In general, people tend like good things. This should be self-evident: good food, good sex, good booze (in no particular order), so…anything ‘good’ should be, well, “good” – right? Like – peace, for instance.


I mean, war is all about violence, blood, horror, terror, crippling and debilitating injuries and very tragic and untimely death, all of which are really bad things…So…Less war must be good.


Today, we will examine a tiny sliver of that question.


Paris Street in Rainy Weather, 1877, Gustave Caillebotte.

In 1856, in an attempt to “limit the scourge of war”, a collection of European nations’ representatives gathered in Paris, France and signed a convention, the “Paris Declaration“, that eliminated the practice of “privateering“, or “legalized piracy in time of war.”

Letter of marque given to Robert Sutton de Clonard for the privateer Comte d’Artois, 1780.

The mechanism of this decision was simple: the Admiralty court system that adjudicated the “condemnation” and auctioning of “prizes of war” were disestablished, more or less overnight, removing the purpose of issuing “Letters of Marque and Reprisal“…and freeing – it was hoped – merchant shipping from the scourge of “legalized plunder“…

…But what was the real effect of this declaration?

Prior to 1856 – for roughly 400 years, in a formal sense – Western nations had deliberately evolved the system of prize-capture to avoid the cost of keeping excessively large (and very expensive) fleets manned when there was no war going on. Since merchant ships were generally alone in dangerous waters anyway, it only made sense to build cargo ships that carried weapons comparable to warships, and by extension, to utilize those same ships in time of war.

Thus, as an adjunct to the very common practice on land of hiring part-time professional soldiers – i.e., mercenaries – to flesh out an army, armed merchantmen were offered commissions to supplement regular navies, until those navies could get their actual warships fully crewed. After ferrying troops and supplies, many of these armed merchantmen struck out at the merchant ships of the enemy, striking targets of opportunity, capturing enemy vessels, hauling them to friendly (or even neutral), to sell off the cargoes and the ships themselves (sometimes at a staggering profit), as well as ransoming the prisoners.

The Ranger, Private Ship of War, with her Prizes. By Nicholas Pocock, 1780

After 1856, this all changed.

As the United States (which did not sign the Paris Declaration) was to discover to its horror, the dismantling of the prize system removed any incentive to capturing ships intact — where shipping companies (previously, at least) had the chance of buying their captured vessels back, once there was no possibility of easily selling off a captured prize, there was no reason to not strip the surrendered ships of useful supplies and destroy them after capture. The crews were either abandoned on remote islands to uncertain (and very unpleasant) fates, or tossed ashore in the first non-hostile port the ship came to, with nothing but the clothes on their backs…if they were that lucky.

Four years after the Declaration, the various States that formed the Confederacy attempted to leave the Federal Union, sparking the four-year long American Civil War. Among its many disadvantages, the Southern Confederacy did not really have a maritime tradition, as their northern opponents did. As a result, lacking hard currency or deep economic capital internally, their few attempts at issuing Letters of Marque were dismal failures, as limited cash in a bottled market could not chase what should have been lucrative captures.

“The Alabama destroying the Texan Star, or Martaban, in the Malacca Straits – The Kwan-Tung, Chinese War-Steamer, in the distance. From a sketch by Commander Allen Young, Royal Navy.” London Illustrated News, April 2, 1864, p. 320. Public Domain

At which point, the Confederate government unleashed the Confederate Navy. The result was apocalyptic.

In a series of brutal cruises, Confederate Navy corsairs slashed and burned their way through the United States’ merchant fleets; the US Pacific whaling fleet (supplying vital supplies of whale oil in a pre-petroleum society) was almost completely destroyed. Indeed, by 1864 most US-flagged merchant ships were laid up in US ports, as crews flatly refused to leave port under US colors, because of the danger of prowling rebel raiders; not even ruinous insurance rates could entice crews to sea. To remain solvent, many American merchant investors had to sell their vessels to foreign companies in a buyers market, just to maintain some form of capitol flow. The US merchant fleet would not fully recover its position in the world’s shipping arena until after World War 2.

