The Utopians hate war, battle, and the glory gotten in war—after all, not even wild beasts fight. Nonetheless, the men and women of Utopia daily practice the discipline of war in case the need arises. The Utopians fight only to defend themselves, to protect their friends from invaders, or to deliver a people from tyranny. They also go to war sometimes on behalf of friends for the sake of avenging past injuries, but only if those injuries are fresh and their enemy refuses to make restitution. Finally, the Utopians go to war if their friends’ merchants have been cheated trading abroad due to a failure of justice.
The Utopians are practical enough to know that people are likely to prey on the unprepared, hence their military drills. But how do they know that “delivering” a people from tyranny will not just lead to more evils? It is perhaps inconsistent of the Utopians, who value people more than money, to kill over trade disputes. Moreover, no rationale is given for this.
While the Utopians go to war on behalf of their friends in matters of money, when they themselves are so cheated by a nation they avenge themselves only by refusing to trade with that nation until restitution is made. This is because they take the loss of their friends’ privately held money more heavily than the loss of their own, as their citizens do not feel the loss. However, if Utopians are killed abroad and the offenders are not handed over to Utopia, the Utopians declare war. Offenders in such a case are punished with death or bondage.
It is admirable that the Utopians are so loyal to their friends as to fight on their behalf. But if the Utopians have in fact designed the perfect society, why would they be complicit in helping other nations maintain their imperfect systems? Perhaps it is just impractical to expect that utopian excellence should be established in other commonwealths.
The Utopians are ashamed to achieve victory with bloodshed, and would rather win through wit, craft, and deceit. They commemorate a bloodless victory by setting up a pillar of stone in the place where they vanquished their enemy. They believe that bodily strength is for beasts; reason is for human beings. The Utopians avoid war whenever possible, but, when they must fight, they are especially cruel to those who have offended them, in order to deter future conflict.
The Utopians love health and respect human life, so it makes good sense that they would rather satisfy their objectives through intelligence than through blood. But history forces us to question whether being cruel to one’s enemies is really an effective policy for deterring future conflict, or whether it only stirs up more anger and strife.
Unlike many of their European counterparts, Utopians fight “dirty” in war: they distribute pamphlets among their enemy’s population, promising substantial rewards of gold and land to anyone who kills or captures their enemy’s prince and other proclaimed adversaries—alive is worth twice as much as dead. These proclaimed adversaries may also turn themselves in to the Utopians, claim the reward, and be assured of their lives. Such policy throws Utopia’s enemies into suspicion of one another, and it also saves innocent lives.
The Utopians’ objective is to end war as quickly and bloodlessly as possible, hence their use of tactics that a chivalric, warlike prince might consider dishonorable (the irony, of course, is that waging war in the first place is a far more “dishonorable” thing, no matter how many rules one follows in killing others). The Utopians do not prolong bloodshed for the sake of hollow glory. Note that the Utopians would rather have their prisoners alive than dead—this is because the dead are useless, whereas the living can serve the public good as slaves.
Utopia holds its citizens so dear that they aren’t deployed in war unless the need arises. Instead, the Utopians store up gold, silver, and debt abroad for virtually one purpose alone: to avoid war altogether, or to hire mercenaries to fight on their behalf. They usually hire the Zapoletes (from the Greek meaning “those who will sell anything”). The Zapoletes are a savage, wild people (modeled after the notorious Swiss mercenaries of Thomas More’s time) who live by hunting, stealing, and fighting. The Utopians command the loyalty of the Zapoletes by paying them more than any other nation, although so many of these mercenaries die in battle that the Utopians end up paying relatively little. Moreover, the Utopians don’t care if the wicked Zapoletes die; they think it would be better if such people were washed from the world.
