Fighting for a living

Fighting for a Living

Origins, practices and consequences of different forms of military labour in Europe, the Middle East and Asia (1500-2000)
The purpose of the project is to investigate the circumstances which have produced starkly different systems of recruiting and employing soldiers in a range of different parts of the globe over a five hundred year period, as well as to analyze the social and political implications that the different systems have had in a number of states and societies.
The literature of military history is huge, but, apart from the descriptions of battles and campaigns that makes up the bulk of the works in the field, the majority of the other studies that have appeared in the past century concentrates on the development and application of military technologies, both in the sense of “hardware” (weapons, fortifications, ships) and in that of “software” (military drill, tactics and strategies). Historical sociologists have discussed warfare and military development in the context of the emergence of the modern state. The social history of war, which has emerged since the Nineteen Seventies (with the seminal work of John Terraine and Martin Middlebrook) concentrates on the experience of war as seen through the eyes of the common soldier rather than through those of the commanders, who moved the pieces on the chessboard. Curiously, very little has been written on military service as a form of labour. There seems to be a lack of recognition that fighting and killing is in many cases a form of labour and in the eyes of the soldiers very often just “work.” Exceptions are the recent work by Peter Way on the British army in the Seven Years War, that of the Australian labour historians Bruce Scates and Nathan Wise, and their German colleague Alf Lüdtke, who concentrate on the similarities between industrial labour in a peacetime setting and serving in the army. So far, none of this research involves explicit comparisons between different periods and geographies. This is surprising because military employment seems to offer excellent opportunities for international comparison. Where many forms of human activity are restricted by the conditions of nature or the stage of development of a given society, organized violence is ubiquitous. Soldiers, in one form or another, are always part of the picture, in any period and in every region. What makes diachronic and global comparison of forms of military labour especially enticing is the fact that they offer such a rich variety of types of labour relations.
Last year the International Institute of Social History took the initiative in bringing together a research team of experts to start such a comparative study. This has now resulted in the establishment of a committed team, a first workshop (funded by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences) and an electronic forum (“collaboratory”) where documents are posted, references exchanged and conversations among the members take place ( . We seem to have caught the beginning of a new wave of interest in this topic, because the International Journal of Labour and Working Class History published a call for articles on the subject and at the recent conference of Indian social historians the absence of research in this field was deplored.
On a phenomenological level the variety of forms of military labour is almost endless, but to make meaningful comparisons possible a certain basic classification has to be applied. During the first workshop in March 2010 a separate session, as well as a number of discussions on individual papers, was devoted to this problem. In the end the research group decided to base its classification on a grid with two axes: free (voluntary) versus unfree (involuntary) labour and commodified versus non-commodified labour. All forms of military studied for each of the four major regions (Europe, Middle East, India, China) can be allocated a position with respect to both axes.
Of course the terminology used in each of the historical cases varies widely and in order to make comparisons meaningful the phenomena have to be categorized into broad categories that can be used by the historian of China and that of Europe alike. For this purpose the research group bases itself primarily on John Lynn’s classification of army styles: the “feudal army”, the “aggregate contract army”, the “state commission army” and the “conscript army”, adding the important category of “slave army”.
To determine where a particular form of military labour should be placed in this taxonomy, we will look at the following variables:
  • Income (wages or fees, high or low, coin or kind, regular/irregular)
  • Duration of service (short-term contracts to life-long employment)
  • Legal constraints (freedom to enter or leave the system, to change employers)
  • Social and cultural constraints (inclusion or exclusion on the basis of ethnicity, gender or identity)
The project will be based on a comparison of case studies. The comparative framework will be constructed both in time and in space. The selection of the cases we will be made in conjunction with the five sample years around which the Global Collaboratory of Labour Relations of the IISH (see: has been built: 1500, 1650, 1800, 1900 and 2000 Obviously, we will not adhere to these sample years rigidly, but by focusing on five periods we will be able to discern how the dominant forms of military labour relations move over time along the axes of free-unfree and commodified-noncommodified labour.  We will look at case studies in which one particular form of military labour is dominant, but also pay particular attention to the momentous changes when one type of military employment was replaced with another.
The cases for the comparative project are bounded by four large geographical areas (Europe, Middle East, South Asia and China). Faced with the necessity to limit the number of case studies to make the project feasible, the choice has been made to concentrate on the areas where highly developed state structures were in place at the start of the period under study (approximately 1500). So, what we are left with is a set of some twenty cases from Europe, Middle East, India and China in the periods of (roughly) 1500, 1650, 1800, 1900 and 2000. 
Of course, it has to be recognized that there is no teleological perspective to this analysis. Slave troops are one of the oldest phenomena in military history, but enslaved child soldiers nowadays play an important role in African conflicts. Ethnic units (the Gurkhas) became part of the British army at a time when continental European armies introduced conscription and mercenaries play an increasing role as military contractors in the United States campaign in Iraq. The second thing that has to be recognized is that mixed forms of employment exist and have always existed side by side with forms of almost Weberian purety: mercenary and professional armies have often been hard to distinguish from each other and each of them can at the same time represent ethnically specialized  labour  (for example: the Swiss guard of the French kings that still fought at the time of the French revolution). There is ambiguity as well. Research seems to show that early modern mercenaries derived their income from pillage more than from the fees paid by the princes that hired them. The Janissaries of the Ottoman Empire were slaves in a legal sense but also highly paid professional soldiers, while the mercenary Hessian troops that fought in the British army of the Eighteenth Century largely consisted of indentured and thus unfree soldiers.  
The basic question that will be answered in the course of the project is this:
Which circumstances have determined the transition to, or the dominance of, a particular type of military employment in different societies at different times?
The question will be looked at both top-down from the perceptive of the state to determine which economic, military, political and ideological reasons create the conditions which allow the state to opt for one particular type of army, and bottom-up to gauge what were the incentives and deterrents for different social groups and communities to answer the call to arms.
It is hoped that by answering the question why and how a certain type of military labour became dominant or was rejected, six competing hypotheses on possible determinants can be tested:
  1. That the change was caused primarily by changes in military technology (both “hardware” and “software”).
  2. That, as catalysts of change, wars are particularly important also for changing labour relationships.
  3. That change was caused primarily by economic and financial factors, such as the emergence of a monetary market economy.
  4. That change was caused primarily by demographic factors, such as the sudden availability of new populations or a decline in population growth.
  5. That supply and demand on the labour market, and in particular the competition of the army with other employers, was of prime importance.
  6. That change was caused primarily by ideological factors, such as for example ideas on the suitability of military labour or the ideal of nation-building.
For each case the relative weight of these six causal factors will be established in the hope that by linking specific systemic transitions to one or more of these factors patterns will emerge.
Research design
The project involves study of some twenty case studies, spread out widely over time and space. Obviously, therefore, is not a research project that can be carried out by a single person or even a group based in a single institution. The aim instead is to bring together the best existing expertise on military employment in the different areas and periods together in an epistemic community.
The workshop is the second stage of a three-year international research project, during which the research team will be kept in existence and enabled to work together effectively through the collaboratory we have constructed (see web reference above). The first stage was the preliminary one, which was concluded by the workshop in Amsterdam on 23-24 March 2010, which was considered by all participants to be ground-breaking.
After the exploratory workshop of March 23-24, 2010, members of the research team are now writing up their case studies. After the proposed ESF exploratory workshop in 2011, a synthesis will be produced by the organizers, which will be discussed during the final workshop in early 2012. For this final workshop support from the Leiden University Fund will also be solicited. The IISH itself will contribute the research time of the principal applicant/project coordinator and a part-time project secretary in charge of the logistics of the project and it will fund a copy editor for the production of a camera-ready manuscript by the end of 2012.
The volume to be produced will take its place alongside two earlier volumes of comparative labour history produced by the IISH:
Davies ( Dock Workers. International Explorations in Comparative Labour History 1700-1970 (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2000) and Lex Heerma van Voss (, The Ashgate Companion to the History of Textile Workers, 1650-2000 (Ashgate, Alsdershot, 2010).
Workshop Programme for 22 and 23 March 2011:
Day 1 Morning session
Discussion of participants’ contributions
Day 1 Afternoon session
Discussion of participants’ contributions (continued)
Day 2 Morning session
Discussion of the position of each case on along the axes of free-unfree labour and commodified-non-commodified labour, based on the four variables
Day 2 Afternoon session
Discussion of the six hypotheses in the light of the empirical data produced in the participants’ contributions.
List of confirmed participants:
Prof. (em). Dr. D. Kolff         
Leiden University

