You Don’t Want War Elephants

If you’re building an army to conquer the pre-modern world (or a fantasy world something like it), you might be tempted to include war elephants. At first glance, they seem like a great idea. Elephants are large, thick-skinned, strong, and intelligent, with long tusks and powerful trunks. Including them in your army is about as close as the real world gets to having dragons on your side. Well, I’m here to tell you that in most cases, they’re actually not such a great idea. (There are a few exceptions; I’ll get back to those later.)

Not all elephants are trainable. Three species of elephants survive in today’s world: Asian, African bush, and African forest. Asian elephants can be trained, but the African bush and forest elephants cannot. Several other species and/or subspecies of elephants once existed in various parts of Africa and Asia, but they went extinct in antiquity as a result of hunting and habitat loss. Elephants susceptible to domestication have historically been used in North Africa and Southeast Asia for labor, transport, and war.

Elephants do have their uses in war. They have been used as mobile platforms for archers and light artillery. They can also trample and gore enemy soldiers, and use their strength to help demolish the defenses of towns and fortresses under siege. Horses who have not been trained with elephants will not go near them, so war elephants can be good for disrupting enemy cavalry. Off the battlefield, they are good for carrying or dragging supplies and heavy pieces of baggage like siege weapons. Despite these uses, there are a number of serious problems with using elephants in combat.

We may as well start with the moral problem. Elephants do not breed well in captivity, and so most elephants used for labor or war must be captured as calves from the wild and trained into obedience, often using quite brutal methods. It goes without saying that this is a terrible thing to do to any creature, let alone such an intelligent and social animal, but if you’re already building an army for world domination, I assume you’re beyond such niceties as moral scruples, so let’s move on to the practical problems.

One big problem is that elephants are not naturally combative. Apart from males competing for mates, mothers defending their young, and occasional rogue elephants behaving abnormally, an elephant is much more likely to run away from danger than toward it. It takes extensive training to get an elephant to withstand the chaos of a battlefield, and even then it was a common practice in the past to feed war elephants fermented fruit to get them drunk before battle. Getting elephants drunk helps keep them aggressive, but it also makes them harder to control. There is a real risk that a sober elephant facing the clamor and commotion of a battle will turn and run away, or that a drunk one will ignore its driver’s commands and simply go on a rampage. Now, I know what you’re thinking—drunk rampaging elephants sound like an awesome weapon to unleash on your foes, but keep in mind that around half the soldiers on an average battlefield are going to be your own, and there’s no way to be sure that an out of control elephant will do more harm to your opponents than to you.

Another problem with war elephants is the cost. Elephants in the wild may eat up to 300 kilograms of forage per day. In captivity, eating a richer diet, elephants consume around 50 kg of grain and vegetables per day, more if they are doing heavy work. That amounts to at least 18,250 kg per year. Pre-industrial agricultural yields could vary widely with region, climate, and farming techniques, but at best you could expect around 500 kg of grain per hectare of farmland per year. That means you’d need about 36 hectares of land dedicated to feeding just one elephant. 1 square kilometer of farmland could, under the very best conditions, just barely maintain three elephants. If you have a big enough empire with a strong enough agrarian economy, this may sound like it’s worth it, but consider the opportunity cost. The same farmland could also support 100 soldiers for a year, who can be trained in any number of specializations, will (hopefully) not get drunk and turn on your own troops, and can be more useful in most situations than three elephants.

Now there are a few situations in which elephants can offer a real advantage in war. One is when you’re fighting forces who have never encountered them before. To the inexperienced foot soldier, an elephant is a huge, loud, monster with giant tusks and a disturbingly prehensile nose. Few inexperienced armies have the discipline to withstand their first sight of an elephant, and many have been known to run in panic in the face of an elephant charge. After a little experience, though, this advantage wears off. Those who have seen elephants a few times learn how to deal with them, by facing them with a dense hedge of pikes or aiming for their eyes, mouths, and the soles of their feet with javelins. The Carthaginian general Hannibal got one battle’s worth of use out of his elephants before the Romans figured out how to counteract them.

The other situation in which elephants can be useful is among warring peoples who all use and fight with elephants. In this case, since all sides know how difficult and expensive it is to maintain elephant forces, putting on a big display of elephants in the field serves as a show of force, demonstrating the resources and organizing capacity of your army, which may convince your opponents to come to terms rather than risk a battle. War elephants were historically used as battlefield showpieces in this way by the kingdoms of India and Southeast Asia, as well as the Hellenistic kingdoms formed from the breakup of Alexander the Great’s empire. Getting effective use of your elephants in such a case, however, requires a major investment of resources which might be more practically spent elsewhere.

In short, if you are bent on conquering the world, I don’t recommend using war elephants. For the occasional times when they would actually be useful, they aren’t worth the cost. (And brutalizing elephants is horrible.)

