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!


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.


*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.


About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on February 15, 2013, in Brian Melton, Fantasy, History, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, The Horse and His Boy, War, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Brian, a good book for you or any aspiring war-writers to read is “Last Full Measure: How Soldiers Die in Battle” by Michael Stephenson. He wrote it particularly to describe the reality underneath the heroic ideals. I don’t think his purpose is cynicism, to deny all the heroic ideals, but to bring some clarifying perspective for balance in our civilian imagining of war. A hard read, but good.

  1. Pingback: That Last Loose Rock | Hand of Ananke

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