The Official Blog of the Society for Military History

James Hinton on The Battle of Red Cliffs

The Han dynasty was in trouble.

For four centuries the Han had ruled China. Founded by a peasant rebel named Liu Bang, they had ascended to rule in 206 B.C.E. By 196 C.E. they were in clear trouble, however. Civil War had forced Emperor Xian to move his capital to Xuchang. From there he had little practical control over China, but rather sat as a figure head while powerful warlords ruled their individual territories unchecked.

By 208, twelve years after the move of the capital, Cao Cao was one of the most powerful of these warlords. Xuchang was in the heart of the territory he held. When the Imperial court had moved, he had been a small timer. However, he took advantage of his stranglehold over the court’s line of communications to rise from a small time warlord to being the man who ruled the entire north of China in the name of Emperor Xian.

The southern half of China, however, had become very much aware of who was actually ruling Northern China, and they were refusing to play along any further. Combined, they wielded a strength in arms and political will that Cao Cao that was virtually insurmountable. Unfortunately for them, they were anything but combined. Several warlords ruled most of the south, and they did not get along.

In 208, one of those warlords, Sun Quan, defeated an army belonging to another warlord, Liu Biao. This allowed him to carve out a significant chunk out of Liu Biao’s territory. Sensing an opportunity, Cao Cao swept south to snap up most of what remained. Realizing that, rather than becoming more powerful, he had actually weakened his own army while giving Cao Cao an opening, Sun Quan desperately arranged an alliance with what little remained of Liu Biao’s holdings, led by Liu Biao’s successor, Liu Bei.

Even with this alliance, Sun Quan was in trouble. Cao Cao was bragging that he had an army nearly 800,000 strong. In truth he probably only had around 250,000 men, but this was still sufficient to outnumber Sun Quan by at least five to one. He needed an angle to even the odds, and he found it.

In order to control Sun Quan’s territory Cao Cao would need to control the Yangtze River. The key to this was the naval base located at Jiangling. From there he would be able to sail all the way down to the mouth of the river and control the entirety of China’s most important river and the entire trade and agricultural network built around it.

Recognizing this, Sun Quan determined to blockade the river. Under the command of Sun-Liu, Sun Quan’s entire force took to ships and sailed up the Yangtze, where they encountered the vanguard of Cao Cao’s army. Located in a swampy area, the fight that took place was small and relatively insignificant. Cao Cao pulled the vanguard back to meet up with the rest of his army somewhere near the town of Wulin and the Red Cliffs lining the river banks.

Cao Cao had successfully captured Jiangling, and so had plenty of ships at his disposal as well. He marched his army aboard and prepared to fight a 300,000 man strong ship to ship action that would become known as the largest naval battle in history.

It would prove to be a disaster. Cao Cao had not accounted for one simple little detail in his plan. While Sun Quan’s men were all able marines with experience aboard ship, Cao Cao’s army had little to know experience aboard ship. Already demoralized and sick from the forced marches necessary to take Jiangling, Cao Cao’s men became seasick. In order to attempt to stabilize the ships and ease the seasickness, Cao Cao ordered them to be lashed together.

This was the opportunity Sun Quan had needed, and he seized it with alacrity. A portion of his army led by Huang Gai was ordered to pretend to defect to Cao Cao’s side. Certain of his success, Cao Cao saw nothing deceptive in this. The supposed defectors were allowed to sail their ships up the Yangtze unmolested.

As they approached, Huang Gai’s men lit their ships on fire. Packed to the scuppers with oil and kindling, the ships quickly became floating fireballs, propelled upstream by a favorable wind. Huang Gai’s men took to small craft and escaped.

Lashed together, Cao Cao’s ships were helpless. They had no room to maneuver, and no ability to escape. Cao Cao’s army, already sick and exhausted, was thrown into chaos. Much of the army drowned attempting to escape the coming conflagration while many more died in the ensuing deathtrap of burning ships.

Devastated by the losses, Cao Cao was forced to escape through the swamplands surrounding the Red Cliffs. Sun Quan’s healthier and better organized forces pressed them hard, pursuing as much as they could. Cao Cao’s already decimated army was further whittled down during this attempt at escape.

By 209, Cao Cao had fallen back to his holdings in the north. Much of the territory he had taken from Liu Biao had slipped from his fingers as a result of his need to reconsolidate his weakened forces. Sun Quan had been further weakened as well during the battle, and thus had been unable to capitalize on his victory. He would remain in control of his own lands, but expand no further. Liu Bei, however, would suddenly find himself in a position to control large swaths of territory, including very important and strategic choke points on the Yangtze.

The three commanders, Cao Cao, Sun Quan, and Liu Bei would continue to fight off and on for another decade, but never with such lopsided odds or results. All three would eventually declare themselves to be king of their relative regions during this time.

Upon the death of Cao Cao in 220, Emperor Xian abdicated, formally handing his title over to Cao Cao’s son, Cao Pi. Eleven years after the fateful battle of the Red Cliffs, the Han dynasty was no more, and in its place the three commanders had become the rulers of Wei (Cao Pi), Shu (Liu Bei), and Wu (Sun Quan). The Three Kingdoms period had begun.



James Hinton is an armchair historian and former army veteran. When he isn’t busy writing on topics related to military history he spends his time attempting to train his daughters to row Roman galleys in the middle of the Idaho desert.

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SMH President’s Remarks on “The Role of Military History in the Contemporary Academy”

Prof. Gregory Urwin of Temple University, who will shortly conclude his term as president of the Society of Military History, has a valedictory column in the current SMH newsletter.  [Society for Military History Headquarters Gazette, vol. 27, no. 4 (Winter 2015):3-4].  In it, he takes time to comment at length on the recent SMH White Paper, whose preparation he regarded as one of two principal tasks he wanted to accomplish during his presidency.  Here’s how he portrays its genesis, rationale, and purpose:

On the eve of my accession as your president, I informed the SMH Council of my intention to commission a white paper to promote the teaching of military history in American colleges and universities. I had grown tired of seeing those occasional whiny newspaper and magazine articles filled with quotations from military historians claiming that our field does not command enough respect from academe. Whether that charge is true or not, such a negative and confrontational approach – especially since it is often driven by conservative special interest groups – is counterproductive. I thought it would be far better to address a paper to university and college administrators, non-military historians, and the general public that summarized how much military history had matured during the past half century, why it is vital to an informed citizenry to understand the most fearsome (and most expensive) tool wielded by their government, and how military history courses – due to their popularity – could boost  any history department’s enrollment figures and serve as gateways to the recruitment of more history majors and minors.

