Last month, I talked about determining the basic shape of a fictional army by asking two questions: what kind of society that army is recruited from, and what kind of enemies that society intends to face. This time, we’re going to continue to use those two questions to build a theoretical framework for worldbuilding fictional armies at a more detailed level. This means we’ll be going beyond the basics, into not just how an army is recruited and organised at the most fundamental level, but also on how it fights, how it thinks, and how it’s equipped.
I am not a professional military theorist. I have never served as a member of an armed force as a volunteer or conscript, enlisted man or officer. These insights, if you can call them that, are purely theoretical, and for most part academic, based on a study of history and military science from the outside looking in. There are others, more qualified others, who will likely disagree with some of the points I’m about to make, and if those others have more professional experience in this field than I do, then there is a better than even chance that they’re right and I’m wrong. However, I am still a professional writer and worldbuilder, and while the points which I make might not be as accurate or helpful to a professional military analyst who has worked with real militaries and had experience as a real soldier, I do think they’ll be helpful for the vast majority of writers and worldbuilders, who are not, and have never been part of that world.
Now, with that disclaimer out of the way:
I generally see any given military force as being one which is composed of three “dimensions”: the Doctrinal, Emotional, and Material. None of these factors are wholly independent from each other, the characteristics of one are determined at least partially by the characteristics of the other two, which means that putting them together is a lot like trying to build a house of cards. When you define the characteristics of one dimension, you also have to make sure that it’s consistent with what’s already been established by the other two dimensions, or else end up with a jumbled mess of an institution which may prove inconsistent from a worldbuilding angle (although that’s not always a bad thing). To prevent this, it’s generally better to define the basic characteristics of all three dimensions first, and putting together the details within one dimension in a way which can reference and be consistent with what’s already been established as the basic shape of the other three dimensions.
So, what are these dimensions, exactly?
Let’s start with Doctrine. This is, more or less, the way in which an army is expected to operate: how an army organises itself into units and subunits, how it marches, how it attacks and defends, what weapons it prefers to use, and what aspects are prioritised when planning a campaign. In modern armies, these aspects are usually codified into manuals and regulations, to be disseminated through everything from basic training to the instruction of high-ranking staff officers. While there have been many recent efforts to intentionally develop and codify Doctrine, it was traditionally come about as an organic result of previous military experience, through the lessons learned when fighting previous wars against intended enemies. In short, soldiers take their previous experience in using what their society gives them to fight their previous enemy, and tries to pass that down to others who may not have that same experience, so that in any future conflicts, those new soldiers will not have to learn those lessons the hard way.
This is why the idea of “military experience” is often considered so important in determining the capabilities of an army or parts of an army. Soldiers who have learned the most effective ways to use the tools they’ve been given to fight the enemy they expect to fight – or else received training from those who have – are more effective against that enemy because they already know the best ways to fight against them. Likewise, the army itself tries to adapt its way of organisation, marching, fighting, and planning to match those lessons. For example, a pre-modern army intending to fight enemies with a lot of cavalry might build their Doctrine around heavy blocks of pikes, with emphasis on fortifying camps to prevent surprise mounted raids, and pre-positioned watch-beacons and depots of food and supplies to allow their slow-moving field armies the time to respond quickly to faster-moving enemy offensives.
Of course, Doctrine is also bounded by the emotional and material dimensions. If an army’s Doctrine demands that individual commanders operate independently, then those individual commanders will have to share enough of a common identity and obligation to be willing to support one another without being directly ordered to. If an army’s Doctrine requires lots of heavy artillery bombardment to destroy enemy strongpoints, then the society that fields that army better have the industry and the body of well-trained artillerists to ensure not only a steady supply of guns and ammunition, but enough crews who know how to use both as well.
If the doctrinal dimension is about how an army acts, fights, and thinks, then the emotional dimension is about how the individuals who make up its ranks feel, towards their government, their culture/nation/state (not necessarily the same thing), their fellow soldiers, their superiors, and so on. Traditionally, this is further subdivided into a number of more specific terms: morale, institutional loyalty, cohesion, and so on. The emotional dimension is an especially important aspect to get right for someone who is actually writing a story in which the soldiers of this army are characters, but it’s also something which any worldbuilder should keep track of. Ultimately, an army is still an institution made up of individual human or human-like beings, and how they relate to both others within the army and those in the rest of their society plays a major role in its effectiveness – after all, battle is a team effort, and an individual on a battlefield has to trust those around them to fight effectively, whether that’s the people directly next to them, the officer leading them, the generals who come up with the plans, or their society as a whole.
To put it more simply, an army where leaders aren’t trusted, where individual soldiers are pitted against each other, and where both their commanders and society as a whole seems to treat them as expendable and replaceable will fight poorly, if at all. While such armies have existed in history (and still do), they usually don’t win wars, at least without some truly gigantic advantages in the other two dimensions. An effective, victorious army needs its soldiers to be willing to want to fight more than they want to run or surrender or switch sides, and a common pitfall in some types of fiction is to portray such a highly successful force as one which seems weak in the emotional dimension.
Note that this isn’t a moral judgement. An army which respects and trusts its leaders, where individuals are strongly committed to the cause and are willing to achieve difficult feats for the sake of their comrades is not necessarily a morally ‘good’ army. The Wehrmacht of Nazi Germany had those strengths, which was part of the reason it was so successful early in WW2, despite the incompetence of its political leadership, the overconfidence of its military leadership, and the advantages in equipment and numbers its opponents often had. It’s important to note that unless you’re writing the kind of world where it does, being the ‘good guys’ is a principle with no military utility of its own: anyone willing to fight at all thinks they’re the ‘good guys’, or at least better than the enemy. An emotionally strong army is not necessarily in the right. Likewise, an army which is emotionally weak is not necessarily in the wrong.
