"Never was so much owed by so many to so few" or 'the tip of the spear'


The Roman Republic moved to a professional military because long campaigns (and occupations) in distant places had become too much of a burden to the citizens (conscripts from the middle class had to leave their trade for years, and their families were ruined).*

from left: Hastati, Velites, Triarii, Principes.
The not shown Equites were the even wealthier horse owners.
From then on professional troops, mercenaries and Foederati ally-mercenaries fought wars on Rome's behalf. The society demilitarised, and for centuries large swaths of the republic and later the empire were so far away from any threat that they didn't feel war first hand for generations if not centuries. Very few (hundreds of thousands) fought wars for very many (dozens of millions).

We have essentially the same model (few professional troops) today as well. Conscription is a theoretical legal term now in Germany, most of the EU and in North America. Almost all of the EU is so far from any non-ridiculous threat that having a small tip of the spear with a shaft doing no more than supporting the tip works just fine.

In fact, it's even more extreme than 1.5 million men and women being tasked with the defence of 500 million people who are largely disinterested in military affairs. The 1.5 million are supposed to expose themselves to great(er) risks in wartime for the benefit (security) of the 500+ million others.

About 80% of those 1.5 million men and women are in support units that are not meant to fight unless attacked (if ever). The roughly 200k...300k actual combat troops in Europe are supposed to expose themselves to (even) great(er) risks in wartime for the benefit (security) of almost everyone else, including the support troops.

Then again there are the reconnaissance troops, vanguards, wing security detachments, rearguards - a small part (at most 1/3) of combat troops plus the dedicated reconnaissance troops who are expected to accept great risks (such as walking into an undetected ambush, or a deception op) for the benefit (risk reduction) of the other combat troops.

The tip of the spear becomes ever more narrow the more close one comes to the point.

This may actually change with autonomous robots (sci fi warfare), but for the time being the Western civilisation is implicitly applying the military risk management technique of exposing very few people to great risks in order to reduce the risks for most.

This is a difficult-to-bear situation unless one prefers ignorance or refuses to pay attention.

Article 1 [Human dignity]

(1) Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.
(2) The German people therefore acknowledge inviolable and inalienable human rights as the basis of every community, of peace and of justice in the world.
(3) The following basic rights shall bind the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary as directly applicable law.

Article 2 [Personal Freedoms]

(1) Every person shall have the right to free development of his personality insofar as he does not violate the rights of others or offend against the constitutional order or the moral law.
(2) Every person shall have the right to life and physical integrity. Freedom of the person shall be inviolable. These rights may be interfered with only pursuant to a law.
(source, I underlined the parts that the constitutional court referred to in its ruling)

Judges aren't the only ones who have difficulties with the idea that sacrificing few for the benefit of the many is acceptable: Philosophers have had difficulties with this for a long time. 
One relevant philosophical question is whether we would be allowed to kill one to harvest the organs to save many. It's very much the same dilemma as with the aircraft or the once self-evident military focusing of risks.
There's no really satisfactory answer; we would like to have it both ways, and thus seek to research technological ways out of the dilemma.

Western armed bureaucracies have understood and felt the waned acceptance of the idea of sacrifice in war. Americans tend to call this "casualty aversion", but the underlying problem is in my opinion that the fashionable B.S. talk of many anglophone soldiers and some German Afghanistan veterans is simply untrue: The troops at the tip of the spear don't risk their heads FOR their nation. They risk their health and life in B.S. small wars that did practically no good to their nation. They're not the tip of the spear - they're just a detached splinter that does not provide benefits to the vast majority of people at all. They were sent into cabinet wars.

We've spent a generation undermining a fundamental pillar of how and why a military works in defence of its nation (or by extension its nation's alliance). To expose few for the benefit of many is an unpleasant dilemma that we prefer to avoid (the way to do so is to keep the peace). Yet it's also how the military works at a moist fundamental level, and undermining this concept with stupid little wars may haunt us mightily in the future. We sabotaged our own minds into a lesser readiness for future defence.**


*: Another motivation was that the middle class was eroded by bottom-up redistribution of income and wars (as early as late in the 2nd Punic War the cheap (low income group and thus cheaply self-equipped) velites skirmisher troops had become a very suboptimally large share of the field armies as there weren't enough middle class citizens left who were able to afford the Hastati or even better gear).  Such poorly structured armies struggled against the Macedons and failed against the Cimbri and Teutons.
**: I'm not preaching militarising our minds. I do NOT believe that we are culturally soft, or too old or in any other way unable to wage war. I believe that those who claim so underestimate how mindsets change when SHTF. To undermine fundamental concepts that were proved effective for millennia is still irresponsible as long as we have no good substitute ready.   I'm pointing at a brick. That's not the same as claiming there's an insurmountable wall in our path.

edit: I had another, closer look at the drawing with the post-Camillan reforms / pre-Marian reforms troop types and some details seem to be off, so please don't take that drawing too seriously.