I turned to then Vice President Robert M. Citino to ramrod this effort. Rob recruited Tami Davis Biddle of the U.S. Army War College to join him, and the two of them went to work with a will. When Rob resigned as vice president just before our 2014 Annual Meeting,  Tami soldiered on, completing a compellingly argued and beautifully written essay. As I draft this column, Tami and Rob’s masterpiece, The Role of Military History in the Contemporary Academy, is at the printer’s and should be released before you read my words.

The SMH plans to distribute this white paper to the news media, educational leaders, and history departments across the United States. We hope that Tami and Rob’s vision will cause academe to take a new look at military history. If all goes well, the ensuing discussion will result in the creation of some additional teaching positions in our sub-field, and further elevate the Society for Military History’s position in the humanities community.

Urwin is wise to specify the main academic target audience as university administrators rather than faculty.  I recently sent the White Paper to ten faculty members at various institutions, members whose views of our field I knew to range from polite skepticism to something approaching outright disdain.  Most took time to reply; I was surprised and pleased to find that some of the faculty I expected to be most dismissive instead sent thoughtful, insightful responses–and that all of them acceded to my request to quote them without attribution.  I’ll summarize their views in a follow-up post.  For now, I’ll just say that they did not exactly perceive the White Paper as devoid of the defensive tone Urwin sought to transcend, nor did it put much of a dent in their existing perception of the field.  University administrators, on the other hand, may well be intrigued by the White Paper’s assertion that “military history courses – due to their popularity – could boost  any history department’s enrollment figures and serve as gateways to the recruitment of more history majors and minors.”  Faculty can airily dismiss such workaday possibilities as a kind of academic whoring.  Administrators cannot.

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Civil War Military Historians Are Freaking Out? – Pt 2

(Cross-posted, with minor changes, from Blog Them Out of the Stone Age)

It turns out that Megan isn’t the only writer in the blogosphere to comment on these two articles, and I’m not the only one to comment on her post.

Over the holiday break, the staff of Civil War History compiled a list of online blogs and articles that relate (both directly and more indirectly) to the think piece by Earl Hess. The staff has shared the list on the CWH Facebook page  “in hopes that it continues to inspire a thoughtful and productive dialogue.”  With that hope in mind, here’s the list as they have it thus far (leaving aside the link to my own post, previously reprinted):

Kevin Levin, Civil War Memory, What Do We Need to Know About Traditional Military History? (December 7, 2014)

Megan Kate Nelson, Historista, Civil War Military Historians Are Freaking Out (December 10, 2014)

Claire Potter, Tenured Radical, And the Dead (Fields of History) Shall Rise Up (December 11, 2014)

Kevin Levin, Civil War Memory, In Defense of Hess, Gallagher and Meier (December 11, 2014)

Kathleen Logothetis Thompson, Civil Discourse Blog, “Coming to Terms With Civil War Military History”:  A Response (January 5, 2015)

Kevin Gannon, The Tattooed Professor,  Taking a Walk on the Civil War’s “Dark Side” (January 6, 2015)

(NB.  Actually, it’s no longer accurate to refer to the “blogosphere,” at least not as a self-contained entity, because when links to posts are shared on Facebook or Twitter (as they frequently are), most of the ensuing dialog takes place on those sites, especially FB.  The update on the Civil War History Journal Facebook page is itself a case in point.  The resulting dynamic is worth a post in its own right–something I’ll have to place on my long list of things to blog about.  In the interim, it’s time to write part 3 of  my own response.)

The Role of Military History in the Contemporary Academy

The Society for Military History has just released a white paper entitled “The Role of Military History in the Contemporary Academy.”  In it, notes the SMH web site:

 co-authors Tami Davis Biddle of the U.S. Army War College and Robert M. Citino of the University of North Texas provide a compelling chronicle of military history’s revitalization over the past four decades and assess its current place in American higher education. In addition to the sub-field’s maturation in academic terms, its enduring popularity with the public and college students makes it an ideal lure for history departments concerned about course enrollments and the recruitment of majors and minors. Knowledge of the uses, abuses, and costs of war should also constitute a part of the education of future leaders in the world’s mightiest military power.

The SMH intends this white paper to generate a dialogue with history professors, college and university administrators, journalists, politicians, and citizens regarding the key role the study of military history can play in deepening our understanding of the world we inhabit and producing an informed citizenry.

The white paper is available here. (It can be read online or downloaded in PDF format.)

Civil War Military Historians Are Freaking Out? – Pt 1

Cross-posted from Civil Warriors

Recently two “think pieces,” coincidentally dealing with pretty much the same topic, appeared in the major professional journals concerned with the American Civil War:

Gary W. Gallagher and Kathryn Shively Meier, “Coming to Terms With Civil War Military History,” Journal of the Civil War Era (Volume 4, Issue 4):487-508.


Earl J. Hess, “Where to We Stand?: A Critical Assessment of Civil War Studies in the Sesquicentennial Era,” Civil War History (Volume 60, Number 4, December 2014):371-403.

Both articles depict, to varying degrees, the increasing marginalization of traditional military history (strategy, operations, tactics, etc.) within academe. Actually, I would place the word “seemingly” immediately before the word “increasing.” But I’ll explain that in a future post. For now, I’d just like to call attention to the response to these two pieces by Historista, the nom de blog of Megan Kate Nelson, author of Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War (2012), which, according to the description on the back of the soft cover edition, is “the first book to bring together environmental and cultural histories to consider the evocative power of ruination [that is to say, the destruction of cities, houses, forests and soldiers’ bodies] as an imagined state, an act of destruction, and a process of change.” Which is to say, one of the books forming part of the phenomenon that is causing Civil War military historians to freak out.

Her post, entitled “Civil War Military Historians Are Freaking Out,” appeared on her blog on December 10, 2014. I self-identify as a military historian, and I’m freaking out so badly that I assigned Ruin Nation as a supplemental text in an undergraduate readings course I taught last summer and as a required book in my upcoming graduate readings course (it starts next week).

For now, I simply refer you to the post, with comment to come on the articles that prompted it:

Megan begins:

Let’s imagine that you wake up one morning after many years of writing and speaking and teaching in your academic specialty. You have tenure, you have written a lot of books and articles and book reviews, and colleagues across the profession (and sometimes, complete strangers) know who you are. But you wake up one morning convinced that it has all been for nothing. Nobody cares anymore about your research topic or your methodologies or your arguments. You wake up and think, “Oh my god! My field is dying!”

So what do you do?

Find out by reading Civil War Military Historians Are Freaking Out

Starship Troopers and the Allure of Fascism

This article first appeared in World War II magazine.  Reprinted with permission.

