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On War in Fiction: Consuming the Individual

I hope all is well with everyone!  I’m picking up from last month with my series on war in history and what we can learn from it that might help our fiction.

In this series of posts, I’ll be exploring some themes gleaned from military history to illuminate points that I think many people misunderstand or perhaps just blindly disbelieve because they desperately wish it were otherwise.  I hope you find them useful!

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Neither conversion nor enlistment in the army is going to obliterate our human life.  Christians and soldiers are still men; the infidel’s idea of a religious life and the civilian’s idea of active service are fantastic.

–C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

War seems to do nothing outside of extremes.  War is not just bad, it is terrible.  A brotherhood formed by war is not just strong, it is unbreakable.  In war, even boredom is hardcore:  all pervasive and overwhelming.  We know this.  Countless historians and soldiers have testified to it.  And that leads those of us lucky enough to have avoided war to misunderstand those extremes entirely.  Does the experience of war always become the dominant influence in someone’s life?  While that is possible, it isn’t axiomatic.

The problem comes when we, as authors, try to vicariously put ourselves into the shoes of a soldier through our imaginations.  We look at war in all of its horrific grandeur and ask, “How could you survive that and be normal?”  The issue is compounded by the liberal history of the Vietnam War, which in its quest to justify the Left’s opposition to the war, makes American soldiers out to be either monsters or victims.  The idea is that the war wrecked so much damage on those who fought it that they simply cannot readjust to a regular life.  Many authors take those assumptions and carry them over to all soldiers as a rule (or something very much like one).

Don’t get me wrong:  War has the potential to destroy the lives and sanity of anyone who becomes involved, but that isn’t guaranteed.  As Lewis noted above, for many millions of soldiers through history war and military service are just one more strand in a much larger tapestry that is their lives.  When they return home, they don’t sulk or suffer–they just move on with life.  That has been true of every war humanity has ever fought.  The idea that being a soldier must, by definition, wipe out someone’s identity and future is “fantastic.”

The first and last point we should remember about any soldier is this:  That he or she is human.  As an individual, he or she will react differently to adversity, especially the extremes of war.  War might break some people to pieces (metaphorically, in this case), while others can come out on the other side essentially intact.  As authors, let’s avoid assumptions.  After all. It is our job to think through the individuals we create and let their character show through.

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Next Week–We welcome Rachel back into the rotation on Fridays.  I’ll look forward to seeing everyone soon!

On War in Fiction: The “Laws” of War

I hope all is well with everyone!  I’m picking up from last month with my series on war in history and what we can learn from it that might help our fiction.

In this series of posts, I’ll be exploring some themes gleaned from military history to illuminate points that I think many people misunderstand or perhaps just blindly disbelieve because they desperately wish it were otherwise.  I hope you find them useful!

Sorry that this one seems even more rough around the edges this week than usual–I spent last weekend in the hospital.  I’m doing much better, but I’m still trying to take it easy until I have to go back to work on Monday.

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“International law is the law which the wicked do not obey and the righteous do not enforce.”

–Abba Eban, Israeli Diplomat

The laws of war are much referenced in times of peace.  They are a very warm and fuzzy set of standards that are supposed to prevent an inherently painful process–that of humans killing each other with the greatest of enthusiasm until one side or the other gets its way–from turning into something “unacceptable.”  In doing so, well-meaning diplomats and countries hope to somehow make sure they are on the right side of that equally fuzzy concept:  just war.

Unfortunately, though their intentions are good, on the practical level, these laws just don’t seem to matter much when countries really come to blows.  They, in all their grandeur,  are all too often overbalanced in the minds of participants by a single, more convincing maxim:  Might makes right.  As such, to paraphrase Captain Barbossa, “laws” of war are really more like “guidelines.”

Signing the First Geneva Agreement.

While nations and people have set rules of conduct for each individual military for thousands of years, what we usually think of as the “laws of war” is a modern, western concept.  The Jews might apply Jewish laws (written by God) to Jewish armies, but they didn’t very well expect the Egyptians to work that way.  The west put more of an emphasis on coming up with absolute agreements binding on all.  In the 19th Century, enlightened progressives, thinking that they could fix most everything else through government, decided to sit down on an international level and attempt to regulate what countries could and could not do while pursuing a war.  The end result was a series of agreements, such as the famous Geneva Conventions, that supposedly defined what kinds of killing were fair and what sorts weren’t.

