"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."
March 7, 2005