by Keith Morrison
©2008 Keith Morrison
War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothin
yeah, right. Go tell that to the Carthaginians.
Anyway, this isnt going to get into a philosophical discussion about war and conflict, right or wrong. I want to talk a bit about war as it relates to fiction. If youre an author writing about armed conflict, there are some issues you really should bear in mind, ranging from the political to the economic to the personal. As Ive said before, thinking about realism makes fiction both more consistent and more interesting.
For starters, why are these people fighting in the first place? Actually, thats a two-part question. There is a difference between why groups go to war and why individuals go to war, even if the individuals are fighting at the behest of the groups. Its a distinction that many writers get wrong, not to mention commentators discussing actual wars. Quite often, the reason why someone marches off to war is very different from the rationale for the war itself. And for an example, Ill use a very good one that shows these differences: The US Civil War.
For the South, the war was ultimately fought to preserve slavery. I can hear the howls of denial already, but dont kid yourselves: One issue, and one issue only, was the reason the country split. Just for the moment, consider that as a given. Now, was preserving slavery the reason why most Confederate soldiersthe vast majority of whom didnt own slavesmarched to the sound of the guns? No. They did so for loyalty to their state (in an era when it was still more common to call yourself a Georgian or a Pennsylvanian or a Marylander first and an American second), because of peer pressure, because it would be a grand adventure, and/or because of a whole host of reasons that had nothing to do with what their government was willing to fight for. Similarly, Union soldiers volunteered for many of those exact same reasons, not necessarily to preserve the country.
Were there some soldiers who did join for the reasons their groups were at war? Of course; there always are. But given a group of Union and Confederate volunteer soldiers, and stripping away the propaganda for the consumption of the general public, the reasons why theyd enter battle were, generally speaking, the same reasons why Roman and Carthaginian soldiers would battle each other; or the British under Wellington; or the French under Napoleon; or the soldiers of the Wehrmacht who ended up fighting to the death against the soldiers of the Red Army at Stalingrad.
Mind you, theres also a difference between why soldiers join and why soldiers fight. This is a distinction that modern militaries are well aware of and exploit. Recruiting is all about grand themes like patriotism and serving your country and making the world a better place and protecting your freedom and getting training for your future. Training is all about small unit cohesion, about protecting your teammates, about encouraging that peer pressure to buck up and fight because your buddies are depending on you for their survival, just as you depend on them, about following orders because doing so is the best way of increasing the groups odds of survival. When you get to that level, soldiers often become indistinguishable on the battlefield, no matter the uniform they are wearing.
The point is that just because the black-clad hordes of the Evil Overlord are intent on overrunning the land and bringing the reign of Good Queen Sunshine to an end, that doesnt mean the Evil Overlords hordes must be composed of almost-as-evil minions who want to rape everything they come across and kick puppies. Barring things like mind control and artificially-created minions who have only one purpose (which change the rules so much that I wont bother talking about them), the black-clad soldier may very well not be all that different from the gold-and-silver-clad defender facing him at sword length. Both want to not look bad in front of their peers; both want to survive; and both want to go home when its over.
In fact, taking into account the different reasons why people decide to fight, the Evil soldier might be a farmer whos a good father and kind to his neighbors, and who originally joined up because he and the neighbors were sick of the Good army that constantly ruined their crops on the semiannual invasion to attack the Citadel of Darkness. Contrariwise, the Good soldier might be a near-sociopath who kills prisoners, has raped the odd young woman in newly-liberated lands, and was originally given the choice of the army or the dungeon by a judge.
Now that doesnt mean that you have to spend time making your invading horde sympathetic characters, especially if the only time you see them is when theyre on the battlefield (or if the defenders are all psychopaths). But if there are scenes where the protagonists encounter enemy soldiers, the enemy soldiers dont necessarily have to be engaged in baby-tossing contests or beating up old men for amusement. Being on the wrong side doesnt mean you have to be cartoonishly evil all the time.
One film, although a comedy, displays this reality rather well. Kellys Heroes ends with ordinary soldiers (well, perhaps not so ordinary in the case of Donald Sutherlands hippy-two-decades-before-there-were-hippies tank commander) on both sides uniting in their desire to grab the gold and get the hell out of the war. Karl-Otto Alberty, who plays the German tank commander, is the very model of the stereotypical Evil Nazi in his looks and attitude and actions in attempting to prevent the Americans from completing their mission until he finds out what hes been ordered to guard. And at that point, he becomes just as larcenous and willing to disobey authority as they are.
Another film Id recommend is The Enemy Below (which is, incidentally, the model for the Star Trek episode that introduced the Romulans). Both sides are presented as professional warriors who have to do a job. While that job involves killing each other, both regard it as an unfortunate necessity rather than something they take delight in, as the American captain expresses: I have no idea what he is, what he thinks. I don't want to know the man I'm trying to destroy.
Aboard the u-boat, similar things are going on. The commander knows hes not on the right side (and both he and the first officer are amused/annoyed/disgusted by another officer whos a dedicated Nazi and believer in Hitler), but he has a duty and he will carry it out. The differences between the two crews are then erased when both destroyer and submarine are sinking and the two crews, who were trying to kill each other just moments earlier, fight to save themselves against the sea and even unite to rescue the last men trapped on the sinking destroyer.
