A Few Thoughts on War

There’s a doctrine in warfare known as proportional response. If one country seizes or destroys a ship of another country, the second country should respond on the same level, or perhaps escalate the response slightly. The second country shouldn’t do something “horrific,” like bombard or destroy an entire city. Except… sometimes that works, and then everyone speculates on why it shouldn’t have been done… even when such an act may have actually cost fewer lives than a continuing conflict.

In a limited logical fashion, proportional response makes sense, because a rapid escalation is hard on the people on one side for certain, and possibly for both sides, but that depends on the conflict and the cultures and demographics of the countries involved. Escalating proportional responses effectively lost the Vietnam War for the U.S. Given cultures and demographics, the U.S. had only two possible effective choices, although these choices are far clearer in hindsight than they were at the time. One was to realize that South Vietnam was a lost cause and make some sort of agreement with the north. The second would have been an immediate and total scorched earth attack on North Vietnam, which was deemed politically infeasible and could have escalated into a world-level conflict. By the time Nixon even thought of using overpowering aerial warfare, the war was effectively lost, even though the U.S. “won” almost all pitched battles, including the Tet Offensive.

One other lesson that comes out of studying warfare is that the military is almost always “fighting the last war,” particularly in times of social and technological change. There’s a reason for this. Tactics are developed based on available weapons and logistics, and upon past experience. When one side finds a way to use something new or apply something existing in a new fashion, there’s a time lag before the other side figures it out. And sometimes that time lag can be fatal.

In fantasy, of course, as authors we can war-game such doctrines, but one thing I’ve done that’s bothered some readers is that I’ve followed history with regard to innovation. What I mean by that is that when one side uses magic or technology in a new way, it takes the other side time to adjust… and they may never make the adjustment if they don’t have decent communications. First, they may not have heard about the innovations or tactics. Second, they may not believe what they’ve been told, or they may believe that they are different/better than previous commanders. Even though General Billy Mitchell showed that airpower could sink battleships in 1923, many U.S. admirals still didn’t really believe it would happen in a “real war,” until Pearl Harbor. And third, they may not have the time or training to change, even if they’re willing to change. The French army couldn’t adjust to the German blitzkrieg in time to keep France from falling.

I’ve also noticed, and maybe it’s just the books I’ve read, that “wars” in fantasy either tend to be heavy on blood, guts, grit, and action with all of the impact on the combatants…or treat war almost superficially. If history is any indication, war has impacts on all levels of society on both sides, even for the greatest of empires, and any empire that is devoting a significant percentage of its resources to continual warfare isn’t going to endure that long. Peace and prosperity prolong nations and empires, provided, of course, that the empire has a strong enough and talented enough military force to squelch small brushfire insurgencies or border incursions before they become a real threat.

8 thoughts on “A Few Thoughts on War”

  1. I’m super curious to know how you define “that long” and “significant percentage of its resources” given, you know, America. (no sarcasm intended!)

    1. The United States already falls in that category. Our infrastructure is in terrible shape, as is our power grid. We don’t tax the really wealthy enough to support both civilian and military government programs, but we don’t cut unnecessary military spending, such as outdated and largely unused bases and facilities. As a result, we’re printing money. To avoid paying real interest rates, we’ve manipulated the CPI and COL numbers, with the result that we’re faced with slower and slower growth, which makes it impossible to avoid increasing deficits.

  2. John Prigent says:

    I amused myself during lockdown by having a peaceful Saxon theover of most of southeas England,with the Romans having been called home but leavinf strong cultural influences. One such was the number of retired Centurions who’d married local women so stayed behind. When barbarians invaded the Saxon lands those men trained and led understrength Legions of Saxons, Romans, and Ancient Brits to defeat the vastly greater barbarian hordes. the Saxon (etc) leaders used what they knew of Legion tactics and recreated the Lorica Segmentata, while the barbarians used their traditional ‘scream and charge’ tactics and were wiped out. But I had BOTH sides employing ideas and tactics from previous wars with only one failing to realise that it needed to change.

  3. Tim says:

    The most famous disproportionate attack was of course the atomic bombing of Japan in WW2, and this was also the most successful as it stopped the war in the East.

    The attack on Libya using superior technology with all of the consequential political aftermath had an entirely different result.

