Tag Archive | battle

Greatest British Battle?

In preparation for an upcoming exhibition, Britain’s National Army Museum is sponsoring a competition to declare “Britain’s Greatest Battle” (actually, the top five). As the website describes:

“The shortlisted battles were selected not simply for being great British victories. Their inclusion took into consideration the political, historical and cultural impact, the difficulties and challenges the Army overcame, and the innovative deployment of strategy and tactics. The choice of battles also reflects the global reach of the British Army and recognises the vital contributions of Commonwealth troops.

Britain’s Greatest Battles aims to highlight the most notable clashes the British Army has seen, as well as draw attention to some of the lesser-known ones. It takes into account all kinds of ‘battles’, including sieges, campaigns, last stands and charges.”

Several notable early modern battles are included (Naseby, Blenheim, Culloden), as well as colonial clashes (Plassey, Quebec, Lexington and Concord). No early modern sieges mentioned, but the British weren’t particularly proud of their siege service at the time (see Christopher Atkinson, “Marlborough’s Sieges,” The Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, 13 (1935): 195-205).

I’m not going to tell you how to vote, but we really should get some of those early modern examples in the top five.


Thoughts on the NAM’s definition of “great”? Maybe you have your own early modern write-in candidates?

A Sporting War, pt. 1

Honestly, I don’t actually read much sports commentary at all. But in my online perusals of regular news websites, I occasionally find a sports discussion that raises parallels between sports culture and military culture. Thus we have another edition of odd parallels between sports and war. This time it’s not so much about gender, as the reasoning for choosing one strategy over another.

What piqued my interest recently were two articles that relate to the unwritten conventions of American football, and how those conventions also seem to apply to warfare, generalship in particular. I’ll talk about the first article today, and then do a follow-on post on the second. Read More…

That Old Sports-as-War Metaphor

Are you ready for some football?

Too bad if you’re not, ’cause “America’s Game” is here. Last weekend was the official opening for college (NCAA) football, with the professional league (NFL) games starting this week. For those un-American readers in our audience, we’re talking American football, not “soccer” – or the Latin-flavored fútbol as we tend to see it here in the US. We’re talking the kind of football that encourages you to hit the other guy, hard. Canucks know what I’m talking about, even if they have teams with girly names like the Alouettes (admittedly the mascot is pretty butch)

Football is probably the most popular sport here in the U.S., and I’d certainly guess the most fanatically followed by the largest segment of the American population – though it does tend to vary by region. Sports historians have long analyzed different sports in different cultures to open a window onto cultural assumptions and values, and doing so with American football can be just as fruitful. The angle I’ll talk about today is one that appears again and again – the comparison of football (or sport more generally) to war. Given the physical and mental damage caused by throwing bodies around after a pigskin, it’s no surprise that football players and coaches will, in unguarded moments, refer to their contest as ‘war,’ with the linesmen ‘fighting it out in the trenches,’ with the need to ‘defend this house’ [from assault apparently], and so on.

This comparison between sports and war isn’t new. I’m sure the Ancient Greeks said the same about their Olympic wrestling contests, and the Romans – always ones to take it too far – literally made their sports a heroic form of war with their gladiatorial combats and mock naval battles. Medieval knights turned battlefield equestrian maneuvers into jousting tournaments, yet sometimes the competition between sports and war could harm military readiness, as when Henry VIII had to renew bans on Sunday football, when able-bodied men were instead to be practicing at the archery butts. Early modern mock sieges were undoubtedly as entertaining for their reenacting participants as they were serious training – they certainly were for the crowds in attendance. Waterloo may or may not have been won on the ‘fields of Eton,’ but by WWI rugby stars were encouraging Englishmen to do their patriotic duty – they were doing theirs. It’s said the modern Olympic pentathlon was based on the skills a military runner would need to deliver a message during wartime: shooting, riding, swimming, fencing, and cross-country running. More recently Honduras and El Salvador showed us that sports sometimes could actually turn into a war (see: Football War), and those crazy English hooligans still don’t understand that the struggle should remain on the pitch and not spill out into the streets. Nor, for that matter, did Tommies and Gerries realize you’re supposed to shoot bullets at the enemy, not kick a soccer/football past them. Read More…

Facing up to the Face of Battle, Pt. II

Continued thoughts on Keegan’s Face of Battle and its influence on recent early modern military history.

