When did "civilized" warfare begin?

The thread about what percentage of military personnel are “in harm’s way” , https://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=867208, unfortunately got me thinking the concept of “Civilized Warfare” begin?

“…this code was based on one simple principle, namely that warfare should be the concern only of the armed combatants engaged. From this follows the corollary that non-combatants should be left entirely outside the scope of military operations.”

Source: Advance to Barbarism: The Development of Total Warfare from Sarajevo to Hiroshima,” by FJP Veale.


When did we humans go from take everyone out that stands in your way of what you want, food, water, land, crops, etc., to let’s let a select few of our group battle it out, with “rules of warfare” and to the victor goes the spoils. And when did it become surrender or die, instead of surrender or not, you’re going to die anyway!

There’s a documentary about lions in which a male lion kills all the cubs of a lioness so he can mate with her and have her raise his offspring. More than a few mythical gods and real people have done the same thing.

the middle ages due to the influence catholic church …. in which war was a thing that happened but killing and raping non combatants were sins and the trauma of the norse invasions cemented the thinking
there’s a thought that war became more barbaric during and after the reformation as the worlds religions lost influence until in the 18/19th centuries when “rules” were instituted leading to the Geneva conventions

I don’t know if there is a single definitive answer or if such an answer is even possible, given that people have gone back and forth on the whole ‘Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius’ idea. I would quibble with definition here, but that’s for a different thread. Anyway…

The earliest I am aware of is somewhere around 700-ish BC in Greece. Our understanding of early classical Greek warfare goes something like this: Soldiers are chosen from among the landowning farmer class, who have the disposable income to purchase the hoplite ‘panoply’ (ie the required equipment). Two groups of hoplites form up somewhere on the disputed property. They then march their phalanxes into each other. And here’s the important part: Win one side wins, they erect a monument commemorating the battle and everyone goes home. The idea of ‘total war’ between Hellenes was not unknown (they all knew about the Trojan War, for example) but they rarely practiced it.

The hoplite example is unique for two big reasons. First, the ‘combatants’ were restricted to landowning citizen hoplites. So basically, the fighting was limited to free people who actually had a stake in controlling the land, the health of the political body. Slaves and non-hoplites were either excluded, relegated to portage, or used as skirmishing rock-throwers. Second, the custom was for the losing side to abide by the decision. Once a contest was decided, that was the end of it. There was no rape and pillage, and the losers didn’t wage some kind of guerilla insurgency. They built a monument so everyone knew the outcome, and that was pretty much it for that year’s campaigning (again, they were farmers and farmers need to get back to farming). Maybe you’d try again in a few years.

This is not to say that wars of conquest and annihilation never happened. As the Greeks started encountering the Persians (for example) they understood that this was an existential threat and the Pan-Hellenic world united for a major war. Likewise, later in the 5th century the Peloponnesian War saw the system of hoplite warfare kind of fall apart, to be replaced by a more chaotic and ‘all-in’ endeavor that comes closer to what we call ‘total war.’ But there were several centuries between the Greek Dark Age and the Peloponnesian War where hoplites used a very limited form of warfare to resolve disputes between cities.

Probably it began with the concept of Empire, the idea that a ruler could (using a pyramid scheme, like the Egyptians) control more than their immediate village - therefore, not need to remove the neighbours from the face of the earth. They could instead give you a share of what they produced. Collect enough shares of produce, you could have a standing army, which expanded your reach. Once you distinguish between standing armies and worker population who work for whoever is the boss - no need to kill the workers. Unless the get uppity.

The Romans, for example, fought other armies. They engaged in local wholesale slaughter (think Jerusalem) when the majority of population, or at least the fighting age male portion, appeared to have risen up against them. It was an object lesson, since they had to assume everyone was an enemy - “This is what happens if you oppose our rule”. The other tactic of the Romans was to enslave the surviving families of the conquered - since a tribe with almost no surviving males was probably unable to survive - it might be argued it had an element of generosity in it. Can’t recall a cite, but I seem to remember generals since the beginning of time have occasionally tried in some circumstances to demand that non-combatants be left alone. As for pillaging - it was often needed to provide food, since logistics was a problem before diesel trucks; plus looting was part of how some soldiers got paid. Even until the last few centuries, privateers were entitled to loot foreign shipping during war.

I don’t think it’s ever been as simple as “uncivilized” and “civilized” warfare. Even hunter gatherers take part in formal “battles” where the warriors from one tribe meet the warriors from another, taunt each other, then fight each other (typically the results are fairly few casualties, as opposed to the more common “informal” form of violence where a group of warriors comes across a smaller group of members from another tribe and ambushes them). Whereas modern wars have featured acts that would match the “uncivilized wars” of history.

Even Wellington (who is typically consider part of the “civilized” history of warfare) considered the civilian population of a besieged city to be fair game if siege ended in the storming of a city (an attitude the ancient Romans would have been on board with)

I don’t know that I would call medieval warfare especially “civilized.” Go back and ask the civilian residents of what is now France how the Hundred Years War went for them. And knights, though I assume many or most sincerely believed in the ethos of chivalry, were often nothing more than armored robbers and rapists on horseback.

The late medieval and Renaissance periods saw some conflicts in Italy conducted by mercenary bands; these were certainly more limited in scope and though I’m not an expert I don’t believe they featured the sacking of cities and mass rapine.

  1. As was mentioned above the religious wars in Europe in early modern times (the Reformation was a major event signifying the start of modern times) were different then medieval intra-European warfare as the common ground of belief in one religion had been lost. So the wars more resembled medieval warfare between Christians and non-Christians (Muslims, the Vikings, etc), were more savage.

