War Nerd: The long, sleazy history behind a Googler's “Nonviolent Militia”

By Gary Brecher , written on February 12, 2014

From The War Desk

Yasha Levine had a great story here on Pando, on the public reaction to Googler Justine Tunney’s plan to crowdfund a “nonviolent militia” to defend Occupy protesters.

My first reaction was like everyone else’s: “nonviolent militia”? That makes as much sense as non-alcoholic vodka. But once you realize what Tunney  means by “nonviolent,” her plan starts to seem less ridiculous and more grimly familiar. What Tunney means, essentially, is a substitute, a sacrificial victim who’ll absorb cop violence that might otherwise be inflicted on more valuable persons, such as… oh, Justine Tunney, for example.

This is a very old  military strategy: using expendable, low-value troops to absorb enemy fire. The term used for these doomed pawns is “cannon fodder.” So it wasn’t so surprising to see Justine Tunney herself using that term in an email exchange Yasha quotes:

“I’m not going to ask people to be cannon fodder against the NYPD without giving something in return”

Yep, I thought, that’s all she meant by “nonviolent”: someone to absorb violence rather than dish it out. Once you realize that, I’m sorry to say that Tunney’s idea slots right into the cold, hard mainstream of military history.

Most armies are divided into different units, some more valuable than others. At the lowest level of this hierarchy are units who are not valued at all, either because they’re filled with despised minorities or because they haven’t been trained, or because they don’t measure up by the standard of value their cultures use to rank human lives.

In America, “value” is usually relatively simple, a matter of money or race, or both. That’s how it was assessed when the Union was trolling for warm (and white, and male) bodies to fill the ranks. In theory, this was a popular war, with every mother’s son morally required to enlist. In practice, you could prove you were too good for those ranks by producing $300 and buying your life back, via the “commutation” fee. Failing that, you could do what Tunney has in mind: Hire a poor person to take a bullet for you as a “substitute."

Even after such crude payoffs were eliminated, we kept finding ways to put low-value lives in cannon-fodder units. That was the real purpose of the college deferment, as exploited by deferment-masters like Dick Cheney, during the Vietnam War. College was a custom of the middle class; lesser families, whose sons went to work after high school, found their kids were going to Vietnam instead.

When a less-valuable life is handed over to an army, the army usually places it in “the front rank.” The job of the front rank is to die, which is why King David decided to transfer Uriah, the inconvenient husband of his latest mistress, to “the forefront of the hottest battle,” as detailed in The Good Book:

In the morning it happened that David wrote a letter…saying, “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hottest battle, and retreat from him, that he may be struck down and die.”

[2 Samuel 11: 14-15] The front rank rarely inflicted casualties on the enemy. In that sense, they were “nonviolent militias,” intended to absorb, not inflict, violence, for roughly the same reason Tunney seems to have in mind: to save a more valuable life from that violence, by testing, exhausting, or distracting the enemy.

But sending low-value people to die has another benefit: It gets rid of troublesome elements, just as David solved the Uriah problem. Stalin’s “penal battalions” were a classic example: a half-million Soviet citizens who were designated unreliable and shunted to suicide squads, often without even being issued any offensive weapon (Yasha Levine’s grandfather, who survived a head wound that should have killed him, is one of the few Shtrafniki to survive the war).

These Penal units were given suicide missions like clearing minefields by running through them. They weren’t supposed to kill the enemy; their job was to die, and in dying, clog the Germans’ guns, use up their ammunition and detonate their mines so that the second and third waves, made up of more valuable Soviet citizens, had a chance.

The best part, as Stalin’s planners saw it, was in dying at the Wehrmacht’s hands, the Shtrafniki not only forced the Germans to expend ammunition and reveal themselves to Soviet artillery spotters, but eliminated a potential saboteur—that is, the Shtrafnik him- or herself. The Chekists weren’t big believers in rehabilitation; if you ended up in a Penal Battalion, you were better off dead.

So the notion of a “nonviolent militia” isn’t the ridiculous oxymoron it might seem at first glance. Justine Tunney is looking for somebody to absorb violence on her behalf, and uses money, our key criterion in judging the value of a life, to assess it. If you, the prospective militia volunteer, can be bought for what she’s paying, you are therefore less valuable than she is. In other words: Welcome to the front rank, loser.

Yasha points out in his article that Tunney is weirdly insistent on paying her militia, almost as if it absolves her of blame:

“People quickly crowded Tunney’s Twitter feed, confused by why she needed money to pay people to participate in political protests. Tunney dismissed the naysayers, tweeting out a bunch of crass 'what’s in it for me' market-based explanations:

“'Cash incentivizes people to show up and make ends meet.'

“'I’m not going to ask people to be cannon fodder against the NYPD without giving something in return.'” One of the saddest things about the ease with which cannon fodder can be recruited is how little you have to offer them. Cannon fodder comes cheap. Traditional payment for enlisting was “the King’s shilling,” and it often was a shilling, no more—enough to get a drink, which is what many of the miserable wretches who filled the ranks sold their lives for.