At first blush Starship Troopers appears to have only a superficial connection with World War II. In the 1997 film, transports carry elite troops across long distances to a hostile shore, where the troops clamber into landing craft that carry them into battle against an enemy who neither gives quarter nor surrenders. That sounds like the U.S. Marine invasions of Tarawa and Iwo Jima. But Starship Troopers is set in the late 23rd century. The hostile shore is an enemy planet. And the enemy  are gigantic bugs

However Starship Troopers contains many elements that smack strongly of fascism, the dominant Axis ideology. The very first scene shows hundreds of Mobile Infantry—the starship troopers—at attention in a  stance identical to SS troopers at the Nuremberg rallies. Their uniforms  closely resemble those of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Much of the rhetoric sounds  fascist, as when Sky Marshal Diennes (Bruce Gray) stands at a lectern in a  scene that looks very much like Hitler addressing the Reichstag, and declares  war on the Arachnids (the bugs) to an enthusiastic crowd: “We must…ensure that  human civilization, not insect, dominates this galaxy now and always!</I

Starship Troopers appears redolent of fascism because director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Edward Neumeier consciously set out to make a film about fascism. The idea originated with Neumeier, who had co-written Verhoeven’s earlier RoboCop (1987). Told by “liberal friends” that RoboCop was “fascist,” Neumeier reflected that action films are inherently fascist, so why not make one that made the connection explicit? The concept appealed to Verhoeven, perhaps because he had spent his early childhood in Nazi-occupied Holland. And Starship Troopers made a good vehicle for such an effort, based as it was upon a 1959 Robert Heinlein novel widely regarded as crypto-fascist

The first shot in Starship Troopers is a visual quote from Triumph of the Will, German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 Nazi propaganda masterpiece. A subsequent sequence introducing the main characters—Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), Carmen Ibañez (Denise Richards), and Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyers)—on their last day of high school also introduces the basic philosophy of their world. “This year in history, we talked about the failure of democracy….,” teacher Jean Rasczak (Michael Ironside) says. “We talked about the veterans, how they took control and imposed the stability that has lasted for generations since.” Disillusionment with democracy was one of the main attributes of fascism. In the film, only military veterans may vote: they are citizens, while non-veterans are merely “civilians.” Military service has so thoroughly indoctrinated the veterans that, for all practical purposes, the world government is a one-party police state.

The high school chums soon enlist, and when war with the Arachnids breaks out, they are in the thick of the fight. Rasczak, who has re-entered active duty, serves as the  platoon leader of Mobile Infantrymen Rico and Flores, while overhead Ibañez pilots a starship. Rico, Flores, and Ibañez are gorgeous—the 23rd century equivalent of the ideal Aryan youth—and they enthusiastically embrace a worldview that accepts, indeed celebrates, life as violent struggle—another core fascism principle. Moreover, the protagonists willingly subordinate their individual identities to the State, another fascist tenet. As Italian dictator Benito Mussolini said, “There is no concept of the State which is not fundamentally a concept of life

The film also makes clear that the State controls the media. Frequent clips from the “Federal Network” supply exposition for the story, and illustrate how the society works. For example, in a triumph of order over the discredited liberal “coddling” of criminals, a man is accused of murder in the morning, convicted that afternoon, and executed—live on television—that evening. One could multiply the parallels between fascism and Starship Troopers almost indefinitely.

Verhoeven and Neumeier deliberately crafted Starship Troopers to make its worldview
seem appealing. “I wanted to do something more than just a movie about giant bugs,” Verhoeven said in an interview. “I tried to seduce the audience to join [Starship Troopers’] society, but then ask, ‘What are you really joining up for?’” Some critics who got the satirical point nevertheless worried that a younger audience would not—that naïve viewers would embrace this fascist world, much as those of similar age did in the 1930s. Indeed, the film’s success in depicting the the allure of fascism is what makes it an aid to understanding World War II, for we have long been so appalled by fascism that it is difficult to see the mass appeal it once possessed.

Some critics, indeed, mistook Starship Troopers as a celebration of fascism. In the DVD commentary Verhoeven and Neumeier seemed a bit surprised that anyone could believe such a thing. But they reserved their main scorn for TIME magazine film critic Richard Schickel, who concluded his review of Starship Troopers with the words: “[W]e’re looking at a happily fascist world. Maybe that’s the movie’s final, deadpan joke. Maybe it’s saying that war inevitably makes fascists of us all. Or—best guess—maybe the filmmakers are so lost in their slambang visual effects that they don’t give a hoot about the movie’s scariest implications.” The filmmakers chuckled derisively at that because, of course, fascism was exactly the subject of the film. Moreover, they added, Schickel got its thesis exactly right: “War makes fascists of us all.” Thus, Starship Troopers does not just satirize fascism. It also warns about its continued allure
in times of strife.

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Archival Finds: Dr. Joseph Fitzharris and the Burned Book

The 3rd Minnesota Volunteer Infantry had the misfortune to be surrendered by its Colonel, Henry C. Lester, to  Nathan Bedford Forrest at Murfreesboro, TN on 13 July 1862. Because of the situation and the officers involved (a Crittenden and others with “clout”), one of the research questions became: how did the Third learn to do picket and guard duty. Col. Lester held schools for the company officers and sergeants to teach them so they could teach their men. But that does not answer the question.

We know his training was good. One officer (Christopher Columbus Andrews) wrote a manual on the duties of  a company officer: Hints to Company Officers on Their Military Duties. This book was very well received and he was complimented by several general officers. From Andrews’ Hints, and its reception, we can conclude that Lester had high expectations and trained the men well. So how were they trained to do guard and picket duty?

In the manual, Andrews almost casually remarks that, of course, all infantry officers (his primary audience) would be familiar with McClellan’s work on picketing and guard duty. That reference was to George B. McClellan, Regulations and Instructions for the Field Service of the U.S. Cavalry in Time of War (Philadelphia, PA: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1861). If Lester actually used McClellan’s manual and trained the men in that style,, they most likely conducted picket and guard duty in that manner. Assuming he did, the standard story of the regiment (and Col. Lester) at Murfreesboro has serious flaws and becomes another example of General Officer Protective Association at work.

Out of curiosity about the manual, I looked to see if the Minnesota Historical Society had a copy. They did. I ordered it, and when it came out, it was charred on the spine and the edges of the cover. Company officer tents were burned by Forrest after he finally captured the Third’s camp on 13 July 1862. Opening the book, I found inscribed on the fly leaf the name of the owner: Capt. Hans Mattson, company D, 3rd Minnesota!

This charred volume proved that Lester trained his officers and men in the style he learned in the 1st Minnesota under Colonels Gorman and Dana – to McClellan’s model. Thus, we know that the standard interpretation of events at Murfreesboro on the eve of Forrest’s attack are, of necessity, incorrect.