Peasant soldiers of Northern India
Prof. Dr. H. Amersfoort
University of Amsterdam
The Struggle for the Army: King William I and the Dutch Army
Prof. Dr. E.J. Zürcher           
IISH , Leiden University
Dr. M. Sikora                        
Westfälische Wlihelms-Universität Münster,
The heighday of mercenaries in Europe
Dr. J. Leonhard                     
Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg,
The rejection of conscription in Britain
Dr. C. Moll-Murata                
Ruhr Universität Bochum,
The Ch’ing armies
United Kingdom
Dr H. van de Ven
Cambridge University
Chinese armies of the 20th Century
Dr. T. Hippler
Oxford University
The French conscript army
Dr. J. Miller
Independent Researcher and Writer
Scottish mercenaries
Prof. Dr. F. Tallett
Reading University
Mercenaries and national armies in early modern Europe
Prof. G. Veinstein
College de France
Janissaries and Mamluks
United States
Dr. E. Kimerling Wirtschafter
California State Polytechnic Institute
Russian Army in the 18th-19th Century
Prof. Dr. D. Robinson
Colgate University
Ming armies
Prof. K. Fahmy
New York University
The army of Muhammad Ali
Prof. J.A. Lynn
Northwestern University
The transition from mercenary to standing armies
Prof. B. Bailey
Temple University
Abolition of the draft in the USA and the emergence of the all-volunteer force
Dr. K. Roy
Presidency College, Kolkata
The Mughal Army
Prof. V. Aksan
McMaster University
The Levends of the Ottoman Empire
Prof. P. Way
University of Windsor
Slaves, mercenaries and professionals in the British colonial army
Dr. Mehmet Besikçi
Yildiz Technical University, Istanbul
Mobilisation and conscription in the Ottoman Empire in World War I
Y. Kaya MA (rapporteur)      
Military contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan