Erasmus on the Wickedness of Soldiers

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“Who could possibly tell how many hardships these idiots of soldiers put up with in their camps? And they deserve worse just for being willing to put up with them.” ~ Erasmus

In the first of my articles on Erasmus (“Erasmus on the Evils of War”), I wrote a brief introduction to Erasmus and his works on war and peace that should be read to better understand what Erasmus has to say here about the wickedness of soldiers.

No matter what subject he is writing about, Erasmus has absolutely nothing good to say about soldiers. Indeed, as the translator and annotator of one of Erasmus’ Colloquies wrote: “Erasmus seldom missed an opportunity to satirize soldiers or to attack their wickedness.”

In a 1514 letter to Antoon van Bergen asks us to consider the instruments of war: “I pray you: murderers, profligates devoted to gambling and rape, and the vilest sort of mercenary soldiery to whom pay is dearer than life. These are splendid material in war; for then they earn rewards and glory for doing what they were doing at their own peril before. These are the dregs of mankind whom you must welcome into your countryside and towns alike if you have a mind to make war. In brief, if we seek to take vengeance upon another, to such as these must we enslave ourselves.”

In his A Declamation on the Subject of Early Liberal Education for Children, Erasmus disdains the practice of instilling in young children the desire to be soldiers: “Among some peoples it is a practice that children who are still fresh from their mother’s womb are reared in the arts of cruel warfare. They are trained to put on a savage face, to love weapons, and to deal blows. After these preliminaries, they are assigned to a teacher. We should not be surprised that these children, who have imbibed evil along with their mother’s milk, are completely insensitive to good.”

In his The Education of a Christian Prince, Erasmus describes mercenaries as “no class of men more abject and indeed more damnable.”

“Our sinful soldiers” Erasmus further describes in his War Against the Turks: “Their mercenary outlook incites them to every outrage, as they set out for war intent on plunder and return to plunder more, sometimes more ruthless towards their own folk than towards the enemy, carting their whores with them, drunkenly dicing in camps, swearing, quarrelling, brawling. Does anything attract them to war except the freedom to transgress and the expectation of plunder?”

“At the first mention and whiff, as it were, of a campaign,” says Erasmus in his Panegyric:

The dregs of humanity are roused to come out of their hiding-places, and collect like bilge-water from all over the world: men burdened by disgrace or debt or fearful of the threats of the law on account of their misdeeds, or men who are conscious of their crimes and so think they cannot be safe in time of peace, or who have dissolutely squandered their capital and are now led astray by sordid poverty to the worse crime of robbing others. Finally, there are men whose evil disposition and evil mind so act on them (as if they were born for crime) that they would have dared to do such things at the risk of their lives even without the prospect of going unpunished or the offer of pay. Wars have to be carried on with these sweepings of humanity; such dregs have to be received into cities and homes, although a whole generation will hardly be enough to clean the stink from your citizens’ morals. If indeed we learn nothing so easily as depravity, there is also nothing so difficult to forget.

In his The Handbook of the Christian Soldier, Erasmus discusses the motives of soldiers:

In these insane wars that men wage against each other through brutish savagery or harsh necessity do you not see that once the spirit of the soldiers has been spurred on by the promise of abundant booty or the terror of the enemy’s cruelty in victory or the reproach incurred by cowardice or by the desire for praise, they accomplish with cheerful alacrity whatever labours have been imposed upon them? How cheap they esteem life and how they vie with one another to rush upon the enemy! And yet, I ask you, how paltry is the reward these miserable creatures aspire after at such risk and with such fervour? To be congratulated by some insignificant officer and feted with some crude ditty amidst the uproar of the camp, or to be crowned with a garland of grass or oak leaves and take home a little more pay.

In the second book of his Copia: Foundations of the Abundant Style, Erasmus is aghast that “there is actually in Germany a class of persons whose chief glory it is to have slaughtered the greatest number of their fellow-men; and this, while bestial in itself, is made all the more foul by their doing it for pay, like some butcher hired for money to run a slaughter-house.”

In one of his most celebrated works on war and peace, A Complaint of Peace, Erasmus describes soldiers as villainous men whose spirit and conduct are better suited to “serpents, wolves, and tigers.” He mocks the idea of marching under the banner of the cross, participating in divine worship, partaking in the sacraments, and praying. He describes “hired mercenaries” as “criminal dregs” who feed on people’s misery. Because one of the lessons of war is murder, Erasmus reasons: “Who will shrink from killing one man in hot blood when he has been hired for a pittance to slaughter so many?” And because “war has most need of those whom in time of peace you would nail to the cross,” Erasmus asks: “For who will be better at leading troops through hidden tracks than a trained brigand? Who will be bolder at plundering houses and despoiling churches than a housebreaker or tomb-robber? Who will be so eager to strike down and disembowel a foe as a gladiator or murderer? Or so suitable for setting fire to cities and engines of war as an incendiary? Who will defy the waves and hazards at sea like a pirate trained by a lifetime of plundering?” To “see clearly how immoral a thing is war, you have only to look at the agents it employs.”

