“It’s Time to Enjoy Yourselves”: Taking a City by Assault Before Modern Times

The flashback to Najenda and Esdeath’s past in episode nine of Akame ga Kiru reminded me of a book I read recently titled Furies: War in Europe 1450 – 1700 by Lauro Martines.  The sack of the rebel town juxtaposed the two in my mind.  In sinister fashion, Esdeath orders the soldiers to do whatever they like to the rebel civilians.  Najenda is so horrified by the brutality of the rape, murder, and pillage that she quits the Imperial Army.  (Though, as an officer and a general, she should certainly have had some ability to mitigate the crimes suffered by the rebel civilians, which is the weakest part of the flashback.)  Esdeath has no pity for the weak and believes that the soldiers have a right to do as they please with the inhabitants.

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Curiously, by historical standards, Najenda has the most unusual reaction to the sack.  The standard features of a sack consist in rape, murder, pillage, arson, torture, and other vile crimes.  (Bernard Cornwell writes a great description of a sack in the beginning of his novel 1356, but I confess to being put off by the violence.)  Many people paint the Crusaders in dark colors because of the Sack of Jerusalem, which led to a massacre of the defenders and civilians.  But, that’s what happens when a city is taken by assault.  Muslims did exactly the same thing in the Sack of Constantinople in 1453, yet no one declaims against the villainy of the Turks.  And Renaissance soldiers committed very violent sacks also.  Sacking a city invites the worse parts of human nature run rampant.  The only bloodless sack I can think of is the Vandals’ Sack of Rome in 455.  However, in this case, an agreement had been drawn up between Genseric and St. Leo the Great (my confirmation patron saint) to spare the lives of the inhabitants.  Though, if an enemy army bursts into a city by force, anything goes.

Assaulting a Town

Generals and the officers of the Renaissance, the era to which the world of Akame ga Kiru most closely corresponds, were certainly complicit in giving their men permission to sack a city.  Sometimes sacks would last as long as two to four days before the officers would reign in their men.  During that time, thousands of civilians would be murdered.  The officers would restrain their men from the most violent crimes if they were present, but they themselves pillaged and took nobles as hostages to be ransomed later at high cost.  Many officers recorded in their diaries and memoirs that they were shocked by the brutality committed against poor civilians, but, unlike Najenda, they never thought of quitting the army just because of that.

Disillusionment

Why were the rank and file so brutal?  In Renaissance armies, condemned men often had their sentences commuted to military service in a time of war, and these were no doubt the worst perpetrators.  However, the violence was general enough that one cannot only blame convicted criminals.  For a moment, imagine being a soldier in a besieging army.  For weeks or months, those infernal defenders had been shooting arrows or lead into one’s friends, pouring boiling oil over one’s head, slinging insults from the walls, and doing whatever else they could to make life unpleasant.  Prior to a successful assault, many messages calling for the city to surrender would have been refused.  During a siege, a soldier’s life was filled with squalor, disease, and other privations–including a maddening feeling of hunger every day.

Fallen in Battle

At last, the day comes when one breaks into the city!  Now, defenders throw themselves at one’s mercy!  Is a soldier going to be inclined to offer them quarter?  Balderdash!  They had perhaps three months to surrender peacefully if they had wished!  Revenge is the order of the day.  One kills until one can lift the sword no more, finds some plunder to sift through, or a good meal to consume.  That’s an awful reality, but reality all the same.

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Still, Esdeath takes things too far when she delights in the cruelty of the sack.  And without a long siege, I doubt that her soldiers could have been whipped up into the same frenzy I described above unless part of her men numbered among the Imperial Army that had been defeated in the prior expedition.  Those might indeed have been feeling murderous towards the inhabitants!  Yet, it is an officer’s duty to try to alleviate the misery suffered by the civilians, but Esdeath thinks that the strong have the right to do as they please to the weak.  Historical sacks show that many of the common soldiers possessed the same attitude, though officers would not give their men rights beyond the right of taking booty.  At the same time, the officers accepted that they could not prevent their men from committing grave offenses against the populace while they were not present.  No one would have thought of it as a good reason to resign from the service like Najenda, but I suspect that she was more disgusted with Esdeath than anything else.

The manga, as usual, conveys the moods and characters much better.

The manga, as usual, conveys the moods and characters much better.

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4 comments on ““It’s Time to Enjoy Yourselves”: Taking a City by Assault Before Modern Times

  1. rikuo06 says:

    I was recently reading the manga Kingdom, which also brings up this issue. The protagonist is idealistic in various aspects, much like some shounen manga heroes, but the world he lives in not so much. He is adamant against the killing and ravaging of civilians, despite knowing such practices were de facto in war. His ambition is to become China’s greatest general, yet he risks his rank to forcibly stop fellow soldiers from murdering and raping after the conquest of a city. There are many such interesting contradictions in Kingdom. The deuteragonist, the king of Qin, aims to make peace by conquering and uniting all of China. One of their biggest antagonists and enemy generals is a man who dislikes war but is frightfully skilled at it.

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    • Yep, there are so many evils which seem unavoidable in war. A good thing about modern warfare is that armies have better standards of conduct than they did in the past. (At least, in civilized countries.) But, officers always had the task of restraining their men–even though they might be busy plundering themselves and there were not enough officers to go around.

      Kingdom sounds like it contains an interesting host of characters. I’ll have to take a look at it. Usually, I don’t care for manga set in China, but Kingdom sounds like it has a complex scenario, which usually makes for a good story.

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  2. asharafeldin says:

    What are your references about Muslims war and manners ?
    From were have you extracted the information that told you that Muslims have killed and assaulted the people and defenders of Constantinople ?
    Muslims are ordered by their prophet not to cut a tree , not to kill a woman or an old man nor a young child not to destroy any civilian building not to kill any peaceful civilians .

    Like

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