Here is a technology that is going to get me in trouble. To even begin to talk about this subject I am fighting eighty years of Hollywood and three or four centuries of dramatic writing before that. Thinking on G.B. Shaw's play for example, Caesar and Cleopatra, the dialogue is loaded with officers addressing subordinates and subordinates saluting officers, all completely anachronistic but thoroughly taken for granted as "The Way It Was."
Not that I think Caesar and Cleopatra is a bad play. I love Shaw, and the play is well worth watching ... provided one remembers that its a tale about how the British Army arrives and occupies Egypt with the aid of a bratty English schoolgirl. It bears about as much similarity to Caesar and the Roman army as the film Starship Troopers describes the future development of the U.S. Army.
Hey, I like that movie too. But it is as realistic a depiction of a future military organization as the recently dead Amy Winehouse is a representation of ...
No, I'd better stop there. I could do this all day.
Now, look. Drama demands that to make any military force familiar to the audience, officers and subordinates are key. Therefore a Centurion is not only a recognized military veteran and an acknowledged and respected peer (which he was), he is someone with RANK who is SALUTED and OBEYED without question, who furthermore has the right to CONDEMN any subordinate soldier who does not immediately obey him.
I'm going to get comments, but I am sorry people. It is all bullshit.
If you want a more realistic depiction of the military prior to the early 18th century, I suggest you find a copy of Homer's Iliad or Odyssey. I suggest reading some lengthy first-person accounts about the Crusades - particularly the military cluster-fuck that was the First Crusade.
I'm not saying that men did not lead men. I am not saying that Alexander's troops did not obey Alexander, or that Caesar's troops did not obey Caesar. I'm not saying that Alexander wouldn't have had a man executed for not obeying orders. I'm saying that there was no established, ordered, defacto system which ranked soldiers that gave person A absolute power over person B. In fact, throughout the Greek period, and for the majority of the Roman Republic, soldiers were part time, very often not paid at all, who were gathering together to defend their land, such that it was. A standing, paid army was not part of the Roman state until the time of Marius, about 107 B.C.; prior to that, it was an unheard of concept. Discipline was uncoordinated and on the whole confused, and managed better by the Roman legions than by its enemies on the whole because Romans were educated, held the same political views and sought the same results. There was never any Roman boot camp and the soldiers never received any 'training' in the sense that we understand military training. They did learn to march together, and they did learn to fight as a unit ... but very likely not with the crisp perfection of a Kubrick production, or any other Hollywood representation of Romans on the march.
O gentle reader, if you find yourself immediately disagreeing with me, it only shows how much absolute second hand shit you've read or watched about the Roman army. Admittedly, I haven't read my Polybius in awhile. I know that my regular reader Carl has ... and he might jump in and correct me with a few points. Carl, when you do, please quote Polybius, 'kay?
It is not as though I wanted to write this particular essay. Too many readers and D&D players in the world are ex-military, and thus steeped (indoctrinated) with misinformation about the measure and means of military organizations that have existed since the dawn of time. I am reminded of a song I learned when I was a young boy, having memorized the words even before I knew what they meant:
"Some talk of Alexander, and some of Hercules,
of Hector and Lysander, and such great names as these,
but of all the world's great heroes there's none that can compare,
with a tow, row, row, with a tow, row, row, of the British Grenadiers.
"Not one of those ancient heroes ever saw a cannon ball,
or knew just how much powder to destroy their foes withal,
but our brave boys do know it, and banish all their fears,
with a tow, row, row, with a tow, row, row, of the British Grenadiers."
There's about a hundred verses, and the version I checked myself against online hasn't got the same words exactly as those I learned, but what's above is enough. There's a definite association there between the present military tradition and the past (of which two of the names mentioned are mythical), with the added joy of proving that 'our boys' are obviously superior. Fact is, it took a military tradition to create a song like this ... we don't know what songs the Romans or Crusaders sang, because, well, apparently no one wrote them down.
Wikipedia writes military tradition as a habit that grew out of the chivalry and courtliness of knights in the Middle Ages, but I don't know if I buy that. I find it much more likely that military tradition grew out of the increased complexity of the instruments of war, particularly the flintlock, which required that men be trained to coordinate the action of loading their weapons so they could all fire together and at the same moment. The effect of a single volley of weapons fire upon the enemy's morale was far more spectacular than the effect of skirmishing fire - as demonstrated by Gustavus Adolphus during the 30 Years' War. Existing European powers were sold. But to manage the organization of men along these lines - to compel them to stand shoulder to shoulder, to load and fire without flinching while being fired at, to brave even cannon fire while doing so - required more than army pay. It required that the men in that line were compelled to obey beyond merely their willingness to do so. It required the institutionalism of Nationalism in their hearts and souls, the imposition of officers with absolute power, the arrangements of rank and so on. The application of this was imposed on every level of the service, from musketeer to cannoneer, and imposed with great success.