  2. This somewhat echoed most intra-European medieval conflicts, though some Renaissance conflicts in Italy were almost entirely for show. The combatants had a lot in common, as well as a code of conduct generally frowning on mistreatment of civilians, or at least not as much special about warfare as a chance to abuse civilians compared to the greater rights they expected compared to most civilians all the time.

edit: sorry brain freeze for 100 yrs v 30 yrs war. But anyway, rising nationalism was a factor in late medieval/early modern times also chipping away at the idea of a ‘fight club’ of nobles and retainers fighting it out and not involving civilians as much.

Well played, indeed.

3 takes:

  1. Wiki: The Just war doctrine. Starts with ancient Egyptians, peaks with Saint Augustine of Hippo (430CE) and Thomas Aquinas (1200s CE).

  2. Peloponnesian War as interpreted by David Fromkin.

After the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides penned, “the first book to provide a moral criticism of history and politics,” according to Fromkin (2000). Thuycides’ depiction of the conscienceless domination and defeat of the peaceful island of Melos in 416 BCE is blistering. Check out page 61 of Fromkin.

Conscienceless? Really? No: bad stuff occurs all the time. What’s noteworthy is the way this early historical treatment thumbs its nose at the jingoistic conventional wisdom of the day.

  1. Meditations on violence by Rory Miller, p. 42:

Bighorn sheep rams square off and charge head to head, slamming blocks of horn over bone together until one wanders off and the other keeps the herd of females. If the loser circled around, came back and slammed the winner in the ribs, he would kill him… but they don’t do that. This kind of conflict is a ritual with genetically built in safety measures.

Don’t get me wrong: most dominance displays are not war. But the concept of limiters to violence goes back to pre-simean times.

Civilised warfare is what we do. Uncivilised warfare is what those foreign barbarians do.
How long has the us and them dichitomy existed, that’s your answer.

In addition to you completely missing my point, one could argue that nationalism was emergent as a consequence of the Hundred Years War, rather than emergent nationalism driving the war.

As for violence in the Middle Ages being more intense when Christians fought pagans or Muslims, may I introduce you to the Albigensian crusade:

Or perhaps you’d like to dive into the sack of Constantinople:

But those were wars between different sects of the same religion, which historically speaking are usually even more bloody than wars between completely different faiths.

We are in partial agreement here.

My first point was that “Christians” were as willing or more willing to do violence their fellow believers as they were to kill “infidels.” This was in response to the assertion that “medieval warfare between Christians and non-Christians (Muslims, the Vikings, etc), were more savage.”

The sack of Constantinople had NOTHING to do with religious belief though, it was simply a greed-grab by the most powerful local armies—the Crusaders–who theoretically were defending the Byzantines agains the heathen Mohammedans. But, when life gives you Byzantium, you make Byzantiumade.

But they weren’t attacking their fellow believers - they were attacking “heretics”, which in their minds was a class of people much worse than “infidels”.

I think “civilized warfare” is just a modern extension of historic profit-driven battlefield mercy. Historically if there is no profit to being merciful (as with an invading army encountering poor folk: peasants, civilians, soldiers of their enemies, etc) then killing/raping/pillaging them might be the only success of that campaign. However defeated Nobles could be captured/kidnapped and ransomed off for large rewards (King’s Ransom anyone?). This gave a clear incentive for Nobles to fight and surrender to each other after defeat.

Today such courtesies are extended down the class rungs only because warring nations need to secure a steady pool of willing men to fight (and to encourage surrender when defeated).

It seems the discussion is colored by the need to put Christianity in a negative light. Let’s assume everyone does that, because it doesn’t really matter for the basic point about warfare whether they do or not, but becomes a distraction to press this point for its current day socio-political implications which I think is what’s happening.

A lot of intra-European medieval warfare was between warriors who felt themselves ‘the same’ as the opponents and thus were willing to extend ‘courtesies’ with some trust that they would be reciprocated: the benefit of the ‘civilized’ treatment of enemies included promoting the civilized treatment of one’s own side. I don’t think anyone was saying that European warriors extended these considerations purely because of the written tenets of their religion, ignoring all else.

In which context the behavior of European warriors in combat in some cases with Orthodox Christians is no more an ‘a-hah’ than the brutal conduct of the religious wars of the Reformation in Europe once the sides didn’t have the same religion in common. Or against the Vikings or Muslim invaders in Europe.

This factor I think is pretty clear, and goes right down to the generally (it’s never always in virtually any war) correct conduct on battlefields and wrt POW’s between the Germans and Western Allies in WWII compared to conduct in other theaters where opponents were more ‘the other’ relative to one another.

But it also has some root in Christianity itself and its rules. The factors were some kind of an at least nominal warrior code which featured mercy for enemies, a view of the enemies as equal/similar people in merit, and related to that some confidence that favorable treatment of defeated enemies would be reciprocated.

This didn’t apply if both sides thought, before anyone’s blood was up, that the proper fate of defeated enemies was eg. as human sacrifices. It didn’t apply if the enemy was some ‘other’. It didn’t apply if maybe the enemy was/wasn’t ‘the other’ but there was no mutual confidence that reasonable treatment would be reciprocated.

Plus if I recall the Cathar beliefs were wildly at odds with orthodox Christianity - so heretical and not even the same religion. But, it did give us the famous quote on how to deal with taking a city - “Kill them all and let God sort them out”. (More specifically - “Kill them all - God will know his own”.)

This was a standard tactic of warfare since the earliest days - if a city surrendered, it was spared; if it held out and it took an attack to break it down, then there was no quarter given to anyone. It was one of those principles that guaranteed that many cities would surrender instead of fighting; but of course, made those who fought that much more tenacious.