Why so little influence?

Additional examples of early modern Keeganesque publications could undoutedly be unearthed, but I believe the overall disparity between FoB‘s reputation and its imitators is real. So now we need an explanation or two. I think the muted interest in Keegan’s “rhetoric of battle history,” and even of his social history of battle, says more about the discipline of military history than of the irrelevance of Keegan’s idea.

  1. Military historians are, by-and-large, still a traditional bunch. We still tend to impose universalistic (i.e. Western), modern professional models of decision-making on military actors (e.g. Alfred Burne’s Inherent Military Probability), and only recently have we started seriously considering other motives for action. Assuming that a field general would act as a modern general might make sense for 19C America, but whether it applies to 17C aristocratic France is another question altogether. Probably the most ‘impactful’ contribution to this discussion in EMEMH would be the various scholars working on the history of the military book, such as Mark Danley and David Lawrence and Ira Gruber. Even here, however, military historians seem to be more interested in how the practices they describe differ from the real battlefield as the rhetorical strategies used in the manuals.
  2. I think Keegan’s discussion of rhetoric and even of the battlefield experience itself is historiographically out-of-tune with what Anglo military historians of the late 20C/early 21C are interested in. Its reception, if not its foundation, was undoubtedly driven not only by Keegan’s interest in what battle is really like, but also by the mid-20C century fashion for social history, telling the history of those who had no voice. In our case, the grunt in the mud. Importantly, many other exemplars of this ‘new military history’ were rejected by many traditional military historians – if anything, their claim to be the new-and-improved study of war led to a backlash among military historians, particularly when ‘war and society’ works rarely studied the actual fighting. (Check out the various articles and prefaces of traditional military history and war and society works published in the 1980s and 1990s for a flavor of how each side viewed the other.) Admittedly, Keegan’s social history of war didn’t leave the fighting out, but that doesn’t mean we’ve assimilated his conceptual framework, or even his subject matter. We continue to focus on tactics, nodding towards the soldier’s experience, but not putting it at the center of our work. I think we still tend to follow the other rhetorical features of the battle piece as well, when we think of morale in the singular – at most unit-wide, and when battlefield studies still operate on the assumption that leadership is a (if not the) key ingredient in success. Military historians want to explain success after all, a point explicitly made in K. Kagan’s The Eye of Command riposte. A social history of combat starts with a different goal. Contrast the top-down approach of your average battlefield study – even one that notes how command decisions and tactical realities influence the individual soldier’s experience – with the perspective taken by social history, which emphasizes the importance of agency for even low-status individuals. Early modern European military history still has extremely few studies of the voices from the ranks, compared with commander biographies; the Tolstoyian view of battle was long ago dismissed by most military historians. While military history’s top-down perspective is certainly reinforced by the lack of individual soldier accounts, this same lacunae didn’t prevent social historians of past generations from unearthing unorthodox sources – trial transcripts, wills and testaments, economic documents – and developing new methodologies in order to get a glimpse of how the subjects sought to understand their experience on their own terms (or as close to unmediated as is possible). I think the archetypical case study for a social military history would be mutinies (agency and all that), yet I know of only one work that takes this approach head on, an edited collection at that: Jane Hathaway, ed., Rebellion, Repression, Reinvention: Mutiny in Comparative Perspective (Westport, CT, 2001). Considering the volume of existing courts martial records, that no one has done a serious study is indicative of the difference in outlook between the two fields. This may also be a particularly-Anglo tendency: the French have spent decades writing about military-civilian interactions (Corvisier on soldier statistics, J-P Bois on veterans…), while the Germans have written many books and articles on the interaction between garrisons and townspeople, for example. (I don’t know if alltagsgeschichte – everyday history – has made its way to early modern German military history or not.) But perhaps we shouldn’t be that surprised about our lack of interest in the social history of battle: how important was Keegan’s ‘social history of warfare’ approach (i.e. military history from below) to his own, later works? I can’t answer that question very well since I’ve only read a couple of his post-FoB works, but what I have read seems to easily fit within traditional military history pre-FoB, with the exception of his book Soldiers.
  3. Keegan’s battle history rhetoric was also a perfect fit with the cultural history wave of the 1990s, but most military historians have been equally hesitant to jump on that bandwagon, particularly with its whiff of postmodernism. To the extent that military historians are comfortable with culture, they use it as an explanatory variable rather than a method: culture expressed either in terms of a ‘clash of civilizations’ model (Keegan’s A History of Warfare, Hanson’s Western Way of War, Parker’s Military Revolution), or else by the application of a period’s zeitgeist to military matters (Gat’s Origins of Military Thought, Lynn’s Battle). The first of these two schools has found itself under unremitting attack, while the second tends to be a boring yet widely-accepted default on a far smaller scale (Re: the Military Enlightenment). Fundamentally, military historians want to know the answer to a very practical question: why did one side win and the other lose? When the answer doesn’t involve tactical advantages and military leadership, the most popular response in the Anglo historiography is a focus on military administration and finance – check out the Bibliography tag for my overview of monographs from the 2000s. Anglo military historians are likely to explain the practical question of military victory with one or more equally practical answers. But there is a whiff of change in the air. The new Warfare and Culture series from NYU Press encourages the combination of the traditional and the cultural, so hopefully we’ll see more exploration of the intersection of these two approaches.
