The combat experience has been aptly characterized as consisting of long periods of tedium punctuated by episodes of sheer terror, and the prosecution of a war requires the recruitment, retention, and motivation of men equal to both challenges. Some people actively enjoy violence; for them, it is something of a high. Some are drawn to it compulsively—serial killers, for example, or certain sadists, who continue to perform violent acts even though they know this enhances the likelihood that they will be apprehended. There are also those who are, or become, addicted to violence and who feel anxiety in its absence. They exult in the thrill of violence and spend a great deal of time anticipating it and seeking it out. We have in civilian life a name for such people—criminals—but the category would also encompass individuals popularly known as bullies, hooligans, goons, toughs, and thugs. Violent conflicts dominated by such people can be called criminal warfare, a form in which combatants are induced to wreak violence primarily for the fun and material profit they derive from the experience.
Europe at one time was probably the most warlike place in the world, and the recruitment process for national armies was singularly unselective: about all that the military normally required of recruiters was that they enlist boots on the ground. Frequently, it was possible for potential conscripts to buy (or bribe) their way out of service or to furnish substitutes in a process which guaranteed that the ranks of the soldiery would be manned disproportionately by criminals, as well as by vagabonds, misfits, social failures, beggars, derelicts, drunks, the unemployable, the idle poor, and the mentally disturbed. Taverns and brothels proved fertile recruiting grounds. So did jails. They housed men awaiting trial or sentencing, very often for capital offenses, for whom even the worst form of soldiering would have been an improvement. Their enlistment was especially attractive to recruiters dragooning participants into foreign armies because many of their fellow townspeople saw a welcome opportunity to banish criminals and other undesirables from the community quite likely forever. Some of the armies in the Hundred Years’ War consisted of 2 to 12 percent convicted criminals, many of them murderers seeking royal pardons for their services. The French came to know such men as écorcheurs—scorchers of the earth.
The term could also describe the parasitic mercenary bands, or “companies of adventure,” that plagued Italy during the fourteenth century. They operated under fanciful, self-infatuated names like the Company of the Star, the Company of the Hook, and the Company of the Hat, and proudly promulgated graffiti-like slogans such as, “Enemy of God, Pity, and Mercy.” Their camps reminded one observer of “brothels of harlots and the taverns and bistros of gluttons.” One of the most destructive and effective of these bands was led by John Hawkwood, “an Italianized Englishman” famous for his solution to a problem that arose during the plundering of a monastery. While two of his men argued over which would get to ravish a beautiful young nun, Hawkwood plunged a dagger into
her heart, thereby, observed an admiring chronicler, at once solving the dispute and preserving the nun’s virginity. Since Hawkwood lived by war and would be out of business in peacetime, wrote one Italian novelist, “He managed his affairs so well, that there was little peace in Italy in his times.”
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