Sunday, January 29, 2012
In response to Lashlover’s comment on Part 1 of Flogged on the March, I decided to write a post. Lashlover makes an interesting point that the theme of punishments being meted out for committing no crime or doing nothing wring is persistent thorough literature and cinema—even on this blog. Why would that theme be so pervasive?
I think that, like Chris pointed out in a comment on our Poll: Strip it Off or Rip it Off, the image of a man bravely obedient to authority, even if that authority is used unjustly, is a strong one. It says a great deal about the man submitting that he will brave his back because the law says he should do so.
But Lashlover also raises the question about how prevalent flogging for minor (or no) offense would have been in real life. We know that punishments were ordered with such zeal in the British Army that the King of England eventually had to limit floggings to 1,000 lashes. If that many can be awarded by a court-martial, disciplinary floggings in the normal course of duty must have been carried out with accepted regularity. The governing principle for centuries in militaries throughout the world was that soldiers would only fight if they feared their own officers more than they feared enemy guns (this philosophy is still used to a great extent to instill military discipline in modern armies, but that isn’t really relevant for a flogging blog—although I wish it were).
In order to maintain that effect, officers would have to constantly prove that they—and they alone—wielded violence. The most effective way to do that is to keep punishment firmly planted in the forefront of their minds. A soldier would always carefully consider his actions out of fear of harsh punishment, especially if he regularly witnessed floggings, and saw how indifferent the officers were to the screams of his comrades writing under the lash.
And officers who understood that no man would make a move to stop a flogging he ordered would have no incentive not to brutalize his men. I am not suggesting that all officers acted this way, but like Major Sir Henry Simmerson in the Sharpe series, entitled aristocratic twits were widespread throughout the British office corps for centuries. The character even remarks to another officer, “You have no understanding of the British soldier. He is a brute in a red coat. They need the lash!” This was probably a very common opinion which was acted upon with fanaticism.
Even American colonists, when tensions began to mount between Britain and the colonies, referred to British Army soldiers as “bloody backs”, which suggests that flogging was a common (probably the only) means of punishment employed against them. Having served in a military (both as an enlisted soldier and as an officer) which does not have flogging as an option, I find it particularly hard to believe that crime would be so rampant in the ranks—of an army deployed for combat—that punishment would need to be so incessant as to make the civilian population remark upon it.
Which leads us to, I believe, an answer to Lashlover’s concern. Intentional criminal acts were probably rare (although not as rare as you would find in a modern army), but the officers needed an excuse to keep the men fearful of their lawful authority to summarily strip them to the waist and flog skin off their backs. Therefore, officers, either by natural inclination or by adherence to their duty, would find any minor fault—even so much as un-shined boots during a formal inspection—as reason to seize a man up.
Given that 1,000 lashes eventually had to be placed as a limit, an award of 50 lashes for “failure to show proper respect for the uniform” would not have raised an eyebrow among either the men witnessing it or officers who later reviewed the Regimental record.