 –Dr. Joseph Fitzharris

University of St. Thomas, Professor Emeritus of History

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The Hero’s Adventure in Sands of Iwo Jima

Sands of Iwo Jima Poster



This article originally appeared in World War II magazine.  Reprinted with Permission.  Cross-posted from Blog Them Out of The Stone Age

The next time you’re talking war movie trivia with friends, ask, “Who’s the hero in Sands of Iwo Jima?”  Almost inevitably, they will respond, “John Wayne.”  Or perhaps “Sergeant Stryker,” since that’s the name of the character that Wayne portrays.  But either way they will be wrong.  The hero is not Stryker, as one might expect because he is the film’s central figure.  It is instead the squad he leads into battle, and the story unfolds most richly when this is understood.

In everyday terms, anyone potentially can behave “heroically” in the sense of behaving courageously.  But in mythic terms, “Hero” has a specific meaning.  It refers to the character in a story who undergoes an adventure in which he is challenged and changed, and from which he returns with a “boon”; that is to say, something of lasting value for himself or for others.  Mythologist Joseph Campbell set forth this definition in a classic book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, published in 1949 (the same year in which Sands of Iwo Jima debuted). Based on a study of cultures the world over, Campbell discovered that each had stories of a hero whose journey of adventure shared a common structure.

Although you may never have heard of Campbell’s book, you’ve surely seen its ideas on display, because when creating his Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983), writer/producer George Lucas consciously drew upon them.   The Hero (Luke Skywalker) leaves the “ordinary world” of the planet Tatooine, enters the “special world” of the adventure, learns how to function in this special world, fights an adversary (the Empire), reaches a point of maximum peril (the loss of a hand and of his friend, Han Solo, in The Empire Strikes Back), and finally defeats his adversary and brings the boon of enduring peace to the galaxy in Return of the Jedi.  But although Campbell was the first to identify this structure, story-tellers have unconsciously used it for millennia.  So it was with Sands of Iwo Jima, written by Harry Brown and James Edward Grant, and directed by Alan Dwan.

As Campbell makes clear, the Hero’s journey invariably contains certain standard archetypes, chief among them the Mentor, who teaches the Hero how to operate in the special world of the adventure.  In the Star Wars trilogy the Mentor is Obi Wan Kenobi.  In Sands of Iwo Jima it is Sergeant John M. Stryker.  Thus, the film opens in the “ordinary world” of a New Zealand training camp. The members of the squad—in mythic terms the Hero Team, because they embark on the adventure together—are the first to be introduced. Only then does Stryker appear.  His task is to prepare the Hero Team to enter the “special world” of combat.  He makes this plain when he and the squad first meet:  “If I can’t teach you one way, I’ll teach you another. But I’ll get the job done.”

Save for the two combat veterans in the squad, Stryker is not particularly well liked by the men.  Nor does he try to make himself likeable.  He even butt strokes PFC “Sky” Choynski (Hal Baylor), who cannot master the foot work involved with bayonet drill.  But true to his word, if Stryker can’t teach Choynski one way, he’ll teach him another, and later in the film he does so using the “Mexican Hat Dance” to give Choynski a sense of the rhythm and shifting of body weight involved.

Many adventures involve both a Mentor and a Shadow Mentor.  The latter tries to induce the Hero into embracing the dark side of the special world.  In the Star Wars trilogy the Shadow Mentor is Darth Vader. In Sands of Iwo Jima, Stryker represents both Mentor and Shadow Mentor.  Most of the squad see only the Mentor.  But one of them, PFC Peter Conway (John Agar) clearly perceives the Shadow Mentor, helped by the fact that he regards Stryker as the epitome of his own father, a flinty Marine colonel under whose command Stryker served on Guadalcanal.  Of his father, Conway speaks bitterly.  “I wasn’t tough enough for him. Too soft.  ‘No guts’ was the phrase he used. He wanted me to be like Stryker. . . . I bet they got along just fine.  Both with ramrods strapped on their backs. . . .They’re not going to strap one on mine.”  Conway views Stryker as the embodiment of man the violent animal as opposed to man the lover of life, family, and culture.

Conway encounters the Shadow Mentor most directly during the first night after the invasion of Tarawa.  This is the point of maximum peril for the Hero Team, for it has been assigned to hold a sector that ought to be defended by a force three times its size.  In the midst of this tense situation, Conway and Stryker hear the desperate cry of a wounded comrade.  Stryker refuses to help, saying that the cry may be a ruse and that an attempted rescue will give away the squad’s position.  To Conway this response is inhuman. “Sit here if you want,” he says, “I’m getting him. The only way you’ll stop me is to kill me.”  Stryker turns his rifle on Conway, his expression one of icy malevolence: “That’s just what I’ll do!”  Conway stays put.

Then, using Stryker’s trademark phrase, Conway steps forward to lead them. “All right, saddle up!” he growls. “Let’s get back in the war.” The squad has completed the Hero’s adventure.  But myth permits a nuanced reading of the film that leaves us wondering what individual journey Conway has completed.  Has he embraced Stryker as Mentor after all?  Or has he embraced the Shadow Mentor?  Perhaps, as Campbell once expressed it, Conway has “put aside his pride, his virtue, beauty and life” and has at last submitted “to the absolutely intolerable.”

Pearl Harbor after Pearl Harbor

Every year the United States pauses for a moment on December 7 to remember the “date that will live in infamy.”  It is only one of a number of anniversaries that Americans mark by the date — July 4, 9/11, December 7 — but among the most important.  The interest peaks every 12/7, as this Google Trends analysis shows:


The peaks are the beginning of December of each year as the nation turns to Hawaii and then, when the moment passes, turns away again.  There are other historical events in the Pacific War to move on to:  the fall of Wake Island, Coral Sea, Midway, Guadalcanal, and so.  The dominant narrative of the war is locked into those highlights, one coming after the other.  Here is the Google Trends graph for “Coral Sea:”


It shows the same, if somewhat lower, peaks and valleys as the Pearl Harbor graph.

While the historical narrative shines its light in various places and then moves on, the actual history kept going in those places.  Those left alive in Oahu after the Japanese attack on December 7 woke up the next day, December 8, and the next, December 9, and set to work recovering the base, the ships, and themselves.  Pearl Harbor, the military base, remained, even after Pearl Harbor, the historical event, had passed.

Wreckage littered the harbor in the water and on land.  Gas and oil slicked surfaces.  The ruins of ships still burned fiercely.  Bodies and body parts were everywhere. The survivors, still stunned by the attack and worried about a renewed assault or even an amphibious landing, had to set about clearing everything.  It was an awful experience.  John Harold Chapman, a sailor on the West Virginia spent the day after the attack dealing with the dead bodies on the USS Arizona:

Geez what a mess.  The men on top were still intact, but the men down below were cooked raw.  They had been steamed.  The fire had been raging underneath them for 12 hours and they were steamed.  We tried to grab them by the leg and the whole flesh would come off the  leg.  We tried to grab the bone and the bone came off.  Men were getting sick and heaving over the side.