Yasha gets it exactly right when he sarcastically suggests Tunney recruit for her doomed militia among the homeless, who have “…the perfect skill set for the job: experience being on the receiving end of police beat-downs and willing to work for cheap.”

That’s pretty much the history of Great Power recruiting, at least until the French Revolution: Trolling the wretched for cannon fodder, catching them when they’d sell their lives for a drink and getting them to do just that.

That’s how the ranks were filled, all through the “Great Battles”  that war buffs love so much. Those uniforms that war fans love to paint onto the toy soldiers in their dioramas were filled out by the lowest of the low. To be a soldier during the era of “Great European battles” was to be hated by most, or pitied by the most compassionate. Even U. S. Grant, home on leave in his proud new uniform, got a sample of the contempt most 19th century civilians had for soldiers:

“…a little urchin, bareheaded, footed, with dirty and ragged pants held up by bare a single gallows—that's what suspenders were called then—and a shirt that had not seen a wash-tub for weeks, turned to me and cried: 'Soldier! will you work? No, sir—ee; I'll sell my shirt first!!'"

Soldiers were the unemployable. The simplest way to make a soldier was to find a tavern, home in on the most desperate drunk in the place, and offer him “the king’s shilling” that could buy him another drink. Once you took the king’s (or queen’s, or emperor’s) money, your life as a human being was over. You were a soldier, and the violence started immediately.

The recruiters were part of a very efficient system, grounded in the abundance of poverty, alcoholism, and desperation. The recruiters combed the dirtiest taverns in the most wretched provinces, then funneled their catch to the non-commissioned officers whose job was to take the day’s catch—a mixed group of men (and the occasional woman passing for male) whose disabilities ranged from being born to the wrong ethnic group to alcoholism, debt, or an allergy to life as a serf.

Not exactly prime material, you’d think. But the great European armies had great faith in physical pain as a teaching device. The beatings started immediately, to teach the recruits what life was going to be like from now on. Many of the new soldiers didn’t speak the dominant language (which was often one of the reasons they ended up as mere soldiers). But beatings are a universal language. Everyone in the ranks got the message when they saw the corporal smash someone’s face that first morning.

The Prussian Army was a consistent innovator in recruiting, forced by a small population to experiment with new ways of generating cannon fodder. Prussian recruiters were assigned a certain number of “hearths”  to comb for any male with four limbs and prospects so wretched that life in the ranks, under the constant threat of “the rod,”  seemed like a good option.

Often the best cannon fodder came from ethnic groups that were systematically crushed by the empire, then groomed as cannon fodder, where their desperation made them easy marks for flattery for “bravery” in the service of the empire that had destroyed their people. The Prussian Army recruited heavily among the Poles, Belarussians, Lithuanians and other Slavic groups. Slavs were excluded from Prussian institutions, which worked out very nicely, guaranteeing recruiters a steady supply of men of military age with no other option. And if they didn’t speak German, they could be taught by the rod.

That’s the horrible logic of recruiting the lowest of the low: The worse their lives become, the easier it is to sign them up as cannon fodder. If you look into the history of the most famous, illustrious military units, you find their origin in a minority ethnic group that’s been brutalized, walled off from the civilian economy, and then offered a chance to take the king’s shilling. Since European armies loved elaborate uniforms, these units would be “honored” with headgear or some other ethnic marker. And sure enough, whip-sawed by desperation and flattery, these units performed heroically, generating more flattery and a tradition of joining up, making the recruiter’s job even easier.

Which is why certain highly-decorated British regiments wear kilts. The Highland Scots, now extinct, scared the life out of Britain in 1745 by wading through better-equipped regular-army units staffed by English soldiers at Prestonpans. The Highlanders weren’t cute, quaint, or beloved in the minds of the London elite, when they heard how the Scots had charged out of the fog, swinging huge broadswords and screaming in Gaelic. The Highlanders were alien monsters—and Papists to boot, the worst crime of all in 18th-c. Britain.

After the inevitable defeat of the small, disorganized, half-armed Scottish invaders, the Empire pursued a classic two-phase plan. First, the extinction of the Highland Scots’ culture. The Earl of Cumberland, in charge of this phase, issued a classic “No prisoners!” order covering all Gaelic-speaking men of military age, armed or not. Anything associated with the rebel ethnic group was banned. Wearing tartan and playing the bagpipes were capital offenses in Scotland in 1746.

So how did it happen that this brutalized ethnic minority ended up marching in the Empire’s parades, decked out in tartan, with the pipes blaring, all through Victoria’s long century? That was phase two, and it worked very well, as it usually does. Once the insurgent ethnic group has been destroyed, it can be made quaint. Its markers—tartan, the pipes—can be used to flatter young Highland men into taking the king’s shilling. And best of all, the utter devastation of their homeland gives them no other options. And that’s always been the bottom line for getting good-quality cannon fodder: Make sure they have no other options.

You’ll find that grim sequence behind every military unit recruited from a crushed ethnic group.

