The Warlords of History

This agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.
--Voltaire

Reading The Thirty Years War has really left me doing some deep thinking about who we admire and why. It's tough not to come away from this book not having some admiration for Wallenstein and Gustavus Adolphus as military leaders. For Wallenstein there is his comprehension of the economics of war, that a great Army needed a great breadbasket, and regular pay. For Gustavus its the drilling of his armies, until they became his extensions of the man, as well as his innovations in the use of fire-arms. 


I also can't get past the notion of Gustavus -- a king -- leading on the battlefield. This was not unheard of in the old world, but Gustavus was particularly aggressive, and ultimately reckless. I understand why we don't do that today, but I was forced into fantasizing about how different war might look if Commander In Chief's had to be in the field. 

That admiration has to be weighed against the fact that both of these men were complicit in the deaths of millions.  We talk about the Civil War killing two percent of the American population. The Thirty Years War killed, conservatively, fifteen percent of the German population. Per Wikipedia, the male population, alone, was reduced by half. The town of Magdeburg was founded by Charlemagne. When the Count of Tilly arrived in 1631 there were 20,000 residents. When he left, there were 400. 

The notion of "total war," with few exceptions, was basically the law of Germany during that period. Imagine a country enduring one hundred of Sherman's marches, but with a Sherman who has no compunction about actually killing civilians, raping women, and enslaving whoever. 

I am not a particularly learned student of war. But my sense is that, while the Thirty Years War is extreme in its numbers, it is not extreme in its character. War is cruelty, as Sherman said. It can not be "refined." And yet still there is some admiration in me for the men who led the war, for their ambition and military prowess. Is that wrong? Is that question, itself, beside the point? 

I am not a pacifist -- I believe that violence is sometimes warranted. Moreover, given that man has engaged in violence since his existence, I'm not convinced violence could be eradicated. I'm not even sure it should be.

In this context, I've been thinking a lot about Robert E.Lee and Stonewall Jackson. I understand why people would admire them as war heroes. I really do see the genius, and tragedy, of Chancellorsville. But neo-Confederates don't stop at Chancellorsville, or even at war itself. Instead they'd have it known that Lee was personally opposed to slavery. It would be as if one were arguing that Ferdinand wasn't just a great emperor, but actually believed in the freedom of worship.

Increasingly, even with my anti-pacifism, I'm left with the sense that war is, at its root, immoral, that it really is cruelty. More than that I'm left wondering precisely how much distance there is between Freeway Rick, Meyer Lansky, Bobby Lee, and Wallenstein. Between The Commission and The Holy Roman Empire.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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