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May 21, 2009

In Which I Talk Entirely Out of My Hat About the Evolution of Martial Honor

In the previous post, I stated that for all of human history, the right of a sovereign to hold captured enemy fighters indefinitely -- or at least until war's end -- was unchallenged. I made up the number "for 50,000+ years." As a guess.

Now, the thing is, for a good chunk of human history -- the biggest part of human history -- captured enemies weren't "detained." They were executed. They were killed, the older boys were killed (next season's fighters, after all), the young boys were made into slaves and the women and girls were pressed into rape-slavery.

At some point -- I have no idea when -- rules of war began emerging.

And the rules of war were, inextricably, connected to the code of martial honor that emerged among professional fighters.

I am not an idealist. I'm a pragmatist and a cynic. (But a happy cynic: I am not disappointed by people acting in their own self-interest; it's what I expect them to do, and am not wracked at night by the depravity of humanity as I fall asleep at night. I assume people act in their own best interests, which makes their occasional acts of true altruism and heroism all the more precious and praiseworthy.)

So when something emerges, especially in the brutal, more barbarous past, I assume it emerged because of enlightened self-interest, not due to any altruistic, humanitarian impulses.

This comes around to the idea of unlawful combatants. Stay with me. I'm going somewhere with this.

In the most uncivilized period of human history, any enemy fighter was routinely put to death. A dead man doesn't fight you next hunting season, after all. But eventually that practice was replaced by merely holding enemy captures.


Again, being a pragmatist and cynic, I subscribe to the notion that every profession is a conspiracy against the laity. That is, that every guild, or union, or professional organization and licensing board exists primarily to favor its members -- those in the club -- over non-members.

Enter professional soldiers. Or, before there were true "professional soldiers," then the warrior caste of a tribe.

Killing every single captured enemy soldier makes compete sense -- unless you yourself happen to be a professional soldier or warrior, in which case... well, you're going to get captured eventually, now aren't you? You aren't gong to win every fight. Once in a while -- and more than that, probably -- you're going to find yourself captured, and you're going to begin strongly questioning the logic behind the notion that every enemy soldier should be put to the sword (or club) by the winning army.

Killing every enemy makes sense for the tribe -- especially its non-warriors. Killing every enemy makes far less sense for the actual warriors, who will certainly be on the wrong side of this tradition at some point.

And so the conspiracy of the profession begins: Warriors in Tribe A and Warriors in Tribe B may hate each other with a white-hot passion, but they do agree on one thing: It's probably in our best interests if we change the tradition of simply killing every single defeated enemy. The warriors' interests, in both tribes, diverges from their respective tribes' interests.

But warriors tend to rule tribes, don't they?, so a new tradition begins: Warriors are not be put to the sword willy-nilly, but in fact are owed good treatment. Why? Well, because... they fought honorably, and don't deserve mistreatment and murder just because they lost honorably.

And so the notion of honor begins: Honorable warriors are entitled to mercy. If they truly are honorable, and don't egregiously violate an emerging code of good martial conduct, their lives are spared.

Soldiery is now no longer a guaranteed death sentence, which heartens the soldiers -- and the soldiers who are their enemy opposites -- greatly. And as soldiers now live longer, they can begin to better develop traditions.

What at first is an unstated compact governing the treatment of captured honorable warriors quickly extends to how a warrior should treat non-warriors as well: After all, a warrior's life is important, but also very important to him is how his kinsmen and wife and daughters are treated by a conquering army.

Soldiery stops being pure butchery and mayhem and develops into something of a guild with its own rules and member-lists. And a genuine code of ethical conduct.

Note, by the way, "martial honor" is most synonymous with those fighters coming from the ruling classes, or their close kin: Knights, samurai. Rabble pressed into battle usually didn't have martial honor, but then, they weren't professionals, now were they? They didn't observe the rules of war because they barely knew of them at all.

(And to this day officers tend to get somewhat better treatment as POWs than enlisted men. Both get freedom from mistreatment, of course. But officers get more by way of privileges and occasional comfort. Self-interest again: Officers run things, and want the same things themselves should they be captured.)

At any rate: I'm thinking about this because of the left's bizarre insistence that there is no such thing as an "unlawful combatant," or, even granting such a thing exists, that they should be treated no differently than a lawful fighter.