  4. Sam says:

    Science Fiction & Fantasy (SF & F) exist in a space where they can act as metaphors or parallels for real world scenarios but also can present hypothetical scenarios and ethical dilemmas that cannot be easily mapped onto real world decision making.

    A animated fantasy series that I’ve been watching for the last couple of months introduced a war scenario that kicked off a huge debate in a forum I frequent about the ethics of the protagonist and whether he had crossed the line into becoming villainous/evil with his decision. A lot of the discussion brought up real world history and laws of warfare but the scenario presented in the series to my mind could not be easily mapped onto a real world scenario.

    The basic premise of the series early on was that the overpowered protagonist had built a small and peaceful nation – called Tempest – of fantasy creatures that are generally labelled monsters such as goblins and orcs. Whilst the protagonist was away from his nation it was attacked by an advance force from a neighbouring human kingdom that resented Tempest’s growing prosperity and it’s impact on the human kingdom’s ability to collect tariffs. Several hundred civilians including children were killed in this attack.

    When the protagonist returned to Tempest to discover the destruction that had occurred he was naturally enraged. He was also informed that the human kingdom’s main army of 20,000 was on it’s way to raze his nation to the ground and effectively commit genocide. Before the enemy army arrived the protagonist discovered a spell that would allow him to resurrect the civilians who had been massacred in the advance attack. However the cost of the spell was to sacrifice over 10,000 lives and use the souls of the sacrificed as fuel to resurrect his murdered people. So the protagonist decided to kill two birds with one stone. He used a massive spell to wipe out the invading army and used their souls to resurrect his murdered people.

    The arguments made about why the protagonist’s actions were evil/villainous were mainly that he had the power to drive off the invading army with out killing all of them and that he only killed them all as fuel for his spell. It wasn’t self-defence or defence of others. It wasn’t even really revenge although there definitely was some underlying anger at play. It was cold hard pragmatism with no regard for the sanctity of human life and no quarter given.

    Of course there’s never been a real world situation where a leader has had the opportunity to resurrect their murdered people at the expense of the lives of their enemy’s forces and there likely never will be. So I wonder is there any value in writing such a scenario or for that matter debating the ethics/morality of it?

    It’s certainly fun as an exercise in imagination and interesting to see different people’s perspectives on the subject but I’m not sure it has any real world value.

  5. Tom says:

    In a recent DW article …
    https://www.dw.com/en/joseph-beuys-centenary-exhibition-explores-the-function-of-art/a-57037258
    I did not recognize the artists name so I
    researched Beuys and came to conclusions which made me review the purpose of art. Interesting.

    So: writing is a form of art.

    [Art is a set of] artifacts or images with symbolic meanings as a means of communication. —Steve Mithen

    Arts … They furnish an aesthetic idea, which serves the above rational idea as a substitute for logical presentation, but with the proper function, however, of animating the mind by opening out for it a prospect into a field of kindred representations stretching beyond its ken. —Immanuel Kant

    Thus …” A lot of the discussion brought up real world history and laws of warfare but the scenario presented in the series to my mind could not be easily mapped onto a real world scenario.” … but, perhaps, the discussion was the writer’s goal.

    I would caution that what one human can imagine another human can make happen. We are very good at this in the US.

  6. Ryan Jackson says:

    I’ve noticed there’s generally two thought process to unproportionate response and they stem less from a moral or ethical standpoint and more on how well forward the person can think.

    To quote a character in a work by Tite Kubo “Only amateurs would risk victory for honor. Once a war breaks out, both sides are evil.”

    Similarly I’ve watch people’s response to Rhen in Imager and what he puts in place to stop a World War essentially is the equivalent of us dropping a nuke, if with less collateral.

    I’ve seen people angry with Rhen, or dismissive of how alone and hated he feels entirely because they can’t grasp what he prevents and what he is considering. All they can count is that the Bad Guys killed X people in small scale, targeted attacks and Rhen responded the way he did.

    Where as the people who can think through what happens if that drags out understand exactly what’s going on.

  7. Tom says:

    Interesting opinion in Foreign Affairs: …

    https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2021-04-09/national-security-crisis-command

    .. specifically on changes in balance between Military and Civilian control of National policy with regard to international conflict management.

    To my mind a warning, hopefully, not too late.

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