of view. This is ‘Battle: A History of Combat and Culture’, by John A Lynn (2004, Westview: Cambridge MA). The author’s name I was already aware of, as he is an expert in the army of Louis XIV, the Sun King, and I had heard of this tome as well, although I had shied away from it as often a period specialist writing outside of their specialism is not worth the effort of reading.

Lynn’s argument is that there are two aspects to warfare. The first is the reality of combat, and the second is the way of thinking about it, in sociological terms the ‘discourse’ of war. He suggests that sometimes the discourse and the reality do not match. For example, the discourse of the combatant nations in 1914 was not matched by the realities of battle, and so the discourse had to modify itself very rapidly. So the reality can modify the discourse of battle, but the discourse of battle can also modify the reality.

The first case study that Lynn examines is that of the ancient Greeks. He notes that V. A. Hanson, in his books ‘The Western Way of War’ and ‘Carnage and Culture’ argues that the western (European and North American) way of warfare is distinct from other (Oriental, South American) warfare, in that the westerners seek decisive battle, while the others use subterfuge, ambush and battle avoidance to win. Hanson argues that this predilection for decisive battle dates back to the Greeks, and that there is a continuity in attitude to warfare from the Greeks to the present day.

Lynn attacks Hanson’s thesis in a fairly direct manner. He examines Greek warfare and concludes that it is the product of a distinctive mind set or world view, one in which the citizen soldier (the Hoplite) of a given Greek polity both is involved (in principle, at least) in making a decision for war and in fighting as a consequence of that decision. Thus the typical soldier has a vested interest in the fighting as a consequence of his involvement in the decision making process. Lynn points out that due to the increasing pressure of warfare during the later Greek and Hellenistic periods, this model broke down and later forces were, essentially, mercenary. A similar pattern was followed in Rome where the Republican citizen militia was replaced by professional soldier (a circumstance which led to the downfall of the Republic) and ultimately to a situation where either the Emperor controlled the army or vice versa.

Thus, Lynn argues, the concept of a citizen soldier was not revived until the late 18th Century and early 19th, when French revolutionary armies stormed across Europe.  These were explicitly citizen armies, and did, in fact, seek decisive battles, a circumstance which, Lynn suggests, led to Clausewitz’s various theses about warfare and politics.  These have been extremely influential in Western thought about warfare, but that does not necessarily make them applicable outside Clausewitz’s particular historical context.

The gap between the Greek citizen soldier and the French Revolutionary one is, to be generous, around 2000 years. On a timescale from the Greeks to us of 2500 years, a continuity with a gap of over eighty per cent of the time in it has some explaining to do. Lynn’s argument is thus that there is no such continuity and no such thing as a distinctively ‘western’ way of war.

The issue for us as wargamers, of course, is that we do often regard our soldiers as being part of a continuous tradition dating back thousands of years, or at least, we consider one man with a pointy stick to be the same as another, 1500 years later. This is technological determinism, the idea that the methods of warfare are determined by the weapons and not by the culture from which the soldiers come.

The problem with technological determinism is that it simply does not work. The Greeks, for example, fought battles on the relatively few flat bits of Greece that were available, with weapons and soldiers that were not typical of the landscape or inhabitants. One would imagine that they would have gone for a more fluid, ambushing from hills and cover sort of warfare, but they did not. The reason for this was described above: they were citizens of a polis and this (full frontal phalanx battles) was how the polis went to war. The nature of the battle was determined by the discourse, not by the technology or landscape.

As I said above, I think this argument adds to mine that we should not develop rules to which are then bolted on bits of chrome to give other periods. They cannot work as a historical rule set, because they are, ultimately, buying into technological determinism. This is a form of absurd reductionism, which suggests that, say, a musketeer is ‘nothing but’ a souped up crossbow man, and a crossbow man is ‘nothing but’ a souped up archer, and so on. All these nothing buts land us up in a situation where all we take account of are the weapons (which themselves get collapsed into a single group of, say, ranged weapons), not the mind sets and world view of the people who fought and commanded the real armies we are trying to model.

