Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Are Mercenary Armies Evil? From Malatesta Baglioni to Evgeny Prighozyn:

During the siege of Florence in 1530, Michelangelo Buonarroti was actively fighting with the Florentine army. When the city fell, someone hid him in a secret room under the Santo Spirito Church. It is not open to the public, but I had a chance to visit it a few years ago. It is impressive to see the trapdoor built nearly 500 years ago still perfectly functioning. And when you walk into the secret room, you can see Michelangelo's drawings on the walls; the sensation is that he had left just a few days before. If these drawings still exist, and also other masterpieces by Michelangelo, is a merit of the "Condottiere" Malatesta Baglioni, who avoided a bloodshed by forcing Florence to surrender.

During the War of the League of Cognac (1526-1530), the condottiere Malatesta Baglioni was hired by the Florentine Republic to defend the city against the Imperial Army. In 1530, he switched sides. He ordered to turn the cannons of his army against his employers and to open the doors of the city to the besiegers. It was a quick fall for the Florentine Republic that, from that moment, ceased to exist. 

It was a typical behavior of mercenary armies, one of the reasons why they have bad fame from the time of Machiavelli's "The Prince." (1517). Machiavelli didn't see the siege of Florence in 1530 (he died in 1527), but what he wrote was prophetic. 
"Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous, and any ruler who relies on them to defend his state will be insecure and in peril ... Why? Because they have no affection for you, and no reason to go to battle except the small wages you pay them, and those aren’t enough to make them willing to die for you! 
Correct, but wait one moment. Does that mean that mercenary armies are an evil to be stamped out from the surface of the Earth? If we look at the details, Malatesta Baglioni switching sides in 1530 was not so much a betrayal as a masterpiece of diplomacy. It came one week after the main army of the Florentine Republic was decisively defeated by the Imperials. At that point, the war was over, Florence had lost. And Baglioni acted in consequence. He avoided further bloodshed and, among other things, if you can still see the city of Florence in its full Renaissance glory, it is because the agreements that led to the surrender in 1530 were honored by all the parties involved. The city was not sacked, and the citizens' lives were spared. 

Not that mercenaries won't occasionally engage in sacking cities and massacring civilians (there are a few examples in history) but if you can pay them to fight, you can also pay them to stop fighting. That's unlike the behavior of soldiers of national armies, often motivated by propaganda to hate their enemies. They will often fight to the end, which is bad for them and for everyone. 

So, let's try to compare the actions of Malatesta Baglioni with those of a much more recent mercenary condottiere, Yevgeny Prighozyn, and his "Wagner" troops in Russia. There is a clear similarity between Baglioni turning his cannons against Florence and Prighozyn directing his tanks against Moscow. In both cases, we have a mercenary captain betraying his employers. 

Baglioni acted on the perception that the Florentine Republic was already defeated, and he was correct. The Florentines didn't attempt to resist, choosing instead the path of least damage. Prighozyn may have acted on the basis of a similar perception, but he was completely wrong. We may speculate that he was banking on promises that he would be helped by forces inside or outside Russia. Maybe he expected a major Ukraine offensive, or an uprising in Moscow, or he simply was handsomely paid to do what he did. We'll never know for sure who pushed Prighozyn to rebel but, whoever they were, they betrayed him and left him and his soldiers alone against a much more powerful enemy: the whole Russian army. 

The interesting part of this story is how the attempted uprising was relatively bloodless. Prighozyn's men found themselves facing annihilation a few hundred miles from Moscow. Even if their boss hadn't told them to turn tail, they would have surrendered. That must have been clear to the Moscow authorities, too, and they didn't try to annihilate the mercenary column. They have better uses for a few thousand trained soldiers than exterminating them. The whole story ended, if not satisfactorily, at least without bloodshed. 

This is the good thing about mercenary armies. They are, in a sense, a step in the direction of purely robotic armies which will be the only ones fighting in the future. Robots don't fight for glory or for "the country;" they fight because they are programmed to fight. And their programmers probably think and behave like the "condottieri" of mercenary armies: they care mostly for money. War is never a good thing, but if it can be a little less bloody, it is at least an improvement. 


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)