  4. One aspect of this traditionalism is the lack of comfort with theory and even method. The military historiography’s reaction against the cultural turn in the mid-1990s, and John Lynn’s attempt to co-opt its sexiness while refusing to surrender to its silliness, is interesting reading if you haven’t read it already. In some respects I share this discomfort, but this influences how we interpret sources and how we think and talk about historical arguments. One result of the traditional military history mindset is a focus on the real and a dismissal of the imagined as irrelevant – as we see in the lack of traction Lynn’s distinction between real and imagined war has received thus far (from his Battle book). We read the sources to find the nuggets of truth within them; we care less about what their phrasings tell us about how contemporaries thought, their mentalité. (If you rolled your eyes as you read my smidgen of French vocabulary, you’ve proven my point.) Military historians are much less interested in descriptions of reality than uncovering the reality itself: constructed identities and ‘weapons of the weak’ account for little with a bayonet sticking in your guts, they would say. All this means that we might understand and even agree with Keegan’s diagnosis of the rhetoric of battle history, but we are not surprised, nor our interest piqued, nor are we eager to show off our methodological sophistication by parroting it to our colleagues (except me apparently). We skip over it because that’s not what we’re looking for: we want the answer to the question of what battle is like, not what’s standing in our way. Even for Keegan, I get the sense that the “rhetoric of battle history” is a problem, not an analytical structure to be applied widely. Once you are aware of the rhetoric of battle history, you can overcome it and get to the Truth. Problematizing the battlefield experience is the last thing military historians want. Military historiography prefers the direct approach.
  5. Answering the more specific question of why Keegan’s rhetoric of battle history idea hasn’t been explored, more mundane disciplinary practices also play a role. One concrete product of our apathy towards theoretical approaches is that we military historians don’t, for example, use shorthand phrases for different methodological approaches or concepts, whether it’s close reading or thick description or agency or what have you. Clausewitz’s “friction” and his “trinity” are about as close as we come to buzzwords, and often those are only trotted out in passing, as a necessary kowtow to the Great Clausewitz. We tend not to talk like other socially/culturally-minded historians do. If we did talk like those other historians, I would bet money that we would talk more about Keegan’s “rhetoric of battle history” idea rather than just latch onto his generic metaphor of the “face of battle” – he served the former term up on a platter after all, with quotes and everything, at the very beginning of his section on the ‘Battle Piece’ (p. 36).  But we just don’t talk about our history that way. Lynn’s “battle culture of forbearance” is one of the most commonly used examples of a conceptual category of tactical military analysis, but it sees little use despite its utility, even though Lynn has used the term in a whole variety of publications.
  6. As a concrete example, it’s worth noting that Keegan’s phrase didn’t resonate for me until long after I had read it the first few times: it required several convergent trends from both teaching and research, combined with a serendipitous rereading. The idea of a rhetoric of siege history didn’t appear in my dissertation, and I was only reminded of the phrase when I taught the chapter for my first ‘European Warfare 1337-1815’ course: thinking about it from a student’s perspective, I realized that this was a useful term that encompasses the idea that how we talk about things shapes how we think about them (an insight not original to Keegan I know). My insistence that students pay careful attention to the argument being made by an author was reinforced by my authoring an introduction to argument mapping, a reading approach which emphasized paying close attention to the language used by scholars (you sometimes have to try several different wordings before you figure out the phrasing that best represents the author’s argument). Further, having students analyze primary sources from early modern Europe semester-after-semester also forced me to alert students to the slipperiness of early modern English, which heightens one’s sensitivity to meaning. A new-found attention to argumentation and a sustained focus on primary source analysis in the teaching realm also coincided with my revisions to the dissertation manuscript. I had just recently finished writing about how historians always describe early modern sieges as scientific, predictable and ritualized, which leads to all sorts of misconceptions about siegecraft. Plus, I was trying to come up with a more ‘meta’ argument about siege and battle for my book, to find an equivalent to engineering efficiency, when I realized with embarrassment that the English had been using the term “vigor” everywhere and I hadn’t even noticed it before. An emerging attention to language and an emphasis on method (I had just finished the appendices in VuS) primed me to latch onto Keegan’s rhetoric of battle history. My attention to language has been further reinforced of late by the need to identify productive search terms when mining large corpora of digitized sources, and I’d guess this will be more and more common as the digital humanities spread beyond the digerati. I have no idea if this is a unique set of experiences or not, but I am certain that far too few EMEMHians explicitly talk about methods. That’s one of the reasons such discussions are a mainstay of this blog.
  7. There are other possible reasons why the FoB hasn’t led to an avalanche of works, at least for the early modern world. Most practically, there aren’t a ton of sources available “from below.” So it’s no surprise that those few works on the subject have involved well-sourced wars: Carlton’s Going to the Wars for the English Civil Wars, Spring’s With Zeal and Bayonets Only for the American Revolution, and Muir’s Tactics and the Experience of Battle for the Napoleonic era. A few war and society surveys have also included sections on the subject. As discussed in #2 above, however, this doesn’t explain why military historians haven’t attempted to adopt methods or source genres used by social history. Perhaps, as I speculated at one conference, it seems weird for military historians to ignore the 95% of the sources (written by officers, planners, diplomats…) and just focus on the 5% written by those in the ranks, especially when early modern bureaucracies created SO MANY detailed sources to explore.
  8. Another possible practical explanation is that once someone’s written a book on the battlefield experience in the American Revolution, for example, there probably isn’t much need for a second. Assuming that there are a limited number of primary sources to begin with, they’ll likely get used up in the first book on the subject. So unless an argument emerges from the original work, we really only ‘need’ one work for each period, or at most each war. This explanation, however, assumes that arguing about the soldiers isn’t as important as arguing about why commander X won battle Y – if it’s considered important enough, an argument will ensue regardless of the availability of evidence. This explanation further relies on the fact that military historians are far less willing to apply broad theoretical models to the past: have any military historians written a Foucauldian or Saidian analysis of early modern military discipline?

