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July 29, 2005

Discouraging Lessons From Imperial Spain


by William S. Lind

In the 16th century, Europe was devastated by wars of religion, a fact that gives that unhappy time some relevance to our own. The foremost soldier and commander in 16th-century Europe was the duke of Alba. An excellent new biography of the duke by Henry Kamen offers some less than encouraging lessons.

In the 1560s, Spain faced a minor revolt in the Netherlands, which were then controlled by the Spanish crown. Hundreds of Catholic churches were sacked and desecrated by mobs of Calvinists. Philip II of Spain decided to send an army, commanded by the duke of Alba – despite the fact that by spring 1567, the Netherlands' regent had put the rebellion down. In effect, Philip and Alba embarked on a "war of choice," against the advice of both local authorities and many of Philip's counselors.

The duke of Alba's arrival in Brussels on Friday, Aug. 22, 1567, at the head of an army of 10,000 men – it was the first to follow the famous "Spanish Road" – created a problem where none existed. Henry Kamen writes,

"The duke of Alba, observers guessed, was there to restore order, arrest dissidents and check the growth of heresy. But the situation, according to Margaret of Parma (the Regent), was under control, so why was an army needed? It was in any case the first time that heresy in another country had ever appeared to be a concern of the Spanish crown. "

Once Alba got himself settled, he began arresting Flemish aristocrats, including some of those who had helped Margaret suppress the previous year's rebellion. King Phillip wrote to Alba in November 1567, "you have a free hand." He did so despite some excellent advice from Friar Lorenzo de Villavicencio, who had lived in the Netherlands.

"The situation, Villavicencio insisted to the king, could not be resolved with an army. Nor must force be used against the Netherlanders, for that would unite them all against Spain. … 'Don't let Your Majesty be persuaded that the Flemings are beasts and drunks, for they are human beings and if not so now they will be so one day, standing together and in their own land and with neighbors who will help them; and even if they kill one of ours and we kill ten of theirs, in the end they will finish us.' Spaniards could not be allowed to govern in the country, 'for they neither know the language nor understand the laws and customs.'"

Philip and Alba ignored this advice; Alba's motto was "Hombres muertos no hazen guerra" – dead men make no war. His army did what armies do, kill people and break things, and the result was a string of local victories. By the summer of 1570, Kamen writes,

"Alba felt he could congratulate himself on having achieved what no other general in history had ever achieved: the pacification of a whole province, 'and without losing a single man, because I can assure you that in the two campaigns barely a hundred soldiers died.'"

But that wasn't the end of the story. The Dutch rebels adapted in a way the Spanish had never imagined: they based themselves where no Spanish troops could reach them, at sea. On April 1, 1572, the Sea Beggars, as the maritime rebels called themselves, seized the offshore port of Brill. On April 14, the prince of Orange called on the Dutch people to revolt against "cruel, bloodthirsty, foreign oppressors," and they did. The resulting war would last for 80 years and result in Dutch independence and Spanish ruin.

As to the duke of Alba himself and his policies in the Netherlands, the best summary was offered by his successor there, Luis de Requesens. As Henry Kamen quotes him,

"All I know is that when he came to this post he found the disturbances in them settled and no territory lost, and everything so quiet and secure that he could wield the knife as he wished. And by the time he left all Holland and Zealand was in the power of the enemy, as well as a good port of Guelderland and Brabant, and all the opinion of these provinces, with the finances wholly ruined. "

Whether this epitaph will apply equally well to America's invasion of Iraq, time will tell. But it is all too possible that the Middle East will end up being America's Netherlands. In any event, I somehow doubt that history will accept the Bush administration's Newspeak name for the invasion of Iraq, "Operation Iraqi Freedom." Might "Operation Duke of Alba" be a more credible substitute?


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  • William Lind is Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation. He is a former Congressional Aide and the author
    of many books and articles on military strategy and war.

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