Americans, fixated on skin color as  a “racial” marker, tend to understand what the empires did (and do) to non-European groups like the Sikhs but miss how the technique—crush’em, then recruit’em and flatter’en—worked on other “white” European minorities just as well. “Race” in Europe never meant skin color. In fact, some of the targeted groups, like the Highland Scots, products of centuries without sun, were whiter than white, downright phosphorescent. That didn’t make the Empire any more squeamish about crushing and then recruiting them.

A century later, the same Empire used the same technique to crush and recruit another rich vein of cannon fodder from another pale, Gaelic-speaking group of desperate paupers: The Irish peasantry. In the mid-19th century, Ireland was systematically depopulated by artificial famine, emigration, and epidemics, eliminating another despised and feared source of Papist insurgencies. Once that group was thoroughly destroyed, survivors were recruited by the Empire, using the same old techniques: denial of any alternative to military service and sentimental flattery for the alleged bravery and “fighting spirit” of the despised group. It’s a sad joke to think of all the Midwestern Notre Dame fans cheering “The Fighting Irish,” with no clue that the whole concept of Irish military prowess was a recruiting gimmick by an Empire always hungry for cannon fodder.

The Irish have only one real claim to distinction in military history: Michael Collins and his perfection of the strategy of urban-guerrilla war. And that, of course, has nothing to do with all  the “fighting Irish” nonsense. Collins trained his “flying squads” to shoot their targets with no chivalry whatsoever—while they were sleeping, if possible, and from behind by preference, on a crowded Dublin sidewalk with a good alley to slip into once the target was down.

It was the Empire that cranked out songs and poems praising the “Fighting Irish,” most intensely during the Great War, when the German machine guns created non-stop opportunities for entry-level cannon fodder. All those kooky songs like “It’s A Long Way to Tipperary”? Recruiting songs, wartime flattery for a despised ethnic minority. “…Tipperary” begins with one of the old jokes about a dumb mick:

Paddy wrote a letter to his Irish Molly-O, Saying “If you don’t receive it, write and let me know…”

The recruiting songs aimed at Paddy often featured the traditional slurs, before adding flattering. Empire welcomed the survivors into its army with the legend of the “fighting Irish” like the one that concedes that Paddy is “foolish and very often wrong,” before buttering up his martial valor by concluding that, whatever else is wrong with Paddy, he’s brave: “there never was a coward where the shamrock grows.”

And don’t even get me started on how the Raj flattered the Sikhs. It’s the Sikhs who are the saddest of these stories, because they were this magnificent new thing in world history, and could have turned Southwest Asia into a glorious civilization, instead of the sad, gory mess it is now. If you want a quick look at the Sikhs’ wondrous origins, military success, and fatal encounter with the Raj, you can read an article I did on it, but it’s heartbreaking stuff.

The Sikhs had the bad luck to butt heads with the British Empire circa 1840, and if you met the Empire back then in any posture but total surrender, you were in for a very rough time.

And once the Empire destroyed your culture, it would assess you as recruiting material, and switch to flattery. So, after two brutal wars against the Raj, the Sikhs were courted as good soldiers, flattered and offered a place in special Sikh units with fancy Sikh-insignia uniforms. It worked, of course. It always does. A few decades later, Sikhs were winning the Victoria Cross—posthumously, as a rule.

So Tunney’s ridiculous plan isn’t so ridiculous. There’s a long tradition of military recruiting on her side. I don’t know exactly what she has in mind for her “non-violent militia” recruited from people desperate enough to offer their skulls to police batons for a few dollars up front, but history shows that getting recruits won’t be a problem. Not as long as there are pockets of misery among the poor and the excluded ethnic groups—and America provides an abundance of potential recruits in that sense.

When you realize it’s in a recruiter’s interest to keep the level of wretchedness as high as possible, a lot  of the “senseless” and “needlessly cruel” Republican legislation stoking all those outrage stories on HuffPo don’t seem senseless at all.

Intensified misery ensures we’ll always have cannon fodder, and WalMart will always have dozens of applicants as well. Not all fodder has to go to the cannon, after all.

So Tunney will be probably be swarmed with applicants if she ever gets her militia crowdfunded. And it could work for people like her, the more-valuable reserve in Occupy’s military plan.

All she needs is to order the ancient battle plan, with one modification for the 21st century:

1. Send in the cannon fodder and let them absorb all the violence the cops can dish out.

2. Once the cops’ clubbing arms are worn out, send in the reserves, the elite, including Tunney.

2 (a): This is the only modificiation needed to update the plan: The second wave will be armed with cellphones, video cameras, and will drag as many TV crews with them as can be persuaded to risk it.

It really would work; the reserve arrives to get closeups of the maimed, bleeding “unarmed militia.” The cops are held at bay by the TV crews’ presence, and their own exhaustion.

Tunney’s only mistake was forgetting America’s deep reverence for euphemism. If she’d recruited her cannon fodder quietly, hiding their desperation and greed, audiences would think they were real people, people of value. Now that Tunney, with typical Libertarian tact, has blurted their real motive and purpose, the footage of their maimed bodies wouldn’t move anyone.

Because we’d all know the dead and wounded were people of no value.

[Image credit: Public domain]