At the beginning of Utopia, the lawyer defends idleness as contributing to the strength of the English army. The Utopians would respond that a standing army has no place in a commonwealth that values its citizens and peace. Instead, the Utopians pragmatically hire mercenaries, both to spare their people the horrors of war, as well as to make sure that Utopian operations are not interrupted. This section also shows the Utopians at their most disturbingly practical: they prefer to hire the Zapoletes, who value gold more than their own lives, because (according to them) the world is better off without such people, and because the dead need not be paid. The idea of “washing away” an entire people has further implications of genocide and “ethnic cleansing.”
Other than mercenaries, the Utopians use their friends’ soldiers and, only as a last result, their own citizens, governed by one virtuous Utopian with two officers appointed under him who take his place if he is killed. The Utopians don’t force citizens to go to war; their army consists only of willing volunteers, because a coward is dangerous to his fellows. In case of invasion, cowards are put among brave men in shops or are assigned to defend the walls. Extreme necessity often turns cowardice to bravery.
Just as the Utopians don’t force the incurably ill to die, so too they don’t force cowards into warfare. The common principle is that people only excel when they’re fully invested in what they’re doing. In warfare, moreover, it is impractical to have a coward in the ranks, for he endangers good soldiers with his weakness.
Women can accompany their husbands to battle, where they offer praise. A man fights among his kinfolk, because then he is more ready to support them and they him. It is seen as shameful for a husband to survive his wife in war, or for a son to survive his father, and so Utopian soldiers often fight all the more courageously, with great slaughter and bloodshed, even though they would rather avoid war altogether. The fact that a Utopian soldier’s family is taken care of no matter what also makes him more courageous in battle. The Utopians neither throw their lives away in war nor resort to cowardice to save themselves.
The family is the core unit of Utopian society, and this is especially true on the battlefield. This is because people are spurred on to courage when surrounded by those they love, both to protect their loved ones and to avoid shame. (More derives this argument from Plato’s Symposium.) Utopians need not fear death, because all Utopians are equally cared for no matter what. In this way, communal values are self-supporting.
In battle, the Utopians select a band of fit young men who are tasked with the assassination of their enemy’s captain, which they accomplish through cunning and open strength. In their assault on this captain, wearied men are replaced by fresh ones, and the Utopians rarely fail to kill or (preferably) capture their target. Moreover, the Utopians never send all of their forces to pursue a retreating enemy. When forced to retreat themselves, the Utopians excel in staging cunning ambushes, which often turn the tide of battle. Utopians fortify their camp with a deep, broad trench, made not by bondmen but by the soldiers themselves.
A chivalric prince would consider the targeting of captains in war highly dishonorable, but the Utopians want nothing to do with battlefield honor, only minimal bloodshed and swift peace. Even though the Utopians have built an ideal society, they can still lose battles, it would seem..
The Utopians wear strong, flexible armor they can swim in, and they fight with arrows, shot by footmen and horsemen alike. In hand-to-hand combat they use poleaxes, which are deadly by point and blade alike. The Utopians are ingenious inventors of war machines.
The flexibility of the Utopians’ army reflects the practicality of their society in general, as does their preference for the poleaxe, which can be used to thrust or cut, unlike a spear or sword, which generally does one or the other, not both.
The Utopians honor their truces even if provoked. They do not steal from their enemies or destroy their land and crops. They do not hurt unarmed men, except for spies. They defend all cities surrendered to them and destroy none. If there are those among the enemy who insisted on defending a city, the Utopians punish them with death. Other soldiers captured in battle are punished with bondage. Anyone who counseled that a city be surrendered to the Utopians is rewarded with the condemned men’s goods; the rest of those goods are distributed to those who aided the Utopians. The Utopians take no booty for themselves, and the conquered nation pays for the costs of the war in money and land.
Consistent with their principle of promoting peace and wasting nothing, the Utopians lay waste to nothing that comes into their possession over the course of warfare. We might think it rather severe, however, to punish patriots who urge the defense of their own cities, or to punish enemy combatants. Do such people really have control in such matters, and can they really be held accountable? The Utopians neither gain nor lose anything from warfare, but come out where they were before the conflict began.