by Keith Morrison
©2011 Keith Morrison
To continue the recent columns of warfare and fighting, Im going to start off by making a statement that no doubt will have some of the people reading this (given where it is published) up in arms, but has to be stated nonetheless in order to get to my main point.
Humans are special.
Now theres obviously some anthropocentric bias in that statement given that Iand everyone reading this that Im aware ofhappen to be a member of the genus Homo, but Ill make the argument regardless because its relevant to the subject of physiology and why, before you can describe how your characters are going to fight, you need to consider how theyre built. The problem is when the author has clearly non-human characters, with non-human physiologies, conducting combat and warfare exactly the same way humans would. The main cause of this, I believe, is that the authors are human, so they dont consider what, for them, is a trivial thing, is unique to their species, and is something no other animal on the planet can do nearly as well, if at all.
And Im not necessarily talking about our intelligence, either, but our purely physical abilities. We humans are remarkably unique animals.
Lets start with a simple exercise. Take a balled-up piece of paperor anything at all, reallyand toss it toward a garbage can or other target. Unless you have really poor hand-eye coordination, the odds are youll hit it on the first try, or at least come reasonably close. Nothing else on this planet can do that. The ability to throw with a combination of accuracy and power, and to do so from almost any position in almost any direction, is a purely human ability. Not even our closest relatives can do it! Apes, monkeys and chimps can certainly toss things, but the best they can do is get it moving in the right general direction, and if you watch them throw youd note that they do so with the skill level wed ascribe to human infants. Actually hitting something would be pure dumb luck.
Theres two things going on there: The first is that our physiology, unlike that of any other animal in this planets history (save our own immediate ancestors), gives us the ability to do that. We have unmatched manipulative skills in our hands, mobile shoulders, and even big butts: for a hard throw, the entire body gets into it and the size and shape of our hip and upper leg muscles provide a critical component. The second is that we have an outstanding ability to instinctively calculate trajectories and automatically take that into account when launching our projectile at a target. So not only can we hit a target, we can hit a moving target, aiming and timing our throw so were throwing not where something is but where it will be. Obviously, the more practice the better, but its practicing and exercising an innate skill we already possess. As well, that means were good at catching things, because we can see a moving object and unconsciously calculate an intercept path, and also at dodging them to avoid an interception. Were so good at this sort of thing that we dont even need our hands and arms to do it, as anyone who has seen a professional soccer (football) game can attest.
But because this is simply so ordinary to the vast majority of us, we dont think about it. A game of dodgeball, or even a basic snowball fight, is a truly remarkable display of physical capabilities. If you take a look at many of our most sports and games, that capacity is actually astounding. Soccer, football, hockey, basketball, golf, baseball, curling, billiards, even marbles and drinking games like caps demand a level of coordination and skill that is utterly beyond what any other species on this planet can do.
Second example: Humans have phenomenal endurance. It might not seem so to a modern couch-potato society, but humans are the animal kingdoms equivalent of the Terminatorwe just keep going and we dont stop until the target is dead. This is called cursorial hunting; you see the antelope and you just keep chasing it until it drops from exhaustion. The antelope may be faster over the short term, but humans just keep jogging and walking after it until it physically cant take another step and is easily overcome. In a more military context, infantry can march cavalry into the ground over a sufficient period of time, provided the cavalry doesnt have enough remounts to give their horses rest on the move.
Third example: Humans are the quintessential generalists, remarkably flexible in what we can do and where we can do it. While there are unquestionably animals that do better in a given environment than humans, no animal has the ability to do better than humans in all the environments and situations we function in. A chimp and an orang-utan can certainly climb trees much better than we can, but when they face a river, theyre not going to be swimming across casually (if at all), and a long stroll across open ground isnt something theyd do very easily. A horse might outrun us, but it wont be climbing a tree to catch us or get away from us, and so on and so forth.
I bring all this up because our intrinsic physical capabilities are the fundamental basis of how weve learned how to fight and how we go to war, and if you have another creature with different physical abilities and evolution, by necessity theyre going to do things differently. This means that you simply cant take your horse-mounted knights, replace them with centaurs, and have everything else be exactly the same.
Lets assume, for instance, that your characters are evolved from an ambush-sprint predator like one of the big cats. The ancestors of such characters will have been creatures that stalked their prey and did a burst run to take them down. Over time they developed tools like blades to supplement claws and teeth, but they hunted pretty much the same way; sneak in slowly, close fast, and take down the prey with an overwhelming assault. What does that mean? Well, for one, theyre unlikely to have endurance. Great sprinters, lousy marathon runners. Thats going to have effects on their society; your stereotypical inns and villages wont be that far apart, because they just cant cover that great a distance at any one time.
Because of the way they hunted, its quite possible that they dont have the instinctive human feel for projectiles either. Even after they evolve into bipeds, their ability to throw might not be as great, and their hunting tactics make missile weapons unnecessary in any case. Pikes and swords, that they can do. Throwing spears and slings and arrows might be something they simply cant handle very well, and it might take until the advent of gunpowder before they had projectile weapons they could get their heads around. And forget about things like grenades, which would be just too damn dangerous to consider. Their primary tactical goal would be to sneak into position and then close fast, get within arms length as soon as possible, because thats what weapons theyve got.
Now take a gander at your classical centaur. Well assume that their human-type torso grants them human-type throwing capabilities, so thats a wash. Well even give the centaurs greater-than-human speed and endurance over flat ground. Greater size and strength, so they can wield bigger weapons with longer ranges. Sounds great, right?
Right! Until you ask them to climb a tree or sail a ship
Centaurs will not want to fight in rough terrain. Theyll loathe forests. Theyre not going to be scaling any battlements, mining under the enemy walls, or ascending the masts to adjust the sails before battle. Their fortifications wont be multi-story keeps, nor will they have high walls. Why? Because they cant use ladders, and any kind of steps or ramping would by necessity be much more space-consuming than something those weak humans could use to reach the same elevation. Creeks with steep banks that would be a minor nuisance to a bipedal infantry army on the march, will be damn near impassable barriers for centaurs without some creative engineering. Compared to humans, your centaur military is going to be very much concerned with choke points like fords and passes, and theyll be more reliant on infrastructure to deal with them.
Special operations might be something centaurs dont even consider, simply because they dont have the physical flexibility humans have. Swim quietly across a river to a fortress, scale the wall, sneak around the interior to scout it out, then climb back out to report? No problem for us walking, throwing, swimming primates. For someone with a horse for a butt? Not so much.
And, as I said, dont even think about naval operations. Let alone flying.
So, lets consider two hypothetical armies, felinoids and centaurs. Well give them both the same technology level, say pre-gunpowder; competent commanders, aware of the weaknesses and strengths of both sides; and put them at odds. What could we expect?
Well, the centaurs are going to want to operate in open terrain. Theyll know they have an advantage in projectile weaponry, and while they might be equal in sprinting they have the edge in endurance. They know the catboys can operate in a greater range of environments, thanks to their bipedalism, so the centaurs will try to avoid situations where that advantage can assert itself. Theres also a problem due to centaur anatomy: theyve got that long horse body thats vulnerable from the sides if they have to try and manoeuvre, whereas the felinoid bipeds are certainly more agile. If they get close enough for sword, theyre going to want to do so where their personal flanks are very much protected.
Ideally, then, the battle the centaurs want is one where they can face the enemy as cavalry: Nice, open terrain where they can mount horse-archer attacks, firing from outside the cats sprint ranges, drawing them open and, if necessary, hammering home as a solid wall of steel.
On the other side, the felinoids know that fighting the horseys in open ground in a face-to-face clash is insanethe centaur superiority in projectile weapons alone guarantees that. The felinoids need close-range fighting where they can strike at the enemys (literal) flanks, where they can attain local numerical superiority on separated units or individuals, allowing their greater manoeuvrability and tactical flexibility to come into play, in a situation where the advantage in projectile weaponry and open-ground endurance isnt applicable.
If this sounds familiar, well, as stated, the centaurs are cavalry, and will fight that way. The felinoids are going to be guerrillas and fight that way. Their physiologies are going to play a role in how they fight each other.
At this point, someone may argue that Im making all sorts of assumptions about their physical capabilities. Thats the point: I am. And those assumptions lead to certain probable outcomes in how these races fight. It doesnt matter if my assumptions are different from yours; any assumptions will have consequences of some kind, so your assumptions will have consequences that you should consider, especially if those assumptions make your characters significantly different from humans in physiology, let alone psychology. To be perfectly blunt, if you have a non-human character and theyre not thinking and doing things in a non-human manner, all youve done is take a human and put them in a furry or feathery suit. And then whats the point about writing about them instead of a regular human in the same situation?