Security and Foreign Policy

Would You Die For Brooklyn?

In an age ridden with wars, there is much to be learned from past conduct during wartime. Ambassador Jose A. Zorrilla argues that while the rules of combat have evolved through the years, issues of allegiance and outsourcing militaries continue to be prevalent in today's day and age.


Would you die for Brooklyn? Unless you are Woody Allen, the answer is probably no. And for New York City? Again, the answer is likely no. Surprisingly, many people have died for their city. Look no farther than Rome or Athens. Indeed, these cities were sovereign powers. But Burgos or Toledo were not, and both declared war on Emperor Charles V when he came to Spain as a King. Moreover, Romans, an Empire based upon a city, coined the famous line: “It is sweet to die for the Homeland”. (Dulce decorum est pro patria mori) But they did not always abide by it. Pyrrhus, of Pyrrhic fame, was a mercenary, who served the Senate and the people. Greeks also fought for money. Perhaps you remember Chapter One of James Joyce´s Ulysses, when the Irish characters living in the Marcello Tower quote the Anabasis of Xenophon and cry with the Army upon seeing the sea: “Thalassa, thalassa!”. Well, those eager and sea loving soldiers were mercenaries at the service of the Persian King Cirus. But please do not say that to any Greek friend! They were just heroes in search of glory.

What about the next step up- a State, say Alabama? Would it deserve the sacrifice of a human life? Again, most likely not. And the mother of all States, Texas? Careful this time. Colonel Houston fought a war for an independent Texas; many died with him to that end. And yet, things went the opposite way, and nobody would take to the battlefield for Texas today. Hope they don´t, they would beat anybody for sure.

I am not in a particularly moody spirit to raise the subject of death pro patria, but Trump has a proposal from the usual winners to outsource the Army, as a whole, to a pack of wild geese, also known as, mercenaries. Might sound freaky to leave the Stars and Stripes in the hands of markets. But the proposal is not as crazy as it sounds. For centuries, if not milennia, traders and peasants would have considered unthinkable to leave their professions and fight for the King. Wars were instruments of power between sovereigns. And it was not vital who the sovereign was. All you had to do, as a good subject, was to pay the agreed taxes to whichever sovereign won the war. That created a very odd army indeed, at least in Europe. A body of mercenaries or otherwise forced conscripts under the command of a few. The few were noblemen bound by the rules of honor and duty. Things went as far as to accept as a norm not to shoot officers and not to disarm them in case of defeat. They would need the sword to defend themselves from the soldiers that would try to strip them. Kindness that the other field repaid in kind. These codes found a memorable quote just before the Battle of Fontenoy, 1745, between the French and the English. Addressing the English top brass in the field, the French officers begged. “You shoot first, English gentlemen” (“Tirez vous les premiers Messieurs les Anglais“) to which the English replied no less politely: “We never shoot first“. Those were the days!

These niceties were universal rules of war. The English General Campbell, besieged by General Galvez at Pensacola, begged for a laissez passer for his cook and his footman, a request that was granted at once. Imagine this behavior in the siege of Stalingrad 150 years later!. By the way, many of the soldiers that tried to check the unruly colons of the 13 Colonies were not English patriots but German mercenaries. Remember the Declaration of Independence: “He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy…”

Natives fought on both sides. I imagine they were not driven by just allegiance. All this came to an end with the French Revolution when war became national. The French felt they were attacked by the forces of superstition and took to the hills and rivers in a bellicose mood. France was no longer a Kingdom but a Homeland. It deserved the sacrifice of every living soul (male) in the Republic, no longer subjects but citizens. Officers, of course, ceased to be noblemen, though some carried a stick of Marshall in their backpacks, as Napoleon put it.

For some time, it was believed that national armies were superior to mercenary armies, as the Battle of Valmy showed. On that occasion, the citizens´ Army of Jemappes defeated the trained soldiers of Prussia. Problems began when other countries figured that the best way to defeat the French nation was to become a nation themselves. Say Spain´s guerrilla. War became then a gore scenario. We did not have at the time a Robert Capa to document the horrors of war. But we had Goya and his sketches, his notebooks. Impalements, disembowelments, rape, all the terrible things that happen when a nation fights another nation- unknown till then. This state of affairs survived almost two centuries with Hitler´s Germany and Stalin´s USSR as the epitomes of national massacres. Then came Vietnam. Draft was still the norm as if Ho Chi Min had been Hitler. Only he was not. Nor Stalin, as George F. Kennan remarked. Middle class kids revolted; to die for the US was acceptable but to die for the Pentagon was not. The Generals had invented a war they could not win. And what was worse is that it was for no reason. The American Army became professional, that is, with all due respect, mercenary. The example became the norm for it was not only based upon the futility of war but on solid technological advances. Armies began to be highly dependent on capital and all the hardware that came along with it demanded well trained specialists. Today, a mercenary is an accepted presence in the theater of military operations. Why should we discard the possibility of going a step ahead and outsource the war, as such, to a corps of mercenaries? Mercenaries were afterall the norm not so long ago. Even today, Saudi Arabia relies heavily on an Army of well-paid professionals to wage war in Yemen.

I admit symbols play a role. A battle is not like a football game with casualties. It seems as if when you win or lose a battle, you win or lose your honor. Now, but not before. Back in the Middle Ages, heralds were the arbiters of triumph or defeat. Compare it to referees in a football field. They decided which of the two sides had won the day. Nothing personal, I would say. I think that spirit still lingers in some people even today. As an English royal put it famously: “sometimes we won, sometimes we lost and sometimes we broke even“. A lofty way of dealing with the sacrifice of millions. If you were Trump, would you go for the next chapter and leave war in the hands of the markets and dispense with honor, flags, parades and the like? Which character do you prefer, Lord Horatio Nelson or the African-Venetian Moor, the sail for hire Othello? Look at it from the other side before you give a final answer. If Iraq or Libya are not national wars and you no longer fight for King and country or the Constitution for which you pledged allegiance, would you die for the military-industrial complex?

Yes, no. Depending on the pay? Tick the right box.

DISCLAIMER: The author is in no way connected to any corporation engaged in military plans to turn the US Armed forces into an army of mercenaries. The article above is the result of a roving life, a cosmopolitan rootless condition and endless discussions with the usual losers.

Ambassador Jose A. Zorrilla is a career diplomat from Spain with postings in Milan (1989), Toronto (1993), Shanghai (2001), Moscow (2004), and Tbilisi (2009). He has published a book on the rise of China “China la primavera que llega” (China, the spring that arrives) and shot two documentary films (“Los Justos” (The Righteous) and “El desierto y las olas” (The Desert and the Waves)) and one full length film “El Arreglo” (The Deal) that won the Opera Prima Prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival in 1983.  He has just published a novel “El espía en Saratov” (The Spy in Saratov) (De Librum Tremens) and “Historia fantástica de Europa” (An Imaginary History of Europe). He is a frequent contributor to El Mundo with articles focusing mostly on current affairs.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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