[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?