As an absolute remedy, the “laws” of war have been proven to be mere fiction.  Diplomats can puff and blow about them as much as they like, but history has shown that they are limited by (at least) two key shortcomings:

  • They are are based on the false assumption that human nature is essentially good and will follow rules when given the chance.  Human nature has shown itself to be anything but “good” over the course of history.  In fact, humans show all too often that they can’t be trusted to make right decisions in even the best of circumstances.  War is the most obvious time when authority is suspended and people and nations must turn inwards in order to find the moral courage to determine right from wrong.  If you can’t take the essentially good nature of humanity for granted, then writing laws to govern them in war is an exercise in futility.
  • They are basically unenforcable while a war is actually occurring.  The only time someone can hold another nation accountable for violating the provisions of the laws of war is when the country has been defeated and the war itself has been decided.  About the only practical method of reprisal during a war is to say that you can do the same thing back to them.  Otherwise, who has the power to stop them?  Hitler violated all sorts of international agreements during World War II.  Why should he care, when the Wehrmacht was rolling over Europe inexorably?  Are the Poles going to put him on trial in 1941 for the outrages of 1939?

So, like most laws of human invention, the laws of war are only effective when people feel like following them.  Yeah.  Good luck with that.

History does show us two situations where the laws of war are indeed very useful.  First, in smaller wars of more limited scope, the laws can keep things contained.  In these cases, nations aren’t laying everything on the line, and therefore they have quite a bit to lose in the court of international opinion.  That pressure can prevent small wars from exploding into big, destructive ones.  It also can keep weaker tyrants from risking too much and thereby starting a cascade effect that leads to something major.  Secondly, when the war is actually over, the laws provide a basis upon which to seek justice that (hopefully) won’t be entirely arbitrary.  These tribunals–such as the one at Nuremberg after World War II–can be quite effective in their own way.

To bring this down to fiction:  I would encourage you to have a strong, realistic view of the laws of war, what they can do, and more importantly what they can’t.  By definition, most authors are dreamers, and many of us can be overly optimistic about humanity (especially if you are into science fiction, where the myth of human progress is doubly entrenched).  While it is good to dream, giving our dreams an edge of truth can go a long way to making them feel real.

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Next Week–Does war change everyone?

On War in Fiction: “It is good that war is so terrible….”

I hope all is well with everyone!  I’m picking up from last month with my series on war in history and what we can learn from it that might help our fiction.

In this series of posts, I’ll be exploring some themes gleaned from military history to illuminate points that I think many people misunderstand or perhaps just blindly disbelieve because they desperately wish it were otherwise.  I hope you find them useful!

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Lee on Traveler

It is good that was is so terrible, else we should grow to fond of it.

–Robert E. Lee,

It was a cold December day in 1862 as General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, looked out across the battlefield of Fredericksburg. He was watching his men below slaughter his opponents in the generally one-sided fight.  Row after row of gallant northern soldiers drove across a field, trying to wrest an essentially impenetrable position from Lee’s men.  As he watched, he turned and made the statement above.  For many, it seems nonsensical:  Who could ever grow fond of war?  After all, as I argued in March, “war is cruelty and you cannot refine it.”  History teaches us, though, that war has its “good” side, and that people can indeed grow “fond” of it.  Any depiction of war needs to address this element as well in order to be realistic.

As we proceed, please note that I’m not trying to make war look like it is a positive thing.  War is terrible and it leaves its scars on everything it touches.  It steal lives, saps youth, destroys nature, and undoes years of human progress.  War is best avoided altogether.

But it doesn’t follow that where there is a war, nothing good can exist.  Perseverance, strength, and honor often balance out cowardice, cruelty, and lies.  Adversity (which war by definition inflicts in spades) and while it destroys many of those that it touches, it also often refines those who are subjected to it.  Those survivors go on to become leaders and can benefit and protect their people in ways they otherwise wouldn’t.  It breeds strong friendships, making men brothers and forging deep bonds.  All of that is something that, while none of them would want to go through it again, can make people look back on war as something meaningful.

Another important point to remember is that while we like to think that a warrior’s job is to make war 24-7, the reality is much, much different.  The vast majority of a soldier’s time is spent doing things completely disconnected to violence and bloodshed.  As another Civil War soldier once observed, “War is two months of complete boredom punctuated by twenty minutes of utter terror” (my paraphrase).  Most of their time was spent in camp, doing menial chores or drilling.  When not in camp, they usually were marching to another camp.  Weeks could pass without either army getting close enough to see each other–and that was during the campaigning season (from about March until about October).  In the winter they would set up a more permanent camp and sit there until the winter passed.  That, much more than visions of glorious, gory combat, is what “war” has meant for millions through history.

So, in short, while as authors we should not allow ourselves to become fixated on the “glories” of war, neither should we simply reduce it to its horrors.  If we want to write the best, most accurate depiction of war that we can, we must look at it in all its diversity, and then pass that diversity and complexity on to our readers.

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Next Week–Is there such a thing as the “laws” of war?

