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Writing those battles


toujours gai, archie
This is indeed a question that can elicit whole books worth of replies. I'll make a couple of initial forays.

One, there are historical and cultural differences to take into account. What we learned as younguns in school cannot be pasted back into the past or across cultures. Each has to be considered in its own light. Indeed, even what was taught in "mainstream" schools doesn't translate well within our own subcultures.

So there's that.

Two, there's an important distinction to be made between the dominant culture, whatever it may be, and the individual soldier. Between, that is, individual motivations and cultural expectations or protestations. Any serious discussion needs to take that into account.

Just to take that last point a step further (then I'll stop for now), consider what an individual might consider to be good reasons for war and most especially for participating in war. "Glory" might be a factor, but there could be many others. Indeed, human beings are complicated creatures and we almost never do something big and serious for one reason only. We have layers of reasons, some of which might even be contradictory. More, we have a remarkable capacity to fool ourselves, so the soldier might say one thing, believe another, and believe something yet different that he is suppressing or denying or disguising.

This makes fertile ground for telling stories, but it makes writing history a challenge, especially when you start trying to deal not with individuals but with entire groups, classes, subcultures, and so on.

No easy answer to this one.

Mad Swede

Hmm. The glorification of war. I think that there is a need to separate the glorification of military power and prowess (so-called militarism), the glorification of a proactive and agressive foreign policy (so-called jingoism) and the glorification of the bravery, willingess and need to defend one's country, society and way of life. In my experience these aren't the same thing.

Like many (most?) veterans I have very mixed feelings about war. I've been in some fairly unpleasant combat situations, seen some truly horrific events and lived to see the end results. I've seen the shattered society, the lost and orphaned children, the graves and the disabled survivors that so often follow a war. There's nothing glorious about any of it. I despair of the idiocy and pettiness seen in some political leaders, the sort of stupidity which leads to misjudgements and military conflict. Yet I also miss the sense of purpose and cameraderie I got in the army, that sense of being there for one another, that sense of seeing just what we could achieve together. At the same time I also see the need for people like me, people willing fight to defend our freedom and way of life. We are the price everyone else pays for their freedom.

Does any of this glorify war? No, not in my view. To me, war is a failure of deterrent policy. And that alone means it isn't glorious. But it might be neccessary.

For some Swedish/Finnish reading in the form of poetry, try Johan Ludvig Runeberg's Fänrik Ståls sägner (in English, The Tales of Ensign Stål).


Like many (most?) veterans I have very mixed feelings about war. I've been in some fairly unpleasant combat situations, seen some truly horrific events and lived to see the end results. I've seen the shattered society, the lost and orphaned children, the graves and the disabled survivors that so often follow a war. There's nothing glorious about any of it.
Yet that perspective appears to be largely a consequence of industrialization of warfare. In many premodern societies - e.g. ancient Greece, Rome, Gaul - participation in warfare was seen as a sign of passing into manhood, a sign of maturity. You had bands of young warriors forming for no reason other than showcasing their own maturity - look up the Irish Fianna and the Gallic Gaesatae.

As always, we should be careful about ascribing our own experiences to the historical societies.


toujours gai, archie
I read the Anabasis not too long ago and was struck at how ... erratic? Random? some of the violence was. Sometimes a force was sent out to secure supplies, sometimes it was to exact a revenge, and sometimes it was little more than to plunder or make a demonstration of force. Was this even war? It was certainly warfare, but it was an expeditionary force trying to get home through hostile territory. Yet, these Greek soldiers are glorified in later writings. What are we to make of that?

My Roman history prof would jokingly tell how the Romans were so ferocious in their wars because they didn't like war. They wanted it over with so they could get back to their farms and drink wine. But the Greeks loved war. It was a way to show off, to get a nice battle scar, something to do in the summer. Casualties were low. Sure, a comic exaggeration, but it did illustrate to me that there are many factors that enter into the events that come under the heading of "war".


That is a massive question which would probably take a multi-volume set to address...

Here's my nutshell...

It's based on England because that has been my study and there are several (relevant) phases.

The first is the warlord/feudal system. The fighting was done by aristocracy who wanted to keep their titles and possessions - their henchmen who wanted to keep their exalted positions - and everyone else that owed them service and could be pressed into battle (before going back to work on the harvest). War was very much an economic transaction - given the importance of land. No-one was heroic, except for the aristocracy and the best of their henchmen - who often were rewarded with land and titles themselves.

The next phase (after the Jacobean dynasty) saw less of the aristocracy fighting and more of the gentry. The army was remodelled under Cromwell and the servicing of the growing empire required a professional army and navy. War was still fundamentally economic and because so many of the gentry had a vested interest in the fruits of empire, soldiers became famous (glorious) celebrities and were feted in society. Except the ranks, of course. The ranks were often the sweepings of the gaols - given a choice of hanging or the army or transportation to the colonies. (Some actually chose hanging.) They were expected to die quickly in any case as the main military tactic was to march very slowly toward the guns. For the gentry and lesser aristocracy (like Wellington) the army was a place to get famous. It was possible to purchase your way up to high rank (as Wellington did in the early part of his career.)

By the time of WW1 - when the nature and locus of fame had profoundly changed and the emergence of horror weapons made the chances of survival more problematic - and the purchase system had been abandoned - the army was far less attractive to the aristocracy and the gentry so became the domain of the professionals and the volunteers. Patriotism, of course, was waved in the faces of the potential volunteers in times of great need, but the glory had very much been tarnished by that point.

I don't really know what the story is now. Mad Swede would have a view. From what I've seen the only place for glory now is within the regiments and units themselves and their traditions. The army is a place for professionals and scientists and is very secret. No-one really talks about it and there are no famous soldiers unless they get busted doing something wrong.

So there you go - a thousand years of military perception and psychological profile. The only thing that hasn't changed is that war is always - fundamentally - about economics. Wanting what others have got or defending what you have.
There are a number of famous ones. Most became famous due to tragic circumstances or ended in tragedy. Chris Kyle ended in tragedy, Marcus Luttrell survived a tragic circumstance, Dakota Meyer also surviving a tragic circumstance.