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Soldiers, from "The Execution of Maximilian," a painting by Edouard Manet

Subthemes: Military Justice, Atrocities, Rules of War

An Austrian archduke, Maximilian had been installed by Napoleon III of France as the puppet emperor of Mexico to succeed the republican president Benito Juárez. The Mexican’s captured him, overthrew his government, and sentenced him to death. In the early morning of June 19, 1867, along with two of his generals Maximilian was executed by military firing squad. The commanding officer’s sword is visible in the upper middle, and the soldier assigned to carry out the coup de grâce calmly loads his rifle on the right.

According to The British National Gallery, the leftmost figure of a general and most of Maximilian had probably been cut off by the time of Manet’s death in 1883. His son cut the remaining canvas into four fragments which he sold separately. Eventually, those pieces were reunited in 1992 and mounted on to one stretcher to suggest the original composition. What might surface from this dramatic picture regarding Soldiers?

the reconstituted painting

Military Justice: Maximillian and two of his faithful generals were brought to trial and sentenced to death for treason. Even in the mid-19th century, special legal rules and procedures might have applied to soldiers charged with military offenses. Today in the United States, the military operates under a fully evolved system of justice, adjudicated by the Judge Advocates General Corps, whereby specially trained judges for each of the service lines hold court martials and various Article proceedings when soldiers transgress. Amidst the many armed conflicts of the world, a much less even-handed method of military discipline holds, where summary punishment too often take place in battle and away from public view. Prisoners, deserters or cowards might be shot, no briefs or pleadings accepted. For many fighters, military justice is an oxymoron.

Atrocities: Summary execution may claim many soldiers, but that hardly marks the end of wartime brutality. Combat soldiers must be aggressive to survive, they soldier on under unfathomable stress, and they usually demonize their enemy and his homeland. Give rabbles of heavily armed men who have been psychologically traumatized anything like unrestricted access to defenseless women, children and men, they too often run amok. When the only ethical rule is that “might makes right,” the mighty can commit unspeakably terrible acts. Rampaging soldiers indulge in wanton murder, torture, and countless rapes. They pillage and kill without restraint. The terrible scenes from the Rape of Nanjing in late 1937, the Russian onslaught around Berlin in 1945, or American GIs in My Lai recall fragments of a wide-scale horror. Even worse, as in the firebombing of Dresden in February 1945, killing roughly 25,000 people, or the two atomic bombs that summer, civilians suffer or die by the tens of thousands.

Related to atrocities, but slower moving, is mistreatment in prisoner of war camps. By Victory in Europe Day, there were more than 370,000 POWs from the Third Reich being held on American soil. Other camps housed more than 51,000 Italian and 5,000 Japanese prisoners according to Military History Now. The conditions in those camps were unpleasant but not deliberately deadly. Elsewhere during World War II and earlier wars (notably the Civil War in the United States), if defeated or surrendered soldiers survived battlefield dispatch, too many of them endured torture, starvation and disease: Andersonville, the Hanoi Hilton, the Bataan Death March, Abu Ghraib in Iraq, Guantanamo and waterboarding … endless cruelty.

Rules of War: “All’s fair in love and war,” but even in war, actions have been banned, at least by international agreement. Violations are common, but the international community has set standards for the treatment of people swept up by armed conflicts. Perhaps the best known is the Geneva Convention, a series of international agreements regarding the humane treatment of wounded or captured military personnel, medical personnel and non-military civilians during armed conflicts. The agreements originated in 1864 and were significantly updated after World War II.

The Chemical Weapons Convention is another multilateral treaty. It bans chemical weapons and requires their destruction within a specified period of time. Still, despite condemnation, Syria has unleashed chemical weapons and illegal cluster bombs. Mustard gas has been sprayed in many wars during the 20th century by countries including Italy (1935), Japan (1936), and Egypt (1963–1967). It was widely used by Iraq during the war with Iran between 1983 and 1988. Dum Dum bullets have been banned since the first Hague Conventions of 1899 because they cruelly expand or flatten when they hit the body. Napalm remains permitted against military targets, despite the awful burns it causes.


Manet’s raw depiction of a military sentence being carried out reminds us that soldiers serve under specialized legal systems, they exact revenge and rampage during atrocities, despite the international community having tried, with partial success, to outlaw the most egregious weapons and actions.

If you are interested in further thoughts on the concept “Soldiers,” consider other subthemes that don’t fit as directly to the poem, painting, rock song, and movie written about in this series. For an overview, this article explains Themes from Art or click on the navigation bar, “About.”

We invite you to read about other paintings discussed on this blog, and their themes. Here they are:

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