The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 3/The Examiner, Number 20



—— pugnacem scirent sapiente minorem.
Arms to the gown the victory must yield.

I AM very much at a loss how to proceed upon the subject intended in this paper, which a new incident has led me to engage in. The subject I mean, is, that of soldiers and the army; but being a matter wholly out of my trade, I shall handle it in as cautious a manner as I am able.

It is certain, that the art of war has suffered great changes almost in every age and country of the world; however, there are some maxims relating to it, that will be eternal truths, and which every reasonable man must allow.

In the early times of Greece and Rome, the armies of those states were composed of their citizens, who took no pay, because the quarrel was their own; and therefore the war was usually decided in one campaign; or, if it lasted longer, yet in winter the soldiers returned to their several callings, and were not distinguished from the rest of the people. The Gothic governments in Europe, although they were of military institution, yet observed almost the same method. I shall instance only here in England: those who held lands in capite of the king, were obliged to attend him in his wars with a certain number of men, who all held lands from them, at easy rents, on that condition. These fought without pay; and when the service was over, returned again to their farms. It is recorded of William Rufus, that being absent in Normandy, and engaged in a war with his brother, he ordered twenty thousand men to be raised, and sent over hence to supply his army; but, having struck up a peace before they were embarked, he gave them leave to disband, upon condition they would pay him ten shillings a man, which amounted to a mighty sum in those days.

Consider a kingdom as a great family, whereof the prince is the father, and it will appear plainly, that mercenary troops are only servants armed, either to awe the children at home, or else to defend from invaders the family, who are otherwise employed, and choose to contribute out of their stock for paying their defenders, rather than leave their affairs to be neglected in their absence. The art of making soldiery a trade, and keeping armies in pay, seems in Europe to have had two originals: the first was usurpation; when popular men destroyed the liberties of their country, and seized the power into their own hands, which they were forced to maintain by hiring guards to bridle the people. Such were anciently the tyrants in most of the small states of Greece; and such were those in several parts of Italy, about three or four centuries ago, as Machiavel informs us. The other original of mercenary armies, seems to have risen from larger kingdoms, or commonwealths, which had subdued provinces at a distance, and were forced to maintain troops upon them, to prevent insurrections from the natives. Of this sort were Macedon, Carthage, and Rome of old; Venice and Holland at this day, as well as most kingdoms in Europe. So that mercenary forces in a free state, whether monarchy or commonwealth, seem only necessary either for preserving their conquests, (which in such governments it is not prudent to extend too far) or else for maintaining war at a distance.

In this last, which at present is our most important case, there are certain maxims, that all wise governments have observed.

The first I shall mention is, that no private man should have a commission to be general for life, let his merit and services be ever so great; or, if a prince be unadvisedly brought to offer such a commission in one hand, let him (to save time and blood) deliver up his crown with the other. The Romans, in the height and perfection of their government, usually sent out one of the new consuls to be general against their most formidable enemy, and recalled the old one; who often returned before the next election, and according as he had merit, was sent to command in some other part; which perhaps was continued to him for a second, and sometimes a third year. But if Paulus Æmilius, or Scipio himself, had presumed to move the senate to continue their commission for life, they would certainly have fallen a sacrifice to the jealousy of the people. Cæsar indeed (between whom and a certain general, some of late, with much discretion have made a parallel) had his command in Gaul continued to him for five years; and was afterwards made perpetual dictator, that is to say, general for life; which gave him the power and the will of utterly destroying the Roman liberty. But in his time the Romans were very much degenerated, and great corruptions had crept into their morals and discipline. However, we see there still were some remains of a noble spirit among them; for, when Cæsar sent to be chosen consul notwithstanding his absence, they decreed he should come in person, give up his command, and petere more majorum.

It is not impossible, but a general may desire such a commission out of inadvertency, at the instigation of his friends, or perhaps of his enemies; or merely for the benefit and honour of it, without intending any such dreadful consequences; and in that case a wise prince, or state, may barely refuse it, without showing any marks of their displeasure. But the request, in its own nature, is highly criminal, and ought to be entered so upon record, to terrify others, in time to come, from venturing to make it.

Another maxim to be observed by a free state engaged in war, is, to keep the military power in absolute subjection to the civil, nor ever suffer the former to influence or interfere with the latter. A general and his army are servants, hired by the civil power to act, as they are directed thence, and with a commission large or limited, as the administration shall think fit; for which they are largely paid in profit and honour. The whole system, by which armies are governed, is quite alien from the peaceful institutions of states at home; and if the rewards be so inviting as to tempt a senator to take a post in the army, while he is there on his duty, he ought to consider himself in no other capacity. I know not any sort of men so apt as soldiers are, to reprimand those who presume to interfere in what relates to their trade. When they hear any of us, in a coffee house, wondering that such a victory was not pursued; complaining that such a town cost more men and money than it was worth to take it; or that such an opportunity was lost in fighting the enemy; they presently reprove us, and often with justice enough, for meddling with matters out of our sphere; and clearly convince us of our mistakes, by terms of art that none of us understand. Nor do we escape so; for they reflect with the utmost contempt on our ignorance; that we, who sit at home in ease and security, never stirring from our firesides, should pretend, from books and general reason, to argue upon military affairs; which, after all, if we may judge from the share of intellectuals in some who are said to excel that way, is not so very profound, or difficult a science. But, if there be any weight in what they offer, as perhaps there may be a great deal, surely these gentlemen have a much weaker pretence to concern themselves in matters of the cabinet, which are always either far above, or much beside their capacities. Soldiers may as well pretend to prescribe rules for trade, to determine points in philosophy, to be moderators in an assembly of divines, or direct in a court of justice, as to misplace their talent in examining affairs of state; especially in what relates to the choice of ministers, who are never so likely to be ill chosen as when approved by them. It would be endless to show how pernicious all steps of this nature have been in many parts and ages of the world. I shall only produce two at present; one in Rome, the other in England. The first is, of Cæsar: when he came to the city with his soldiers to settle the ministry, there was an end of their liberty for ever. The second was, in the great rebellion against king Charles the First: the king and both houses were agreed upon the terms of a peace; but the officers of the army (as Ludlow relates it) set a guard upon the house of commons, took a list of the members, and kept all by force out of the house, except those who were for bringing the king to a trial. Some years after, when they erected a military government, and ruled the island by major generals, we received most admirable instances of their skill in politicks. To say the truth, such formidable sticklers can have but two reasons for desiring to interfere in the administration; the first is, that of Cæsar and Cromwell; of which God forbid I should accuse or suspect any body, since the second is pernicious enough; and that is, to preserve those in power, who are for perpetuating a war, rather than see others advanced, who, they are sure, will use all proper means, to promote a safe and honourable peace.

Thirdly, since it is observed of armies, that in the present age they are brought to some degree of humanity, and more regular demeanor to each other and to the world, than in former times, it is certainly a good maxim to endeavour preserving[1] this temper among them; without which, they would soon degenerate into savages. To this end it would be prudent, among other things, to forbid that detestable custom of drinking to the damnation or confusion of any person whatsoever.

Such desperate acts, and the opinions infused along with them into heads already inflamed by youth and wine, are enough to scatter madness and sedition through a whole camp. So seldom upon their knees to pray, and so often to curse! this is not properly atheism, but a sort of antireligion prescribed by the devil, and which an atheist of common sense would scorn as an absurdity. I have heard it mentioned as a common practice last autumn, somewhere or other, to drink damnation and confusion (and this with circumstances very aggravating and horrid) to the new ministry, and to those who had any hand in turning out the old; that is to say, to those persons whom her majesty has thought fit to employ in her greatest affairs, with something more than a glance against the queen herself. And if it be true, that these orgies were attended with certain doubtful words of standing by their general, who without question abhorred them, let any man consider the consequence of such dispositions, if they should happen to spread. I could only wish, for the honour of the army, as well as of the queen and ministry, that a remedy had been applied to the disease, in the place and time where it grew. If men of such principles were able to propagate them in a camp, and were sure of a general for life, who had any tincture of ambition, we might soon bid farewel to ministers and parliaments, whether new or old.

I am only sorry, such an accident has happened toward the close of a war; when it is chiefly the interest of those gentlemen, who have posts in the army, to behave themselves in such a manner, as might encourage the legislature to make some provision for them, when there will be no farther need of their services. They are to consider themselves as persons, by their education, unqualified for many other stations of life. Their fortunes will not suffer them to retain[2] to a party after its fall, nor have they weight or abilities to help toward its resurrection. Their future dependence is wholly upon the prince and parliament, to which they will never make their way by solemn execrations of the ministry; a ministry of the queen's own election, and fully answering the wishes of her people. This unhappy step in some of their brethren, may pass for an uncontrollable argument, that politicks are not their business, or their element. The fortune of war has raised several persons up to swelling titles, and great commands over numbers of men, which they are too apt to transfer along with them into civil life, and appear in all companies, as if they were at the head of their regiments, with a sort of deportment that ought to have been dropt behind in that short passage to Harwich. It puts me in mind of a dialogue in Lucian, where Charon, wafting one of their predecessors over Styx, ordered him to strip off his armour and fine clothes, yet still thought him too heavy; "But, said he, put off likewise that pride and presumption, those high-swelling words, and that vain glory;" because they were of no use on the other side of the water. Thus, if all that array of military grandeur were confined to the proper scene, it would be much more for the interest of the owners, and less offensive to their fellow subjects.

  1. 'To endeavour preserving,' is not grammar; it should be, 'to endeavour to preserve;' or if, in order to avoid the two infinitives and the repetition of their particles, another mode should be preferred, it ought to be, 'to endeavour the preserving of this temper,' &c. The arrangement of the words as they now stand, has a very bad effect on the ear; 'endeavour | preserving | this temper | among them |' form four successive amphibrachs, with the accent four times repeated on the middle syllable of three in each foot, which give the sentence the air of a comic cantering verse.
  2. 'To retain to' is not grammar; 'retain,' being a verb active, will not admit of the particle 'to,' after it. 'Adhere to' is proper, as being a verb neuter. Or if the word retain should be preferred, it should be used in the substantive, not the verb, as thus to 'be retainers to a party,' &c.