Soldiers and Civilization

“The soldier is both the least civilized and the most civilized of persons. Soldiers walk the weird wall at the edge of civilization, but they are prepared to serve their civilization and society without stint or limit. As the French theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari remark, soldiers are constantly in danger of forsaking that which they serve and of forgetting the nature of what they do. That paradox of the soldier’s profession is the central concern of this book. The soldier has played a vital, inescapable, and neglected role in the formation of human civilization, and must have a part in its future survival.”

“In this work I will argue that the current situation of the military profession is far from unprecedented, that the past contains clues and guidelines to its current state of affairs, and that an enlightened reconsideration of the nature of historical military professionalism is required in order to understand the challenges of the twenty-first-century military profession. I am not the first to suggest that postmodernity recapitulates the premodern and early modern. The wider one’s historical perspective, the more the current situation can be seen as representing, in varying degrees, a return or revival of some past trend, of facts and challenges soldiers have faced many times in the past.”

“Armies build as well as destroy. Soldiers are often involved in the restoration of peace after victory. At the times when members of the profession of arms have made their greatest contributions, they have viewed themselves and been viewed as serving a larger societal, cultural, and ethical function. It would not be too much to say that at such times the soldier has been in the vanguard of civilization. At other moments soldiers have become what they beheld and given way to callousness, ambition, and love of slaughter. The dangers of narrow professionalism have also been, in their way, as dangerous as those of lack of professionalism. This legacy challenges modern military professionals to view their inheritance with a mixture of respect and skepticism and to be instructed by the positive examples of soldiers of the past as well as by their errors and omissions.”

“We begin with the ancient Greeks and the Iliad. Homer’s war poem forms the ethical and theoretical underpinnings of Greek warfare and of the embryonic but prodigious military professionalism of the ancient Greeks. . . In the period of Greek intellectual flowering, interest in warfare and the nature of military professionalism attracted the attention of the best minds of the time. Given the nature of Greek society, the philosophers, dramatists, and historians were often also soldiers of considerable experience and repute. . . Greek civilization suffused the practice of warfare with an ethical code, a literary and cultural narrative, a scientific discourse, and an evolving war-fighting tradition.”

“In a sense the Romans approached war literally and figuratively as an engineering problem. To gain an advantage they would move mountains of earth and stone and build siege engines, torsion field artillery, and fortifications. They engineered their formations and tactics to minimize exposure and maximize flexibility, lethality, mutual support, and a combination of arms. Romans’ realism and ingenuity when it came to preserving the physical and moral powers of soldiers fighting in hand-to-hand battle continued to define their approach to warfare. It has been said of the Greeks that they were goaded into military excellence partly by poverty, as indicated by the number of Greek men who hired themselves out as mercenaries (and echoed by the impoverished Irishmen and Germans who later did likewise). The Romans grew from adversity, even from defeat, and perhaps also from lack of physical stature. Often outsized by some of their formidable North African and northern European enemies, and confronted by elephants or heavy cavalry, the smaller, infantry-centric Romans had to develop organizations and tactics that negated or reversed their enemies’ size advantage in hand-to-hand fighting. The legion and army continued to evolve. The manipular legion was gradually replaced in the second century BCE by the legion of ten cohorts, each of about six hundred men. This arrangement preserved the flexibility of the manipular legion while simplifying command and control.”