In addition to the cleanup, there was resurrection.  Ships, unlike men, could be brought back to life.  The shattered hulks on battleship row were potentially salvageable and so each was evaluated for potential repair.  The Arizona, Oklahoma, and Utah were beyond hope, but the rest could be raised out of the water and fixed.  As the months went by, cofferdams sprouted around the gashes in the bulkheads, water was pumped out, and the ships were raised.  The ships that could not be raised were left where they were, blackened reminders of the disaster of December 7.

The foremast of the Arizona, an iconic presence since the attack, was cut down and hauled ashore on 6 May 1942, serving as as good an end point to the recovery as any.  Work continued throughout the war, but perhaps without the desperation of those first few months.  That same day, American forces in the Philippines finally surrendered, and the Battle of Coral Sea continued.  The former could be seen as the end of the beginning of the Pacific War, a period of almost uninterrupted Japanese victories, and the latter the beginning of next phase, as the United States successfully pushed back.  Despite the repairs and its continuing use as a naval base, in some ways Pearl Harbor would never advance beyond December 7, 1941, at 7:55 am, as the Sunday bands played, and the Japanese planes first tilted down over the water.  That image, at least, could not be fixed.


What is this reciprocity of which you speak?

[Cross-posted on Skulking in Holes and Corners blog]

In the debate over cultural vs. practical explanations for military behavior (assuming we need to prefer one over the other), the concept of reciprocity will undoubtedly surface. It’s frequently used to explain why some combatants broke real or apparent ‘rules’ of war, or otherwise violated expected norms of behavior. Often times it’s used to excuse bad behavior: soldiers, for example, may have done something that might be considered ‘bad’ in some circumstances, but they did it only after the other side did it first, or only after the other side’s past actions (or maybe just one action) made it clear that a more acceptable response was too dangerous to their own troops. In other words, their response was not conditioned by culture (e.g. a cultural hatred of the Other), but by pragmatism, maybe a rational desire to avoid casualties, or perhaps punishing the enemy for similarly bad behavior. You also see reciprocity come up a lot as a mechanism when discussing the “laws” of war – that reciprocity was one of the key factors limiting excessive violence. In the early modern context, reciprocity is often alluded to when describing how the post-Thirty Years War period became a period of “limited” war.

Given the frequency with which we mention the concept, I’m surprised how little we seem to understand it, at least in an early modern context. I’m sure it’s quite well covered in the literature on counterinsurgency (the Nazi response to partisan attacks comes quickly to mind), though Roy McCullough’s Coercion, Conversion and Counterinsurgency in Louis XIV’s France is about the only early modern study I know of. If reciprocity really does help explain an era of “limited” war, has anybody explained why reciprocity, which would seem to have a universal logic, apparently broke down from 1560-1648? (Yes, wars of religion and all that, but spell it out, e.g. does reciprocity fail when the stakes are so high that you’re not going to be deterred by whatever reprisal the enemy commits? Or more extreme acts are no longer seen as being so far outside the pale that they merit reprisal?…)

I admit I don’t have a really clear grasp of how exactly it worked on the ground, particularly in a conventional conflict between European states, and particularly how it was supposed to work over time. So here are my initial thoughts (and questions) about how military reciprocity was supposed to work in limiting early modern military excess. Somebody should write a book or article just on this, preferably a case study. Maybe somebody already has, in which case, let me know in the comments. I just hope I don’t have to read too much about MAD.

The System of Reciprocity

Early modern contemporaries explicitly discussed the idea, so at least we know it’s not some modern concept anachronistically superimposed onto the foreign Past. That being said, we should probably start by wondering how many moralistic justifications for bad-assery (“I only did it to right a wrong”) weren’t just a mask for some other, less pious, motive – just sayin’. Just war theorists had a thing or two to say about that.

The next task is to figure out what exactly reciprocity is and isn’t. Contemporary theoretical treatises give us an idea of how it was expected to work in many specific contexts (regarding prisoners, when your property is damaged, when you capture a town…). That in and of itself would require a whole book, though the concept of lex talionis (“eye for an eye”) would probably need a pretty big index entry. Clearly, reciprocity includes threatening reprisal if an enemy behaves badly or continues to do so – deterrence, in other words. A graduated system of reciprocity can also go one step further, to actual acts of reprisal that are intended to teach the enemy a lesson, to influence their future behavior. What I’m less sure about is whether reciprocity can consist of acts with the singular intent of punishing an enemy for bad behavior, or to seek revenge. Colloquially that seems to fit the definition, but I’m not sure if vengeance, without the intent to influence future enemy behavior, can be part of a broader strategy.

Sometimes reprisals were not so much about punishing behaviors that violated the understood norms of the period, but they were really just about punishing any kind of behavior that the other side didn’t like, or discouraging any strategy or tactic that you think the enemy holds an advantage in. You let the enemy know they won’t gain any advantage by doing behavior X (so presumably they should stop doing it). For example, if one of Louis’ garrisons was taken prisoner because it poorly defended itself, is his desire to take an Allied garrison that did defend itself well reciprocity, or just being a sore loser? Is honor as important a motive for reciprocity as actual physical harm? More broadly, does reciprocity exist without a moral justification?

Even if we create a reasonable definition of the term, and I don’t know that I have one yet, I want to know how reciprocity works over the long haul. It seems like historians usually focus on two possible dynamics: 1) no bad behavior occurs at all because fear holds both sides in check, or 2) side A’s bad behavior ends after side B threatens them with reciprocal treatment. Of course there’s another possibility: a string of reciprocal actions that quickly spirals out of control, but we don’t hear much about this much (maybe in some of the literature on the wars of religion). Such escalation would seem to be a total failure of reciprocity as deterrent – which seems quite plausible, yet most early modern discussions of reciprocity I can think of, brief as they are, talk about it working effectively. (Maybe that’s because I focus on the late 17C into the 18C).