If my speculative noodlings on the ancient evolution of honor are correct -- and I am 99.99% sure they are, despite being an utter imbecile in this area; it just makes too much sense to be wrong -- the whole notion of "honor" evolved in order to distinguish those who played by the rules from those who didn't, to grant mercy to those who would grant mercy in return.

It's a general contract-at-large among honorable fighters for securing reciprocal rights and reciprocal advantage.

I will fight by the rules and grant you mercy and even good treatment if you should fall to my army, if and only if you in turn to grant me the self-same rights and privileges. Abide by the terms of this floating, unsigned contract -- and have a reputation of doing so -- and you will enjoy the contract's protections.

Violate the contract and you won't.

The Geneva Conventions did not arise out of a vacuum. Honorable conduct in war was not invented there. It's ancient. It predates the knights and samurai and Roman Centurions.

The Geneva Conventions merely collected, codified, and committed to legalistic writing a martial code of honor, and the reciprocal Rules of War, that had existed for at least several thousand years before nations began formally signing a treaty agreeing to abide by such rules.

I mention this just because it's on my mind right now, and it's sort of interesting, and also to note that the idea of granting full Prisoner of War rights to illegal, criminal, dishonorable enemy fighters does not merely make the treaty obligations of Geneva signatories into nonsense and gibberish. It also makes hash of the whole several-millennia history of the rules of war and the code of honorable martial conduct those rules gave rise to. It undermines them; hell, it destroys them.

The whole idea, from the time warfare first began to become a profession at all, was to distinguish between those who observed the rules of honor from those who didn't, and to reward those who did while letting those who didn't face the roughest justice at all -- victor's justice.

Treating Al Qaeda "fighters" as "honorable" and deserving the treatment an honorable warrior receives destroys the whole reason, rooted in enlightened self-interest and long traditions growing out of that self-interest, for behaving honorably at all.

Oh, and Economics: There are a lot of interesting facts and/or opinions in the comments on this. Economics are mentioned in two contexts: Ransoming elite-caste warriors (e.g., rich knights), and codifying rules to limit wars from spiraling out of control -- as war is an extraordinarily expensive affair.

Also offered as a contrary supposition is the idea that it makes sense to offer your enemy good treatment upon surrender, as that encourages surrender (and means you'll win more often and at a less dear price). True... but you'd still want vengeance upon particularly savage combatants who raped and slaughtered your kinsmen. So yeah, that makes sense, but still: Honor the rules and you have a better chance of getting out of this alive.

It's Wrong: Even though I liked the sound of my own voice as I typed, I think I was not just talking out of my head but being dumb while doing so.

Commenters have called shenanigans on this. Dave from Garfield Ridge makes several of their points in an email:

Your theory about martial valor is nice, but it's a bit bunky.

The short version: read Keegan's "Face of Battle," or anything about the Greeks by VDH.

The medium version: remember, back in the Bronze Age and before, you had two factors working in favor of prisoners versus executed captives.

First, as in the Greek's civilized warfare (at least before the brutally savage breakdown of civilization that was the Peloponnesian War), warfare was very decisive but it wasn't necessarily *bloody*. You didn't have professional soldiers, but the citizen-soldiers were very honorable: march out on an afternoon, fight it out, winner that day "wins", the loser gets to go home and think it over. Repeat every summer. This is mostly in-line with your post.

That said, the *second* factor was economic, but not in the feudal sense of your update, but in a very primitive sense: able-bodied people are valuable as slaves. Slavery wasn't a racial thing then, it really was just a case of "you losers are ours, now enjoy the Wheel of Pain." This was especially true outside of the Greek world-- the Greeks kept slaves, but the rest of humanity then was even worse in that respect.

Thus, there wasn't a value in executing your prisoners. One, because, as you said, you were likely to face them the next time around-- and the wars *had* to stop, because these folks had to get back to their farms (interestingly, as VDH puts it, it was the Athenian democracy-- and the lower-class urban people it empowered-- that enabled warfare to be fought outside of the traditional campaigning seasons, as there was manpower to spare). Second, living slaves were more valuable than dead prisoners.

Anyway, it's inaccurate to suggest that there was ever a period of time where captured enemies were routinely executed-- they were just spared for very different reasons than those under which we spare prisoners today.

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posted by Ace at 05:15 PM

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