  1. I am always a bit surprised that even anti-war and anti-military politicians (stereotypical Grüne) have no problems sending soldiers on missions abroad. This week a short documentary called "Armee ohne Kompass" aired on ZDF in which General a.D Spindler said that even the Bundestagsabgeordneten don't know how to explain to people why the Bundeswehr is/was in Afghanistan.

    The rest of the documentary wasn't so great in case you are wondering if it's worth watching. :)

  2. I keep reading that the Chinese military hasn't fought in over half a century, has never engaged in conflict in some domains, and is therefore weak and useless. I don't agree.

    Reverse, fighting the b/Bush wars of the last decades has not made western armies more effective.

    1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sino-Vietnamese_War

  3. A short critic / addition to the roman republican army and their developement: the main reason for the change from the traditional militia to the conscript-professional army of the late roman republic (one had to understand that even after Marius many troops of the professional legions were conscripts which then become professional soldiers) was simple the necessary size of the troops.

    The middle class instead of becoming ruined by the wars was enriched by them. Moreover middle class families had many sons and not all of them went to war, but most times only a few and the spoils of the wars were a high motivation for all romans at this time.

    Because of that greed of many roman families for the spoils of war there was even a kind of militarisation of the society in the time between the first punic war and the roman civil wars that ended the republic. The true reason for the massive changes in this time from the militia to the conscript-professional army was instead as mentioned the increase in demand of troops. This led to the conscription / hiring of the capite censi and their equipment through the state or through rich roman nobiles. And this changed society because of one main and much unknown factor: the patronage system which was of tremendous importance for the roman society. Because the capite censi and also non roman allies were recruted into the legions and paid and equipped by some patron, they became clientel to this patron. This was also the direct way and the main reason for the roman civil wars and the collaps of the republican system.

    The later real-professional army was instead of the immense decrease of the military under the emperor augustus. He reduced the number of the legions from around 70 in the late republic to only 28 and this was further reduced for some time to 25. The main reason for drastic change were the costs. Until augustus the spoils of war financed many of this troops but after conquering nearly all profitable areas and no further expansion into rich countries possible, the masses of troops become unbearable for the economy of the roman empire.

    Therefore and because of this factor the structure you then mention: the small professional army developed from the conscript-semiprofessional armies of the civil wars. Also no legions were longer paid and organised from private individuals but all from the state. And the ressources of this state were not like todays ressources.

    And this i want to add as a last critic: the reason why in the roman time of the emperors so few fought for so many was in truth only a economical one: the empire could simply not afford more troops without ruining itself economically. The romans therefore employed the maximum their state could refinance and sustain. From the size and the economical possibilities of the empire around 30 legions were simply the sustainabble maximum.

    1. "The middle class instead of becoming ruined by the wars was enriched by them."

      No way. Farms and businesses could not be run by an artisan or farmer who was at war. Italy's agriculture turned away from small farms to large estates owned by patricians and some equestrians. It's very much a consensus in literature that the middle class suffered badly during the Pyrrhic, Punic, Macedon and Cimbri/Teutons wars. The Romans would have loved to field lots of Principes, but they fielded armies with lots of Velites.

      The only "middle class" people who profited were those who got a small farm as a share of the spoils of war - those were a couple thousand people in a realm of millions.

  4. Therefore the empire recruted simply as much troops as possible and sustainable arrangeable.

    For todays standards this would mean that we not invest around 1,5 to 2 % of the BIP into the army, but much more, because if one would invest as much as sustainable affordable, the etat of the armies would be much more. I guess even 10 % would be possible.

    So the roman army was a "10 %" army in comparision to todays standards and therefore not an army of few that defend many.

    Also percenatal the picture is a different one: today 1,5 mio soldiers defend 500 mio people, but only 300 000 are combat troops (your numbers). In the roman imperial era the around 30 legions numbered around 1,5 mio soldiers. But there were the auxiliar troops with again 1,5 mio soldiers and then additional mercenaries, foederati etc which add up to again addtional 500 000 so the roman empire had an army of around 3,5 mio troops in this area and only 45 to 70 millions inhabitants.

