66 Suits: On the Armor of the Parthians

When I’m forced to write about a subject that is completely unfamiliar to me – and worse, on a subject with no obvious contemporary equivalent – I can’t help but to look ahead to the next topic. Tomorrow’s essay on “books” is in the Montaigne canon, and I’m already thinking of ways to include David Foster Wallace into the conversation (having bought the ebook version of “The Pale King,” I have to wait until April 15 to read it – apparently those who buy the hardcover from Amazon and Barnes & Noble will start getting their copies in the mail today. Bookstores are not pleased with this embargo breaking.)

But, I can’t get ahead of myself. Today’s topic is armor. Yesterday, Jenny and I talked about the various ways people misspell armoire in Craigslist ads and armor seems like the most popular option. Misspelling a product for sale on Craigslist seems like a remarkably stupid thing to do – there are so many ads that come in during the course of the day that the only way to effectively shop for something is to search by product name. So the only way Mr. Armor is going to sell his armoire is if someone actually went looking for a suit of arms, but then had an epiphany that a huge, heavy cabinet was a better use of his funds.

Actually, there’s a surprising amount of full body armor for sale on Craigslist. This one, for example, looks like something out of The Dark Knight. Here’s a more traditional product – on sale for $1500. And you seem to get a complete medieval armory in the deal.

I better stop now, otherwise this essay is going to devolve quickly into Andy Rooney territory. Montaigne didn’t like the fact that French noblemen of his day didn’t don their armor until shortly before the battle was engaged:

The vile and thoroughly enervating practice of our noblemen today is never to don their armour until the very last second when absolutely necessary, and to throw it off as soon as there is the slightest sign of the danger being past. This results in chaos. What with everyone rushing about calling for his armour at the very moment of the attack, some are still lacing up their breast-plates after their companions have already been routed.

I had a similar experience at work today – I had to give a presentation this afternoon and couldn’t pick up my suit until I was on the way to work, so I came into the office in jeans and a sweater. However, I agree with Montaigne, it would have been poor form for me to walk around all day in grungewear, then getting into the suit shortly before the event. Part of the preparation for a speech is getting into character and I simply couldn’t do it dressed casually.

Of course, many presenters today are following the Steve Jobs model and not dressing up for their speeches. The idea is to be de-emphasize yourself and let the product be the star. As someone who had to wear suits to high school debate competitions in the early 80s, it just seems wrong to me. But Montaigne might approve of the trend:

Although we do see a man killed occasionally for want of armour, we hardly find fewer who were killed because they were encumbered by it, slowed down by its weight, rubbed sore or worn out by it, struck by a blow glancing off it, or in some other way. It would seem indeed, given the weight and thickness of our armour, that we have no thought of anything but defending ourselves, and that we are not so much covered as laden with it.

Or, in modern public speaking speak, if the suit makes you uncomfortable, you won’t be at your best onstage. The business suit might protect you from audience judgments, but it can also drain you of personality.

The invention of gunpowder was already, in Montaigne’s day, changing the rules of warfare and he predicted that it would lead to a whole new class of defensive garb for soldier to wear:

Now that our musketeers are so highly prized, I think that we will discover some new invention to wall us up against them, making us drag ourselves off to war enclosed in little forts such as those which the Ancients made their elephants carry.

True, but it actually took centuries for the modern flak jackets and body armor to become useful enough to wear. The First World War answer to the lethality of small arms was trench warfare. It’s really only been in the post-Vietnam era where protective gear has started to have some renewed value.

To close, Montaigne makes a case for military men who are hardened and who lack the desire for more comfortable quarters. That man sure loved the Spartans:

It is wonderfully instructive in this connection that a Spartan soldier was criticized for having been seen sheltering in a house while on a military expedition: they were so trained to hardship that it appeared shameful to be seen sheltering beneath any roof but the sky, no matter what the weather. Scipio the Younger, when he was reforming his army in Spain, commanded his soldiers to eat only on their feet and to eat nothing cooked. We would not get our men to go very far at that rate!

As an aside, the only fighters who share those characteristics today are guerillas and terrorists. But we’re not supposed to say that in the West … terrorists are always referred to as cowards. As opposed to nations that fire off Tomahawk cruise missiles at just more than $1 million per shot.

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