Main menu

Platoon

Platoon won the 1986 Academy Award for Best Picture. It is a war movie about an infantry platoon (about forty soldiers) in 1968 Vietnam.

During the Middle Ages, warfare was more personal than it is today. National governments were weaker then, and conscription (a.k.a. the draft) did not exist. In general, when a king wanted to go to war, he would call upon his noblemen, whom he knew personally, and who were loyal to him personally. The noblemen would then go to war for their king, bringing with them all the knights and other men who were personally loyal to them. There was little 'patriotism' before the Hundred Years War (1337-1453). Prior to the Hundred Years War, men did not fight for their countries; men fought for their lords. In other words, men did not fight for ideas; men fought for other men. The Crusades were an exception to this rule. During the Crusades, men did fight for their beliefs, yet even the Crusades were personal. Crusaders were led by their kings and lesser noblemen, so personal ties and loyalty to lords was very present.

A good depiction of medieval warfare is that found in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. “Tolkien likewise allows his good characters to fight a glamorous ‘medieval’ war of volunteers and pledged fellowship, while the bad side is ’modern,’ with its nameless conscripts and industrialized war machinery that are associated with the desolate landscape of the trenches,” (Chance and Siewers, page 8 of Tolkien’s Modern Middle Ages, edited by Jane Chance and Alfred K. Siewers, Palgrave MacMillan, New York 2005). There was a professional warrior class during the Middle Ages who spent their lives fighting and seem to have liked it. They were not like the American soldiers in Vietnam depicted in "Platoon" who served one-year tours of duty and all the while longed for their time to end so that they could return home. For medieval knights, war was their life, and the field of battle was as much home to them as any other place. Such men fought according to rules of chivalry, which caused them to do things that would be unthinkable to us. At the Battle of Maldon, in 991, the Anglo-Saxon leader Byrhtnoth had his Viking enemy trapped on a small near island with only a narrow strip of land connecting it to mainland England. The Viking army, which outnumbered the Anglo-Saxons, was unable to benefit from the advantage of superior numbers because it had to attack over the narrow land bridge. The Viking leader then spoke with Byrhtnoth and told him that it was unchivalrous to kill his men in such an unfair fight. More fair would it be to allow the Vikings to all cross onto the mainland and fight them in a regular battle. Incredibly, from our point of view, Byrhtnoth was convinced by the Viking leader that he was being unchivalrous, so he allowed the Viking army to cross onto the mainland so that they could have fair battle. The Vikings then enjoyed the full advantage of their numerical superiority; they defeated the Anglo-Saxons and killed Byrhtnoth. The story of the Battle of Maldon is typical of medieval warfare, in which fighting the right way was sometimes more important than winning. This began to change during the Hundred Years War, yet even in the Hundred Years War there was some chivalry, as when English King Henry V crossed swords in a battle with a certain French soldier and forever after had to treat that individual with honor because the man had engaged him in single combat and thus earned the right to be treated with respect. During the battle, Henry V would have killed the man if he could have, and if he had never had personal contact with the man, then any English soldier could have killed him, but because this particular Frenchmen crossed swords with the King of England, the English thereafter had not the right to kill him. I have also read an account of a battle in Spain in which one side was mounted on horses and wore plate-mail armor, whereas their opponents were too poor to afford such things, so the wealthier side gave horse and armor to their opponents to even things up and make it a fair fight. Never have I heard about a modern battle in which the better equipped army chose to give weapons to its opponent so as to make the fight more fair.

Everything written in the previous paragraph is true, but it ignores some of the uglier sides of medieval warfare. Perhaps the ugliest part of medieval warfare, completely left out of Tolkien's writings and the movies, is the fact that medieval armies had to live off the land. They did not have the elaborate supply chains that modern armies enjoy, providing soldiers with food and everything else they need. During the Middle Ages, armies - both the 'good guys' and the 'bad guys' - devastated the countryside through which they moved. Soldiers must eat; during the Middle Ages, soldiers ate whatever they could take from the peasants unlucky enough to live in their path. Food was not as plentiful in the Middle Ages as it is today, so in some cases the peasants who were robbed of their food had no way to survive and so they starved to death. Those peasants who tried to defend their property were killed by the hungry soldiers. Women were often raped, as order was practically impossible to maintain among soldiers who were separated from their units and isolated in small foraging parties. In this way, the movie "Platoon" actually has something medieval about it. In one scene, the platoon enters a village. They destroy it, murder a few of the villagers, and rape one of the girls. Such events were probably very common during the Middle Ages, except that in the movie the soldiers burned everything, whereas in the Middle Ages soldiers would have taken things rather than destroying property. Another aspect of medieval warfare was the siege. Glorious battles did happen, but much of medieval warfare consisted of surrounding castles, or walled towns, and then waiting for the people inside to starve. Before the effective use of cannons in the fifteenth century, high walls were virtually impregnable. There were catapults, battering rams, and other machines that made taking a castle or walled town by assault possible, but for the most part the defenders always had a big advantage over their attackers, so that a small number of men could defend a fortified place against a much larger number of attackers. Rather than suffer many casualties assaulting such places, medieval leaders usually chose to besiege castles and fortified towns; surrounding them, cutting them off from sources of food, and waiting for them to starve. Such tactics were not very glorious. Inside besieged towns, men, women and children slowly wasted away, while outside the towns the besieging army would often be afflicted with diseases that would kill as many soldiers or more than died in battle. Dieing in battle might be glorious, but dieing from dysentery is not.