Those are my thoughts on why Keegan’s FoB is far less influential than one might expect.

I won’t end these posts with a call to arms – it really is intended merely as my self-reflective description of recent military historiography. And I should add a mea culpa that I am personally far less interested in researching the experience of the individual soldier than answering many of the traditional questions asked by military historians: why did one side win and another lose? But I think it’s useful to occasionally step back and take stock of our field, of its varying schools and debates. And the death of one of its major figures provides a good catalyst to do so.

I would make one plea, however. Even if we don’t think a social history of battle is the most important subject to study, I think we need to pay more attention to how contemporaries (and historians) talk about battle and its siblings, and how these rhetorical choices influence our (and their) perception of the reality of combat, in the army, and on the home front. The cultural ‘discourse’ of war and combat deserves a lot more attention than it’s received thus far, a fact Keegan recognized 35 years ago.


Facing up to the Face of Battle

By now most of you have already heard of the death last week of John Keegan (1934-2012). A prolific author whose interests ranged widely through time and space, he spent the last decades of his life writing about modern military history, as well as current conflicts in the Daily Telegraph. An instructor at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, best-selling author and newspaper columnist, he wrote broad surveys of military history, including The Mask of Command (1987), A History of Warfare (1994), and Fields of Battle: The Wars for North America (1997).

