by Alex Burns
“War is the father and king of all.” These words come down to us from Heraclitus of Ephesus, a philosopher who lived through the Greco-Persian wars. Many might have a passing familiarity with the quote, and it is often reproduced in popular media dealing with the ancient era, most often in video game loading screens. What is less well-known is the second part. Here is the whole together: “War is the father and king of all: some [it] has made gods, and some men; some slaves and some free.”
Modern American conservatives often display a fascination with the violence of the past. Many are reenactors, or general military history “buffs.” I am confident that many of you reading this can think of a grandfather or uncle who fall into this category. Usually, these individuals are “fans” of a “favorite” historical army. Some prominent armies include (listed by order of popularity): the Army of Northern Virginia, rebel American forces during the American Revolutionary War, the Spartan army from the ancient world, and occasionally, the German Wehrmacht of the Second World War. Fans of these armies erupted in anger over a supposed assault on Confederate heritage in the wake of monument removal throughout the south.
Two of these armies, the Wehrmacht and the Army of Northern Virginia, fought for some of the most horrific ideals in the modern era. The ideals of the National Socialist army should not need great discussion, but recent research suggests that ordinary German soldiers were themselves frequently invested in the agenda of death which the Nazi party outlined. The soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia cared a great deal about preserving that slave-system which their states seceded to preserve. A recent survey of Confederate soldiers’ letters reveals that they were in fact invested in slavery. During the Gettysburg Campaign, Confederate soldiers conducted raids to capture free blacks in order to enslave them in the deep south. During the founding era, the American Continental Army often fought for liberty as it was understood at that time, but was frequently opposed by Native Americans and freed African Americans.
Why, then, do conservatives often ruminate on these armies? In the case of the Army of Northern Virginia, the cult of personality which prominent Confederate generals have attracted largely explains their popularity. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Robert E. Lee have offered modern conservative evangelicals a model of religious life. In the 2008 presidential election, conservative candidates defended the Confederate flag. For modern conservatives, Spartans (usually as personified by the movie 300) display a politically expedient support for the 2nd Amendment. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, the Spartans responded, “come and claim them” (“Molon Labe”) when ordered to lay down their arms by the Persians at the Battle of Themopylae. As the image below demonstrates, modern conservatives have often taken this statement and applied it to emotions concerning modern gun-control debates in the United States. Should the government come for their weapons, the implication runs, they will defend themselves with deadly force, just as the Spartans did 2500 years before.
Aside from political statements, in large part, conservative adulation for these armies stems from the belief that they were the best, most elite fighting forces of their age. By this logic, they were veteran soldiers who achieved great deeds in war that are worth remembering. Though doubtless some of the readership will cry out that this is the outgrowth of toxic masculinity, I admit that I empathize with this position. Historians often point to Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon as the earliest practitioners of the historical art. Two out of the three were soldiers: Thucydides was an exiled general and Xenophon was an accomplished mercenary leader.
So, my goal today is not to abolish the study of military history, or to tell conservatives that they should stop looking for military heroes in the past. To do so would be both difficult and (in my opinion) unethical. Mandating belief and forcing compliance to narratives is not the business of historians. Rather, I have a different answer to this question. If war makes “some gods and some men; some slave and some free,” why not focus on the men, and the free?
I would like to suggest that there are self-sacrificing military figures in the past who have upheld ideals that even someone left of the Democratic Party might find palatable. So, for each of my problematic examples above, I would like to point out an army which (attempted) to uphold ideals that all human beings can admire and emulate. Certainly, the men in these armies committed horrible acts and believed horrible things. But, they also took actions that resulted in liberation for themselves and people around them. So, let us proceed from ancient to modern in our discussion of these “armies of liberty.”
The Army of Brasidas, 424 B.C.E.
In the Summer of 424, during a lull in the first phase of the Peloponnesian War, the Spartan general Brasidas was sent north to the Chalcidice in order to operate against Athenian allied cities in that region. Since the Spartan government feared that more of its citizen soldiers would be lost in this operation, seven hundred freed helots accompanied this army as soldiers. It seems as though many of these had previously been granted their freedom, and although Thucydides claims that these helots were killed, it is more likely that they joined Brasidas’ expedition. Thanks in large part to the skilled oratory and strategic thinking of Brasidas, these troops were largely successful. At the Battle of Amphipolis, Brasidas and his men defeated an Athenian force, which freed most of the Chalcidice from the control of the Delain League. Although Brasidas was killed, after the conflict, his men returned to Spartan territory and set up a free town called Lepreum. Although still fighting for a hegemonic, enslaving power, these soldiers used their military service as a way to gain freedom from the Spartan state, liberated northern cities from Athenian military rule, and built a life for themselves in the society that had formerly enslaved them.
The British Army in North America, 1775-1815 C.E.
It may be a bit odd to conceive of the British Army as a force for liberty. Indeed, we should not become carried away in this approach. My own doctoral research examines the racial (and often racist) views of British soldiers in Europe and North America between 1740-1815. Like many Union military commanders in the American Civil War, British commanders often viewed enslaved African Americans as a nuisance, or at best contraband of military value. However, despite their racist viewpoints, British military forces represented a liberating force for many African Americans in the rebelling colonies.
