Army of Thieves and Whores
What do you want me to do, sir? Hedley Lamarr:
I want you to round up every vicious criminal and gunslinger in the west. Take this down
[Taggart looks for a pen and paper while Hedley talks] Hedley Lamarr:
I want rustlers, cut throats, murderers, bounty hunters
, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits
, vipers, snipers
, con men
, Indian agents, Mexican bandits
, muggers, buggerers
, bushwhackers, hornswagglers, horse thieves
, bull dykes
, train robbers
, bank robbers
, shit-kickers, and Methodists! Taggart:
[finding pen and paper] Could you repeat that, sir
An army of thieves and whores is a military force made up of the lowliest dregs of society. There's slaves, beggars, prostitutes (and their kids
), robbers, criminals, outcasts, lawyers, renegades, carnies, backstabbers, and in general everybody you wouldn't expect to see in a proper army.
Generally, these guys will be the heroes, because Underdogs Never Lose
. In most cases, they're some sort of rebel army
opposing their imperial oppressors
, who will of course be well-ordered, disciplined, and often respectable
. There may also be a theme of uniting the downtrodden to stand against their oppressors.
The French Foreign Legion
is often characterized this way, both in fiction and real life.
Less optimistic portrayals will feature "penal battalions" where criminals and the dregs of society such as thieves and whores will be conscripted into the military and sent out as cannon fodder
, or at least be Trading Bars for Stripes
. See also Boxed Crook
In Real Life
, assembling them into a properly trained army
had been a rather hard task not only for reasons of literacy or discipline, but also due to the spread of chronic disease in a population with poor or no access to medical care and proper feeding and living conditions. A recruit from the poorest class in the Victorian Era
could be expected to have either latent tuberculosis
, syphilis, gonorrhea, bone diseases, or, worse, all of them together
, and in crowded military camps germs are easily spread. (The ordinary peasant recruit of the State army was not much healthier either. The British Army Medical Corps found out in 1899 the majority
of recruits were unfit for combat, even by the low standards of the time.)
See also Ragtag Bunch of Misfits
for a smaller-scale version. Contrast the Carnival of Killers
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Anime and Manga
- The prisoners from the Impel Down escape in One Piece.
- In Naruto, Corrupt Corporate Executive Gato uses an army of mercenaries and thugs to keep a leash on the general populace in the Land of Waves. When he betrays Zabuza and tries to kill him with said army, Conservation of Ninjutsu kicks in.
- The Black Dog Knights of Berserk were made up of the worst criminals of all of Midland. They were so bad that they were sent to a distant prison on the border of the kingdom for their war crimes.
- Askeladd's mercenary band in Vinland Saga consists of dregs and raiders who couldn't even find a lord to serve. Thorkell's band is more of a Blood Knight version, consisting of veteran warriors united in their admiration of their commander and their desire to find a good fight. The two eventually come to blows. Askeladd's group rebels against him, leading Thorkell to kill them all.
- The name comes from the rebel army raised against the tsar in Nikolai Dante, which does indeed consist mostly of robbers, prostitutes, pirates, and various people the tsars have trodden on.
- Norm MacDonald's character from Dirty Work at the end has a crack team assembled of senior citizens, homeless dudes, and "my loyal army of prostitutes", the latter two of which counted as a Chekhov's Gun each.
- Hedley Lamarr organizes one of these for the climactic battle in Blazing Saddles. This is, as the page quote suggests, an evil version.
- The slave army in Spartacus qualifies as this trope. In this case, however, the army loses.
- In RoboCop 3 McDaggett, the boss of OCP's armed force, orders the police to assist in evicting by force the populace of an entire district. The officers refuse and resign en masse. McDaggett decides the city's lowlives will do just fine, and proceeds to assemble a small army of them and attack. They're quite successful against the armed resistance thanks to being equipped with body armor and heavy weapons (plus OCP had a tank), but then Robocop shows up and slaughters the lot.
- In xXx: State of the Union, to counter the treasonous General Ripper's highly trained team of Marines, Darius gathers the local car-jacking outfit and arms them with weapons (then a tank they jacked). It's even lampshaded: "The fate of the free world in the hands of a bunch of hustlers and thieves."
- Gaius Marius' legion in Emperor: The Gates of Rome is viewed by the more conservative Romans due to Marius abolishing the land requirement for entry, bringing in numerous poor citizens who otherwise would have had no means of supporting themselves. And they love him for it. In the second book, Spartacus' slave army also qualifies.
- Since Marius also appears the the Masters of Rome series, his legion fulfills a very similar role, and plays a key role in the first book.
- Temujin's (Genghis Khan's) forces in Wolf of the Plains starts out as one of these, as he initially builds up his forces by recruiting the various outcasts and nomads who would otherwise have nobody to stand with.
