December 2022: A Brief History of Battle (and how to write it)

There are obviously many ways to categorise the history of battle: in the identities of the dominant powers of a given time or region, in the type of weapons used, of the sort of tactics, strategies, and so on. Add to that the fact that these immediate factors are determined by the nature of the societies which the combatants come from, and we can also add factors like dominant political or religious systems, class structure, gender politics, division of labour, industrial technology, and a hundred other things. While military history is often considered the domain of enthusiastic amateurs who focus mostly on the surface-level aspects of warfare, there is an immense depth breadth and depth to the subject, which means that historians both military and non-military can spend their entire careers studying just one segment of the history of warfare.

Of course, I don’t have quite that level of expertise, and I’m sure neither of us have the time to go quite that in depth. As storytellers looking to tell stories about battle, we can address the topic in somewhat more general terms, in the specific context of understanding specific types of battle enough to write about them convincingly – if not entirely authentically.

Personally, I think the most helpful way to look at the history of battle as a writer might be the “Three systems of warfare” described by Bret Devereaux over at A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry. This is a taxonomy which divides the vast history of armed conflict into three different categories, determined by the general goals of the combatants, and the means by which they accomplish those goals. This is particularly useful for a storyteller because these three systems also produce three distinct sorts of conditions for both those directly involved in the fighting, and for the noncombatants on the side-lines: the experiences of those involved in conflicts in the first system ought to resemble each other to some extent, certainly more so than they would resemble the experiences of those involved in conflicts in the second or third systems. As a result, a writer can have a general idea of how to tell the story of a battle, based on the system of warfare that battle is being fought within.

Take, for example, the “first system”, one which exists in the absence of organised militaries or the societies which support them. In this system, two or more competing groups of people attempt to drive off or otherwise eliminate their competitors for a given piece of land or resource. As the goal of the belligerents is simply to make the other side go away through any means necessary, this system tends to be one which heavily relies on influencing what Devereaux calls “the balance of pain”, to make the other side suffer so disproportionately that they either give up and leave, or cease to exist. In the pursuit of this aim, the first system’s main sort of “battle” is the kind which inflicts maximum “pain” at minimum risk: raids, ambushes, and other means of attacking which leave the targets less capable or unable to defend themselves.

This is arguably the closest sort of combat to the sort of fights often seen in high or heroic fantasy, where small groups of ad-hoc combatants often find themselves attacking another force from hiding, or being suddenly attacked by unexpected assailants. There’s little formal build-up, the fight starts quickly, and ends quickly – usually with one side mostly dead. Likewise, writing combat within the first system is often the most like writing other forms of individual or small-scale combat. Fighting is up-close, personal, and usually very localised. A fighting force is made up of individuals who all know each other, and “discipline” is less institutional, than a function of that collective loyalty. Likewise, this is the sort of combat most often seen in combat-oriented role-playing games, where an old-fashioned dungeon crawl is, in many ways, not all that different from a raid within the first system, with a small group of attackers breaking in, and wiping out the inhabitants of a location to loot their resources, or simply to eliminate them from the local environment.

Note that this isn’t necessarily a system which is limited to particularly primitive settings. The aims which neolithic hunter-gatherers used to secure fresh water or food are often not that different from the aims of say, modern anti-colonialist guerillas, looking to kick an occupying military out of their homeland. In either case, one side is trying to make the other side no longer exist within a certain location. Likewise, the methods used are similar: the conditions, emotions, and the type of violence which comes from an ambush by thrown spears is not necessarily so different from the sorts which come from an ambush by automatic rifles and improvised explosive devices. Even if the technology in question changes, a belligerent will stick to the first system if that’s what works for their situation, and their aims.

Compare this to the conditions of the “second system” of warfare, a function of conflict not between groups of people trying to drive each other off, but by organised centres of power (cities, kingdoms, etc) trying to establish political control over particular populations and areas. Instead of driving other people off, belligerents in the second system try to gain control over them, and the resources they work (so they can be taxed). While the First System is about inflicting the most and the most disproportionate damage on an opponent, the Second System is about either taking land and people from someone else, or holding on those lands and those people. Thus, while the First System’s primary means of warfare is the raid, the Second System’s is the siege: where one side attempts to move enough armed soldiers and specialised equipment to take control of a specific strategic location or population centre – and the other attempts to stop them from doing so through either making the location more difficult to take, or by intercepting that attacking force before it can arrive.

This is often where our popular conception of the set-piece battle comes from, with two organised armies meeting in a field to batter each other to pieces. Often enough, one of those armies is looking not for another army to fight, but for a specific objective location to take – and the other one is trying to stop them.

As I’ve already mentioned, this is where our popular conception of mass battle comes from. Indeed, if you look at famous field battles in history and in fiction, you’ll often find the hallmarks of this system – not just one army looking to try and take an important position and another trying to stop them, but all the material conditions needed to achieve those goals: large and organised fighting forces capable of supporting the specialised siege equipment needed to take an important position, systems of command and control capable of coordinating such a siege in the first place, governments commanding those armies which set give the armies their orders to deliver or counteract a siege in the first place.

