Saturday, July 23, 2011

Military Tradition

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.


Allandaros said...

Finally, a topic on this blog I feel semi-competent to address!

I think you're correct that the discipline and protocol of ancient/medieval armies is likely overstated in modern media depictions. On the other hand, I think that going all the way from "modern army transplanted into the past" to "Iliad" is a bit much. It's a spectrum - as is the ability of commanders to react to the events of battle. You're right that this is overstated also, but I don't think it goes quite as far as you suggest.

You point to Tolstoy's depictions of battle in War and Peace, which I confess I have not read yet. I'm looking at Clausewitz's comments in On War, looking at the Napoleonic era. When discussing the progress of a battle (Book 4, Chapter 9), Clausewitz mentions that reports coming in from lower officers can alter the decisions of the commander-in-chief, potentially preying upon their willingness to stay in the fight. Clausewitz had a good amount of battle experience at both the sharp end and the command level, going from a lance corporal in 1793 to a corps chief of staff by 1814. Thus, I weight his belief that the commander has significant decisions to make in battle (particularly when and where to commit reserves) fairly heavily.

However, Clausewitz also does provide support for your contention that you can't get that much control during a battle, pointing out that one of the times when a commander can most impact the battle is during their initial deployment.

(I'm aware that you asked comments to be addressed to the D&D period, and this is discussing Napoleonic, but I think that the command and control issues brought up are close enough for D&D purposes.)

I'm also rusty on my Polybius; for the benefit of other readers, the section where Polybius discusses the organization of the Roman army can be found here. I plan on reading that again, chewing over it, and maybe commenting further.

N. Wright said...

" In this age, with the military tradition that now exists, speaking about the military without having performed military service is a NO-NO"

It really depends on who you ask. It's not particularly fair to paint as diverse and conflicting organization as "everybody in the military" with the same stripes. There are libertarians as much as there are socialists as there are democrats as there are facists, and I mention that only to say what a diversity of opinion there is amongst people in the military.

In short: say whatever you want, man. Who's gonna try to stop you, some overly gung-ho guy who's butthurt when you express an opinion? He'll get over it.

5stonegames said...

I can't see how you would even manage a highly organized military in a D&D world even if the technology existed.

The battle-space is too driven by "heroes" who outclass groups of men and way too asymmetrical via magic, monsters and special units to make organized mass warfare all that useful.

I'd guess most D&D combat would be Hero Bands supplemented by a screen of less experienced troops but its anyones guess really

Carl said...

I'm really glad I finished reading this rather lengthy post. Didn't disagree with your assessment of military history, but was surprised by where you were going with it. Players squawk enough when they are held accountable for their own actions, let alone if they get pegged for something done by a follower. Sounds like fun.

Sigilic said...

I think you misunderestimate the strength of military tradition _in Roman times_ when service was mandatory for at least ten years for cavalry (per Polybus) or as long as twenty years for infantry in times of emergency. True that, like the modern U.S. National Guard, Roman service was not as part of a standing army, but only for specific purposes. So in that sense it was part time.

True also that Romans lacked a "boot camp". Yet the tradition established by military historians of whom I am aware, is that the legions marched and fought in formation. Given the propensity to open combat with archery and slinging, as illustrated by the Perrin Conventions for OD&D (though Perrin erred in continuing the primacy of missiles even after opponents had closed to melee), then a certain firmness of character was needed for the purpose of holding ground under a visible cloud of arrows descending with the noise of hornets (as described by Robert Lewis Stevenson and by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who both lived in a time when longbows still were in occasional use - by the way, The Black Arrow is a wonderful evocation of the conflict between York and Lancaster).

As your esteemed Polybus comments in translation, "From each class [the tribunes] elect ten centurions according to merit ... They wish the centurions not so much to be venturesome and daredevil as to be natural leaders, of a steady and sedate spirit. They do not desire them so much to be men who will initiate attacks and open the battle, but men who will hold their ground when worsted and hard-pressed and be ready to die at their posts." VI, 323, 1-9.

Thus it was desirable even in the Roman times to have a mid-level of line officers who could instill discipline in their subordinate maniple. Granted, it is not clear whether "command" was by order or more by example. In any case the need for group spirit was present, and perhaps even greater than today, if Roman maniples lacked formal military law.

Further, referring back to the terms and nature of Roman service, it would be natural through ten or twenty years of camp life (even if only in season) to establish certain superstitions and common customs. Such in turn would become a "military folklore" or "Tradition" handed down from centurions to their velites as The Way of the Legion. Even the customs of head decoration, as described by Polybus, suggest custom rather than command - for it is written the velites "wear a plain helmet, and sometimes cover it with a wolf's skin or something similar both to protect and to act as a distinguishing mark" VI, 318, 3-4.

Of course you may argue that Rome was a "nation" inspired by "nationalism", thus an exceptional case in ancient times where military tradition arose in support of nationalism. You then would have to confront the Grecian democratic armies and navies, not from the mythic times of Homer but from the actual events of the hot pillars and the Xerxian armada. Also, how would you explain Hannibal's ability to surmount the Alps with elephants and a large group of warriors, absent some form of unit cohesion? "Tradition" seems a better explanation than "discipline" in a time when Libya to Pisa was a months-long trip.