There is a glib and much-quoted phrase often attributed to Napoleon, that ‘the moral is to the material as three to one’, which is to say that what an army feels is more important than an army’s numbers or equipment or supplies. This is only really half true. After all, much of a soldier’s trust in their government and their society relies upon the ability to get that soldier the right equipment for the job. If they’re a professional, they’ll also be reliant on the government and society for food and pay as well. A society and a government which cannot pay, feed, and properly equip its soldiers quickly destroys any will that soldier might have to fight to defend that society. Likewise, leaders who employ Doctrine which proves ineffective against the enemy will also quickly lose the trust of their soldiers. In that regard, the emotional dimension is also bounded by the material and doctrinal ones.
Now at last, we get to the third dimension, the material. This is the one which includes the things most visible to the casual observer, the stuff which most people envision when they see ‘army’ or ‘war’: weapons, armour, catapults, cannon, tanks, and aircraft. But it is also a lot of things which most people don’t normally consider: all of that equipment not only has to be manufactured, but carried into battle. Those catapults need to be moved into position, those tanks and aircraft need maintenance and fuel and spares – and of course, all of that has to be provided by soldiers or contracted porters who have to be fed, clothed, protected, and supplied themselves.
In the real world, these constraints are set by concrete material limitations: by how many trucks or trains or mule trains an army has, by how much food they have stockpiled in forward depots, by how many factories or foundries or fletchers they have, and by what kind of technology they can use to get a lot of equipment ready in a short amount of time. In a fictional setting, all of these material limitations are set by the worldbuilder. You decide what kind of raw materials are available, and how those raw materials are turned into military equipment and vehicles, but these chains of production need to be internally consistent. If your army is equipped by hundreds of individual armourers and weaponsmiths scattered across a wide area, they’re not going to be able to produce the thousands upon thousands of identical pieces of body armour or weaponry that we expect from modern factories working off a single set of machinery. An army that runs on mule trains and handcarts won’t be able to move very far from their supply bases before the mules and the carters are eating more food than the army is. Without the means of not only producing, but transporting immense quantities of food, then the size of armies also have to be carefully controlled, or else it’s more likely to die from starvation and disease than from the enemy.
Naturally, this dimension also influences, and is influenced by the other two. Doctrine determines how an army moves and fights, so it also determines the weapons and equipment they need to move and fight effectively. An army which relies on tank attacks obviously needs tanks, one which relies on cavalry needs horses, and one which doesn’t have the ability to supply or equip its troops reliably is going to have to develop a doctrine which can effectively use soldiers armed with personal weapons or nothing at all. Likewise, the emotional state of an army also affects how well equipped it is. When soldiers don’t care about doing a good job, they generally show it outside of battle (which is about 99.99% of the time) by doing the bare minimum they can get away with. That means equipment gets lost, or stolen, or sold for personal comforts. It means the equipment that remains isn’t properly maintained. It means the people running the supply lines don’t bother ensuring those supplies don’t get to where they’re going on time, or at all. This is the fundamental cause of what’s generally described as “institutional corruption”, and it means that even a lavishly equipped force on paper can fall apart when it actually needs to do anything.
All of this begs a rather obvious question: is it possible for an army to exist in these three dimensions inconsistently? Can an army have Doctrine which its material dimension can’t support? Or an emotional dimensions at odds with its Doctrine?
Of course. In fact, it’s more or less the default in our world. Whatever military planners might think in their heads and in essays and Powerpoints, the truth is that the reality of an army usually falls short of its intended goals, much as with any other sufficiently large institution. Despite the best efforts of staff officers and military reformers, armies generally go to war with some level of disconnect between their three dimensions. However, history has shown us that the difference lies not in the achievement of the ideal, but the degree in which an army falls short. In the chaos of war, armies muddle through, improvising quick fixes and new solutions to the institutional inconsistencies which the course of military operations reveal. Of course, the smaller those inconsistencies, the easier they are to work around, which means that it’s the degree of institutional failure which usually determines who wins and who loses.
That isn’t to say there aren’t exceptions here. The biggest, and the one most of us are familiar with, is usually articulated as “fighting the last war”, which is to say, a state of affairs where an army’s Doctrine, emotional state, and material resources are all oriented towards fighting an enemy which is different from the one they are actually facing. This is a well-known exception simply because the rapid pace of technological development over the course of the last two hundred years generally means that the nature of the material dimension changes so quickly that one war is fought with substantially different types of weapons, equipment, and systems of supply and communications than the last. In pre-modern times, when wars tended to be more common and the pace of technological growth was much less transformative, this could still happen when an army intended to face one kind of enemy suddenly found itself facing another: when the Aztecs and Inca found themselves facing the Spanish, when the Poles and the Kyivans found themselves facing the Mongols, and when the Hellenistic Phalanx ran up against the Roman Manipular Legion.
All this is to say that not only does a good worldbuilder determine how their fictional world’s armies work in theory, they should also consider how those armies fail to meet those theoretical ideals. Such shortcomings create the conflicts and challenges which are the seeds of good stories, and it is both significant and necessary to see those sorts of stories told.
I could probably keep talking about this stuff for much, much longer, but I’m not sure any of it would be particularly authoritative. I suppose if you want to hear me ramble on about it, I could oblige, but I’m sure there’s other things some of you would like me to exposit on instead. Regardless, what I’ve laid out in these past two months should be enough to build something of a methodology on for building internally consistent fictional armies. As for actually using those armies in your stories…
I think I might leave that for next time