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Letting the Troops Loose: Pillage, Massacres, and Enslavement in Early Tang Warfare

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By analyzing examples ranging from the Sui-Tang transition to the An Lushan Rebellion, I argue that in a practice known as “letting the troops loose,” Tang generals frequently rewarded their officers and soldiers (and themselves) for a victory with the freedom to seize the wives, children, and property of the defeated with impunity, and to kill any who resisted. Attempts to censure or prosecute the generals responsible were rare and usually overruled, because military morale was seen as a higher priority than discipline or humaneness. Tang generals were also authorized to massacre surrendered enemy soldiers and conquered civilians for a range of strategic purposes. Moreover, taking slaves from a defeated population was a common prerogative among generals and officers even when an army was not “let loose.” When generals refrained from pillage, massacres, and enslavement, therefore, this was usually for reasons that were pragmatic and strategic, not moral or legal.

Affiliations: 1: Denison University


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