Long screed/rant, not sure of value, but fun to write.

Zzarchov said...

I will leave out referencing the modern military completely. I was in the military when fresh out of hig hschool (only way to get money for college in the shite hole I spend my high school years in) so I know first hand the K-hole such a talk that would distribute in.

What I do want to bring up is the vast superiority a perfectly oiled and obedient military machine would exhibit over a disorganized armed mob. One where orders were obeyed without question with perfect timing and instant communication.

This becomes important because in D&D forces like that CAN exist. The undead could fall into that category (depending on how you run them), but mind control, clockwork golems and other such forces could fall into that category.

How would a disorganized mob ever hope to realistically defeat such a force in the field? With the undead being as easy to mass in D&D as they are, such would be an unstoppable army.

Alexis said...


Like the Bible, military historians have taken a little phrase here, and concocted for themselves a vision of the Roman Legion that - as far as we know - never existed. It is exactly the lack of definition about what commanding role of the centurion was that is important here. He clearly wasn't an 'officer' as we understand it. It is significant that the dog was not heard in the night.

Eric said...

This post makes clear to me why "leading from the front" was the most viable strategy throughout most of history.

"military tradition grew out of the increased complexity of the instruments of war, particularly the flintlock, "

Firearms used in volley fire really need someone to lead from the rear, yelling orders at a bunch of men with loaded guns. That's a STRONG incentive to develop a military tradition to back up the pistol or two the officer has, to my mind.

DHBoggs said...

Alexis, heres where you are compleatly wrong; you assume that because something is true in some instances that it is true in all.

What you say holds true for much of medieval europe under the fuedal system, I'll grant you that, but it is not even remotely true for early medieval Byzantium, and of course outside of europe the professional armies of Japan, the Aztecs, and the Incas. In the modern era, disciplined structure in armies begins (discipline in early modern european armies, developing from spanish squares and certainly by the 1600's professional armies with highly structured and disciplined commands typically trounced the undisciplined peasant levies like your russian example. Take Charles the II of sweeden or the prussians as examples.

Nor are disciplined command structures unique to the modern age. Tere are many cases of ancient armies where the disciplin and structure you claim is absent was very very real; Assyria, sparta, certain periods in new kingdom egypt, imperial China (witness the terra cota army, not to mention Sun Szu).

I've never been in any army, and I'm an archaeologist, not a historian by training, and I assure you that the broad brush you have painted military history with is simply untrue.

drcheckmate said...

Zzarchov said, "This becomes important because in D&D forces like that CAN exist. The undead could fall into that category (depending on how you run them), but mind control, clockwork golems and other such forces could fall into that category."

I would also add a well-prepared PC party in the control of experienced players functions with SWAT like precision. Obviously, this doesn't "scale up" very well, but I think the similarity is worth noting. *shrug*

Alexis said...


I'm publishing you because I've been accused of refusing to allow people to disagree with me.

I don't think you have much of an argument.

bighara said...

Interesting post, and –as far as my inexpert eye can tell– some good points.

Rather than argue the history (which I am unqualified to do), I will say that this post has got me thinking about an upcoming game I wanted to run which has a distinctly military feel to it. I may well adjust the degree to which the players can control their forces to reflect some of the ideas you've presented.

I do think that Zzarchov's point about armies in a magical world having resources soldiers in our real history did not. However, unless players deliberately allocate those resources (prepare certain spells, etc.), the default model should probably be small, independent bands of men being led by a charismatic leader who is in the thick of the fight with them. Not a general up on a hill sending orders via flags or runners.

Carl said...


There were distinct eras of the Roman Army's development with discipline, command structure, and tradition from the early Republic through the end of the Augustan period, which in my mind was the height of the Roman military. After that, shit kind of collapsed under its own weight.

Regarding boot camp, you are correct, there was no formal boot camp, however conscripts were trained by the officers that recruited them, and the Campus Martius was the martial training ground for Patrician (or any citizen) boys starting as early as age 9.

Alexis said...

Thank you Carl, I knew you'd be there to keep me honest.

But was the training anything like the 17th century Prussian army? No, of course not. Yes, there was 'training.' But it was not in the modern military tradition.

Wickedmurph said...

Alexis, after the Marian reforms, the Legions were a professional army - paid, full-time, with 20-year enlistments. Roman armies regularly took on and crushed disorganized hordes many times their own size, which argues very strongly for the roman army possessing both discipline and good chain of command.

It's simply not possible to maintain a permanent standing army without formal discipline, recognized rank and chain of command.

Some of your comment may be true about the Republican period, but by the time of Sulla, Caesar and Octavian, the legions were full-time, trained professionals.

There is a reason that the Roman Empire conquered the Mediterranean, after all.

Alexis said...


Let me caution you that there is a difference between a 'professional army' and the sort of military establishment that the 18th century monarchists created for their armies. We were often told by our professors in university not to make the "if this...then that" kind of observations you've made with regards to Roman military discipline.

