In my last post, I talked about one interesting difference between ancien regime and modern militaries. A more fundamental difference, and one which both (in my opinion) answers my previous question and makes it hard to learn anything applicable to modern armies and society, is a reflection of the fundamental feature of the old regime. That is the role played by the aristocracy.
In ancien regime militaries, the great majority of the officer corps was made up of men of noble birth. Up to 90% of the officers would be nobles, with the percentage higher at higher ranks. Nobles would usually enter the service with a commission and would also be advanced through the ranks much more quickly than the few commoners that made it that far. For example, in France at one time regulations required a commoner to serve as a captain for 10 years before he could be promoted, while a noble only had to serve 3 before being eligible for promotion.
The one area where this didn’t hold was in the engineer and artillery branches, where commoner officers were much more common (although still usually in the minority.) Perhaps because these fields were seen as ignoble, or less noble than the direct hand-to-hand combat engaged in by the army. In contrast, the officer corps cavalry which was seen as the highest and most dashing military order was almost monopolized by the nobility. Engineering and artillery also required a bit more technical expertise, perhaps also discouraging nobles from entering those branches. I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence that before the Civil War West Point concentrated its military training on exactly those fields—engineering and to a lesser extent artillery—that were open to commoners back in Europe.
Even worse, promotions were only loosely tied to merit. More commonly, they would from special favoritism from the king or from higher officers, or from bribery or simple purchase of offices. This presented two problems for the armies of the time. The first was how to motivate troops if they knew they had little chance of promotion, and the second was how to ensure at least a modicum of effective leadership when patronage was dictating who became colonels and generals.
France came up with a pair of reforms to solve these problems, which were later copied by most other countries. The first was to institute a parallel track of positions at the company and regimental level which would be subordinate to the captains and colonels, but which would promote based on merit. The regimental officer was referred to as a lieutenant colonel, which is presumably the origin of that rank. These positions would allow some expertise to be developed at middle levels of command without sacrificing the ultimate control of the nobility.
The second idea, which I believe was instituted under Louis XIV, was to institute special orders of merit, decorations and awards which could be given to soldiers who showed outstanding ability. These were a way to recognize excellence among commoners and reward it without actually having to promote any of them.
One of the more interesting things I’ve learned from my current reading on early national militaries is how loose their organization was, and the general laxity of government oversight in the 17th and 18th centuries. In fact, the system that most European (especially Western European) countries adopted has been referred to as military entrepreneurship, in which individual captains raised and ran military companies in a similar way to running a business, as a profit generator.
In brief, in this system the most important functional unit was the company, which was commanded by a Captain. The central government delegated almost all daily authority down to this Captain, and left him in charge of recruiting, supplying, and paying his soldiers. The government then paid the Captain a fee based on the strength of his company to cover these operational costs. It was in some ways a modification of the mercenary system, with the added feature of nationalism, with troops for the most part drawn from a particular country or, in some cases, from a designated region.
The way things were run made it easy to abuse the system, and captains would routinely pad their rolls with non-existent soldiers or wouldn’t report desertions. The government tried to counter by having muster days where the company had to show up at its full listed strength, but it was easy enough to find a few warm bodies to fill the ranks. Because of these loopholes, heading up an infantry company could be a good way to make money. It reached the point that companies (and later, regiments) were viewed as personal property, and were bought and sold as such.
The abuses were present at the enlisted level as well. Since officers received benefits from having soldiers enlisted in their companies, a life which wasn’t that attractive to most, they’d pay bonuses to get people to enlist. (Not so different from today, actually.) However, as long as it didn’t get too bad, they didn’t really mind desertion, since they could keep collecting pay for the AWOL soldier and pocket it. So it was not uncommon for soldiers to migrate around serially enlisting and deserting to collect the enlistment bonuses.
Obviously, the system was far from ideal, but the governments simply didn’t have the reach or organization to do anything better. In fact, a prime mover in the growth of government power and bureaucracy during this time came about in an attempt to organize and keep track of the army, to prevent flagrant abuses such as padding the rolls. The government set up oversight administrations which in turn started to keep records not just of company strengths, but actually began matching up and tracking individual soldiers. Just one of the many ways government power and growth was driven by military necessity.
Yesterday’s Washington Post had this rather depressing story about the conditions in Kabul. The influx of refugees, combined with the affects of war and Taliban rule have left most of the city without proper sanitation or clean water, which in turn leads to health problems and a generally poor standard of living.
As Fritz Schrank noted a little while ago, lack of clean drinking water is one of the biggest yet most easily solved problems facing the Third World today. And in this particular case, I think the US could be missing a big opportunity to win the local population’s (and the same thing could be done elsewhere) sympathy.
Namely, they should emulate the policies of some of the Roman Emperors and Popes. When Rome outgrew its water supplies, they built (or rebuilt, in the case of the Popes) aqueducts to bring fresh water to the city. And in this, as in their other public constructions, they made sure everyone knew about it, by building monuments, gateways, and public fountains which told everyone just who it was that was responsible for the public works.
It seems to me the same sorts of efforts could both help the Afghans and help the US in the region. Ship in a bunch of Army Corps of Engineers types and have them construct some sewers and wells aqueducts, whatever’s needed to solve the problems in Kabul (and elsewhere.) And make sure that all the fountains and wells and other construction projects (schools, roads, houses, etc. could all be constructed with the same principles in mind) have “Constructed by the United States of America and President Harmid Karzai” carved in big, permanent stone letters for archaeologists 2 millennia hence (and all the citizens in the meantime) to admire.
Everybody wins. The citizens of Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan benefit, the US benefits by undertaking such high profile improvements in the people’s lives, and President Karzai benefits by being seen as the facilitator and implementer of these good works which will strengthen the citizen’s loyalty to him. I think it’s this sort of nation building, rather than sponsoring conventions and mounting military patrols, that would ultimately provide the most benefit for everyone involved.
A Renaissance blog: Politics, sports, literature, history, and whatever else strikes my fancy.
My writings on basketball: Court analysis
The views expressed do not represent those of,
and are not endorsed by:
my employer, the US Government, IBM, Microsoft,
or anyone else other than myself.