In another of his notable works on war and peace, his extended comments on the adage “War is a treat for those who have not tried it,” Erasmus expresses no sympathy for what soldiers have to put up with:

Who could possibly tell how many hardships these idiots of soldiers put up with in their camps? And they deserve worse just for being willing to put up with them: food at which a Cyprian ox would turn up its nose, sleeping quarters that would be scorned by a dung-beetle, few hours of sleep and those not of their own choosing, a tent that lets in the wind from every direction, or no tent at all. They have to endure an open-air life, sleep on the ground, stand in their arms, bear hunger, cold, heat, dust, rain. They have to obey their commanders, they have to bear floggings with rods; for no slave’s bondage is more humiliating that soldiers’ service. Add to this that when the fatal signal is given you have to go and face up to death, either to kill mercilessly or to fall miserably. We undergo all these woes in order to get to the most wretched part of all. We afflict ourselves first with these countless woes, just in order to inflict them on others.

Erasmus objects to the glory given to soldiers returning home that is so prevalent today:

We loath an executioner because he is hired by the legal authority and puts to death the guilty and the condemned; but men who abandon their parents, wives and children and rush off to war of their own accord, nor hired but asking to be hired for some wicked butchery, are almost more welcome when they go home than if they had never been away. They think they have won some sort of nobility from their villainies. The man who has stolen a garment is infamous; the man who has robbed so many innocent people while he was on his way to join the army, while he was serving as a soldier and when he was coming back is considered a respectable citizen. And the soldier who has conducted himself with the most brutality is thought worthy to play the commander in the next war.

In his Colloquies, Erasmus has three exchanges that relate to soldiers.

In “Military Affairs,” Thrasymachus is a soldier and Hanno is his questioner.

Thrasymachus: I saw and did more wickedness there than ever before in my whole life.

Hanno: Has a soldier’s life any attraction at all?

Thrasymachus: Nothing’s more wicked or more ruinous.

Hanno: Then what possesses those men—some hired for pay, others for nothing—who run off to war as if they were going to a party?

Thrasymachus: I can only suppose they’re driven by devils and have given themselves over wholly to an evil spirit and to misery in such a way as to go to hell before their time.

Hanno: But how will you make good what you’ve taken as plunder?

Thrasymachus: I made it good long ago.

Hanno: To whom?

Thrasymachus: Whores, wine merchants, and men who beat me at dice.

Hanno: The old army spirit! It’s fitting that ill-gotten gains should be lost in a worse way. But you did refrain from sacrilege, I suppose?

Thrasymachus: Not at all. Nothing was sacred there, nothing spared, sacred or profane.

Hanno: How will you make amends for that?

Thrasymachus: They say you don’t have to make amends for what’s done in war; whatever it is, it’s right.

Hanno: The law of war, perhaps.

Thrasymachus: Exactly.

Thrasymachus: I heard from professors that everyone has a right to live by his trade.

Hanno: A splendid trade—burning houses, looting churches, violating nuns, robbing poor people, murdering the innocent!

In “The Soldier and the Carthusian,” two vocations are contrasted. Carthusians were an order of monks.

Carthusian: You left a young wife and children at home and off you went to the army, hired for a trifling wage to cut men’s throats, and that at risk of your own life. For you were dealing with armed men, not toadstools or poppies. Which in truth do you think is more lamentable, to butcher a Christian—who never harmed you—for a little pay or to send yourself body and soul to eternal perdition?

Soldier: It’s lawful to kill an enemy.

Carthusian: Maybe it is if he attacks your country. Then it does seem righteous to fight for wife and children, parents and friends, hearth and home, and for civil peace. But what has this to do with your mercenary soldiering? Had you died in this war, I wouldn’t have given a rotten nut for your soul’s chances.

Soldier: No?

Carthusian: No, so help me Christ! Now which do you think is harder, to obey the good man we call prior, who summons us to prayers, to the lesson in Sacred Scripture, to holy instruction, to the singing of God’s praises in psalms, or to take orders from some barbarous officer who often calls you out for long night marches wherever he pleases and orders you back again, who exposes you to bullets or commands you to stand your ground where it’s either kill or be killed?

Carthusian: Would you had turned this way when you were running off to that accursed army! But why such poverty?

Soldier: You ask why? Whatever I got by way of pay, booty, sacrilege, theft, and pillage was spent on wine, whoring, and dice.

Carthusian: Wretched man! Meanwhile your dear wife, for whose sake God bade one leave father and mother, was mourning at home, deserted, along with her little children. And did you imagine you were enjoying life in such great wretchedness and sin during that time?

In “A Fish Diet,” the butcher laments the status that some give to someone so wicked as a soldier: “No one would think it proper to bestow his daughter on the public executioner, who carries out the law for a salary, just as the judge himself does, and yet we do not abhor a marriage with a soldier, who so often—against his parents’ wishes and sometimes against the law—has taken himself off to a mercenary war and is defiled by many whorings, robberies, sacrileges, murders, and other crimes commonly committed in the army or in marching to and from war. Him we accept as a son-in-law; him, a man worse than a hangman anywhere, the maiden dotes on.”

I have tried to let the powerful words of Erasmus on the wickedness of soldiers speak for themselves. Let all potential soldiers and their defenders take heed.

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