For academic military historians, however, his career was defined by his earliest work, The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme (1976). Simply put, chapter 1 – “Old, Unhappy, Far-off Things” – is required reading for anyone with any interest in the history of war, while the successive chapters illustrate his attempt to recover what the experience of battle was really like. Whether you’re a pacifist, military professional or gunhead, his call for a more realistic view of the face of battle from the fighting soldier’s perspective resonates, and this chapter deserves frequent rereading. On his passing, allow me to honor his work by providing my personal assessment of his influence over the field, one that diverges slightly from the encomia elsewhere. Read More…

SMH 2003 Paper on Louis XIV’s Cabinet War

Remember to check out the Recent Comments regularly – sometimes new comments are added to old posts. But now for a new post.

Awhile back I had talked about using the Internet (and this blog specifically) as a way to disseminate smaller bits of research, as an alternative to publication in peer-reviewed journals. Old paper presentations that you haven’t even looked at for almost a decade probably fit this category of digital chimera. A recent comment on early modern communication prompted me to recall a specific paper I had delivered nine years ago. Not quite the “timely-publication” advantage trumpeted by proponents of digitally-‘published’ research, but releasing it into the Internet wilds does fulfill another advantage of digital publication: getting unfinished ideas which otherwise would remain hidden out to a broader audience.

The paper’s release also serves, for those who haven’t attended or presented at an academic conference, as an example of the difference between a short, focused academic conference paper (often a case study and often with tentative results) and a longer, more comprehensive academic journal article that is expected to have a clear answer. So digital publication of such works has multiple benefits. It not only allows the author to 1) remind attendees of what had been argued, and 2) open the argument up to those not in attendance, but also 3) allow the author to provide the more fleshed-out argument that was impossible to give within the 20-minute time limit common in conference panels. I assume I’m not the only person who ends up writing longer drafts of conference papers that then need to be cut down to size – you often don’t end up hearing the full argument or evidence when listening in a panel, even if you manage to stay awake. It’s surprisingly difficult for academics to say much of importance in only 20 minutes (around 10 pages of text).

At some point I’ll return to the question of Louis’ cabinet war, and some of the evidence in the paper might be useful for my battle book, but it’s not high on my priority list at the moment. So here’s the paper: Ostwald L14 Cabinet War SMH 2003. It’s rather straightforward, but still interesting (I think). Feel free to read it and discuss the issues it raises in the comments section of this post. Enjoy.

What’s so special about the field of battle?

Just got back from a very interesting conference at West Point where we were discussing a new e-textbook for the Western military art under construction. I’ll post more details as the project becomes more concrete.

In the meantime, a comment in a previous post on how to decide whether the 1709 battle of Malplaquet was a ‘victory’ for the Allies or not made me revisit the issue. In my future battle book I’m thinking I might look at the different ideas of how contemporaries measured battlefield victory. In this context, I’ve always wondered about the possession-of-the-battlefield criteria for victory. I can see a variety of explanations for it, but I don’t feel particularly satisfied by any of them.

  1. Maybe it goes back to the olden days when you’d erect a victory trophy (hoplons and helmets…) on the spot. (Does any of the war memorialization literature discuss this?)
  2. In some cases the specific battlefield might be an operationally/strategically important location (as in a relief battle), whose possession would be of continued importance. But most of the time the selection of battlefields seems to be as much a matter of where both armies could find the space to array their respective forces, and where their dispositions were even enough to encourage both sides to fight, vs. one side having a clear advantage and therefore the other side refusing to engage.
  3. Perhaps occupying the battlefield in good order is an indication that the army is still “in being” (still “keeping the field”) and therefore ready to continue the fight, vs. being dispersed and unable to continue operations?
  4. Maybe possession of the wounded left on the battlefield was important, for POW or ransom purposes?

Thoughts? Has somebody written on this already?

Britain’s Jubilee

For those unaware, Britain just finished celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee – sixty years of rule. In the US, CNN dedicated a couple of hours to covering the thrilling fleet maneuvers on the Thames – Jon Stewart had a humorous take on CNN’s coverage last night.

As an American, a republican (small ‘r’), an early modernist, and non-royal watcher (or maybe it’s royal non-watcher?), I have little to say about the Diamond Jubilee and its historical importance, although I am curious whether she pardoned many criminals and forgave debts.

But I might as well use the event to segue (note to students: not segway) into a ballad I just happened to read and transcribe this very minute – a different kind of jubilee.

