John Keegan
War and Our World

The redcoat army, the bluejacket navy of the eighteenth century flogged and hanged without mercy when its code was broken, and the breaches of law it punished with violence included rape and looting as well as mutiny. To the inhabitants of the Spanish Netherlands during the Eighty Years War, to the inhabitants of Germany in the Thirty Years War, to the inhabitants of France during the Hundred Years War, rape and looting were what the approach of an army portended.

The soldier was a hated figure in mediaeval and renaissance Europe, as the paintings of Breughel and the engravings of Callot graphically portray. A despised one also: soldiers ate and drank at the common people's expense, uncontrolled by their officers; they were a roughriding lot themselves who also took what they chose, including sexual favours, paid for nothing and, if opposed, tortured and killed. When the common people got their chance of revenge, they took it. Callot's series of engravings divides equally into scenes of atrocity by soldiers against civilians and of reprisals by civilians against soldiers when stragglers fell into their clutches. The image of the soldier as criminal or oppressor belongs, moreover, to most times and places. The Roman soldiers of the New Testament—men under authority, as Christ's dialogue with the centurion reminds us—supplied not merely his torturers and executioners but, if St Paul's appeal to soldiers not to commit extortion conveys anything about their behaviourm they were blackmailers and robbers as well.

Why, for so long and in so many places, was the individual soldier hated and despised? Hated because he misbehaved, of course; despised because he was usually a person plucked from the lowest ranks of society, a man unable to make an honest living or someone who put himself beyond the bounds of honesty, by fathering an illegitimate child he could not support, by committing theft or murder. Enlistment offered him an escape from the law, armies being unfussy about accepting recruits who were usefully brutal, as long as they would thereafter submit to the brutal rules of obedience armies themselves imposed. The soldier was regarded as a being particularly low in the sophisticated society of China, where his status equated with that of prostitutes and criminals. Even in Victorian Britain, which tolerated no civil misbehaviour by Tommy Atkins, the common soldier was a social outcast. Since he was forbidden to marry without permission and in any case earned too little to support a wife, he could not belong to respectable society. 'I would rather see you buried than in a red coat' wrote the mother of William Robertson, a future field-marshal, when he gave up a position as a domestic servant to go for a soldier. Better a footman than a cavalryman, her honest village soul protested, even in an age when the Widow of Windsor's army was run as strictly as a Sunday School.

How, then, had Doctor Johnson taken the view that men could think better of themselves for having been a soldier? It is not too difficult to solve the conundrum. The possession of superior force is a perpetual temptation to behave badly, and we lack no evidence of that from our newspapers and television screens. The strong sometimes kill the weak as if by a rule of human nature and can actually be stimulated to kill by the victim's weakness. My friend Don McCullin, the great war photographer, a witness of terrible scenes of massacre in Lebanon and elsewhere, gives it as his opinion that the attempt to reason with armed men bent on murder positively discourages them from feeling pity.

There is, however, a contrary principle in human nature, one which we also recognise as an apparently universal rule. That is that the use of force by the strong against the weak is an intrinsically repellent activity. Typically, it brings remorse; we define the psychopath as a being incapable of remorse. Equally typically, the desire to avoid the occasion of remorse translates, both in the individual and in the culture to which he belongs, into the ethic of fair fight. Sport supplies an analogy. Winning teams take no satisfaction in defeating known losers. They seek a contest between equals, glory in victory if they achieve it, acquiesce in honourable defeat if they do not.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.