New Worlds: Raiding for Fun and Profit

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Just as there are different kinds of army, there are also different kinds of battle that army could be fighting — in part because there are different goals they might be trying to accomplish.

On an immediate level, of course, a battle is about killing people. (Also capturing and so forth, but if that were the primary goal, we’d fight with things like lassos and nets, not swords and guns.) But while sometimes a clash is driven by sufficient hatred that the death of the other side is the larger goal as well, generally speaking, war is expensive enough that you want to get more out of it than just a pile of corpses. And what you’re trying to get is one of the factors that shapes what type of battle you’ll be fighting.

Probably the most common type of battle across all of history is the raid. This is a small-scale and fast-moving assault that aims to get in and get out again, often without actually confronting enemy forces, because “defeat the other side” is not the primary goal. Raiding is common because it doesn’t require much: you and a few of your buddies or cousins could make up the entirety of a raid. You don’t need conscription or an officer corps or complex logistics to support your operation. Raiding is something even hunter-gatherers can do (and frequently did), but sedentary populations have engaged in it a lot as well.

Because it’s small and quick, a raid is most likely to happen at a border, where you can get into enemy territory and back out again before they muster a larger response to crush you. But the border doesn’t have to be a foreign one; internal borders can count, with one landowner raiding another deep inside the territory of their shared state. Mind you, it’s not good when that happens: it means the state has internecine conflict that the top authority can’t or for some reason won’t quash. In Legend of the Five Rings, where the game’s structure is based heavily on conflicts between clans within Rokugan, there’s a handwavy attempt to justify this as “the emperor wanting the clans to make themselves stronger by fighting,” but that falls apart when you consider the destruction to things like revenue-producing fields (not to mention revenue-producing farmers). If the government can prevent internal raiding, it generally will — let your warriors sharpen themselves against external enemies insteads.

What can you do with a small-scale, fast-moving group? You can take stuff. Portable valuables qualify; if you’re the Vikings, you might then turn around and ransom those valuables back to their original owners. (Vikingr actually means raider. Although we talk about everybody in the Viking Age as a Viking, not all Norse people of that era were raiders.) But a lot of raiding is done for loot you don’t even have to carry, because it will come with you on the hoof: in other words, livestock. After the introduction of horses to North America, horse-raiding became a huge pastime among the mounted Plains tribes; cattle-raiding was so important in ancient Ireland that the text now considered a national epic is called the Táin Bó Cúailnge, a.k.a. The Cattle-Raid of Cooley. Human captives count, too, with raids explicitly being organized for the purpose of capturing slave fodder.

You can also wreck stuff. You see this a lot when the longer-term goal is to drive the people away: sure, you could murder them, but intimidation tactics may be less risky, inviting less all-out reprisal. Burn their barns, burn their fields, slaughter their livestock instead of stealing it; in time they may decide the trouble and misery aren’t worth it, and go somewhere else. But among hunter-gatherers, raids are more likely to be intentionally lethal, because there’s relatively little in the way of wealth for you to steal (and no market to sell it on) and relatively little infrastructure for you to target. You want access to the wild resources in another band’s territory, and the only way to secure that access is to kill or scare off the people. And he best way to scare them off is to kill a lot until the survivors run away.

Raids can also serve a purpose within a larger military framework. You see this particularly around logistics, i.e. the supply of food and materials to an organized army. For any large or lengthy campaign prior to the advent of motorized transport, it’s difficult to supply them fully from home, which means that further resources have to be extracted from the region the army is in. Ideally (from the standpoint of that army) this happens without overt violence, but when the peasantry resists or terrorizing them is part of the plan, there’s no meaningful difference between military requisition and brigands tearing a village apart.

Plus, armies can raid each other. Yes, they may also fight direct battles — circumstances don’t usually allow you to raid your enemy to death — but hey, if the way you replenish your stocks of food, equipment, and money is by stealing them from the other guy, awesome! Or if you can’t steal them, then as above, you just destroy them. The risk of this happening is why armies have to detail some of their forces to protect the baggage train, and why accounts of wars often feature anecdotes of thus-and-such army being weakened or even defeated because somebody hit them in the soft logistical underbelly. Mechanized transport doesn’t remove this peril: the Russian invasion of Ukraine is still ongoing as I write this, complete with tales of agile Ukrainian raids against Russian logistics.

But the thing about raiding parties is, they’re relatively fragile. If their targets are ready for them instead of caught unaware, the risk-to-reward ratio can tip far enough to make the enterprise not worthwhile. Even a simple fortification like a palisade of sharpened stakes can slow down a raid enough for those inside to muster a defense. If larger armies are around, any raiding party that runs afoul of one is basically toast, unless they’re fast enough to outrun the enemy.

Which is why, over time, societies have developed other approaches to warfare. In particular, if your target is going to protect itself with fortifications, then you need a way to overcome those.

So next week, we’ll talk about sieges.

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3 thoughts on “New Worlds: Raiding for Fun and Profit”

  1. Scottish legend claims that William Wallace and Robert the Bruce were able, in part, to drive the English out of Scotland because it simply became too expensive to continue occupying the land. The Scots routinely burned all their crops and drove their livestock into the Highlands rather than succumb to English rule. The armies had nothing left to forage and supply lines became far too vulnerable to raiders.

    In the border lands between Scotland and England, cattle are refered to as being “black”. Not because of their color. Mostly Highland Cattle are reddish brown. They are call black because they are mostly stolen.

    1. “Make it more trouble than it’s worth” is a time-honored tactic for wearing down occupiers and invaders, yep. And that’s definitely a notorious border for raiding activity.

  2. Two other objectives of raiding matter:

    Information. Sometimes this is an armed reconnaissance, just to see what’s there; sometimes (especially when dealing with an unfamiliar opponent, nationally or leadership-wise) this is to see how the opponent reacts to a threatening hostile force; sometimes this is to steal more-intangible things like “a technology they have that we don’t” (substitute magical resources, too) or “see how good the enemy’s Stuff really is.” In this sense, every overhead reconnaissance flight (dragonback, balloon, airplane, broomstick, whatever) is a “raid.”

    Specific individuals, whether by position/rank or by name. Grabbing a significant enemy leader can provide both information and leverage, not to mention impair the enemy’s response to other efforts. Or goad the enemy into something especially stupid.

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