Britain’s Jubilee
A new congratulatory ballad on the Glorious Victories
obtain’d by the Duke of Marlborough, over the French:
Writ by the Famous Comedian, Mr. Escourt,
and Sung by him to most of our Nobility, with great Applause

The Psychology of Battle

Another aspect of the history of battle is the literature which has developed around the psychology of pre-modern battle. Numerous people have noted the ‘foreign-ness’ of early modern combat, especially the stereotypical version of the 18C linear battlefield. Rather than heading for the nearest foxhole when the shooting starts, you stand tall in rows and ranks, shoulder-to-shoulder with your compatriots, while incoming cannon shot and musketballs whizz around your head and tear up clods of dirt in front of you. After a preparatory bombardment, your officers order a march forward at a steady pace, “opposing [your] naked Breasts to the Showrs of the Murthering Shot.” As American history students well know, you are ordered to hold your fire till you see the “whites of their eyes.” If your advance is successful, you might finish it off with a bayonet charge, although I think most historians would agree that by the time of the bayonet charge, the defenders would usually have thrown down their arms or fled. Various movie-makers have tried their hand at envisioning such a perplexing scene, including Stanley Kubrick in Barry Lyndon and Mel Gibson in The Patriot. John Lynn has termed this odd-seeming behavior as the “battle culture of forebearance,” and many historians have described the drill and maneuvers required to train thousands of men to just stand there, to march in step, to slowly (and then increasingly-quickly) advance toward the enemy. Trying to imagine such behaviors, and comparing it with their experience from more recent wars, it’s no surprise that military historians study the psychology of battle.

Ardant du Picq’s Battle Studies provided an early emphasis on how the primitive instinct for self-preservation had to be overcome through motivation, discipline, leadership and tactics. In the 20C, John Keegan reinvigorated the subject by asking academic military historians to put themselves in the boots of the soldier on the battlefield, to imagine what it would have felt like to fight with black-powder muskets. Many have obliged, as mentioned in a previous post. In the 1990s a veteran/therapist Dave Grossman wrote a book setting out a universalist, late 20C psychological understanding of the experience of combat, drawing on modern psychological concepts such as the ‘well of courage,’ and of course relying on the by-now-well-established concept of primary (i.e. peer) group cohesion. Duffy’s Military Experience in the Age of Reason also has a long chapter that goes through the mechanics of battle, including how soldiers likely responded.

French military historians in particular have embraced this psychological approach to battle, not surprising given their deep interest in War and Society topics. Perhaps most surprising is André Corvisier, the doyen of institutional French military history, who turned his hand to writing about the panic and enthusiasm expressed by French soldiers at Malplaquet in 1709, a topic taken up in more detail by Malfoy-Noël.

More recently, Yuval Harari has taken a broad synthetic approach to the subject of the experience of battle, arguing that the idea of combat as revelation was a development of the Enlightenment, with early moderns interpreting the battlefield experience as a matter of mind over body.

This topic necessarily crosses disciplinary boundaries, raising philosophical and psychological questions that a lil’ ol’ military historian like me isn’t qualified to weigh in on. So, that leaves it up to you…

Questions to discuss:

  • What are the best depictions of early modern battle in the movies? How do you judge the realism of early modern battle scenes?
  • How would describe the historiography of the psychology of battle?
  • What kinds of sources would shed light on the psychology of battle participants? Which sources have you found particularly striking for their discussion of the psychology of early modern battle?
  • To what extent can we talk of a “universal soldier,” vs. participants who thought and acted differently from us (the Other)?

Suggested Readings:

  • Du Picq, Col. Ardant. Battle Studies: Ancient and Modern Battle. New York: Macmillan, 1921.
  • Keegan, John. The Face of Battle.
  • Corvisier, André. “Le moral des combattants, panique et enthousiasme: Malplaquet.” Revue historique des armées 12 (1977): 7-32.
  • Grossman, Lt. Col. Dave. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.  Little, Brown & Co., 1995.
  • Malfoy-Noël, Dorothée. L’épreuve de la Bataille (1700-1714). Montpellier: Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2007.
  • Harari, Yuval. The Ultimate Experience: Battlefield Revelations and the Making of Modern War Culture, 1450-2000. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Honor in battle, not-as-much for the others

I don’t want to constantly short-circuit discussion in the comments by moving my responses to a post, so keep an eye on the Recent Comments list on the right, or subscribe to them. But Gene mentioned something in a comment in passing that I was going to address as a post at some point, so now is as good a time as any.

