Conquest of the Empire 30 years later
Conqueror: Siege Assault continues to grind forward

Clueless civilians talking about military stuff

I'm not one of those poeple who makes a fetish out of military service.  To me, it's a job like anything else.  To be sure, it can be very dangerous and very necessary, but for the most part it's tedious and not particularly exciting.

The experience of military service has many benefits, though, and one of the ones I've come to appreciate is a better understanding of history.  I generally enjoy watching some of the history buffs on youtube offer their opinions, and often they are smarter than the "professional" historians.  However, sometimes they are wrong in a very civilian way.

Lest anyone accuse me of arrogance, I will freely admit that I was just like them.  I didn't enlist until my mid-20s, so I had plenty of time to beclown myself in various ways, both in analysis and fiction.  A lot of what I thought I knew from books and movies was just flat-out wrong.  There were some things that I had correct, but for the wrong reason.

Just to be clear, I'm not talking about the experience of battle of which I have none.  I'm speaking of the culture, how leadership works, and the minutae that seem insignificant but actually make up a huge part of service.

I'm also going to acknowledge that there are historians who don't fall into this trap.  I'm speaking specifically of people who simply assume that they're smarter than everyone else who came before them.

A great example of this is uniforms and equipment.  It's hard for people who have never had to carry or wear certain gear in a certain way to understand how much you come to hate it.  Civilians relish wearing helmets, masks, uniforms, belts, etc. but people who are compelled to can't wait to take the stuff off.  There is a reason modern body armor actually comes with labels saying "ALWAYS WEAR THIS!  DON'T TAKE IT OFF!"

Civilians look at that and shake their heads in confusion, but it's pretty simple: the stuff is heavy, can trap heat and unless you think you need it right now, it's more comfortable to have it off.  That goes doubly for the helmet.

What further complicates matters is that veterans themselves may seem inconsistent, relishing wearing their gear (particularly boots) while hiking, camping and so on.  The crucial difference is that when one is off-duty, you can take the stuff off whenever you feel like it.  That's not the case when you're under orders.

This experience carries over into military history, even though the eras may seem very different.  Body armor has changed quite a bit since 1066 or 476, but it's still heavy, often hot and it's always easier to move around without it.  Armor is  a compromise between protection and comfort.

The thing about armor is: you only need it if you're going to get hit.  Naturally, you're going to work pretty hard to ensure that it doesn't happen, but at the same time, you can only do so much in the chaos of battle.

Thus there are lots of examples of armor that modern civilians look at and say:  "Why didn't they wear more gear?  They clearly had the materials, were these people stupid?"  Nope, they simply wore what they felt was adequate.

Modern reenactors are likewise both good and bad.  On the positive side, they can shine light onto archeological discoveries and help us understand how things were put together and fit.  At the same time, they can introduce biases because when their weekend encampment is over, they go back to the day job and their gear goes back into the closet.

Moreover, their gear is often built to standards that aren't all that realistic.  Much replica gear is built to withstand steady, repeated use over a long time.  Whether the combat involves live steel or sticks or whatnot, it has to be built strong enough to provide a modern level of protection that was unknown in history.

Now contrast that with actual military gear used in action today.  The body armor and helmets have no such expectation of durability.  If your helmet stops a shell fragment or bullet, that's great and it's now time to get a new one.  The vests work the same way - one use and then you toss it aside because it's too damaged to trust again.

Imagine how heavy your gear would have to be to take repeated gunshots over many years and still be safe!  That kind of bias would totally distort your understanding of what troops carry.  Future historians may well puzzle over how kevlar could take bullet after bullet and keep working - or why it couldn't, when clearly just stopping one bullet or fragment wouldn't be enough.

Ancient armor apparently was quite thin and had minimal padding because it was only expected to stop one or two blows.  The best-preserved stuff is sport armor (such as for jousts) which is entirely different.  That was expected to see repeated heavy use, and wasn't designed for anything else than the tournament scene.   It was basically reenactor grade stuff.

This also ties into my earlier point about wearing a helmet.  Yes, they can save your life, but they can also hamper your vision and hearing, which can be even more dangerous.  There's also the question of giving commands and letting your followers know you're still alive.  I've seen some folks ridicule Hollywood for wanting to show actors' faces rather than covering them with visors, but history is chock full of episodes where a king or general tears off his helmet or hat so his men can see his face and know he's with them.

The same thing is true with weapons.  Swords in particular were disposable items.    Even a well-made sword will get pretty mangled if you spend several hours banging on shields and helmets with it.  One reason why there are stories of 'magic' swords is likely that there were certain alloys that could withstand the punishment better, breaking or cutting through inferior grades of metal.

It's interesting to read historic accounts and poems because they sometimes spend as much time on broken weapons as they do on people getting killed.  Some of it is a rhetorical flourish, but battlefield finds bear out that there's a huge amount of breakage in combat, and this is still true.  The Petersburg museum in Virginia had a section of the battlefield that had been excavated preserved in a special exhibit and you could see broken rifles and all manner of junk where it had fallen on the ground.

We think of people having a personal sword or spear like King Arthur or Achilles, but in fact your average trooper probably needed steady replacements after each battle.  Breaking one's sword may have symbolic importance in legend, but it was a very real occurrence.

Here again we have a modern bias, not wanting to damage our premium expensive historic reproduction blade by blunting it against your expensive historic reproduction helmet (or another blade), but that was the reality of war back in the day.  Not only did you expect that sort of clash to happen, you counted on it.  A key factor in combat was the quality of ones weapons and there is a reason that certain regions were highly-respected for the quality of their metalwork. 

When sword meets sword, it's an extra bonus to know that yours isn't going to be the one getting dented.

To be clear, I'm not saying that everyone who ever wore a uniform has some sort of unique insight that is denied to a lifetime student of history.  Instead, I'm saying that having a bit of both is best - the lived experience of military life combined with the study of history can give insights that are hidden from those who only know what they've read in books and/or picked up in their Living History group.

That's certainly been my experience.

I still enjoy watching these presenters, but it's just something to keep in mind.



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