He's five-foot-two, and he's six-feet-four,
He fights with missiles and with spears.
He's all of thirty-one, and he's only seventeen,
He's been a soldier for a thousand years.
He's the one who gives his body
As a weapon of the war,
And without him all this killing can't go on.– Buffy Sainte-Marie, “Universal Soldier” (1964)
This pioneering volume is a remarkable international attempt to bridge the gap between military history and labour history, by exploring the labour of the military as a subject in its own right. During 2009-2012, a team of twenty researchers from nine countries led by Erik-Jan Zürcher systematically reconstructed the similarities and differences between military recruitment and employment systems in Asia and Europe from the sixteenth century onwards. Their comparative approach has made it possible to discover general historical patterns. In turn, these patterns suggest causal relationships which could, should, and no doubt will be the subject of more in-depth studies in the future.
Until now, military historians and labour historians inhabited separate worlds. Military historians were concerned with wars, military doctrines, arms technology, campaign logistics, and similar issues. For them, soldiers usually enter into the picture as the executors of commands, and, in the narrative of military historians, what decides the outcome of battles are the numbers, skills, weaponry and morale of the combatants. Labour historians by contrast regard soldiers above all as the oppressors of labour resistance, who sometimes – in revolutionary situations – change sides and join the workers. According to many labour historians, what soldiers do as soldiers is not “work” – since work is constructive, not destructive – but instead a kind of “anti-work”. The military are indeed conventionally excluded from “the labour force”, and therefore they are not counted in labour force statistics.
The idea that what soldiers do “cannot be work” is a moralistic prejudice, however. Work is the purposeful production of useful objects or services. Thus, work is a purposive activity, and work creates objects or services that are useful to the people for whom the work is done. That makes participation in military activities just as much a labour process as any other, even if many civilians do not regard it as a “useful activity” and have no use for it.