To understand how reciprocity really worked in practice, I think we first need to have a good sense of the balance between two types of reprisals: actual reprisals, and threats of. Is a threat to reciprocate serious enough on its own, without a precedent? Do combatants play chicken with threats, ignoring the other side’s menaces until somebody actually does something? A stable, functioning system would, I’d think, tend to see far more threats of reprisal than actual reprisals. A very stable system, with opponents who truly understand each other and appreciate their opposite’s potential for reprisal, might not even see the need for an explicit threat at all if the fear of reciprocity was internalized, unless there were explicit agreements banning certain acts beyond the pale. I’d imagine this would take the form of a constant concern that, if you did X, the enemy would repay the favor. Or perhaps a much earlier example would be all that was needed. On the other hand, lots of actual reprisals (tit-for-tat-for-tit-for-tat…) would indicate that the reciprocity system has probably broken down completely, or that reprisals has become purely about punishment and no longer about deterrence. (Maybe we need to distinguish “reprisals” from “reciprocity”, i.e. some reprisals might just be about revenge and not part of a reciprocity system?)

There might be a ‘seasonality’ to it all. On the broadest level, reciprocity really only works if both sides believe the conflict will last long enough for retribution to be meted out. Thus, in a war that’s expected to end quickly (don’t most, when they’re started?), belligerents might not feel constrained by the fear of reciprocity. Or, if a side truly believes in a decisive battle ending the war in a day, that day could come at any time. Did millenarian groups abandon all caution to the wind because they believed the end of the world was nigh (or am I giving millenarians too much credit for the strength of their convictions) – what would Thomas Müntzer do? Does the belief in a long war mean that wars which dragged on were more likely to see reprisals? Maybe if you expect the war to be an attritional slog, you try to avoid getting too “hot”? Or maybe an accumulation of little insults and violations eventually reaches a tipping point where some message needs to be sent. Sometimes we explain the winding down of campaigning late in a war in terms of exhaustion – could it be caution as well?

The scale of reprisals also seems important. If the reprisals are small-scale or carefully calibrated, that would suggest a very finely tuned communication between the two sides. But perchance you see a massive reprisal to a small-scale violation (speaking of the Nazis) – is that more effective, or would a more calculated response have worked better? The answer probably depends on knowledge of the intended audience, what their culture expects, how it responds. Similarly, whether a side responds with precision or with overkill may itself derive from its own understanding of how loudly power should speak.

How does the cycle of reciprocity end? Assuming side A carries out a reprisal, how does side B decide whether to a) ignore it and do what they were going to do anyway, b) learn their lesson and stop doing bad things, or c) respond in kind? The pattern of reprisals over time would be important to understanding this interaction – how many back-and-forth responses occur? Is reciprocity self-limiting in that it’s seen as a one-time response, rather than part of a broader strategy?

How do written agreements relate to the reciprocity system? Reciprocity appears to exist either when coercion replaces negotiation/consensus, or when there isn’t any negotiation and direct communication to begin with. Some towns signed accords to place themselves beyond retribution, often in exchange for money – presumably this limited the number of potential targets when a reprisal was needed. Sometimes belligerents made treaties to limit mutually-destructive practices like contributions and even bombardments – is this acknowledgment that reciprocity itself (or the threat thereof) wasn’t adequate, or would only lead to a costly arms race? The Washington Naval Conference of 1921-22 comes to mind. Or maybe these treaties actually resulted from a series of reprisals that showed both sides that they could not prevent further acts through military means; the agreements were the cementing of an understanding developed through the reciprocity process. It would be interesting to see why some types of acts were considered enforceable by conventions, but not others. When did Europeans develop the mechanics to enforce such treaty obligations? And why, in the early modern period, weren’t such treaties made permanent, or at least renewed at the start of every war? Is it because these reciproc-able actions were actually considered valid acts of war, until the enemy decided otherwise?

If the laws of war were widely established, shouldn’t the need for reciprocity itself disappear? Reciprocity means one aggrieved party ‘takes the law into its own hands’ because there is no ‘legal controlling authority’ to adjudicate, to enforce the law otherwise. So when we talk about limitations on early modern warfare by pointing to the existence of both “laws” of war and reciprocity, isn’t that a bit of a contradiction? Or, at least, shouldn’t they be moving in opposite directions – the need for reciprocity declining at the same time as the laws of war gain more force? Or is it the case that different countries actually do have different views on the laws of war?

Whatever reciprocity really means, I think we need to appreciate that it is not as obvious or simple as it might seem.

Reciprocity is a Language Both Sides Need to Speak

If it’s hard for the other side to tell what an intended act of reprisal is in response to, they won’t be clear on the behavior they’re supposed to curtail. Presumably this means serious attempts at deterrent reciprocity will not only perform the retributive act, but also make it clear why exactly they are doing it. I assume one doesn’t expect the enemy’s rank and file to read your propaganda where you explain why you’re doing what you’re doing (maybe the enemy’s State Department), so if reciprocity is really driven by deterrence, we’d expect to find explanatory letters or diplomatic objections to the enemy to clarify the problem, possibly make the complaints known to enemy officers about to be paroled. Has anyone done an analysis of two combatants ‘communicating’ with each other in these various media, sustained over the course of a war? Was there a red telephone hotline in early modern diplomacy? (Need to go back and check my Bély I guess.)

Yet I presume that even without any kind of additional explication, most reprisals are intended to be immediately recognized as such by their intended audience. The very process of reciprocity, to be successful, requires shared cultural sensibilities. It probably requires, for example, a shared sense of fair play – that there are in fact some rules in war that everyone needs to adhere to, and if they are broken, there will be consequences on Earth, as well as in Heaven. Reciprocity also needs those rules spelled out somehow. It might require a shared sense of who is a legitimate target in war and when fighting is acceptable (all things discussed in medieval just war theory and by early modern legal tomes). It might even extend to the question of which weapons it is acceptable to be killed with.

The drive to reciprocate might be universal, unless you’re a ‘Turn the other cheek’ kind of guy, or a neostoic or Buddhist perhaps. What’s worth responding to is not necessarily obvious. Deciding what is reprisal-worthy, and how the reciprocity cycle is supposed to unfold, isn’t written in the stars. Some groups don’t bother reciprocating to particular acts not because they approve of the act or the result, but because they don’t deem the enemy’s behavior as worth ‘triggering’ a response, perhaps because they lacked intent. Maybe some groups are disciplined enough to refuse to be lowered to the level of the enemy – reciprocity would require perpetuating the same inhumanity that they condemn. The sense of what is proper and what is improper varies – you generally only cry ‘Revenge!’ when (your) norms are violated, and your norms may not be your enemy’s norms. Such issues arise when soldiers are faced with the question of how to treat civilians, how to treat prisoners (whether to take them), and so on. North American military and cross-cultural/frontier historians generally have spent lots of time on this topic, Ian Steele’s Betrayals being one example.

Perhaps reciprocity is the ultimate pragmatist’s argument because it assumes both a universal military value system and a universal language of military communication expressed in acts as much as words. It assumes that, when you put a garrison to the sword after it capitulates, the enemy knows that’s bad, and that you did it in response to their earlier act (not because you yourself like to do that kind of thing). It also assumes that you think your enemy is a rational actor, that they will properly decode the message, “see reason” and desist for fear of another such occurrence.

