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Machiavelli’s Army

“War should be the only study of a prince. He should consider peace only as a breathing-time, which gives him leisure to contrive, and furnishes as ability to execute, military plans.”
Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince.
“Igitur qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum.”
(Therefore he who desires peace, should prepare for war)
Vegetius, Epitoma Rei Militaris.

Niccolo Machiavelli is a name that resounds throughout Western military and political thought, and many a scholar and soldier has perused his works with varying degrees of amusement, entrancement, or disgust. Opinions abound as to whether his most famous work, The Prince, was written as a bitter satire or as “…a scientific manual for tyrants”#, as well as to the validity of his Arta della Guerra or Art of War. Much discussion has gone into what his intentions were, what his mindset was, who his writings were meant for, and whether or not his theories hold water in the modern era.
What has been, at least in my opinion, under-appreciated, is what he accomplished; that is, how his political and military experience (and more importantly how he expressed them) changed the face of warfare forever. I say the face of warfare with particular emphasis, for the nature of war itself is immutable. No lesser historical deity than Herodotus once wrote “War is the father of us all, king of all”, and because it is so linked to human nature, this remains as true today as it was 2500 years ago. It is one of the great ironies of the intellect and of history, that we are constantly discovering what has been discovered before, with new shiny names for them. But, you might ask, why then is this otherwise obscure Florentine so important? If everything he says has been said and learned before, why should we listen to him? Can we truly call him an original thinker? If the nature of war is intrinsically unchangeable, what were his contributions to the accidental makeup of war?
When I say that Machiavelli changed the face of warfare, it is important to understand what warfare looked like for him, for the change was very conscious on his part. During his tenure as head of the Second Chancery for the Florentine republic, he advocated for, at then studiously built, a native fighting force for the defense of Florence. This in and of itself represented a break with the traditions of the day, which placed its trusts primarily in mercenary troops from Spain and Switzerland. It also can be seen as a return to the military traditions of the Greek and the Roman Republics, who built their militias from the landed citizenry with the result that they had an extremely effective and motivated force for the defense (and expansion) of their state. His emphasis, like the aforementioned ancients, was on infantry. He advocated a return to the model of the legionary, with shield and sword. This is extremely important, as infantry had become accessories of cavalry on offense and counterpoint to opposing cavalry on defense; witness the Swiss pike-men and their emulators, the German landsknechts. But as fearsome as these mercenaries were, Machiavelli witnessed their defeat at Ravenna in 1512 at the hands of Spanish infantry operating on a Roman model, armored infantry fighting with a small buckler and sword who massacred the landsknechts in close quarters. This to him proved that his earlier formation of infantry militia in like pattern had been valid, despite the spotty record of his own chosen troops. They were a key element to the Florentine victory at Pisa in 1509, but suffered a crushing defeat during the fall of Prato in 1511.
Machiavelli has been criticized for dismissing cavalry, artillery, and fortresses in his military treatises. In his defense, cavalry in Italy at the time consisted of the mercenary “condottieri” (who were part of the problem), and a half-century earlier the greatest fortress in Europe, the Theodosian Walls of Constantinople, had fallen to the Turks. According to Gilbert’s essay, he did not dismiss artillery wholesale, but he “rejected the idea that artillery alone could be decisive”, which was a popular view in his day. He instead held that the “fundamentals of war” were unchanging, and that these military innovations were merely cosmetics. His view has certainly been validated. He knew from his studies of the ancients that only infantry could both take and hold ground, and therefore establish lasting political as well as military presence. Such infantry were and are the keystone of regional security, a role for which he envisioned his new army. This has been born out in our own day, most notably during the two “Gulf Wars”. During the 1991 campaign, American tanks and air power (artillery and cavalry) obliterated the Iraqi defenses, and then gave up all their gains by not putting boots on the ground and by allowing Saddam Hussein to retain control of Iraq. It was a showy war, and great PR; but it accomplished little of import. This of course presaged the more recent war, in which infantry won the ugly long term campaign by staying in Iraq, winning over local leaders, and protecting civilians.
The Art of War contains many adages culled from Machiavelli’s experience and his perusal of the ancient sources, which, when added to his observations from The Prince and the Discourses, creates a compendium of serious note for any military or political principe. For example:
“In war, discipline can do more than fury”.
“No policy is better than that which remains hidden from the enemy until you have executed it”.
“Good captains never come to battle if necessity does not constrain them or opportunity does not
call them”.
The book also contains many organizational guidelines, as well as the strategic ones outlined above. In Book II, Machiavelli outlines the basis for his infantry forces. They are also recognizably those of the Romans (with a few adjustments) and have become those of every modern military. Observe:
This group was called legion by the Romans…in our [language] signifies brigade…
I want us to divide our brigade into ten battalions, and compose it of six thousand
men on foot. And we should give to each battalion 450 men, of whom 400 should be
armed with heavy arms and 50 with light arms.
Thus we see the birth of the modern infantry battalion. To be sure, the numbers are larger today, double these figures, actually, but the organizational principle remains the same. In a modern Marine infantry battalion, you would find about 700 regular infantrymen, plus 150 heavy/support weapons specialists, and around 50 support personnel. Each battalion “…would place a constable, four centurions, and 40 decurions…” in charge of its operations, just as today we have battalion commander, company commanders, and squad leaders.
