Off the subject…

But isn’t that what I’m famous for? Yesterday’s post on janissaries and military service got me ruminating on the subject of combat, and all the schemes various rulers have tried over the millennia to entice other people to fight for them. Nowadays most of us think of military service in terms of modern volunteer armies or, in time of war, conscription (draft) armies. You sign up for (or get signed up for) a stint of two or more years, during which time it’s expected you’ll devote yourself 24-7 to your service, usually very far from home. In exchange you’re paid in money, educational scholarships, professional training or some combination of those. When your time is up you go home and return to your regular life.

But it wasn’t always thus. In ages gone by, if a king or an emperor or a sultan needed men to do a little (or a lot of) fighting, there generally weren’t standing armies to turn to. Armies had to be raised, usually from a citizenry of people who had better things to do like tend their farms, practice their trades, raise their families and so on. Getting them to show up on a battlefield to fight and die wasn’t easy. And once your guys did turn out there was no guarantee they’d stay. Nowadays we have terms like “desertion” and “going AWOL” for people who pick up and leave an army whenever they feel like it. But those terms had no meaning for armies of yore. A mass of men who showed up couldn’t be flogged into staying (they’d just flog you back), they had to be enticed and motivated.

Which is of course where bribery entered the picture. Much of the time, say if a nearby tribal chieftain owed you a favor, you could get him to turn out his private militia. Slaves might make decent soldiers too, if in return for their service you promised them heightened status or their freedom. Mercenaries are of course a never-fail, provided the money hold out. And then for the average Joe there was always the promise of loot, weapons, lands, titles, even wives that they might pick up over the course of a campaign.

But what if there was no money or booty, nor any promise of any, to offer your would-be fighting guys? Well then all you had to rely on was your personality. And while that might sound like a joke it isn’t. In fact antiquity’s most successful military leaders weren’t just skilled at arms, they were also great orators: highly charismatic people who understood how to turn knock-knee’d recruits into bloodthirsty berzerkers with a few well-chosen words. An example that springs to mind is William Wallace as portrayed in the movie Braveheart. Even better is Shakespeare’s Henry V (now that guy knew how to string words together!). Sadly in this day of guided missiles, fancy battlefield speechifying has gone out of style. Though it remains the reason why rhetoric is a subject that’s still taught in military schools. I guess because you never know when you might have to whip up your men to get them to charge once more into the breach.

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming….

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