On War in Fiction: War is a Necessity

I would guess that most of us who decide to take up our metaphorical pens these days to write fiction have probably never been in an actual war.  (That includes me, of course.)  It is interesting then that war and conflict are featured so prominently in so much fantasy and science fiction.  Don’t get me wrong; I think that’s a good thing.  I would much rather we have to stretch to understand that subject than that we know it too well, but it does present a problem:  How do we write believable stories that involve war when we really know so little about it?  The answer is (and hopefully will remain) that we must learn by proxy, from the experience of others.

In this series of posts, I’ll be exploring some themes gleaned from military history to illuminate points that I think many people misunderstand and thereby dispel the corresponding misconceptions about war.  I hope you find them useful!

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Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

–Patrick Henry

Patrick Henry

For many years now humanity has suffered from the gratifying delusion that one day, of our own accord, humans will end all war.  That is a wonderful goal to be sure…but, if history and human nature are any indication, it is complete moonshine.  History teaches us to abhor war, to put it off, to try to avoid it if at all possible.  But history also demonstrates that, at some point war is an inevitability because of human nature.  Nations will take the opportunity to enslave or otherwise exploit each other, just like individuals do.  Worse, each nation can take it in turns, since leadership comes and goes in each and every one of them.  If nations that still value freedom don’t stand up the oppressor–most likely through war–the alternatives can be far worse.  We can just think what life in Europe under the Nazi’s would have been like, if we need an example.  If you want your fictional worlds to be based on any sense of reality (granted, you may not), then the sooner you realize this the better.  All cultures, no matter how peace-loving, must also prepare for war.

The fantasy that says that war is simply a temporary condition that will one day be overcome is, in its more recent incarnations, a result of scientific idealism.  By refusing to acknowledge the reality of the Fall of humanity and the resulting sin nature, people inevitably ask, “Since we’re all basically good, why can’t we just get along?”  “IMAGINE!”  If you really don’t have a firm grasp of what humanity is, then you can easily believe that this dream can be realized.

Over the course of the Twentieth Century, there were many attempts to make that happen.  Communism in Russia and China was intended to “break the cycle of history,” thereby ending the eternal war between the haves and the have-nots and ushering in an era of world peace.  After forty million or so murders at the hands of Stalin and Mao and multiple “low intensity conflicts”, how is that working out for everyone?

Signing the Kellogg-Briand Pact. Right.

While there is nothing funny about communism, there is hardly anything to take seriously about the Kellog-Briand Pact, signed in 1928.  In it, the United States, Germany, Britain, France, Italy, Japan, and others offered “a frank renunciation of war as an instrument of national policy….”  Eleven years later, all of these countries were embroiled in World War II, the largest and most destructive war in history that culminated in the use of atomic weaponry!

Sadly, it is a testimony to the gullibility of the human race and a profound ignorance of history that these ideas are still floating around.  If the Twentieth Century should teach us anything, it is that socialism and utopianism are equally ridiculous ideas.  How I wish that weren’t true!

War, it seems, is a universal reality.  Nations distinguish themselves in how they prepare for war and how they pursue it when it comes.  Generally speaking, good nations are the ones that don’t use war to force their whims onto others.  Bad ones conquer with the sword what they cannot through debate and discussion.  Wise politicians and generals prepare for future wars so thoroughly that, though they will hopefully never need to fight them, when they do, the wars are insured to be as short and clean as possible.  Ignorant leaders leave their peoples open to invasion, destruction, and defeat.  The middle ground between the two is tenuous at best.

Of course, I am speaking of human nature, and we are also talking about fantasy and science fiction.  Why not simply introduce an inhuman species that operates on a different level?  That would be fine…but then you risk the rest of us no identifying with or enjoying your creation.  Readers tend to connect most strongly with characters and cultures they can see some of themselves in.  If your cultures are truly inhuman, you risk losing that connection.  If your stories have humans in them–or if you want humans to identify with them, you will have no choice but to take war and conflict into account.

There are plenty of examples of how to do this, ranging from the “Star” franchises in science fiction to fantasy classics like the Lord of the Rings.  Since war is a fact of life–as much as we might abhor it–let’s use our imaginations to treat it right, to set up examples in our minds of what it really means to be strong, heroic, and fair as opposed to simple naivete.   In doing so, we can hope to influence thousands of people toward those ideals when the real events occur.

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 Next Week:  Rachel returns on Fridays!  I’ll be back in April 5 with more thoughts on war and fiction. 

On War in Fiction: War is Hell

The dead of the Civil War

The dead of the Civil War

I would guess that most of us who decide to take up our metaphorical pens these days to write fiction have probably never been in an actual war.  (That includes me, of course.)  It is interesting then that war and conflict are featured so prominently in so much fantasy and science fiction.  Don’t get me wrong; I think that’s a good thing.  I would much rather we have to stretch to understand that subject than that we know it too well, but it does present a problem:  How do we write believable stories that involve war when we really know so little about it?  The answer is (and hopefully will remain) that we must learn by proxy, from the experience of others.