The linchpin to his strategy was not just the troops themselves, but the commanders he chose to lead them#. The characteristics of those chosen can, with some degree of certitude, be assumed:
A prince being thus obliged to know well how to act as a beast must imitate
the fox and the lion, for the lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the
fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to
recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves.#
His mention of ‘a prince’ can I believe in this case be readily substituted with ‘a captain’#. The analogy can also be extended to the unification of politics and the military, with the political wing comprising the fox, and the state’s conscripted army being, of course, the lion.
In addition to the aforementioned anthropomorphic qualities, it is important to focus on virtu, those traits defined by Machiavelli in The Prince, which belong to a particular brand of individual more likely to be found as the antagonist in a particularly good novel than in reality. To be brief, virtu encompasses such traditional virtues as bravery and fortitude, but also ruthlessness and mendacity, attributes certainly not found on any normal moral compass. But I would posit that it is these qualities which aided in the establishment of modern states, or at least the protection of them. These attributes are evident in such famous commanders as Peter the Great, Frederick the Great, Napoleon, Zhukov, and in Machiavelli’s own day, Cesare Borgia. One might object to these names on the basis that they all met a rather sticky end (with the exception of Frederick). But what is irrefutable is that their actions directly preserved and promulgated the ideologies of their respective factions or states.
In Book 12 of The Prince, Machiavelli writes “…there cannot be good laws without good arms, and where there are good arms there must be good laws”. This might not seem such a revolutionary concept to those of us living in a nation built on the symbiosis of the political, social, and military arenas, but in Renaissance Italy, it was indeed just that. The fractured Italy of the 15th and 16th centuries was a direct result of the inability of its self-interested and commerce-driven cities to unite under one banner, and hence they were constantly being destroyed or co-opted by France, Spain, or the Holy Roman Empire. They trusted in mercenaries for their defense, because the wealth of their cities meant that, like the patricians of the late Roman period, they had no need to fight when they could pay others to do it for them. This is a position which Machiavelli violently objected, to stating in his Discourses on Livy that “it is as impossible that good soldiers should lack money, as that money by itself should secure good soldiers”. Rome, after all, for all its wealth, crumbled into dust when it moved away from conscripted citizen armies (with loyalty towards and trust in the state) and placed its trust in foreign troops.
Machiavelli’s whole personal philosophy was centered on the perceived rebirth of the Roman Republic, and one of the key elements of that society was the driving ambition of its patrician and equestrian class. In comparison to the merchants and artisans who governed Florence (whose chief concern was the perpetuation of peace so that commerce, and therefore profits, would continue uninterrupted), these glory- and fame-driven individuals were positively bloodthirsty, but Machiavelli saw his compatriots as soft, weak, and short-sighted#. The likes of Marius, Scipio Africanus, and Cato would therefore be logical character counterbalances to those he saw emulating Crassus and Croesus (the latter not a Roman but the type fits and it makes excellent alliteration). These ancient paragons were the men he wished to run Florence, and indeed Italy, for only an Italy united by a strong military and political system could resist the foreign incursions of Spain, France, and the Germans, just as Rome resisted Gaul, Carthage, and a dozen others over the centuries.
Now that we know what he proposed, supported, and wished to accomplish. With the hindsight available by our review of history, we know that Rome was not reborn in Renaissance Florence. But what was accomplished was the nativity of a new way of viewing the world and the way men interacted, delineated by an exiled diplomat of an ultimately failed state. Machiavelli essentially legitimized victory at any cost, authorized deception as a diplomatic tool, and delineated what has become the basis of modern military organization. To this day, American military officers are told that their job, first, foremost, and always, is “mission accomplishment” (in other words, the good of the state) at all costs. They are told that the men they lead are a secondary concern, much like the Roman centurions Machiavelli admired and the subsequent European officer corps he inspired.
It was not only officers the Italian inspired; his works also sparked the one of foremost minds in American history. Thomas Jefferson once wrote:
“…before my eyes I have none but Locke, Sidney, Milton, J.J. Rousseau, and Th. Payne;
that is my entire library; I have burned the rest, except for Machiavel[li],whom all
diplomats possess, though they dare not confess it, and whom free men ought to place
alongside the ‘Declaration of Rights'”
Here we see, in no uncertain terms, what our own country owes to the great Italian. Although the adjective, ‘machiavellian’, comes to us now with undertones of contempt, it is in fact an appellation greatly to be desired. In the arenas of politics and the military, he is the quintessential realist; this is borne out by the fact that he is still required reading among military officers, and less formally so among politicians. His writings on the absolute necessity of a citizen army# are directly responsible for the current military ethos which exists in Western countries. His promotion of combined arms was incredibly prescient, as was his often sarcastic but always accurate portrait of effective leadership. Proponents of realpolitik#, an essentially Machiavellian pursuit, owe everything to him. It is indeed difficult to envisage the world as we know it without Machiavelli’s touch upon it.

So tell me, fine readers: what do you make of this? Fair or foul, I promise not to scheme for your downfall 😉