Monday, May 18, 2015

Machiavelli on mercenaries: a note

[Quotations from The Prince in this post are from the H. Mansfield translation, Univ. of Chicago Press, 2nd ed. 1998.]

Machiavelli didn't like mercenaries, something that is evident both from The Prince and (I see from a quick glance) The Discourses, where he writes that good soldiers are the sinews of war, not gold, and that it "is as impossible for good soldiers to fail to find gold as it is for gold to find good soldiers" (Penguin ed., 1970, p.303). [See also his The Art of War.]

In chapter 13 of The Prince, Machiavelli continues a lecture against the use of mercenaries begun in the immediately preceding chapters.  Among other things he criticizes King Louis XI of France (reigned 1461-1483) for his reliance on Swiss pikemen:
...when he [Louis XI] gave reputation to the Swiss, he debased all his own arms.... For after they [the French] had become accustomed to fighting with Swiss, they did not think they could win without them.  From this it follows that French are not enough against Swiss and without Swiss do not try against anyone else.  Thus, the armies of France have been mixed, part mercenary and part their own.  These arms all together are much better than simple auxiliary or simple mercenary arms, but much inferior to one's own. (pp.56-7)
In referring to French weakness, Machiavelli was thinking of a then-recent event: the French "having been forced out of Italy in 1512" (according to an editor's note in the Skinner & Price edition of The Prince, Cambridge U.P., p.50).  However, Machiavelli does not mention that Louis XI largely owed the Swiss his victory over Charles the Bold of Burgundy at the battle of Nancy in 1477, a  battle that altered the geopolitical landscape of western Europe. [Correction/clarification: It was not really "his" (i.e., Louis XI's) victory; see the discussion in the comment thread.]  Machiavelli says that "a wise prince...has preferred to lose with his own [arms] than to win with others, since he judges it no true victory that is acquired with alien arms" (Mansfield trans., p.55).  Louis XI presumably would have begged to differ.

Postscript: The problem for the Swiss mercenaries, according to Michael Howard (in War in European History, p.28), was their slowness to adapt to changing conditions of war: "...as shot became increasingly important and formations increasingly flexible the Swiss pike phalanxes became left behind like dinosaurs unable to adapt to a new environment, as much of a curiosity in the history of infantry as the English bowman of the later Middle Ages."

Btw, what would Machiavelli have said about how to combat ISIS, or about any other current issues?  Is this question even worth asking?

10 comments:

hank_F_M said...

LfC

Interesting..

The big question is what is a "mercenary"?

The mercenaries of Machiavelli's time deserved every bit as much contempt as Machiavelli plaxced on them and then some, not even loyal to their paymaster, they would rob him, or make an agreement with the other side to hold a mock battle and then demand payment.

At the other end of the extreme some would call any one who is not a conscript a mercenary.

A UN convention prohibits mercenaries. Any one who meets the definition of a mercenary is to incompetent to hire. Written in the late forties it was designed to insure that colonial armies, La Legion Etranger etc. are not mercenaries, so almost no is.


I would suggest that the biggest user of mercenaries today is the UN which literally rents parts of member armies for peacekeeping etc. Some third world countries use this a a means to pay for part of it's army. Contingent commanders often have orders from the government that do not line up with the UN force orders. Which is why peacekeeping forces are often treated with contempt.

For your listening pleasure, from Gordon Dickson's Childe Cycleseries. Mercenaries at their worst even if they had a legitimate grievance.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KP8R8MA81Eg

Ignoring fuzzy borderline cases I think Machiavelli has a point.

LFC said...

Hank,
Thanks for the comment.

In ch.12 of The Prince, Machiavelli depicts mercenaries as undisciplined, untrustworthy, and cowardly, among other things; he says the the reliance on mercenary arms has been "the ruin of Italy"; and he holds up as ideals either the prince in charge of his own forces or a republic defended by its own armed citizens, e.g. Rome or Sparta.