But ... and I wish to state this very clearly ... this military tradition and the success thereof had very, very little to do with actual battle. Tolstoy's War and Peace is a brilliant testament against the supposed organization of war. In it, the reality is that persons in battle are emotionally thrilled with the battle, and though habitually inclined to load and fire as they are trained to do, there is very little opportunity for officers in the midst of utter chaos to pass orders that really mean anything. In Tolstoy's depiction of the holding battle prior to Austrelitz, the artillery is not under the direction of an officer, it knows nothing about the orders for withdrawal, it IS described as a very warm place and it becomes clear that this is part of Tolstoy's overwhelming theme that life is lived in the moment, and not under a grand direction from either man or god. Tolstoy, who had reason to know, berates and scoffs at the idea that military commanders control their men in the field ... and there are endless films produced and made to this very day that argue likewise. In battle, 'command' comes down to moving in the same direction as the individual who seems to best know what he's doing.
You don't need ranks for that. Military history is full of incidents where the army moved not in obeiance to the officer, but towards the most capable seeming man at the moment of crisis.
However, when the army is NOT in battle, military tradition becomes a very powerful force for the political organization of nationalistic military goals ... which thankfully I don't have to talk about, because this is a D&D blog.
Where does all this come down for D&D? First of all, most of the arguments about mass combat organization and orders between combat units is a pile of ripe dingo's kidneys. They are arguments made by ex-military gamesters or by wannabe pro-military gamesters who haven't any real understanding of either medieval military tactics or real warfare. I myself am not ex-military. I am a student of war history, but thankfully I'm also a student of sociological history and of philosophical history, and I have read extensively beyond the very tiny framework that comprises the military section of human knowledge. I don't know anything myself, beyond that which I have read. I have read modern military accounts which disagree with what I've written above, but in general those accounts have been written by people who have a political interest in the positive depiction of the military (that is, they are still IN the military). In this age, with the military tradition that now exists, speaking about the military without having performed military service is a NO-NO ... I don't really care, since I don't consider the military establishment to have the final say in that matter. I do expect the military establishment to rush pell mell to crush any opinion that stands out against their own - since, after all, control of opinion is the first step in crushing any investigation into military practice.
So, as I said, most of the military arguments about what commanders in the field would do in a D&D universe is just plain modern-inspired nonsense. Armies would be disorganized masses of men with very little interest in dying, who would yet feel the excitement of battle take them. This would lead to terrific mauling sessions of absolute bloody mayhem ending in probably both sides fleeing the field, but almost certainly one side more than the other. The actual events of the battle would be virtually unknown to the participants; there wouldn't be time for group A to receive any communication from group B that would matter. On this subject Tolstoy is also clear: even if Napoleon could see some element of the battle going on, by the time word was sent to the commanders to take this action or that, the nature of the battle would have resolved itself and such orders would be worthless. Even in the present age of immediate communications, this is still largely true ... not because officers with eyes and ears back at base can't see what's going on, but because now there are so many persons taking part in a widescale battle that not everyone's communication can be addressed at the same time. (Insert military apologist's argument to the contrary here).
But whatever. Modern age aside, even Napoleon aside, there certainly wasn't any way to control hordes of participants in the D&D age (no, not magic either). Do we know that Jenghis himself ordered the holocaust butcherings and cities in the 13th century, or should we not realize that such things could have happened without orders? We only 'know' that Jenghis gave the order because that has long been the generally held belief. It isn't a fact.
If your players do create an army, and that army invades a foreign power, you are in your rights as a DM to cause that army to perform any action of any variety, and according to history describe the events ever after as ORDERED by the player characters. Because that is how command goes. If the army succeeds, the players get the credit. And if the army murders women and children, the players get the credit for that too. Because that is how history works.
Now, I've been writing for awhile. I trust the reader can work out a few things on their own about how this applies to the presence of serjeants and lieutenants in the DMG, and other anachronistic issues with Gygax's fanciful historical knowledge. I've created enough knee-jerk circumstances for people to flake out on me. I don't mind if those readers ready to snap the comments button disagree with me ... but I am going to politely ask that you try to at least make some sense in your replies, that you address them to the D&D period, and that you refrain from making personal comments about my non-military service. I swear I shall try and publish everything that isn't stupid and abusive.
All right. Bring it on.