All this creates a certain degree of structure in both the way wars are fought, and the way battles are fought, namely that of the “set-piece battle” that we’re familiar with, where battles are generally intense, sprawling, and relatively sharp affairs concluded in a day or even a few hours: two armies line up on a field, size each other up, and go at each other. One side usually loses, one side usually wins. Most of our popular conception of battle comes from this system because so many of our formative works of literature on the experience of warfare (Homer, Herodotus, Shakespeare, Luo Guanzhong, even all the way up to Churchill writing his account of the Anglo-Sudanese wars) are written by those who lived in societies for which the second system was the primary system of warfare, in which armies meet, and clash on an open field. The battle begins when the first arrow or cannonball is fired, and ends when night falls or the last of the defeated army is driven from the field.

Unlike the dividing line between the First and Second systems, the divider between the second and third (or “modern” system) is explicitly technological. Namely, it relies on what I believe to be two key technologies: a means for an army to move much faster when not engaged in combat then when engaged in combat, and a means to concentrate firepower so heavily and so easily that it is no longer feasible to mass an army in tight formations in the open. In our world, these inventions were the steam-powered locomotive and the explosive shell. The result of these inventions were to render obsolete the idea of a single-day open field battle. So long as artillery could blast massed armies apart, there was no way to concentrate them within striking range of the enemy. Likewise, so long as both sides could move up reinforcements faster than their opponents could kill or rout them, the battle would continue. The most well-known result of these developments in our world was the mass-slaughter of the Western Front of WW1, where soldiers died in droves as staff officers, generals, and theorists tried to develop some way to develop a new system of war through trial and bloody error.

Of course, your world might be different. Indeed, in many fantasy settings, the the equivalent of these two technologies already exist. They make take the form of magic carpets, flying mounts, fireball spells, or teleportation magic, but many supposedly pseudo-medieval settings already possess the technologies needed to render the Second System of warfare obsolescent – and have had them for long enough to make it almost a matter of course that the model of warfare dominant in that setting would at least resemble the third system which we are so accustomed to.

So, what is this third system of warfare anyway? There’s definitely more of a discussion of the specifics elsewhere, but as far as I can tell, it comes down to two watchwords: speed, and suppression, as two sides of the same coin: if a modern army can stop any enemy attack with a combination of rapidly transported reinforcements and massed artillery fire, then the key to successfully carrying out an attack is to act faster than the enemy can react, while slowing down their reaction time even further. This is the system which originally came out of the crucible of the first world war, and a close look at the latter stages of that conflict show just how those two watchwords of speed and suppression were first implemented: through the decentralisation of command and firepower so smaller units can act independently without waiting on high command, through the use of aircraft to both detect and interdict enemy movement, through the use of motorised transport and tanks to move both soldiers and artillery up to exploit a successful attack before the enemy can respond. Most of these elements are still present in war today. A glance at, for example, Ukraine’s efforts to resist Russian invasion shows the use of air power and long-range artillery to impede enemy logistics and communications, the use of decentralised small units to take advantage of momentary opportunities, and a heavy emphasis on rapidly moving motorised and mechanised columns to outflank or even encircle more cumbersome enemy forces before they can react effectively.

However, while this system is what is dominant in our real world, it’s not particularly well-represented in fiction. Even when the trappings of modern war are present, it’s far more often to see or read of tanks and artillery being used like the massed heavy cavalry of old, of infantry fighting within ranges which modern warfare would consider ludicrously close, of campaigns being divided into “battles”, even when those battles last weeks or months and are only really distinguished from the rest of the war around it by the presence of a significant landmark or geographical feature. There’s probably a reason for this, of course. In a system of war where being out in the open or too close to the enemy inevitably means being buried under a lethal concentration of fire, best practises are to keep out of sight. In a system of war where the most important thing is to keep the enemy from reacting to you, keeping the enemy’s head down becomes the primary means of fighting. The end result is that most modern warfare looks like a lot of people and machines firing at distant shapes which may or may not have enemy forces hiding behind them, or hiding behind cover while getting shot at by something which is too far away to see.

While there are still close-quarters firefights and a certain degree of spectacle in the sight of things blowing up, the end result is that modern “war” rarely allows for the classical narrative event of the “battle”, and while the “glory of war” has always been a subjective matter at best, the way in which modern wars are fought have unarguably diminished the lustre of that concept even further.

Of course, none of this means that there are no good stories to be told in this sort of war. They’re just not the sort of traditional battle epics which the wars of the past or of other worlds have accustomed us to. While our modern system of war is impersonal and often distant, the people who fight it or are caught up in it face many of the same perils and traumas which those in the past have dealt with. In my opinion, a story set within the context of “Third System” warfare ought to be one which focuses less on an enemy which can’t be seen, or a battle which mostly appears as flashes and explosions in the distance, but on the effect that enemy’s fire and those explosions might have on the individual human characters which make up an army now too dispersed and too decentralised to be seen massed up outside of a parade square. The war itself may become something which no longer has a face, but neither do storms, or volcanoes, or floods: such events are given emotional significance by the effect they have on those human beings involved in its consequences – and that can always be turned into a good story.

This is, at best, a cursory overview of the progression of warfare. There are obviously much more involved and more detailed histories available elsewhere. However, if there’s one takeaway from this, it’s that there is no universal experience of war: war does change for those involved in it. The emotional narrative of a hunter-gatherer raiding a rival group is different from that of a citizen-soldier of the Roman Republic is different from that of a modern professional for whom death might literally come from out of the blue. All of these experiences have within them the seeds of a wide range of stories to be told, but the stories that result would necessarily come from different contexts, conditions, and environments. Hopefully, this rather brief glance has helped you figure out where your next war story will start from.

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