The issue raised is: what does “honor” have to do with battle? That is, what is a more important explanation for military behavior and practices (on the individual, group, unit/army, institutional levels): honor, or military pragmatism, i.e. the practicalities of trying to kill the other guy while avoiding being killed yourself? This is obviously a huge issue, and hardly a true dichotomy; the literature on cultural explanations of war is an expanding field that deserves discussion. I don’t have a full answer yet to this broad question, but I thought I’d start a discussion by throwing out there a few thoughts that Gene’s comment triggered.

I’d argue that we need to take honor seriously as an explanatory variable. I don’t have a fully-fleshed-out argument, but here are my thoughts thus far:

First, and as a prefatory remark, honor motivated those doing the fighting – although early moderns tended to think that only the elites (nobles, officers) could be motivated by honor. We need only recall that the early modern period was the golden age of duels, and what were duels but the extension of personal honor from the battle field to the dueling field? And duelers not only risked their own safety, but also potential arrest and imprisonment since, as Louis XIV put it, the officer’s honor on the dueling field was to be replaced by the honor of fighting in his armies. All the other standard aspects of martial honor apply as well: that ‘baubles’ such as medals and awards encourage men to risk their lives, that the peer pressure of shame is a powerful force, that certain failures in combat threaten the honor of one’s manhood, etc.

Specifically regarding the honorable associations of battle, contemporary publications frequently made explicit associations between the honor of battle and the (relative) dishonor of siegecraft. Even today, honor affects how we think about military events, generals, wars and even countries. The honorableness of battle helps frame which types of combat we consider interesting. Look at the number of siege wargames played vs. the number of battle scenarios played by wargamers (lets keep it pre-20C to avoid the battle-siege conflation we’ve discussed elsewhere) – why do we want to relive only the battles over and over again? Another example: why are the Duke of Marlborough’s campaigns far more popular than William III’s? And what is it specifically about Marlborough’s campaigns that everyone writes about? Would Marlborough be considered “England’s greatest general” if he hadn’t won Blenheim and Ramillies, but just had “his” conquests of Lille and Tournai? More broadly, who are the “Great Captains” of history and what do they have in common? They win battles, or, perversely, they even lose battles, but at least they were honorable enough to “fight like a man,” and not skulk behind walls. (From Google Books it looks like one of the earliest published appearances of the phrase “fight like a man” comes from 1677.) See my “The ‘Decisive’ Battle of Ramillies, 1706: Prerequisites for Decisiveness in Early Modern Warfare,” Journal of Military History, 64 (2000): 649-677 for a discussion of how historians have discussed Marlborough’s campaigns in exceedingly battle-centric terms, and denigrated those who were less willing to fight battles, portraying battle avoidance as practically a pathology.

Non-battle tactics are certainly used, sometimes they even dominate wars, but: 1) contemporaries preferred the honor of battle even as they besieged, 2) the most honorable parts of a siege were those that most closely resemble battle on the open plain (i.e. storming the covered way or a sally for the garrison), and 3) today we aren’t as interested in those wars and tactics, and when we do talk about them, we’re just as apologetic as contemporaries were, often talking as if they weren’t ‘real’ wars. Westerners have been worried about the effect of skulking behind fortifications since the Ancient world – this is a hint that there’s a fundamental Western (universal?) principle at work. Even if you are besieging an enemy fortress and you entrench your own position so it is impregnable against a relief force, you still complain about how you wish they would come out and fight you. We see the same ambiguity with light infantry tactics – they and their practitioners take a surprisingly long time to be accepted into widespread use in Europe, and even then, it is still accompanied by concerns about what effect it will have on the men, and what it says about you that you have to resort to such measures. It’s those thieves, Celtic bandits and Indian savages that skulk behind rocks and trees. Heck, it’s more manly to burn down their villages. A few early moderns I’ve come across explicitly say that while partisan and siege warfare are necessary, there is little honor in them. We could also look at what jurists and warriors have said regarding assassination and ‘feminine’ arts like poisoning the enemy; stratagems are a whole other area where we see this ambiguous debate in the West (and probably elsewhere). You use stratagems, but the best stratagems are those that force a battle, and then those that allow you to avoid a battle. Most importantly, you want to make sure that you aren’t dishonored by getting taken in by an enemy stratagem. In short, you may have to adopt less-than-honorable tactics and weapons, but you don’t brag about it too much, you don’t focus on it, and you don’t fully embrace it for fear of the effects it will have on your self-identity.