Simon Schama’s book Rough Crossings describes the experiences of one former slave, who changed his name to “British Freedom” after escaping with the British army to Nova Scotia in the course of the war. In addition, far from being the tactically inept force often portrayed by Hollywood, the British army was a highly mobile, tactically effective force, capable of meeting and defeating the best that the Continental Army could throw at them. Matthew Spring has revolutionized how we remember the British Army in North America with his pioneering work, With Zeal and With Bayonets. Though many British soldiers hated African Americans and other non-whites, the British Army was viewed as a force for freedom by many enslaved people during the American War of Independence and War of 1812. Alan Taylor has redefined how we view the British Army in the War of 1812, showing that it was a potent force for liberation in the Chesapeake region. Between 1775 and 1815, the British army was an erstwhile, if sometimes racist, ally to African Americans within the eastern half of the United States.
The Union Army in the American Civil War, 1861-1865 C.E.
Like the British army, this army of liberty needs to be understood with a few qualifications. Many Union soldiers did not personally care about the cause of slavery, especially before being deployed in the Cotton Kingdom. Once again, we should not become carried away with this approach. Union soldiers often held deep seated racial views, primarily against blacks, but also against other minorities within the United States. Despite practically accomplishing liberation, it was not an army of equality. However, as the war progressed, more and more soldiers accepted the mission of emancipation. Large numbers of free/freed African Americans joined the ranks. These soldiers fought with a liberating zeal that has rarely been matched throughout human history.
The United States Colored Troops (USCT) covered themselves with the praise of their white comrades at numerous points in the American Civil War, at places such as Port Hudson, Battery Wagner, and Jenkin’s Ferry. Union armies provided a waypoint to freedom for hundreds of thousands of African Americans across the south. Though its victories are not as famous as many Confederate victories, the Union army was highly effective. Union armies defeated the Confederacy at places like Cheat Mountain, Shiloh, Pea Ridge, Antietam, Stones River, Gettysburg, and the Overland Campaign. The Union armies were capable of definitively defeating their Confederate counterparts, which is one of the reasons the Civil War ended in total defeat for the Confederate States of America.
The American Army of the Second World War, 1941-1945 C.E.
This should hardly need to be said, but of the major armies fighting the Second World War, the army of the United States is by far the most politically attractive. It was not fighting for fascism, totalitarian communism, or imperialism. Though the United States had definitely flirted with empire in the early-twentieth century, and would again in the Cold War era, its policies during the Second World War were decidedly anti-imperialistic. The United States Army was not a perfect organization, but it fought a war against powers which were far more sinister, and liberated portions of the world under totalitarian control. Far more than the armies of the Soviet Union or imperial Britain, the armies of the United States were a force for liberty in the Second World War era.
There will, I imagine, be quibbling and frustration with the military forces I outlined. By their very nature, armies are conservative institutions, and some would doubtless I rather choose forces such as the Viet Cong, Red Army, and other forces dedicated to the abolition of private property, etc. However, as often as armies oppress, harm, and destroy, they occasionally accomplish and further human freedom, despite the destruction that they wreak.
When he is not dabbling in Greek history and modern politics, or writing for one of his two blogs, Alex stays busy with his coursework at West Virginia University, where he is a second-year doctoral student researching U.S. and European military history. Specifically, Alex’s research examines the British and Prussian armies of 1740-1815, and their views on ethnic groups outside of western and central Europe. Alex recently published his third article, “A Matter of Doing it Quickly”: Essential Qualities of North Germanic Infantrymen, 1740-1783″ in the spring issue of the Journal of the Seven Years’ War Association. He can be contacted here.
* * *
Our collected volume of essays, Demand the Impossible: Essays in History As Activism, is now available on Amazon! Based on research first featured on The Activist History Review, the twelve essays in this volume examine the role of history in shaping ongoing debates over monuments, racism, clean energy, health care, poverty, and the Democratic Party. Together they show the ways that the issues of today are historical expressions of power that continue to shape the present. Also, be sure to review our book on Goodreads and join our Goodreads group to receive notifications about upcoming promotions and book discussions for Demand the Impossible!
* * *
We here at The Activist History Review are always working to expand and develop our mission, vision, and goals for the future. These efforts sometimes necessitate a budget slightly larger than our own pockets. If you have enjoyed reading the content we host here on the site, please consider donating to our cause.
 Omer Bartov, Hitler’s Army, 1-5; Neitzel and Welzer, Soldaten.
 Chandra Manning, What this Cruel War was Over, 11.
 Robert B. Strassler, The Landmark Thucydides, 268, (4.80.5).
 Ibid, 308, (5.11,11-12)
 Ibid, 321, (5.34.1).
 Simon Schama, Rough Crossings: The Slaves, the British, and the American Revolution, 3-5.
 Alan Taylor, The Internal Enemy and War in Virginia, 1-10.
 As Chandra Manning has shown, some certainly did. For the views of staunch Democrats, examine: The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 2, 215-16; Jean Powers, eds, A Jewish Colonel in the Civil War: Marcus M. Spiegel of the Ohio Volunteers.