In this essay, Montaigne talks about fighting dirty, and ponders over whether deceit is legitimate when one is at war. Most importantly, he asks whether we should trust the enemy who seems to want to negotiate.
A Roman king, looking to buy time, offered the possibility of a truce to the king of Macedon. Then, taking advantage of the lull, he fortified his troops and attacked. The elder senators disapproved; they felt battles should be won through bravery, not ‘artifice, surprises, and night-encounters; neither by pretended flight’, and that war should be proclaimed, and even the time and place of battle announced. These Roman ideas are very different from the Greican or Punic ones, where a victory does not lose any glory if it is won by fraud rather than force. The Roman senators had probably not heard the words of Aeneid, when he said, ‘What matters whether by valour or by strategm we overcome the enemy’
- The Achaians hated double-dealing, and thought war should be won with ‘good faith and dignity’; Cicero, echoes this sentiment, saying, ‘Whether you or I shall rule, or what shall happen, let us determine by valour.’
- In Ternate (‘amongst those nations which we so broadly call barbarians’) there is a custom never to commence war without forewarning. Then, they declare in advance the number of men in their army, their ammunition, and their intentions. Now, this being done, if their enemies do not ‘yield and come to an agreement’, they consider it lawful to use all means necessary to conquer.
-The ancient Florentines were so careful not to gain unfair advantage that they always gave a month’s notice before an attack.
We are ‘not so scrupulous in this affair.’ The honour of the war goes to whoever wins. Lysander says, ‘Where the lion’s skin is too short, we must eke it out with a bit from that of a fox.’ Thus, we are wary of surprise attacks, and feel that the commander must be circumspect if any kinds of offers of accommodations or truces are made. Thus, the governor of a place, should not go out to negotiate in times of siege. Or if he does, he should in such a way that ‘the safety and advantage should be on his side’. An example:
- Our Count Guido, went out to negotiate, but stayed so near his fort that when disorder erupted, he found himself in the stronger position.
Sometimes, of course, there are benefits to going out to negotiate. If one knows, for example, that they are on the verge of certain defeat, it makes sense to compromise.
I like to have trust in others, but in the situation where I were asked to negotiate, I would be hesitant, mainly because it may be construed that I have done so out of despair or a lack of courage rather than voluntarily, out of confidence and with faith in the person wishing to negotiate.