But if mercenaries were so awful, why was their use so common in early modern Europe, either alone or in combination with 'national' forces? Well, for one thing, they avoided the logistical problems of organizing, equipping, and training a purely 'national' force. Does Machiavelli mention those logistical problems and how mercenaries might have helped avoid them? No, not as far as I can recall.

Machiavelli is also somewhat selective in his use of history to buttress his argument against mercenaries. He says they've ruined Italy and he criticizes (in ch.13) Louis XI of France for using Swiss mercenaries. But as I point out in the post, it was Swiss mercenaries who helped Louis XI defeat Charles the Bold at Nancy in 1477 (Machiavelli was a child at the time, but presumably he knew of the battle from his reading.)

Now what does Machiavelli say about the battle of Nancy in The Prince? Here's the answer: NOTHING.

Why he does say nothing about the battle of Nancy? Because it doesn't support his thesis.
In contemporary terms, this is called cherry-picking the evidence. We wouldn't tolerate this procedure in a contemporary historian, so I'm not sure why we should give Machiavelli a free pass on it.

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Re the UN convention prohibiting mercenaries: interesting. Didn't know about that.

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Re UN peacekeeping: we have somewhat different views on this; wd take too long to go into it here.

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Re the Youtube clip: will watch it tomorrow, record a reaction (if any) here later.

Peter T said...

Machiavelli is, as you say, not a reliable source. He's writing polemic, not history. For example, one of his examples of the pretend wars between the condottieri of the Italian republics cites a battle (Anghiari) in which only one man was killed - and that because he fell off his horse. In fact, that battle was reasonably bloody.

Most mercenaries were reasonably loyal, and quite competent. But then, most national forces were in attitude quite mercenary. Roman soldiers - machiavelli's heroes - could get very stroppy if deprived of loot or pensions. And the problem of paying off regiments bedevilled settlement of the English and other civil wars.

BTW, the battle of Nancy was fought between the forces of Rene of Lorraine and the Swiss Confederation on one side and those of Charles of Burgundy on the other. Louis XI was an interested bystander, who rushed in to pick up the pieces after Charles was killed. The Swiss were fighting on their own account. Charles' forces included a lot of mercenaries, and they fought quite well.

A lot of ISIS are probably essentially mercenary - there for the loot. Doesn't make them less effective.

LFC said...

Most mercenaries were reasonably loyal, and quite competent. But then, most national forces were in attitude quite mercenary. Roman soldiers ... could get very stroppy if deprived of loot or pensions.

Yes.


Re the battle of Nancy: I was under the impression Louis XI financed the Swiss and Lorraine forces; at least, one reputable secondary source says that. However, perhaps it's not right to label the Swiss mercenaries in this case. I will add a correction/clarification to the original post.

LFC said...

Since Makers of Modern Strategy (ed. P. Paret, 1986) is on my shelf, I probably should have read Felix Gilbert's essay there "Machiavelli: The Renaissance of the Art of War" (pp. 11-31) before writing the post.

Gilbert mentions (p.21) M.'s description of the battle of Anghiari in Florentine History and (in the same vein as your comment) goes on to remark that the "contemptuous and derisive picture of the Italian condottieri is obviously unfair...."

LFC said...

Hank: I've listened to the J. Chretien song. I don't know anything about this author or his books, nor did I catch all the words. However, I think I got the gist (more or less). I would have to listen to it more than once to get all the words, which I'm not motivated to do right now.

chaosandgovernance said...

Meant to post this a few days ago:

Boix and Tin-Bor Hui have both offered arguments about the historical uselessness of mercenaries. In his new book 'Political Order and Inequality' he argues that mercenaries are problematic specifically for republics and the need to rely on military specialists was a factor in the decline of Italian city states. Tin-Bor Hui argues that Chinese states of the Warring States period developed standing armies and were not reliant on mercenaries. This was a factor in the centralisation of China, whereas reliance on mercenaries (among many other Machiavellian factors) helped to maintain European fragmentation.

