For Veteran’s Day, I thought I’d round up a little about soldiers, and especially veterans, and how their governments have interacted with them throughout history…
As far back as ancient Egypt, governments hired mercenary soldiers. The Egyptians hired companies of archers from Sudan to fight in their wars. Yes, they’re black people. Even in 2000 BC, black people often fought the wars of lighter-skinned people.
Sometime around the 600s BC, governments in Lydia (in what’s now Turkey) issued the first gold and silver coins, probably to pay mercenary soldiers, so they would have money they could easily take with them when they left, because bankers didn’t trust soldiers. That probably sounds familiar to today’s vets too…
Around that same time, soldiers and veterans in ancient Greece started to demand more political power. To start with, they wanted to vote on whether to go to war, instead of having just a few rich old men deciding. (Wait, does that sound familiar too?) They first chose tyrants to represent them, and then, when the tyrants didn’t really listen to them, the soldiers started the first democracies and republics, in Athens, in Thebes, in Carthage, and in Rome. By about 500 BC, all of these places were forced to hand over some decisions to their soldiers and veterans.
What is a tyranny?
Democracy in Athens
History of Thebes
Carthage and Hannibal
The Early Roman Republic
In the Early Middle Ages, the big empires were still using a lot of foreigners as their mercenary soldiers. When these mercenaries saw how weak the empires were, a lot of them took control and made themselves the new governments. The Vandals, the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths, the Franks, and the Vikings took over Europe and the Mediterranean. The Arabs took over southwest Asia, and then North Africa. In China, the Khitan, the Uighurs, the Sogdians, and the Jurchen all got political power too.
Early Medieval timeline
The Umayyads and Islam
Who were the Khitan?
Sogdians and An Lushan
From Vikings to Normans
In the Americas, meanwhile, the Maya, the Zapotec, and other empires were also fighting wars, and also using mercenary soldiers. Native Americans in North America also fought wars, but these were usually smaller battles, and the people who fought in them (including some women) were more likely to be volunteers, free to go home if they thought things weren’t going the way they wanted.
In the later Middle Ages, a lot of mercenaries were still fighting Europe’s wars. Horses and spears and archers were still important, but slowly, all across Eurasia, cannon and guns were beginning to make a place for themselves in battles.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, as guns became a lot more dangerous, disastrous wars killed a lot more soldiers than had died in earlier wars. The American Civil War, World War I, and World War II killed millions of soldiers (as well as millions more who were not fighting). A big success of World War II, though, is that after the war, the United States did succeed in helping millions of returning soldiers get houses and good jobs (though at the expense of women and black veterans).
Since that time, there have been no really big wars. But governments all over the world still hire mercenary soldiers to fight for them, and still have trouble remembering to pay them appropriately afterwards. Recently, for example, we seem to have forgotten to pay the Kurds what we promised them, not to mention our own American veterans who are also not getting the health care or support they were promised.