The Janissaries Are Coming

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"The
Janissaries are coming!"

For
over 450 years, that cry of alarm struck fear in the hearts of every
European who heard it, from the lowest to the highest, particularly
in Constantinople, Greece and the Balkans.

Who
were the Janissaries? Why were they more dreaded than other enemies?

"The
term in Turkish, yeniçeri means new troops, indicating
exactly what they were in the beginning: An alternative to the
old regular army."1

They
became the shock troops of the Ottoman Empire, established by the
Turkish Bey Murad I in the late 1300's. Realizing that troop levies
from the tribal chieftains sometimes left him without dependable
troops just when he needed them the most, he began to build a corps
of soldier-slaves, at first from his prisoners of war, who were
offered the not-so-difficult choice of death vs. serving as soldiers
sworn directly to the Bey. After converting to Islam, they were
then castrated and assigned to live in isolation from all other
troops and from society. They became the most feared fighting force
in Europe and the Middle East for nearly half a millennium.

Constantinople
successfully resisted Muslim armies for centuries, but often that
resistance was accomplished by levies of tribute — the Sultan would
accept so much food, so much gold, and so many young boys as the
price to forestall military incursion.

And
that's what struck fear in the hearts of the people of southeastern
Europe. Most of the Janissaries were literally their own children.

Imagine,
if you can, standing within the walls of your fortified city, watching
the advance of the besieging army. Suddenly the wall is breached
by cannon fire and who swarms through first? Not a swarthy Arabic
army, but big, blonde, blue-eyed Muslim mercenaries swinging curved
Arabian blades and shouting, "Allah akbar!" And then fathers
and brothers and uncles killed, or were killed, by sons and brothers
and nephews.

The
use of professional mercenaries, combined with the diabolical twist
of training the children of their enemies to fight against their
own kind, struck more than fear in the hearts of their enemies —
it went to the core of their being, to contend against their own
flesh and blood.

It
was not without a reason that mothers would threaten their sons,
"You'd better behave, or the Janissaries will get you!"

For
many years, cities and states, including Constantinople, were forced
under threat of invasion to pay annual tributes, not only in gold,
but in a quota of young boys to be delivered to the Sultan of Turkey.
Which ones do you think he chose? Their own sons? The sons of their
nobility or the church leaders? The sons of the most powerful bureaucrats?
Of course not. They looked to the children of their slaves, to the
common soldiers, to the poor. The majority of them were of Balkan
or Scandinavian or northern European descent, for the Vikings had
visited, colonized, and contributed to the gene pool everywhere
in Europe.

In
1453 A.D., when Constantinople finally fell to the Sultan Mehmet,
with over 100,000 troops, the most effective of them were the Janissaries.2
These shock troops were easily distinguished on a field of battle
because of their fair complexions, and they were afraid of nothing
on earth. The city was renamed Istanbul, and the Byzantine Empire
crashed into history.

The
Janissaries "served" their masters another four centuries.
As they acquired power, they won the rights to wear beards, to remain
uncastrated, to take wives, etc. They entered into commerce and
became an autonomous culture within a culture. They became an early
version of the "military-industrial complex." In the beginning,
they prevented many attempts to overthrow their Sultan, but as power
consolidated, they actually pulled their own coups d’etat whenever
they felt it necessary, even to replacing sultans.

In
the end, their strength became their downfall. They had no loyalty
to anything except war for the sake of war, and the power that they
could accrue thereby. In 1826, learning that Sultan Mahmud II was
contemplating a modernized army, they began to prepare for another
coup, but the Sultan had anticipated their reaction, and
most of the 135,000-man force was butchered in a cannon assault
on their barracks in Constantinople. Those who were not killed in
the assault were then executed, with only a few escaping with their
lives.

Empires
require standing armies, with professional soldiers, whose loyalty
is to the Emperor.

Wars
of conquest require Conscription, Deficit Spending, and Emergency
Wartime Powers.

Wars
for purposes of defense are never short on manpower, while wars
of conquest cannot long be sustained using volunteers who have loyalties
to anything beyond war itself and the power it accrues. But they
are very expensive to maintain, and your professionals get ideas.

The
Founding Fathers of that new nation, those "united States of
America," understood this principle. It's why they opposed
a standing army.

"Those
who do not learn from history, are doomed to repeat it."

The
Janissaries are coming again.

Sources:

  1. Encyclopedia
    of the Orient
  2. The
    Corps of the Janizaries

March
7, 2005

Daniel
New [send him mail] is
an ornamental horticulturalist and writer. He and his wife homeschooled
their seven children. See his
website
.

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