The English in Ireland and the Practice of Massacre (5)


McGurk observes that the English officers 

"had codes of military discipline (these were not “rules of war”, a medieval concept which had faded into oblivion by the late sixteenth century) for the conduct of their men both in field and garrison... {But} medieval chivalric codes of conducting hostilities had virtually disappeared and did not constrain those bringing the higher benefits of Renaissance civility to a putatively barbarous and barely Christian people on a permissive frontier" (p.129). 

This conclusion is a bit too neat. Granted, it wasn't easy to think out rules of war that would be realistic and likely to be respected generally, but people were still trying. European cultures didn't simply accept that in war anything goes, and therefore that it was impossible any longer to distinguish between what was legitimate, though possibly very cruel, and what was illegitimate and atrocious. (These distinctions continued to exist even in England, or the treatment of Lord Deputy Grey as reported by Spenser would make no sense. Grey would have been thought entitled to slaughter the garrison at Smerwick if he had not promised them their lives. But when he had made this promise, he was despised for not keeping it.) 

Without doubt, non-combatants suffered greatly in the wars of 16th century Europe. "Larger, ill-disciplined armies, extended campaigning seasons, prolonged sieges: the brush-strokes of war in the sixteenth century were broader than formerly, and probably leached out more widely into the fabric of civilian society. Compared with the spasmodic nature of the Hundred Years War, the wars of Italy and the Netherlands were almost unremitting molestations of normal life" (J.R. Hale, War And Society In Renaissance Europe, London 1985, p.179). 

Hale gives plentiful examples of what this meant: food requisitions and seizures, food shortages, sometimes famines, disease spread by armies, forced population movements, the miseries of billeting, rape, destruction, plunder, random killing. 

There was plenty of burning, but not the systematic kind: "Of the most shocking aspect of war's direct impact on civilians, a deliberate scorched-earth policy, there are few early modern examples" (p.184). Of the four examples he gives where this policy was in evidence, two were once-off measures taken by the Castilians and French. The systematic examples he gives involve the English: against the Scots in the first half of the 16th century, and against the Irish later on. "English armies employed artificial famine again as a weapon against the Irish from 1593, and were answered in kind". As mentioned above, in fact this weapon had been employed in Ireland since the 1550s; Hale also manages to suggest that the English suffered as much as they inflicted, which is not true. 

But this is not to say that Europeans considered scorched-earth campaigns an atrocity. The outstanding Spanish jurist of the 16th century, Francisco de Vitoria, held the opposite view. "If the war can be satisfactorily waged without plundering farmers or other non-combatants, it is not lawful to plunder them." Otherwise: 

"We may take the money of the innocent, or burn or ravage their crops or kill their livestock: all these things are necessary to weaken the enemies' resources. There can be no argument about this... If the state of war is permanent, it is lawful to plunder the enemy indiscriminately, both innocent and guilty" (On the Law of War. In Vitoria: Political Writings, ed. Anthony Pagden and Jeremy Lawrence, Cambridge 1991, p.317). 

Vitoria also faces the question 

"whether it is lawful to allow our soldiers to sack a city? ... This is not of itself unlawful if it is necessary to the conduct of the war, whether to strike terror into the enemy or to inflame the passions of the soldiers ... It is likewise permissible to set fire to a city when there are reasonable grounds for doing so. But this sort of argument licenses the barbarians among the soldiery to commit every kind of inhuman savagery and cruelty, murdering and torturing the innocent, deflowering young girls, raping women, and pillaging churches. In these circumstances, it is undoubtedly unjust to destroy a Christian city except in the most pressing necessity and with the gravest of causes; but if necessity decrees, it is not unlawful, even if the probability is that the soldiery will commit crimes of this kind. The officers, however, have a duty to give orders against it" (p 323). 

On a similar statement by another Spanish jurist, Luis de Molina, Hale comments: "Intellectually, this was sorry, hedging stuff. But it recognised what happens and tried to attach a fetter of conscience to it" (Hale p 195). 

Vitoria seems to be coming back into fashion. He has been called the father of international law, the founder of modern cosmopolitanism, and the original philosopher of rights. He has also been called an excellent example of the reasons why for centuries people have hated lawyers. One could certainly have this reaction to his discussion of the key question (fiercely controversial in Spain) of what right the Spanish had to their American territories, and whether they had a right to make war on the natives, overthrow their Governments and treat them as slaves. Here he begins in grand style by demolishing the main arguments used to justify Spain's empire. He then, by a twist of logic, smuggles most of the same arguments back as legitimate grounds for war and conquest. 

In one such instance he established our well-known right of humanitarian intervention. First of all, he denied that if the natives were involved in cannibalism, human sacrifices, or other unnatural practices, the Spanish had the right to make war on them in order to punish them. There could be no such right, because the King of Spain had no claim to sovereignty in those territories (Vitoria pp.274-5). But, although the Spanish did not have a right to wage war in order to punish the perpetrators, they did, however, have the right to wage war in order to rescue the victims! "And if there is no other means of putting an end to these sacrilegious rites, their masters may be changed and new princes set up" (p.288). Richard Tuck says that "Vitoria's argument swiftly became the most popular official defence of the conquest" (The Rights Of War And Peace, Oxford 1999 p.75), which one can well believe.