Invisible Causes of Death

Thursday, March 11th, 2010

As a strong proponent of division of labor, Adam Smith favored standing armies over militias:

Among his arguments in favour of standing armies in modern times, Adam Smith enumerates the greater difficulty of preserving any considerable degree of order and prompt obedience from the noise of firearms, the smoke, and the invisible death to which every man feels himself every moment exposed, as soon as he comes within cannon-shot, and frequently a long time before the battle can be well said to be engaged. “In an ancient battle,” he says,” there was no noise but what arose from the human voice; there was no smoke, there was no invisible cause of wounds or death. Every man, till some mortal weapon actually did approach him, saw clearly that no such weapon was near him.”

It is not unworthy of remark that Hobbes endeavours to account for the courage of the London apprentices in the civil wars, on a principle the reverse of this — namely, the invisible nature of the death. “Among theirs” — that is, the parliament’s soldiers — “there were,” he says, “a great many London apprentices, who, for want of experience in the war, would have been fearful enough of death and wounds approaching visibly in glistening swords; but for want of judgment, scarce thought of such death as comes invisibly in a bullet, and, therefore, were very hardly to be driven out of the field.”

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