Who and What Merits a Response?

The decision of when to apply reciprocity is also culturally influenced. It’s not only about deciding which acts trigger reciprocity, it’s also about who’s worth responding to. Acts that are worthy of reciprocity are always there, and there are many possible behaviors that might merit it, yet reprisal is not always invoked. Why not? Within your own military camp, you might respond to a provocation or insult with a challenge to a duel if he’s your equal, but you’re likely to just beat down an inferior who commits the same affront. Foot soldiers might get cut down while enemy officers are granted parole. Or maybe you just massacre the nearby village after your patrol has been ambushed by partisans. You might be hypersensitive to norm-violating behavior in one context, but more lenient in another. In one curious case I’ve come across, a French garrison sallied out during a siege and set a hospital full of wounded Allied soldiers on fire. Yet this failed to become a cause célèbre – why not? There was mention of punishing the garrison commander when the town fell, but that didn’t happen. Another example suggests that it’s quite possible an impending peace forgives all. That could be why more wasn’t made of a 1712 incident where retreating English forces, having agreed to cease fire with the French, barricaded 300 men, women and children into a Flanders village church and then proceeded to burn it to the ground.

Reprisals will suggest which events were considered beyond the accepted norms. It offers other possible insights as well. Within the pantheon of bad behavior, are there particular acts that were more likely to merit a response, more quickly, more decisively? Impressionistically, most of the mention of reprisals that I’ve seen in the sources on the War of the Spanish Succession (Flanders mostly) have to do with abuses over contributions and the treatment of prisoners. Were these domains particularly problematic because they were so common? Because they were so difficult to regulate? Because they were especially important? Because those demanding retribution differed in some way from the norms and expectations of the violator (a question prompted by the fact that many of the threats over contributions seem to come from military administrators responding to marauding troops)?

The types of violations contemporaries felt merited a response tell us something about what they thought was important, while things they ignored hints at what was acceptable. So the fact that were willing to initiate reprisals when the honor of their own men was besmirched suggests that they were hardly indifferent to such insults. As Marlborough vowed to one correspondent upon hearing that his enemy had stripped naked an English garrison: “I hope yet this campagne to return him some of his men as naked as thay came into this world.” Probably not a matter of life and death, but a soldier must have his dignity.

When and Where Can We Respond?

In a mundane sense reciprocity is ‘practical’ because it’s only exercised when it’s practical to do so, which admittedly seems a bit circular. Sometimes you have to wait until you have their troops on which to return the favor. Hopefully the unchastened enemy doesn’t have another opportunity to repeat the misdeed before you can wrap his knuckles in kind. Coalition warfare makes things even more complicated, raising the question of whether you can reciprocate against the troops of the perpetrator’s ally, if you don’t have any others at hand. (Threats were made to reciprocate against prisoners already captured, but this appears to only be a valid response to mistreatment of their own POWs). It also raises the question of whether you can reciprocate on the behalf of your ally, or whether you need to leave that decision to him. Should an English general take a French garrison in Flanders prisoners because a Franco-Spanish force mistreated an Austro-Dutch-Portuguese garrison in Spain? Short of a formal complaint from the aggrieved Imperial party (General Stahremberg), Marlborough decided to hand the matter over to his allies. Was he concerned such a muddy reprisal by proxy would set off an even greater escalation? Or was this more about denying his allies the honor of reprisal?

So I can see how all this would possibly be confusing to the recipient. Not only might they well think ‘You didn’t complain when we did it then, but now you are?’, but if reciprocal opportunities are rare, the practical impact of reciprocity might decrease as well: ‘We don’t need to be hemmed in by reciprocity because they could never respond to us anyway’. But what do I know.

I also wonder whether threats (or acts) of reciprocity have a half-life. Is a threat quickly forgotten as the war moves on? Or maybe calls for revenge multiply once an exchanged officer returns home and is able to plead his case? What role does the press – “Remember the Maine!” – play in whipping up pressure to respond? And what happens in the next war? Do such informal warnings need to be recalled at the beginning of the next war? Does a belligerent issue a generic warning to all enemies in all theaters, or does it deal with each belligerent individually, and only when a violation seems imminent or actually occurs?

How Precise Is Reciprocity?

The timing of reciprocity is not the only weak link in the reciprocal chain. This is particularly true when reciprocity crosses categories. A perfect correspondence between tit and tat – you strip our prisoners, we’ll strip yours (which we might want to refer to as tit-for-tit) – sends a pretty clear message. So is reciprocity limited in that you only mimic your enemy’s specific action in order to make the message clear? For example, when a French military administrator argues that they can bombard a few Allied towns if the Allies burn their crops, would the enemy see devastation as a different category from bombardment (maybe worse), and therefore not consider it a legitimate reprisal but actual escalation? Do you spend much effort creating a comparable scenario so that you can recreate the initial act requiring a response, or do you just order ‘No quarter’ at the next battle because that’s what’s available to you? How do such muddy messages get delivered, and how do you check to see if your message has the intended result? Does the reciprocator check to see that the message is being clearly heard, and that it’s having its intended effect? When a reprisal is initiated by events in another theater, how does the commander make sure the Flanders garrison know it’s being made prisoner because of what one of your generals 500 miles away did? Those are some of the clues we need to look for.

Does Your View of the Enemy Influence Your Use of Reciprocity?

Let’s face it, there’s plenty of hypocrisy when it comes to reciprocity, and that might garble whatever message is being sent. The English portrayed their French foes as barbaric for devastating the Palatinate in 1689, yet the Duke of Marlborough was ‘forced’ to lay waste to Bavaria because the Elector of Bavaria refused to surrender. [I can almost hear Louis arguing that German incalcitrance ‘forced’ him to burn the Rhineland…] We reassure ourselves that we may have been forced to do it, but at least we don’t enjoy it like the enemy does. When the French Marshal Villeroi burned Brussels in 1695 most of the English press portrayed it as French inhumanity. But not when the Royal Navy bombarded coastal towns along France’s littoral for several years previous. Interestingly, some contemporaries (even English) described the Brussels bombardment as a response to English attacks on France’s coastal towns, though France hardly needed an excuse to bombard towns or invent bomb ketches. So if Louis intended Brussels to be a reprisal, and the English failed to see the connection between the Brussels bonfire and the urban conflagrations they themselves unleashed, where does that leave us? Is that a failed reprisal? Or did it lead to an agreement to limit bombardment?

