Saturday, April 16, 2005

Armor and the Man

I can't say how relevant Montaigne's essay "On the Armour of the Parthians" is to today's military. I don't currently know anyone in the military in spite of quite a few former boyfriends having entered the military, been active in the military while we dated, or had been discharged from the military prior to our meeting (a result, perhaps, of growing up in San Diego, a city with a lot invested in the military). Montaigne is concerned with armor. He doesn't care so much about the Parthian's armor, but in how their armor reminds him of the armor of French soldiers in his day (late 16th century). The Parthian's armor was made of iron "plaited together like fine plumage which did not impede the movements of their bodies." Their helmets were even made of iron, covering their entire head and face and even reproducing facial features with only tiny holes for the eyes and an even small hole to breath through. Of course such armor made it difficult for attackers to kill them and standing in line waiting for battle they were "a sight to strike terror." However, a man so attired was carrying 125 pounds of metal on his body, could not see well and could breath only with some difficulty. So it is that Montaigne compares "The vile and thoroughly enervating practice of our noblemen today" of waiting until the last possible moment to put on their armor. "Some are still lacing up their breast-plates after their companions have already been routed," complains Montaigne. There are those who used to go to war with little to no armor and Alexander rarely wore armor himself. So much armor is such an encumbrance it leads Montaigne to conclude:

Although we do see a man killed occasionally for want of armour, we hardly find fewer who were killed because they were encumbered by it, slowed down by its weight, rubbed sore or wore out by it, struck by a blow glancing off it, or in some other way. It would seem indeed, given the weight and thickness of our armour, that we have no thought of anything but defending ourselves, and that we are not so much covered as laden with it. Impeded and constrained by it, we have enough to do to support its weight, as if fighting merely consisted in receiving blows on our armour and as if we were not equally beholden to defend it as it is to defend us.
A new weapon was also beginning to make its appearance in Montaigne's time, the musket. Needless to say, Montaigne did not think highly of such a weapon. He resigns himself to the fact that eventually there will no doubt be "some new invention to wall us up against them, making us drag ourselves off to war enclosed in little forts." Montaigne would be horrified about how war is conducted today. Thousands, even millions, can be killed with a push of a button. What Montaigne did not like about the musket is that is separated men from one another and distracted them from the real purpose of fighting. War to Montainge was not about who had the best armor or the biggest weapons, it was about who had the most skill and whose commander the better tactics. But enough about war. I just wanted to mention that I am still making my way through Montaigne by Marcel Tetel in spite of finding it unsatisfactory. I am also disappointed to find that Montaigne's travel diary on Italy is out of print as its own volume. I can purchase it bound with the complete Essays in the Everyman edition, but I don't need another copy of the Essays. On a positive note, The Cambridge Companion to Montaigne is being published next month. I have high hopes for that. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On Cruelty"