There are many reasons why Sulla, Caesar and Octavian succeeded at their goals. I feel I must point out that it did not stop Crassus' troops being massacred at Carrhae by Parthians, contemporary with the examples you gave.

The fact that Rome was in general more disciplined than their opponents does not, ipso facto, indicate that they were disciplined in the modern sense. Nor does the argument that they were paid, or that they were full-time, or that they served for 20 years. These things of themselves do not translate to armies snapping to attention as a unit nor an inflexible ranking system.

I do appreciate said comments, but as I said in the post and elsewhere, the tendency is to read far more into the source literature than is actually there, in order to create a romantic image of the ancient army that never did exist.

Wickedmurph said...

Alexis, normally you're a good researcher. An exhaustive researcher who tracks down all the details. But I think on this you haven't done that research.

There are some differences between a Roman army and a "modern" one. The chain of command was much flatter, for example - no general staff as such for the Romans. But in terms of discipline and obeying rank...

The punishment for disobeying orders or desertion in the "modern" armies of today can include imprisonment or dishonorable discharge.

The punishment for a roman soldier could include being stoned to death by his comrades or I know which orders I'd be more inclined to obey.

Where are you getting these assumptions from? There is very little in Polybius, or other sources from the classical period that back up your assertions that the Roman armies were a slightly-better organized gang of thugs than say, the Gauls.

I think it's fairly telling that in Western Europe, there basically were no large, standing professional armies in the period between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the mid 15th century. And those were exceptional, for the time. Yet they consisted of only a fraction of the numbers that the Romans had as standing professionals.

Obviously, once you set your mind to something, you don't often change it. But on this one, a number of people who clearly have a lot more knowledge on the subject are weighing in to say that you're off-base.

I've never served in the military, but I'd lay money on life that life in military camp and on campaign was pretty much the same for Roman Legionnaires (after Marius through to the middle-Empire) as it was for Napoleonic Cuirassiers. Except for the horse poop.

Alexis said...


My point, already made, is this: where you say that you'd "lay money" that sounds a lot like 'belief' to me, and not fact. That sounds a lot like an assumption to me, and not evidence. It sounds a lot like military historians have done, as I've said, to make a connection between themselves and the great 'heroes' of the past.

As far as my "research," well, I'm letting this past the moderation - but I find the statement insulting, particularly since my university degree was obtained in Classical History and Antiquity. A day ago I received a rather nasty comment, not posted, about why I was obviously uniformed for not having read Vegetius, one of the most truly unreliable 'historians' of the late Roman period, and a bit of a joke around the circle of classical historians, I can tell you.

Please do not accuse me of making assumptions when your comment drips with them.

I am sorry I cannot oblige you by agreeing that military tradition has existed since the Romans. I can't because I don't know. No one knows. And where no one knows a thing, that is when we are supposed to apply Occam's Razor ... you know, the one that says the most likely answer is probably the correct one. And for my money, if the sort of militaristic structure you imply existed in Rome, it seems to me someone - and not crummy, questionable Vegetius - would have recorded it. Someone like, say, Julius Caesar, who wrote extensively about his personal experiences in the Roman army and yet didn't seem to find it necessary to describe in detail any of this systematic military structure.

Now, with regards to 'decimation'; yes, it did occur. But it was 'punishment,' not discipline. Suggesting it as a practical means to discipline an army is like me shooting you and saying, "that'll learn ya."

It was RARE. Like, once a lifetime, and reserved for incredibly special circumstances.

Now, I am again in this place where I am rewriting arguments I've already written to re-emphasize positions that should have been clear - and were clear to most readers - without my having to explain them.

I like you Wickedmurph, you're a fellow countryman and I respect you. But don't expect to insult me again and be published.

Carl said...

"But was the training anything like the 17th century Prussian army? No, of course not. Yes, there was 'training.' But it was not in the modern military tradition."

That's not really a fair comparisson. The 17th century Prussian army existed in an entirely different era of warfare. You're comparing apples to bananas here. How would they stack up against, say the modern French Foreign Legion, or the US Marine Corps?

The Romans from the middle Republic on had a war machine. They had a command structure, they had intraunit communication capabilities, they had discipline, they had a training regimen. This stuff was a given. Scipio Africanus is arguably the inventor of modern warfare, and he trained his troops to utilize that invention. That training continued until the late Empire, in spite of various reforms.

During the era of Gaius Marius and after his reforms, and even earlier, after the reforms implemented by Scipio Africanus, Rome had a super badass military. They were disciplined.

The Auxilia, on the other hand, were an entirely different story. Rome used auxiliary troops as sword fodder. They may have had training or not. It would depend on where they were conscripted from.

This is a complicated topic subject to a lot of conditionals.

Your point about an ancient/medieval army being substantially different than a modern army are spot-on. However, if that ancient/medieval army had evolved with magic as it is available in D&D, you might have quite a few modern army elements, like telecommunication, artillery, air support, and as a result of these modern tools, you might have more advanced and standardized training for the grunts.