- The Night's Watch in A Song of Ice and Fire are like this; most of its members are criminals whose crimes were pardoned in return for joining, and many of the willing volunteers are misfits of some sort. Most people in Westeros consider service on the Wall to be essentially a glorified penal colony. After thousands of years without even seeing The Others they're supposed to defend the Wall from, the Night's Watch has become ridiculously underfunded, to the point that of the 19 forts in the Wall, they can barely man 3 of them by the time the story begins. In A Storm of Swords, some local prostitutes help the Night Watch fight off a Wildling onslaught, making this a quite literal example of the trope. Though granted, many of the Northern houses still know that the Wall is important and look at taking the black as an honorable thing, unlike the southern lands of Westeros.
- In one of the Spellsinger novels, the communist dragon Falameezar rallies the world's rats and mice to rise up against oppression.
- In Un Lun Dun, Deeba's army of rebels starts with the... extreme shoppers, and works its way up from there.
- Michael Moorcock's short story To Rescue Tanelorn. Narjhan raises an army of beggars from Nadsokor and leads them to attack the city of Tanelorn.
- Phule's Company has the Omega Company. In the Space Legion in general asking about a recruit's past is a big taboo, and "Omega" is the unofficial "dumping ground" for commanders willing to get rid from recruits they deem unsuitable. Their own sergeant noted that the result "looks more like a schoolyard" and "separated the problem Legionnaires into two groups: the wimps and the hard cases". That is, either unable to function in an army (or society in general) or inveterate criminals. Then the protagonist business shark promoted to command this mob thought it's not as bad as it looks...
Phule: It's been done before. Specifically the Devil's Brigade... the first Special Service force, which eventually became...
Beeker: The Special Forces. Yes, I'm familiar with the unit. If I might point out, however, that was a joint U.S.-Canadian force. At the beginning, the Americans provided a motley assortment of rejects and criminals, as opposed to the Canadians, who donated a crack fighting unit. While you definitely have your allotment of criminals, I fear you're lacking the offsetting crack fighting unit to serve as an example.
- In Saga Of Darren Shan, the vampeze get around their strict refusal to use projectile weapons by hiring human thugs and cutthroats. Debbie and Alice eventually come up with the idea for the vampires to join forces with humans for the same purpose. Those humans mostly end up being homeless people. It's justified because those are the people the vampeze are feeding off of, so they're only too happy to have a shot for revenge.
- Much of the British Army in the Peninsula as seen in Sharpe—hence Wellington's quote below under Real Life.
- Victoria's newborn army in Twilight. She basically turned whoever she could find. It doesn't work.
- The army John brings to fight the Crusades in Dirge for Prester John. They're the cream of Pentexore, but they have no idea how to form an actual army.
- Played with in the Roman army in Belisarius Series. While it clearly has quite a few elements of this in it, and sometimes requires rigorous persuasion from Belisarius to keep them from indulging in war crimes, when put to it they can also act in an honorable enough manner to impress Rajputs.
- The Black Company is one of these. It was standard practice for the Free Companies not to ask questions about who you were or what you did before you joined up.
Religion and Mythology
- In Christian metaphor The Church sometimes compared to this, as every member is a repentant sinner; and sometimes at one time a literal thief or a whore.
- The Lost and the Damned in the Warhammer 40,000 universe are a villainous (well, more villainous than usual) version — they make up various Chaos armies, and are composed of mutants, murderers, heretics, and assorted scum of the Empire.
- From the same universe, the Imperial penal legions follow this trope straight, being armies primarily conscripted from the inmates of Imperial prisons. When the Planetary Defense Force contributions to the Imperial Guard from worlds that serve as incarceration centers, the line between "penal legion" and "Guardsmen" become indistinct.
- Most Penal Legions are formed of people that are desperately trying to clear their records by volunteering instead of accepting execution; given that the P Ls are sent to some of the worst parts of the fighting and are considered expendable, this often ends in Redemption Equals Death. It's worth noting that there is no shortage of capital offences in the Imperium (this is an army where you can wind up executed for standing on the same planet as a heretic) so it's not uncommon for people to be eligible for induction into a Penal Legion for some really odd reasons, to our sensibilities.
- The now discontinued Salvar Chem Dogs. An Imperial Guard regiment consisting entirely of drug addicts, thieves and psychopathic thugs, who are kept in check only by their addictions and promises of large quantities of their fix.
- I don't suppose the Dark Eldar would count?
- Dungeons & Dragons adventure CM1 Test of the Warlords. The domain ruler Longtooth has "Longtooth's Legion", an army of five hundred thieves armed with bows and swords.
- Exalted has the Vermillion Legion-or, as it had every reason to be called, "The Red-Piss Legion". Had, as thanks to Lady of War Tepet Ejava, it's now a Badass Army. Which is a very good thing, as she's the nice candidate for the throne of the Realm.