Other countries – and their navies – noticed.


A battleship squadron of the German High Seas Fleet; the far right vessel is the battlecruiser SMS Von der Tann, 1917.

The basic requirements of naval warfare had not changed, the future writings of US Navy Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan notwithstanding: an enemy nation’s merchant marine still had to be neutralized. This meant larger navies, with many more fighting ships in commission, at all times, since merchant ships could no longer, by about 1890, be easily converted into viable warships (since they could no longer be used as warships, there was no reason to design them with warship guns and armor). But, because technology was also expanding — both the fight between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (the former USS Merrimack) in 1862, as well as the Austro-Italian Battle of Lissa in 1866 marking the first engagements between “armored” (or, “ironclad”) naval warships and fleets — this began a race to develop ever-bigger guns, better armor, faster and more fuel-efficient engines…and the armies, jealous of the navies’ lavish funding, also took note. But, with few major wars (only one, really) between industrial states taking place between 1875 and 1914, no one really paid attention…except, of course, the builders of naval artillery and warships.

Photograph of U-111, a German Submarine.

Come the end 1914, with the land war in Western Europe lurching into a blood-soaked, trench-bound stalemate, enforced by machine guns and more field artillery than anyone had ever seen before, Imperial Germany turned to widely deploying previously experimental or unseen weapons – specifically, the submarine and poison gas.

While there had been a slow and steady development of submarines in the previous decades, few officers of the day took them seriously as anything but scouts for battle fleets. But, once the German High Seas Fleet’s inability to blockade Britain became clear, the Kaiser unleashed his U-Boat fleet.

The slaughter was tremendous, as merchant ship crews began dying in huge numbers, and mind-boggling amounts of ship tonnage was sent to the bottom. Britain was almost starved of war-making material, and actually began to experience food shortages. In the next round, in 1940, Britain very nearly did lose its war — and American and British merchant seamen died by the thousands…On land, the role of the machine gun and poison gas is better known. The never-ending quest to one-up to other guy was in full force.

British 55th (West Lancashire) Division troops blinded by gas, 10 April 1918. 

“The battle between the Aisne and Marne: German ammunition column, teams and horses with gas masks when passing a gasified forest.”

On land, with the stalemate and slaughter of trench warfare enforced by machine guns, the German High Command was induced to take what for them was a radical (and, by their own admission, distasteful) action: allowing scientists, led by Fritz Haber, the chemist who perfected the extraction of ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen, to develop what had been annoyingly dangerous byproducts of industrial chemical processes into deadly weapons that killed indiscriminately…and ultimately, led directly to the Zyklon-B of Hitler’s gas chambers.

Ultimately, the quest for “more is not only better, it is vital” led directly to the atomic bomb. Although its destructive force was not truly understood at first, even after its effects were understood in their full horror, their development continued apace, leading to the culmination of destruction: the “Tsar Bomba” of the Soviet Union.

However, nothing happens in a vacuum — while states, and the armies and navies that served them, raced frantically to find faster, broader and more efficient ways to kill each other, those nations’ populations paid attention…and learned the unintended lesson:

Life is cheap, fragile, and easily thrown away — and if governments don’t care about the lives of their individual citizens, why should the citizens care about the lives of an “enemy” people?

Kill ’em all – let God sort ’em out.




Terrorists, 2020

…..Welcome to the so-called Islamic Caliphate of the 21st Century – and why not? They are merely responding to the stimuli they have been presented and raised with. They don’t have naval fleets, or fleets of airplanes — but they do have knives and cameras, and fear and horror are ancient and basic weapons. Doubly so, when they pay their troops in loot and slaves…just like the “good ol’ days.” And, in an era where humans can be easily enticed to volunteer to function as “squishy cruise missiles“, the addition of real horror to simple terrorism follows a direct course from that origin point.

So…the next time someone cries “Peace! PEACE!“, it may be instructive to wonder why there was no peace in the first place.

It is also instructive to remember that sometimes, “peace” is another word for “surrender“.