In this series of posts, I’ll be exploring some themes gleaned from military history to illuminate points that I think many people misunderstand and thereby dispel the corresponding misconceptions about war.  I hope you find them useful!

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War is cruelty and you cannot refine it….

–William T. Sherman

Those words, written by Sherman to the mayor and city council of Atlanta, Georgia in 1864 have often been distorted to say that “War is Hell.”  For our purposes, the meaning is the same.  Whatever ideas of glory and honor that we may still entertain about war, the reality is that it is a painful, difficult, and horrible reality–one that no sane person would wish on themselves or on anyone else.

William T. Sherman

William T. Sherman

Of course, this isn’t what we often encounter in fiction.  For millennia, authors have shown the “good” side of war: the excitement, the bravery, the sacrifice, the awe of martial prowess, and even the bittersweet sense of success.*  If you are familiar with the fad for reenacting Civil War battles, you get a sense of this.  “Soldiers” march forward, and then simply lie down when it is their turn to “die.”  Bands play inspirational music, and you’re supposed to get a sense of “what it was like.”  Nonsense.  As I hear historian Bud Robertson has said, when you find a way to disembowel people, blow off arms and legs, etc., then you’ll have an idea of “what it was like”!

When authors and historians sanitize the dark side of war, we lose sight of the reality of the devastation, anguish, and destruction that war extracts as its ultimate price.  This is true for the individual soldier, as well as for the people left back at home.

In the beginning of the Civil War, Americans based much of their expectations on fiction, including popular authors at the time like Sir Walter Scott.  As a result, they believed that all combat should be glorious, all soldiers honorable, and civilian targets should be automatically exempt from the destruction wrecked by the armies.  Soldiers on both sides rushed to enlist because they were afraid they would miss the excitement.  They were desperate to “see the elephant,” as it was called.  People in the cities thought that only “honorable” tactics and strategies should be allowed, and therefore demanded that essentially everyone but professional soldiers be spared the horrors of war as long as they weren’t actually in uniform.  For example, they believed that the enemy army should have to pay them for supplies, and not interfere with daily life at all, even if “bushwhackers” (civilians sneaking out to play soldier) were harassing the army and killing people.

That was laughably unrealistic, but they believed it anyway.  The soldiers learned the truth first.  Commanders don’t make “suggestions,” even in a democratic country, and they will tell you to do things you don’t want to do–in the Civil War they would arrest you, beat you, brand you, or even shoot you if you disobeyed.  Even the best intentioned government will have problems with supply, and for the confederates, food often ran very short and clothing and shoes were scarce.  No matter–you marched anyway.  As such, life in the armies became difficult and tedious, punctuated only by short periods of sheer terror in which you are convinced that the enemy is trying to kill you in particular.  Your friends died painful, pitiful deaths.  If you were lucky, you wouldn’t join them.  It wasn’t long before the average soldier didn’t think he had seen the elephant so much as been trampled by it.

The civilians eventually had their misconceptions dispelled too.  War takes place between nations, not just military forces.  Armies don’t materialize out of thin air; they are the products of the nations they represent and, by extension, their peoples.   When a nation is locked in combat for its very existence, it will strike at any and every point of possible vulnerability, and that includes (legitimately) the people who put the army into the field and the economy that sustains it.  When a war is on, all bets are off, and you cannot reasonably expect it to be otherwise.  If you have food and a soldier is hungry, he as a gun (and friends with guns).  Guess what’s going to happen.

The death and destruction in the wake of Antietam, 1862.  Who would ever want to reenact this?

The death and destruction in the wake of Antietam, 1862. Who would ever want to reenact this?

Worse, like the One Ring, war often loosens the inhibitions of even reasonable, regular people.  Individuals who would never dream of stealing or killing during peacetime are willing to do it during a war.  All of this adds up to, as Sherman put it so well, “cruelty, and you cannot refine it.”

That is a fact of history that we cannot forget, if we want to write about war.  Pretending it is otherwise perpetuates a myth that can and has caused harm for many years now.  Let’s not carry it any further.  As you write your fiction, keep this in mind, and do what you must to show the dark side of war for what it is.

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*Hollywood, the gaming industry, and modern fiction writers also often (but not always) continue this pattern on roids by often glorifying pointless violence in the absence of a any good cause, meaning violence for its own sake.  (Think of just about any movie Quentin Tarantino has ever made…)  That is a post for another day, at some point in the future!

Next Week–War is sometimes unavoidable…so every prudent culture must be ready for it.