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Hard Times Don’t Make Strong Soldiers

Western strategists keep falling for myths of invincible barbarians.

Two Afghan mujahideen in 1989
Two Afghan mujahideen prepare for prayer in a snow storm in Ghazni province in southern Afghanistan on Feb. 28, 1989. Joel Robine/AFP via Getty Images

“Hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, and weak men create hard times.” The quote, from a postapocalyptic novel by the author G. Michael Hopf, sums up a stunningly pervasive cyclical vision of history. The idea, which I have termed elsewhere “the Fremen Mirage” after the science fiction novel Dune’s desert-dwellers, posits that harsh conditions make for morally pure and militarily strong people, while wealth and sophistication make for decadent societies and poor fighters. Dune is just one example of the numerous speculative fiction novels that use the idea, from the Conan stories to dreadful Star Trek episodes. It is so common as a popular theory of history and military power that it has spawned (like most bad ideas) its own genre of internet memes.

It also infects modern strategic thinking, especially about non-Western foes. Perhaps most famously, after the attack on Pearl Harbor collapsed complacent notions of American superiority, the Allied intelligence community swung wildly from the belief in the Japanese as weak and unmanly to notions of how the harsh conditions of training and life in Japan had churned out apparently unstoppable supersoldiers. More recently, the same trope has reemerged in the invincible insurgent, whose upbringing supposedly renders him immune to the deprivations of combat and campaigning. As the University of Birmingham researcher Patrick Porter notes, “commentators have claimed that Iraqis, Afghans, Yugoslavs, Amerindians, Somalis, Turks or Japanese are particularly predisposed to war,” either to justify or caution against military action or diplomatic engagement. Because it contains within it an assessment of the military strength and combative stubbornness of foreign cultures, the mirage naturally brings strategic implications with it.

And, after all, it makes a degree of intuitive sense. Westerners subject their soldiers to harsh conditions to prepare them for the rigors of combat, so why wouldn’t whole societies work the same? Shouldn’t people (although the trope often specifies men) who’ve dealt with hard conditions all their lives make the best fighters, in contrast to the flabby, decadent inhabitants of the glitzy cities?

Except that’s not how things turn out. The divide between supposedly decadent civilization and its supposedly hard and uncivilized opponents reaches back to the development of farming and the state. Early farmers, with their higher population density, seem to have outcompeted their nonfarming neighbors. It seems that in many, perhaps most, cases, it was farmers who expanded, rather than the practice of farming itself, pushing the surviving nonfarmers onto more marginal lands. Likewise, early states, with their complex and specialized hierarchies, generally outcompeted their nonstate neighbors. Urban communities first dominated their countryside and then expanded that dominion outward. Nonstate peoples were often set with a dilemma: develop their own state institutions in order to compete with the brutal efficiency of state violence, or else find themselves violently incorporated into the tributary networks of expanding states. By and large this process was one in which the “strong men” created by “hard times” lost, again and again.

This doesn’t change in the shift from prehistory to history. Occasionally the frontiers of the zones of urbanized, stratified state-societies broke. Given enough attempts, nonstate people might eventually win. But most of the time, it was the urban armies that were doing the pillaging. Take Rome’s frontiers, the limes, as an example. Rome is, after all, the byword for decadence and decline in Western discourse. Western cultural memory fixes on the Goths, Vandals, and Huns who broke the Roman frontier, but it is quick to forget the rather longer list of nonstate peoples broken by the Romans. The Samnites, Cimbri, Teutons, Ambrones, Helvetians, Eburones, Arverni, Celtiberians, Lusitanians, Pannones, Dalmatae, Catuvellauni, Iceni, Marcomanni, Quadi, Iazyges, and all of the other “hard” peoples crushed under the Romans do not become household names. Most successful large states in history can boast similar butcher’s bills.

Of course, there are exceptions, like the early Muslim conquests, the Seljuk Empire, and of course the Mongols, which overthrew long-established and long-successful empires. The horse nomad was a powerful force for a time—but one often incorporated into the armies of conventional states. But the victims of empire, out there on the fringes, left no memoirs of the disasters inflicted upon them; when the so-called barbarians won, however, it produced entire literary genres lamenting the fall of the great cities.

But if this historical trope is a poor guide to either history or modern strategy, where does it come from and why has it proved so persistent? While there are quite a few explanations for the success of nonstate actors (most historiographical traditions have at least one), this mirage has its roots in the Greek and Roman ethnographic tradition.

The literary trope goes back at least as far as Herodotus and his account of the ill-fated invasion of the Scythia by Darius I, king of Persia, in the 6th century B.C. Herodotus presents the Scythians as ruthlessly expedient, relying on a scorched-earth campaign and their own relative lack of fixed settlements to exhaust the Persian military juggernaut. Prefacing that narrative is an ethnography of the Scythians, which presents Scythia as a hard, cold land, unfit for farming—but the nomadic life it forces on the Scythians, Herodotus writes, makes them “unfightable and unapproachable.”

Except Herodotus never went to Scythia, and his knowledge about Scythian customs, culture, and even local geography is uneven at best. But, as observed by the historian François Hartog in his landmark The Mirror of Herodotus, none of that matters, because accuracy was never the point. Rather, Herodotus is using the Scythians as a prelude to the Greco-Persian wars, mirroring the Greek victory (which will also involve strategically giving ground). Herodotus’s narrative was never about the Scythians or the Persians but about the Greeks, an exercise in self-definition for a people who had not generally thought of themselves as a unified whole. That is the mirror of Hartog’s title: The Scythians and the Persians serve as foils against which Greek identity can be defined.