How can you teach the enemy a lesson in moderation if your reprisal only reinforces their perception that you are evil and will not be restrained to civilized bounds? If you believe your enemies are barbarians beyond the pale of human decency, that they are inherently vicious or brutish, or that they are a vengeful race, reciprocity seems kind of pointless – like punishing a puppy for a wet spot you find on the carpet hours after the deed has been done, or expecting the scorpion not to sting the frog as they cross the river. And it might well encourage the enemy to cast off even more inhibitions.

Do They Measure Reciprocity’s Efficacy?

Reciprocity might be intended to achieve a practical purpose of punishing a disapproved-of enemy act (or discourage future similar enemy behavior), but it could just as easily fail miserably, engendering further escalation. Do reciprocators measure whether conduct improves, and whether it was the reciprocity that caused it? How? The impulse to reciprocate might be practical, after all, while the result is anything but. What I really wonder is whether a) practical soldiers honestly assess whether a reciprocal response has actually had the deterrent effect of decreasing the act’s frequency afterward, and b) whether a finding that reciprocity often fails to achieve its intended objective would make such reprisals less common. It would if reciprocity is driven by practical considerations, but I don’t think we should underestimate the cathartic effect of seeking revenge and inflicting righteous judgment on transgressors (even chimps do it, I’m told). Of course then a pragmatist will argue that such cathartic acts are practically necessary to maintain soldier morale and bond soldiers to each other, and around we go…

 Reciprocity Assumes Somebody’s In Control

One other way in which reciprocity is very practical is that it assumes that both sides control their own forces, so that a reprisal can be distinguished from all the background noise. If your army is constantly going around killing prisoners, there’s not much point in trying to prevent the enemy from killing your prisoners by killing yet more of theirs. Maybe this is why reciprocity may have taken hold in the late 17C: early modern states finally managed to gain control of their troops (and even their generals) through better pay, greater discipline, and by making service to the State (or Sovereign) the norm. Maybe reciprocity was an inherently prudent Vegetian concept, full of discipline, rationality and measured response.

When individual officers and soldiers mete out vigilante justice, does that strengthen or weaken the system? And if so, what is the response from the brass? This also makes me wonder how wildcards fit into a system of reciprocity, for example the Bloody Tarleton character in The Patriot. Do officers (or particular units, like hussars) with a brutal reputation hinder the efficacy of the reciprocity system by adding more noise, or are they the ones sent to enforce it? Do central authorities try to bring such officers under control, so as to avoid triggering reprisals, or do their other features offset the slight chance that they’d create an international incident?

Need for Reciprocity Influenced by National Characteristics

Did stereotypes of national character encourage a country to carry out more reprisals against a particular foe, or expect that more would be needed? Did the prejudice that a particular enemy ‘only understood force’ influence the reciprocity system? Most countries that go to war spend time demonizing the enemy, and many wars see the same countries fighting each other over and over (England and France, anyone?). That means that in any given conflict, the entire history of their enmity will be trotted out (plot the republication of histories of previous wars as a measure), possibly stretching back hundreds of years – the pump needs to be primed. Thus there are always opportunities to point to a case where the enemy did something wrong and rightly deserves retribution. As one social scientific study I read about explained it, everybody can always find an example of where the enemy started it, you may just need to go back far enough and be loose enough in your definition of ‘what started it’ means. To give a concrete example, in 1711-1712 the English Tory administration had to convince the public that Britain should abandon their Dutch allies and sign a peace treaty with the French. In order to do so, a series of anti-Dutch works were published, which reminded readers of the three Anglo-Dutch wars of the 1650s-1670s, this despite the English being allied to the Dutch for the past twenty years, and despite the fact that their last (though admittedly unpopular) King had been Dutch. To justify their diplomatic desertion, English pamphleteers also trotted out the 90-year old Amboyna massacre in Indonesia, where Dutch merchants killed a number of English merchants. Throughout the 17C, every time there was a potential (or real) war with the Dutch, this massacre was dredged up to indicate the need for English revenge – a booster shot for national xenophobia. If you believe your enemy is naughty by nature, doesn’t that encourage interpreting even minor infractions in reciprocal terms? And excusing ‘mistakes’ made by decent folk?

Reciprocity is Nondiscriminatory

While reciprocity might be finely tuned on one level, those being reprisaled against often seem to be caught in the middle, often through little fault of their own. On the one hand, we’re generally not too picky about who exactly we retaliate against. Before the 20C particularly, I don’t get the sense that armies spent much effort identifying those specific individual miscreants and bringing them to justice. My impression is that any enemy soldier will serve as a proxy (again returning to the reciprocity-as-practical practice theme). That makes sense given a particular kind of justice system (‘the sins of the father visited on the sins of his children’), but I could imagine scenarios in which it would backfire as well. On the other hand, as we’ve seen above, some thought was given to at least getting the nationality right.

An Aid to Military Planning

One final, unexpected, practical function for reciprocity, or at least the threat of it, is that the very potential can help simplify military planning. In the 1700s, for example, I’m struck at how the concept of reciprocity is used as a mental reassurance mechanism. I find military planners saying things like: ‘We don’t have the troops to guard this region, but if the enemy were to pillage it, we could just bombard towns X, Y and Z.’ On the one hand this reassurance seems to suggest that contemporaries believed reciprocity had a real deterrent effect (possibly without even threatening it), but that is weakened if they are only talking about discouraging events that weren’t particularly troubling. If, say, they thought there was a plot to assassinate the King, they’d probably do more than just rely upon the potential deterrent effect of killing the other king. Having one of their provinces torched? Could be worse. This takes us back to figuring out what types of damage were hurtful enough to be drawn into the reciprocity system.

So What Does It All Mean?

These musings suggest to me, then, that reciprocity is not an iron law. Otherwise either a) wars would be neat affairs with hardly a complaint of enemy misconduct, or b) wars would constantly escalate, Clausewitz’s ideal war would be real, and soldiers would keep killing until they either ran out of people to kill or ran out of bullets. And then they’d pick up big sticks. War stops at some point because, I’d think, it’s sometimes practical to choose not to kill the guy who just shot your buddy – at some point you need to break the cycle of violence. This is made easier with surrender ceremonies and truth-and-reconciliation commissions, and why feuding cultures have developed ways to de-escalate through ritual and negotiation. At some point soldiers, I’d hope, put aside past wrongs, maybe even start remembering all those enemy interactions that weren’t deceptive and barbaric. How long such an adjustment takes might tell us how deeply held their initial anger was.

So score one for reciprocity, but with the caveat that tit-for-tat is only practical some of the time. When exactly it’s practical, and what forms it takes, and what sets it off, and how others respond to it, often depend on cultural understandings of what is and isn’t acceptable, what is and isn’t communicable. Whether reciprocity is pursued even after it’s been proven inefficient is another matter.

I’m just full of questions. What are yours?

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