Remember: The enemy is also composed of people, and they are just as complex (although you might not see it) as the good guys.
So thats why people fight. Why do groups fight? The single biggest reason is economics. You have something I want, and Im willing to pay the price in blood and treasure for it, or you want to take it from me and I dont want to give it up. Women, land, livestock, slaves, sacrifices, gold, oil, water, whatever. Even many wars generally considered religious come down to actually being fought for material rather than spiritual demands. The Albigensian Crusade, for instance, wouldnt have been fought if Pope Innocent III hadnt bribed with the promise of land and riches controlled by the Cathars and/or sympathetic nobles that would be the reward for putting down the heresy. The Thirty Years War is simplistically described as a war that broke out between Protestants and Catholics, but all the religion did was provide an excuse for various powers in Europe to march for their own very worldly reasons.
The Pacific War is another example. Japan went to war for textbook economic reasons: They wanted to secure resources. The attack on Pearl Harbor wasnt because they wanted to conquer Hawaii, it was because the US presence in the Philippines threatened their shipping routes to the East Indies (once they took the resources in the East Indies). In order to take the Philippines they had to cripple the US military, thus the attack on US (and other nations) forces and territories was a preemptive strike to establish a defensive perimeter.
Second is religion/ideology. The First Crusade was primarily a religious war, to cite a classic example. The Aztecs engaged in wars constantly with their neighbors in order to secure prisoners who could be used for sacrifice. Quite often religious wars (or wars which religion is used as an excuse, such as the Albigensian Crusade) can be the nastiest types of conflict, because doing your deitys work can provide quite an excuse for indulging in ones baser drives. Kill them allGod will know his own gives one a lot of free rein.
Those arent the only reasons, of course, but the others tend to be further down the list.
Another issue to bear in mind is that two groups can be at war for quite different reasons. As I mentioned earlier, at the base of the US Civil War was slavery. In this war, the Confederate States seceded because they saw the institution of slavery as being threatened (remember, thats not why the soldiers fought, but why the governments fought); the Union fought, not to free the slaves, but to preserve the integrity of the larger country and because the South was stupid enough to shoot first. In WWII, Japan went to war to secure resources; the US went to war, not because they wanted those resources for themselves, but in revenge. Thats why the US didnt stop once theyd secured the territories theyd lost and why they fought with no real interest in acquiring new territory but, rather, to punish Japan and make sure it didnt happen again.
Because there are different reasons, there are different goals. Again back to the US Civil War: The Union goal could only be met by, essentially, the conquest of the South. The Union had to fight a strategically offensive war even though they were initially defending. The goal of the South, to defend slavery, required a strategically defensive war even though they were on the offensive and started the war. The South didnt have to win a military victory if they could somehow guarantee the protection of slavery. The North didnt need to get rid of slavery so long as the country reunited.
However, goals change. By the time Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, attitudes had hardened so that reunification was impossible so long as slavery existed. The only way the Confederacy could keep slavery was to stay out of the US, so the Union had to conquer the Confederate States (and by default eliminate slavery) to reunite the nation.
Another critical issue for the writer to bear in mind: Groups go to war for what they consider rational reasons. Oh, from the outside going to war over differences of opinion on abstract philosophical notions of who can speak for a deity might not seem rationalbut it is for the people involved, and so theyre willing to fight over it because its not abstract to them. Maybe my country has enough resources and land to comfortably support its populationbut that only means something if I believe it to be true: if I dont, I might be willing to fight for what I think I do need. If I think another country will attack me, I might attack them first even without solid evidence of that because I judge the risk high enough (even if no one else, including said country, agrees). Very few nations will go to war just because they can.
If youre going to be writing a story of epic war and great battles, you really should know why that war is being fought. In other words, you have to at least pay a little thought to grand strategy and geopolitics, and be able to answer the following questions. This isnt to say that it should come up in the story necessarily, but like much world-building, you should know the answer.
What are the goalsand have those goals changed during the conflict?
Are the combatants fighting for the same goal (to control a strategic area on the map, for example), or do they have different goals?
At what point does it become obvious that someone is the winner? Can there be a winner (Lets play Global Thermonuclear War!)?
Will winning the war be a pyrrhic victory for the side that does?
Most importantly, what are the consequences of losing? The US Civil War resulted in fairly quick reconciliation because on a personal level, most of the (white) combatants werent affected by slavery one way or the other. For the majority of the losers, life didnt change much. Similarly, a war between two feudal states in Europe meant that instead of swearing allegiance to Inbred Noble X, you might end up swearing allegiance to Inbred Noble Y; motivation like that yields minimal desire to fight to the bitter end. On the other hand, what if losing meant that youd end up laying on an altar while a priest ripped out your heart, or that everything you owned would be taken away, or that your life would be drastically changed by a change in government? That sort of thing tends to inspire a bit more steel in the spine, and wars for real stakes get appropriately meaner.
If you can answer those questions, youre well on the way to writing about people in situations where the reader will care what happens, as opposed to them yawning at fields of cardboard cutouts shooting at each other for no discernible reason other than a writer wanting to ejaculate a literary wargasm.