Summary and Analysis
Book II: The Discourse on Utopia: War
Utopians hate war, regarding it as inhuman, something not practiced by any wild beasts. What is often called the glory achieved in war seems to them inglorious. Nevertheless, they train constantly in the disciplines of war, both men and women, to be ready for any exigency. The causes for which they will engage in war are: first, to defend their country; second, to defend their friend; and, third, to deliver a weak nation from oppression or tyranny.
In battle they do not seek to gain victory through great bloodshed but prefer to overcome the enemy through strategy. Once war has been declared, they circulate leaflets through the enemy's country, offering a huge reward to anyone who kills the king or other leaders, aiming by that means to sow suspicion and dissension through the nation.
Their great treasures of gold and silver are reserved for use in wars. With it they are enabled to offer huge rewards to enemy defectors and to employ mercenaries at a handsome rate of pay. There is a race in a nearby country, the Zapoletes, who are brutish but strong, brave fighters, whom they employ to send into battle. They know that those hirelings have no principles of loyalty and could be persuaded to defect to the enemy for a promise of higher fees, but the Utopians are generally in a position to outbid their competitors, which they do readily, calculating shrewdly that a good many of the mercenaries will be killed and will not collect their pay.
The Utopians prefer not to use their own citizens in battle unless their own country is invaded, and in such an event they employ only volunteers. They encourage women who are willing to accompany their husbands and stand with them in battle. It is their policy, once engaged in open battle, to send in specially trained troops to seek out and kill or capture the commander of the enemy's forces. If they have gained the advantage and the enemy is in retreat, they check their troops from engaging in random, disorderly pursuit, nor do they aim for wholesale slaughter, preferring to take prisoners. They themselves sometimes resort to the strategy of feigned retreat in order to ambush an unsuspecting enemy.
Their armor is stout for defense yet not excessively heavy for marching or even for swimming. In fact, part of their training is to swim in armor. For offense they use battle-axes rather than swords and bows and arrows, with which they are highly skilled, strong and accurate. Also, they are ingenious in devising special machines for warfare.
It is not their practice to destroy or plunder a captured city or to lay waste the fields of the enemy, and they observe exceptional clemency toward the defeated nation, with the exception of the leaders who instigated the war and those among the enemy who opposed the surrender. A conquered nation is obliged to pay tribute to reimburse the Utopians for their expenses in the conduct of the war either in money or in rich estates of the country.
The author's treatment of the subject of war is longer than that of any other topic except religion, and that is surprising because war was not a subject on which More was especially knowledgeable and probably was one in which he had no great interest. He represents the Utopians as despising war, and the impression he produces is that he, along with them, considers it to be vicious and stupid. The Utopians recognize it as a dirty business, and they therefore feel justified in resorting to whatever actions they find to be most effective — deceit, bribery, and incitement to murder. Their determination is to win by whatever means, but they strive to accomplish that aim with as little slaughtering as possible, especially of their own people.
The practice of employing mercenary troops to fight your battles had been common for several centuries, especially on the Continent. Whole armies were for hire under the command of a condottiere. A drawback to the system was that hired troops could be bribed to change sides. Further, if one troop of mercenaries faced another mercenary outfit, the combat often lacked ferocity and the casualties were kept to a minimum, since neither army was fighting for a cause that meant much to them. In More's time, it was becoming recognized that a troop of amateurs, farmers, and shopkeepers might perform better in the field than the foreign professionals. It should be noted that the discussion of mercenaries is more applicable to Continental nations than to England.
The attitude of the Utopians toward the loss of life among their hired Zapoletes seems to us rather callous.
We read earlier that women as well as men were trained in warlike exercises, and we now learn that they accompanied their men into battle. The question of whether or not they bore arms and engaged in the actual slaughter is passed over, so the reader may draw his own conclusions. The idea of having women present on the battlefield was by no means a new one. Sometimes women were used to carry provisions for their warriors, a custom reported by Amerigo Vespucci from his travels among American Indian tribes. Sometimes the women merely served for moral support to the soldiers. Socrates had proposed having the women accompany their soldiers. Some records reveal that Germanic and Swiss armies brought women into the fight.
Judging from the types of weapons and the armor mentioned, the Utopians engaged in a rather archaic form of combat, Few specifics are supplied, but the impression given is not so much like a scene involving knights wearing gleaming armor, cap-à-pie, as it is like a skirmish beside the walls at Troy. The most curious feature is the absence of any mention of firearms. This is surprising in view of the fact that gunpowder had been introduced into warfare in a crude form a century and a half earlier and was coming into fairly general use by the beginning of the 16th century. Possibly, More reckoned that the use of cannons was a little too sophisticated for those remote islanders. Possibly, he had an aversion to that "villainous saltpeter" that was spoiling the heroics of knightly combat, much as Hotspur's messenger had. We know that Henry VIII retained his confidence in the longbow, believing it was a weapon England should rely on in its wars, because 25 years later he commissioned Roger Ascham to write a manual on archery to encourage its continued use.
In refraining from plundering captured cities or ravaging farms, the Utopians demonstrate a stage of progress toward civilized behavior that conforms to other aspects of their policies in conducting wars — that is, the attempt to minimize bloodshed in combat. The contrast between that type of behavior and the actual practices of armies forces us to acknowledge an element of satire throughout much of this section of the book. Less directly, but more subtly, than Erasmus in the Colloquies, More is exposing the evils of war.