Lynn’s argument is that there is no such thing as a universal soldier; each soldier, unit and army is the product of a culture, society and discourse (and impacts on the culture, society and discourse). My suggestion is that we try to avoid imposing universalism on our models of historical armies, and that we dispose of the convenient, but incorrect, notion of technological determinism.


  1. What are his specific arguments or examples as to why similarly roled and equipped units, with similar levels of group cohesion, will perform radically different?



    1. I'm not sure I can summarize a 400 page book here!

      But his argument is, as I understand it, that technology is not the only, or even perhaps major, determinant of warfare. Greek hoplites had a distinct view of what a battle or warfare was; this is not shared by others whose discourse of war, coming from a different culture, perforce has to be different.

    2. Ha ha you are quite right, of course! What I meant was are there a couple of examples of where he has identified ostensibly similar troops (i.e. troops which would have the same desciption according to DBM, or have the same stat-line in WAB or whatever) in fact performed very differently on the battlefield?


    3. I think a Greek citizen hoplite and almost any other spearman in the ancient world he would claim to be different in mental outlook.

      But the Greek has to be a citizen, not a mercenary or levied man.

  2. Sounds like an interesting book. Hard to comment without having read but its hard to see how he could argue that there were no citizen armies or continuity over that long period unless he excluded any of the many examples that don't match a narrow criteria. Manuals and books from the classic period certainly informed tactics and organization from the 15thC on if not earlier and there were certainly armies of nations in arms, from Germanic tribes in migration, to Saxon fyrd on Senlac hill to Swiss rebels ousting the Austrians and facing the Burgundians, (now there was an army seeking decisive battles there may well be a link between those ideas but various Roman armies full of mercenaries sought decisive battle as well, as did Marlborough and various other Great Captains, and many others. Forcing decisive battles is not always easy.

    I would also point out that not all Greeks were hoplites, many like the Aitolians relied on light skirmishers and even Theban and Athenian armies used many light troops esp outside of the major pitched battles, not to mention cavalry. For that matter not all hoplite warfare was phalanx battles on a plain.

    Not saying that there weren't differences or that a set of rules that looks at the form and outcome of battle will ever capture the experience or motivation of individuals, it does depend what you are trying to capture. It also depends on whose POV you want to capture, reading Xenephon's accounts of forcing passes while being harrassed by Anatloian tribesmen using hit and run tactics is eerily reminiscent of the memoirs of Eyre and other 19thC British officers of fighting the Afghans in the passes. Same tactical problems, same tactical solutions. Different weapons and different social veneers seem to have mattered less than the underlying psychology and human nature and terrain.


    1. I think the argument about citizen armies is that from, say, the first century BC to the French Revolution there were no citizens to speak of; all were subjects, or serfs, or whatever, or mercenaries. There may be some exceptions, but on the whole from the Late Roman Republic onwards there was no such thing as a citizen army.

      I think the point Lynn tries to make is that the discourse of Greek was is dominated by the Greek citizen. The light troops have no voice, no say in the discourse. Thus the occasional defeat of hoplites by them sent shock wave through the Greek polis.

      Of course, terrain is a big issue as well, but Lynn does not really cover that, focusing more on big battles. Running fights and skirmishing are not really on his agenda, I think.

    2. Well, as far as I can see that there no citizens in between is, to use technical terms, poppycock. How is a spartan helot more of a citizen than a Dutch burgher who has ousted the Spanish and formed a Republic? or an American militia man who has taken up a musket to face the British, or a Saxon Thegn who stands in a shieldwall facing invaders? or a Swiss pikeman who has voted on war and then picked up his pike? and on and on. There were plenty of peoples and countries where substantial portions of the population had rights and duties and a stake in their nation and formed the fighting forces. The fact that there were others that relied on conscription (like the French Revolutionary armies) or mercenaries does not mean that all were.

      As for the Greeks, our view is perhaps warped if we browse over the writings that have come down to us from a few cities and apply it widely without careful reading. I believe the Aetolians and the Thessalians who relied on cavalry and light troops and various other Greek states which were not polis considered themselves Greek just as much as the Athenians did. But even if we discount the non-city states and include the non-democratic ones, its also worth considering that the Greek hoplites were to found serving abroad as mercenaries from very early days. I don't think the Greeks who defended Egypt against Cambeses for example could be seen in any way as Citizen soldiers and remember this was long before Greek & Persian wars when we start to notice Greece.