Then there’s the question of whether there are ‘more honorable’ forms of fighting or not, i.e. certain weapons or tactics seen as more honorable than others. Most immediately projectile vs. melee weapons comes to mind, and the fact that the differences between them have been discussed in the West for millennia should tell us something. Consider the “Western way of war’s” idealization of hand-to-hand combat, whether it’s Victor Davis Hanson’s account of the hoplites or the persistent view of Orientals fighting sneakily described in Patrick Porter’s Military Orientalism: Eastern War Through Western Eyes. And while one *uses* projectile weapons and ‘machines’, if only because the enemy is doing it or because you need to make up for  other disadvantages, the full adoption (and particularly the psychological embrace) of such weapons can take a long time to develop, if ever. This is where honor comes in: it’s not something many (early) adopters are proud of having to hire others to use, or are particularly proud of if they use it themselves. There is less honor in striking down your foe from a distant hiding spot than baring your breast to your opponent, meeting your enemy on the open plain in a fair fight. Look at the ambivalence with regard to snipers vs. a soldier who is brave enough to expose himself to enemy fire. Which of these is a more honorable way of fighting? Which branch gets the most recruits? Which branch is given priority in funding and receives higher status, both social and professional? Unlike the tradition of the steppe plains, the West never really sees its military elite fully adopt projectile weapons as its main weapon – the shock of lance and sword dominate. Even in the age of pike and shot, it’s the pike that is the ‘queen’ of weapons, more honorable because of its connotations of strength and cold steel. I’m not sure, but I wonder if the 18C officer’s honor was validated by the fact that his primary weapon is still bladed, and contrasted with the fact that his inherently less-honorable men use muskets?

We are of course talking in broad generalities here, as there are obvious exceptions to every historical ‘rule,’ and there is at least somewhat of a divide between what the public at large thinks vs. what ‘professional’ military soldiers are told to think in their manuals – although we need to avoid the assumption of modern professionalism in our early moderns. There are distinctions between how you actually fight, how you describe your own way of fighting, how your enemy fights, and how you describe your enemy’s way of fighting. The differences between these tell us a lot about how you view yourself and your wars. Honor plays a key role in this, by describing some ways of war as more honorable than others, – battle and hand-to-hand combat particularly. It may not dictate how every member of your army fights all the time, but it influences how you talk about the method of fighting that you do use, how you would prefer to fight, how long it takes you to change your style of combat (look at the resistance to Vauban that I chronicle in Vauban under Siege), how you respond to the enemy’s actions, and what kind of constraints you put on your fighting. Honor is obviously malleable enough to be wrapped around a variety of ways of war, i.e. you justify your own actions whatever they are. But it’s a lot easier to claim honor if you’re fighting a battle and coming to blows with the enemy.

It seems the importance of honor depends on how you view its construction. Is it an instrumental concept, i.e. a tool people use to encourage certain types of behavior and discourage others? Or maybe there’s a Western or universal honor ideal that people aspire to, an ideal that shapes their identity or provides prescriptive rules of behavior? Perhaps a cynical view is required, where honor is simply a post hoc justification for what you’ve already done or want to do. A big question.

Thoughts would be appreciated, as this topic will be a big part of my battle book.

In the near future I’ll post an extended American football analogy to illustrate my points further.

Suggested Readings

  • I don’t know if anyone has really written a sustained discussion of martial honor in its own terms. Brian Sandberg and Michael Hughes have recently published on masculinity and honor in a military context. John Lynn has talked more generally about different cultural views of combat, and while I disagree with some of his views on Enlightened warfare, it’s an important starting point for a ‘cultural’ approach to war and includes a useful model for the interactions between ideal and real war. There’s been a lot of literature on contrasting ways of war in North America (Patrick Malone, John Grenier, Wayne Lee….) that highlight the ambiguity and hybridity of frontier fighting, including how European/American colonists may have adopted native techniques, but they were clearly uncomfortable embracing them.