    So in the much reduced form of the imperial army the troops numbered 3,5 mio (mainly combat troops) to 45 mio civilians(in the time of augustus) and today we have 1,5 mio soldiers (mainly non combat troops) to 500 mio people.

    As you can see, the roman army was not an army of few that defend many, but an army which was always at the maximum what was possible.

    And i even do not speak about the 70 legions of the late republic which moreover had fewer inhabitants then the later empire.

    1. The Roman Empire is estimated to have had more than 50 million people around Augustus' time, and about 250k troops (your 3.5M figure is nonsense). That's 0.5% of population, about twice the share of modern Germany. The legionaries were also construction troops, though.

      Besides, my point wasn't at all about how close a nation is to maximum sustainable military strength. It was all about the delegation of military tasks and thus risks. Post-Marian reforms the Romans ceased to have a panoply at home, unlike the barbarians beyond the limes.
      Today, support troops delegate combat to combat troops, and the little line of sight combat equipment and training they still have is a fig leaf, more psychological support than capability.

  5. The best book for this topic in english language:

    Rome at War from Rosenstein

    which i highly recommend

  6. I think that a part of the "problem" - that is, the disconnect between the current military and political situations - is that militarily we've moved back into a time of "small wars", the sort of colonial/imperial wars that the European powers (and the U.S.) fought between 1815 and 1914, which could be and were fought largely with small, even tiny, professional long-service imperial armies without stepping politically and socially away from the sort of rhetoric and thought-processes that were developed during the period of mass warfare between 1914 and 1945.

    So the bulk of the European and U.S. publics still think that their armed forces are "the bulwark of democracy" (or "the defense of the nation") when those forces are, rather, doing the dirty work in the imperial hustings that imperial troops have always done. So you get nonsensical talk of "fighting for our freedoms" when those soldiers are doing nothing of the sort.

    The political leaders of those EU and US "democracies" know - or, at least, suspect - that to be honest about what their armed forces are doing would drop support for those efforts to damn near zero. So they carefully promote the "support the troops" rhetoric to ensure that the publics don't get all shirty about the waste of blood and treasure.

    Mind you, I think the pols are being too cynical. I don't think the publics really care. I think they could be honest - "we're killing wogs to keep the balance of power/get some short-term profit/secure some resource/we don't really KNOW why but who gives a shit, they're worgs, right?" - and the public wouldn't care.

    1. +1, except I think your last part was really about the U.S. and maybe the Brits, not "European and U.S. publics" in general.

      I also don't think that small countries think of their armed forces as defenders of freedom; they are realistic enough to see them as a price to be paid for an alliance that is really tasked with protecting freedom.

      As I mentioned; this idea that soldiers defend our freedoms is really a niche belief in Germany, focused on a share of AFG veterans who believe it to feel better themselves.

  7. Sven

    Your point regarding the German constitutional court and not allowing the shooting down of an airplane, surely if you accept that logic then you wouldnt allow police officers to use lethal weapons. Doesn't that just sort of point out the muddled thinking of those judges and raise the question whether they are fit for such a position?


    1. The difference is between shooting at innocents and not innocent people. The air force would be allowed to shoot down an aircraft that's believed to be manned by terrorists only.

      Policemen are allowed to use lethal force to save themselves or others by shooting at who they believe to be a violent criminal. They are not allowed to shoot up an entire bus of schoolchildren that's about to crash into a large group of people. It would be fine if they aimed at the driver, but they would not be allowed to shoot at the bus in general.

    2. I see your point but even if you are shooting at someone who isnt innocent it is highly likely their is a risk of hitting/killing an innocent. For example the police officer having shooting at the criminal in a crowded area.

      My thinking is that when you read the Articles though either you presume that life is inviolable and therefore can not be taken under any circumstances or you take the view life being inviolable means the authorities have a duty to minimise the fatalities. In line with this it is interesting to me that of article 2 they only mentioned the first part of rule 2 and not the whole which in my view changes ones interpretation of the law.


    3. The key is that the judicial branch denied an opening of Pandora's Box even after the executive and judicial branch tried to open it under the impression of 9/11.

      The federal constitutional court could have ruled differently, but then minor courts could literally have implemented a (hypothetical) law about killing one person for organ-harvesting to save the life of others would be legal.

      Besides, the federal constitutional court freely interprets the constitution, it doesn't always stick with everyone else's interpretation. They also declared the air war against Yugoslavia non-aggressive with no basis in fact and they made up a constitutional right to self-determination regarding information about oneself.

      Sometimes I like their opinions, sometimes I don't.