- The Capitol faction of Mutant Chronicles has two flavours. The traditional one is the Freedom Brigades, which consists of volunteers willing to trade ten years of brutal service in the solar system's worst hellholes for a clean rap sheet and Capitol citizenship. The other flavour is the Free Marines, Capitol's most famous special forces outfit. In order to be eligible for the Free Marines, you have to have served for at least two years in another special forces unit, been decorated for gallantry under fire at least three times, been recommended for promotion, and been sentenced to death by a court martial.
- The Vampire: The Requiem supplement Requiem For Rome has the Peregrine College, a collection of the vampiric underclass.
- In The Gamers Alliance, the Union Workers has an army of well-trained thieves, mages, assassins and the like.
- The British Army of the Napoleonic era. Almost entirely made up of the lowest orders of society anyway, convicted criminals made up perhaps a third of the manpower. Their commander in the Peninsular Wars, Sir Arthur Wellesley (perhaps better known by his later title as the Duke of Wellington), described them as "the scum of the Earth". Though he also added, "It is only wonderful that we should be able to make so much out of them". He was right — they overlapped with Badass Army.
- Wellesley is also reputed to have said, "I don't know what effect these men will have on the enemy, but by God, they terrify me."
- "Convicted criminals" in Wellington's army, though, often included debtors, poachers, petty thieves, and others whose crimes were either minor by modern standards or were committed because the perps were down on their luck. It is harder to estimate how many actually would have been hardened professional criminals.
- The French Royalist army was a deconstruction of this. After the Revolution the Republican government controlled all the manpower available and the Royalists had to recruit from mercenaries and not the best of mercenaries from contemporary accounts. Interestingly the most effective Royalists were partisans like the counterrevolutionaries of the Vendee; these were usually peasants who had their own grudge against the new government.
- The Argentinian navy in the 19th Century was something of this. In fact, because most of the convicts that comprised his crews wouldn't remember the sails names, but were experts at card games, Admiral Brown had the sails renamed to cards names.
- The Dirlewanger Brigade of the Waffen-SS from World War 2. The unit was originally made up of poachers, but was ultimately ranked with any criminals or mental patients the SS could find. Even the rest of the SS was disgusted with them, though that said, their "disgust" was probably based not so much on their behavior as the fact that the brigade was made up of a large number of people who the SS would normally have gassed or shot. Their actions were heinous but "the rest of the SS" was up to genocide, so they were probably considered at worst a reflection of the kind of barbarity they would expect from such a bunch, rather than the other kind of professional and civilized barbarity practiced by themselves. ** SS General Friedrich-Wilhelm Krüger (a man who never had any qualms against organizing genocide in Poland): "Unless this bunch of criminals disappears from the General Government within a week, I will go myself and lock them up!"
- The "Ever Victorious Army", at least in its earliest incarnation. Formed in 1860 in Shanghai during the Taiping Rebellion, the initial force was recruited by Frederick Townsend Ward (and his backers) mainly from Europeans present in Shanghai, the "scum of the Shanghai docks": Beached sailors, mercenaries, criminals, deserters and expatriates. Those who survived and stuck around became the officer corps for an army of several thousand Chinese soldiers, and this army of dockside scum grew and evolved into possibly the most veteran, well-drilled, and tactically innovative fighting force of the period, first under Ward's leadership, and then under Charles George "Chinese" Gordon.
- Before Sun Tzu earned his fame, he was given a test from the King: turn 180 concubines into a small army. He pulled it off, though he had to punish some of his officers before they would take him seriously.
- The American Continental Army started out as this. It was made of people who didn't have any experience of warfare, who didn't have any strong officers who could inspire strong discipline among them, many of them deserted the "army" to go back to their families and farms and didn't return in weeks. It suffered from lack of food, uniforms and ammunition, bad language and diseases were infecting the army so hard that hardened Seven Years' War veterans were shocked by it, most of the soldiers only fought the revolution half-heartly, alcohol was consumed in great volumes, etc. It's said that when George Washington got to see the "army" he had accepted command of, he had a Heroic BSOD for half a hour before he started cleaning it up.
- In some cases, ironically, the problem of the Continental Army was the reverse. New Englanders at least were small farmers and storekeepers who were to well aware of their dignity as middle class folk to take to military discipline and needed a commander who could work with their cultural eccentricities before they became effective. Historian Fred Anderson draws a picture of that in several of his books.
- This in fact has often been the make up of armies throughout history. Military life in the ranks was just to distasteful for someone to volunteer for it that didn't find civilian life just as hard unless he was motivated by ideology. When there was no ideological reason and no Barbarian Tribe nearby to recruit from, what you are going to end up with is an Army of Thieves and Whores. Until recently the pay was simply not good enough to attract respectable people, unless they were from nobility; which of course sometimes had ancestors who were part of an Army of Thieves and Whores.
- By the end of the Thirty Years' War, every army involved.