I'm not sure that the arguments are compatible, as one states that mercenaries are unhelpful for republics, the other for empires. Although maybe they are just orthological. I'll add a question to the one you pose: what then are the implications for an imperial republic such as the US? Mercenary armies did not serve Rome well in the long-run either - I wonder if this was a factor in Machiavelli's thinking.

LFC said...

N.L.:

Thanks for the excellent comment.

I'm not sure that the arguments are compatible, as one states that mercenaries are unhelpful for republics, the other for empires. Although maybe they are just orthological. [orthogonal?, or whatever that word is]

I'm not sure the arguments are compatible either. Would have to think more about it.

One difference here though is that Boix and Tin-Bor Hui are modern political scientists committed to social-scientific procedures w/r/t evidence etc. Machiavelli really couldn't care less about all that, it seems to me. He tends to use history, as Peter suggested, to buttress positions to which he's committed already. Also, as a side point, there is a line one can trace on this particular issue from Machiavelli to certain 18th-cent. writers, notably (though not only) Rousseau, who shares M.'s idealization of the citizen armies of Sparta and republican Rome.

Implications for the U.S.? Not sure. A non-conscript (non-drafted) professional army is neither a citizen army nor a mercenary one (in the sense of the word that Machiavelli used, which implied, I think, non-nationals). Conscription has been on the decline in the West generally.

I just noticed that Bernard Crick, whose 1970 Pelican edition of The Discourses is the one I have to hand, has an endnote in which he says that M's view re "the importance of citizen armies" was relevant into the 19th and 20th cents., incl. to "the evident superiority of the North Vietnamese over the Americans." That's really not why the North Vietnamese won the war, ISTM. But Crick was writing these notes in around 1969 and he was a political theorist not a military historian, so I guess some allowances can be made.

Btw, been meaning to check your blog. Will do tomorrow.

chaosandgovernance said...

I meant orthogonal, yes. Orthological is a different mathematical property, apparently!

I think that cherry-picking is considered by some to be legitimate when constructing an analytical model or ideal type. Certainly, Machiavelli was successful as a theorist in that his work continues to influence scholars of political thought and social scientists alike.

WRT the US I meant in regard to private military companies and client-state proxy forces. I think you are right that a national professional volunteer army is qualitatively different.

I haven't posted anything for a while as I got hit by job-hunting season and the exam period!

LFC said...

cherry-picking is considered by some to be legitimate when constructing an analytical model or ideal type.

Fair enough. It's also true, though, that at least some social scientists want to avoid the charge that they've done it (i.e. 'cherry-picked'). Some selection of evidence is unavoidable; I sometimes think it's partly a cosmetic, for lack of a better word, issue of not wanting to appear vulnerable to the charge of being obviously biased.


Certainly, Machiavelli was successful as a theorist in that his work continues to influence scholars of political thought and social scientists alike.

Machiavelli is, of course, very firmly in the canon of the history of political thought. Whether his work still influences social scientists I'm somewhat less sure about.


WRT the US I meant in regard to private military companies and client-state proxy forces.

Oh, ok. That makes more sense. I'm still not sure of the answer though.

I do think the limits of air power against a determined, adaptable adversary are clear. The current situation w ISIS seems to be furnishing the latest illustration. Obama is not going to go for another U.S. ground war in Iraq (or inject any substantial ground forces in Syria), so they're having to deal w ISIS w Iraqi forces (it's 'Iraq's problem') and Iranian-backed militias, which in itself poses dilemmas. Anyway there is no doubt a lot of unhappiness w the current approach in the Pentagon and 'expert' circles, but the politically or otherwise do-able alternatives are not obvious.

D. Ignatius (WaPo columnist) last night on the NewsHour pointed out that the Iraqi parliament was supposed to have passed a law setting up a Sunni National Guard in Anbar, but it hasn't done so.