Washington Irving: The laudable spirit of military emulation. Soldiers, poor animals
From Salmagundi (1807)
The following letter of my friend Mustapha appears to have been written some time subsequent to the one already published. Were I to judge from its contents, I should suppose it was suggested by the splendid review of the twenty-fifth of last November; when a pair od colors was presented at the City Hall to the regiments of artillery, and when a huge dinner was devoured by the corporation in the honorable remembrance of the evacuation of this city. I am happy to find that the laudable spirit of military emulation which prevails in our city has attracted the attention of a stranger of Mustapha’s sagacity; by military emulation I mean that spirited rivalry in the size of a hat, the length of a feather, and the gingerbread finery of a sword belt.
These soldiers have no pecuniary pay; and their only recompense for the immense services they render the country in their voluntary parades is the plunder of smiles and winks, and nods which they extort from the ladies. As they have no opportunity, like the vagrant Arabs, of making inroads on their neighbors, and as it is necessary to keep up the military spirit, the town is therefore now and then, but particularly on two days of the year, given up to their ravages. The arrangements are contrived with admirable address, so that every officer, from the bashaw down to the drum-major, the chief of the eunuchs or musicians, shall have his share of the invaluable booty, the admiration of the fair. As to the soldiers, poor animals, they, like the privates in all great armies, have to bear the brunt of danger and fatigue while their officers receive all the glory and reward…
Ay, but you’ll say is not this unfair that the officers should share all the sports while the privates undergo all the fatigue? Truly, my friend, I indulged the same idea, and pitied from my heart the poor fellows who had to drabble through the mud and the mire, toiling under cocked hats, which seemed as unwieldy and cumbrous as the shell which the snail lumbers along on his back. I soon found out, however, that they have their quantum of notoriety. As soon as the army is dismissed, the city swarms with little scouting parties, who fire off their guns at every corner, to the great delight of all the women and children in their vicinity; and woe unto any dog, or pig, or hog, that falls in the way of these magnanimous warriors; they are shown no quarter. Every gentle swain repairs to pass the evening at the feet of his dulcinea, to play “the soldier tired of war’s alarms,” and to captivate her with the glare of his regimentals; excepting some ambitious heroes who strut to the theater, flame away in the front boxes, and hector every old apple-woman in the lobbies.
The people of the United States have assured me that they themselves are the most enlightened nation under the sun; but thou knowest that the barbarians of the desert, who assemble at the summer solstice to shoot their arrows at that glorious luminary, in order to extinguish his burning rays, make precisely the same boast – which of them has the superior claim I shall not attempt to decide.