      For that matter, the myth of enthusiastic revolutionary Frenchmen over running reactionary enemies on the battle field has been long dispelled. The core of the Republics armies from the beginning was the remnants of the royal army and the armies were full of conscripts who tended to desert or run away. Tactically those who did stay were next to useless until properly trained and the adoption of skirmishers, columns and all arms divisions owes much much more to earlier French military theory and discussion than to revolutionary ideas.

    3. Well, i cannot answer all of these 'cos I don't have the knowledge. The thegn may of course have some influence, but those who stand around him do not; they are their because they are the thegn's men.

      Similarly, the helots had no political rights (on the other hand they were not called upon to fight). The question of who was Greek and who wasn't would be answered differently depending on which putative Greek you asked. Pan-Hellenism seems to have been a relatively late development.

      In both cases the elite are calling the shots, and deciding on what is a war and what isn't. To a great extent, a battle is only a battle if those involved in it call it a battle. If you call it a bunch of jumped up peltasts claiming a great victory from scaring a few of our boys off, you are sticking to a particular view of war. A modern day example would be a US President announcing the end of combat operations. What followed was not a war in the discourse.

      It is certainly true that French armies were a lot bigger after the revolution than before, and the rhetoric was that it was incumbent on every citizen to be involved as a solider, encourager or seamstress. That is a big change from the earlier wars which were decided upon by the elite, who recruited the poor to do the fighting and be bossed about.

    4. Fair enough, the devil is in the historical details so rather than debate the role of the 35,000 armed helots reported by Herodotus at Platea or the the role of the subject city contingents, when Saxon freemen became serfs and so on let me just respond briefly on the American colonists.

      They did in fact have a vote. The governor was appointed by the crown but had no right of taxation, he had to go to the elected legislation. Hence the need for the crown to levy customs duties when the colonists refused to pay from Royal garrisons. Going back to the 1st Louisburg expeditiont as an example, the French privateers were a threat to Massachusetts prosperity and the Crown was preoccupied with affairs in Europe so the colonists voted on an expedition, raised the money themselves to pay for the expedition and ships then raised troops. Militia laws only dealt with local defence so the regiments were raised from volunteers from amongst those who elected the legislators and paid the taxes. Assistance from the RN was requested and granted but the cost and fighting involved in the siege and capture of the fortress was done by those who voted on it and paid for it.

      Sounds like one example of a citizen army to me.

  3. Interesting one, as usual.

    Strikes me both these authors, Lynn and Hanson, are trying to find a simple black and white formula for something which is shades of grey. Truth is, culture, outlook, weaponry, terrain,opponent,weather all affect the character of military campaigns and the people who took part in them,and often affect each other by varying degrees. I don't think you can be dogmatic about one particular aspect being the deciding factor in all cases. (Yes, this is why we have period specific rules.)

    Perhaps the Greek citizen and the French revolutionary did have some similarities, but it seems to have been a bit of a selective exercise to choose these two to support an argument. Supposing the Greek citizen had a stake in the battle and was there from choice (what happened to the ones who voted against?)and he had to have a certain amount of property to make him a considerable person, so that gives him a direct connection to, say, the English yeoman archer or one of Monmouth's rebels. What does that prove?

    To ignore the medieval Dutch or the Renaissance Swiss in a comparison of citizen armies is just weird.

  4. I suspect also that each has their bias: Lynn is a enlightenment scholar, Hanson is a classicist. Hence a different focus.

    I don't really want to get hung up on the word 'citizen', 'cos there is a technical definition which most people do not achieve until at least the mid- to late 19th century.

    However, the yeomen or Monmouth's rebels are not citizen, nor are, strictly speaking the American Revolutionary militia - they don't have votes and so no "democratic" say in the decision for war. After all, representation was part of what the Am Rev was about, wasn't it?

    Finally, I think Lynn's book is rather a plea for a more nuanced approach than Hanson, rather than a claim that 'citizen' or even culture trumps in thinking about warfare.