Likewise, in the Latin tradition, the barbaric “other” might be marshaled for political advantage or social self-criticism. By the time of Julius Caesar’s writing in the 1st century B.C., the trope of hard-fighting barbarians whose ascetic way of life made them both morally and martially superior was firmly set enough that Caesar could lean on it as a shorthand to build up his own military accomplishments.

Thus, in Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War, the tribes he defeats early on, the Helvetians and Belgae, are represented in these terms. In particular, Caesar claims of the Belgae that “of all of these people [the inhabitants of Gaul], the Belgae are the strongest because they are the furthest from culture and civilization and least often visited by merchants, all things that tend to effeminate the spirit.” That specific word “effeminate” (effeminandos in the Latin) provides a clue to why it is always strong men in this historical mirage, as the entire intellectual construct is deeply rooted in anxieties about declining masculinity, specifically. Later in the narrative, with these early adversaries defeated, he repeats the trope for the German Suebi, who will promptly be defeated by him in the narrative, setting them up as the most “warlike” of the Germans, as a direct product of the cold climate and harsh daily conditions they live in.

Yet, Caesar is about to crush these Gallic and German “supermen” with an army of excessively civilized Italians who are not only exposed to all of the things that tend to “effeminate the spirit” but in fact are responsible for producing those things. Indeed, of all of the Gauls, it is not the warlike Helvetians or Belgae who give Caesar the most trouble, but the Arverni, who live in what is today Auvergne, France, right up against the areas of Greek and Roman settlement and right on the trade routes bringing supposedly effeminating Mediterranean goods and culture into Gaul. Caesar knows this, of course, but his Commentaries is a political document, and he also knows good politics: tapping into stereotypes his audience already believes to build up his military success. Better to brag about defeating the Helvetians, Belgae, and Suebi, which no Roman had done before, than the Arverni, who had fought and lost against Rome once before. Accuracy was beside the point.

Perhaps the most influential ancient work of this sort is Tacitus’s Germania, written in 98 C.E., which sets out to describe the customs and society of the peoples across the Rhine from the Roman frontier. In brief, Tacitus describes the Germans as indigenous to their lands without being intermixed with other peoples, contemptuous of wealth, beauty and luxury, singularly focused on military virtue, pious, monogamous, and chaste, if unsophisticated and uncultured—a product of the harsh lands they inhabit. Again we have our “strong men” molded by hard lives.

Except the Germania is not about the Germans at all, but a critique of Roman decline in the tradition of the Roman historian Sallust, thinly disguised as ethnography. Tacitus’s tone in his writing overall is one of frustrated discontent at the moral decay he saw in Rome, and it is nearly impossible not to see this sharping the Germans of the Germania.

Tacitus himself almost certainly never traveled north of the Alps, did not speak any German, and only possessed, at best, secondhand information about any German customs. Instead, he constructed his Germans as a foil for what he saw as Roman moral decline, with German virtues to match perceived Roman vices. Lest Tacitus’s dire moralizing be taken too seriously as evidence of an actual decline, it is worth noting that he was writing at the very beginning of one of Rome’s best centuries and an unbroken string of five capable rulers. Decadence and decline would be very slow in coming, indeed.

This vision of ancient Germans and Gauls was revived in the early modern era (Tacitus’s Germania, lost during the Middle Ages, was rediscovered in 1425) and pressed into service as part of the intellectual foundation for 19th-century nationalism, where it congealed with the so-called scientific racism of the era. Where the ancients believed barbaric strength and decadence to be caused by place, 19th-century nationalists saw it rooted in race, citing these ancient accounts as proof that this or that European racial group had always been superior. The role of decadence was explained by “racial mixing.” As scholars such as Christopher Krebs and Simon James document, Caesar’s and Tacitus’s descriptions of Northern European “Celts” and “Germans” (it is not clear that anyone in Europe thought of themselves by these terms during classical antiquity), shorn of their snobbish Roman critique of the “barbarian” and contaminated by contemporary racism and orientalism, not only became part of the nationalist ideology of the period but a foundation of historical education in of the West. A mistaken vision of history and anthropology was effectively etched into the popular consciousness as a guide to understanding the rise and fall of states and the cycles of history.

This creeps into modern policymaking and the pop-cultural understanding of war and foreign policy. Porter, of the University of Birmingham, neatly sums up one of the central themes of Marcus Luttrell’s Lone Survivor, an account of a secret U.S. military operation in Afghanistan, as “such is the enemy’s barbarity that the civilized must abandon their restraints to combat it.” In this telling, the Taliban was unconstrained by the West’s decadent, paralyzing liberalism. Meanwhile, commentators engage in endless hand-wringing over the fitness of American recruits. Traces of this ideology can also be detected in the current administration’s stance on everything from restrictions on landmines to rules of engagement, which are presented as decadent Western scruples that can be ill afforded when fighting supposedly barbaric foes. This is a mirage with very real policy implications, even when its evidentiary roots prove ephemeral.

As a consequence, this cyclical model of history, which never explained anything terribly well, is adopted now as hard-nosed wisdom about the world by policymakers and the general public alike. However, on closer inspection, it turns out to be a child’s version of history: simplistic and unhelpful. The invincible barbarian (or insurgent, or terrorist) was always just a mirage, a trap in strategic thinking. So why rehearse its intellectual history?

Well, to indulge in just a touch more of Dune, “knowing where the trap is—that’s the first step in evading it.” If we are going to lay strategies to confront the nonstate threats of the world we live in, we must first banish the mirages that prevent us from seeing and understanding both the strengths and the weaknesses of those threats accurately. We might start by abandoning the pretense that military strength is a product of either “hard times” or “strong men.”

Bret Devereaux is a historian specializing in the Roman economy and military.

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