Image: “The Padava Brothers Do Battle with the King of Anga” from a manuscript of the Razmnama via Wikimedia (currently Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; 1598; paint on paper; by Mohan, son of Bawari)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

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Classifying Warfare: Predatory and Hierarchical

In his history of Western weapons and warfare, Of Arms and Men (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), Robert O’Connell proposes an interesting model for examining the military systems of different cultures by analogy to the animal world. Animals use violence for different purposes and in different ways. Some violence is predatory, as when a wolf hunts a deer or an owl snatches a mouse out of a field. The point of the violence is to kill and consume prey. These animals’ methods and weapons (fangs, claws, beaks) are practical and efficient. They are meant to get the job of killing done as quickly and effectively as possible. Some prey animals have evolved similarly efficient weapons (hooves, horns, teeth) for self-defense. Other times, violence is hierarchical, as when deer lock antlers or dogs tussle with each other to establish an order of dominance within a pack. In these cases, the way that animals fight each other tends to be limited, almost ritualized, in a way that focuses more on display and intimidation than actual wounding—when deer are defending themselves from predators, they can kick and bite with wounding force, but when competing for dominance they lock antlers and shove in a way that minimizes the chance of one deer seriously harming another. The same model can be used as a way of thinking about warfare in human societies.

Some cultures’ ways of making war are like predatory animals’. Their weapons are simple and brutally efficient. Their goal is to kill and destroy, not just to force their opponents into submission. They do not recognize rules of war or limits on where, when, how, or against whom violence can legitimately be used. A classic example is the Roman legion. A legionary’s primary weapon was the gladius, a short sword used for thrusting and slashing at an enemy’s lower torso. The wounds left by a gladius were gory and horrible; the sight of bodies mutilated by Roman blades was enough to demoralize some warriors. Contemporary observers describe Roman soldiers going into a bestial frenzy on the battlefield and slaughtering everything in their path, not just enemy fighters but civilians, children, even animals.

Other cultures fight more like animals competing for dominance within a herd. Their warfare is contained within rules dictating what violence is acceptable and what is not. Battles often begin only after showy demonstrations of power and attempts to negotiate some peaceful resolution. The act of battle itself is brief and bounded by rituals; the goal is not to annihilate the enemy but to compel them to submit and recognize the superiority of the winning side. Ancient Greek hoplite warfare fits this model. Hoplites fought in brief campaigns between city-states, often decided in a single battle on a field which had been mutually agreed to by the two sides. Casualties in a hoplite battle were generally low; victory came when one side broke ranks and fled the field, not with the elimination of one army by the other. The violence of hoplite fighting was real, but it was strictly limited by rules of engagement and commonly understood principles of honor.

Whether a society leans toward predatory or hierarchical violence often depends on who their enemies are. Among people who share culture, history, and traditions, violence tends to be hierarchical. When communicating with the other side is easy and the belligerents in a war already agree on certain principles and ideals, it is easier to agree on limits and rules about war and to be confident that your opponents will abide by their promises. When fighting people with whom you don’t share culture and history, it is harder to rely on commonly agreed rules of war or to trust that the other side will stick to their agreements. Hoplite warfare developed among Greek city-states who were repeatedly fighting their close neighbors, and legionary warfare developed in an expansionist empire venturing further and further into unknown territory, but we can see similar patterns play out in other historical settings as well.

During the eighteenth century, wars among European states were often carried out in hierarchical ways. A British commander facing French troops and not feeling confident of victory could trust that if he surrendered instead of chancing a battle, he and his troops would not be slaughtered but would be treated according to certain basic rules and eventually ransomed back or released at the end of hostilities. Conditions for prisoners of war could certainly be horrendous—especially for the rank and file—but surrender was an acceptable, even honorable, option when there was no reasonable chance of victory. Since the best way to win a battle is to not have to fight it in the first place, convincing enemy troops to give up became as tactically important as fighting them in the first place. Hence the development of flashy, colorful uniforms and elaborate drill performances. The goal was to make one’s own troops look as impressive as possible in order to intimidate the enemy into giving up without a fight.

Meanwhile, in European colonies in the Americas, Africa, and Asia, European settlers faced off against native peoples whose languages, cultures, and traditions they did not share. Neither side could trust that the other would honor agreements or abide by even basic rules on the treatment of prisoners or civilians. Colonial warfare tended to be brutal and predatory. There was no point to trying to intimidate the enemy or force them to come to terms; the only goal of warfare was to kill as efficiently as possible. In England’s North American colonies, settlers developed a style of warfare for fighting against the indigenous people which diverged very far from the elaborate rituals of European warfare at the time. In the early battles of the American Revolution, the orderly performance of the British redcoat drill came up against the guerrilla tactics of American minutemen trained in the harsh school of frontier raiding and counter-raiding.

Hierarchical warfare, seen from outside the culture that practices it, can seem ineffective or even silly, war reduced to symbols and shadowplays, but hierarchical warfare is serious. It has real casualties, sometimes even carnage on a terrible scale. The point of the displays of power, the rules and rituals, is to preserve one’s own fighting force for the moment when it can make a decisive difference. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was one large struggle for hierarchical dominance, but it had real and devastating consequences for people throughout the world.

Societies that practice predatory warfare, encountering hierarchical-war cultures for the first time, often have an advantage, at least at first. The army not limited by rules of engagement and focused on killing rather than putting on an impressive display can be devastatingly effective against an unprepared opponent. At the same time, predatory warfare can also be self-defeating. The force that does not respect common rules of war can have a hard time concluding truces and treaties and may find itself dragged into wars it does not want to fight because no one trusts them enough to make peace with them.

Thoughts for writers

This way of classifying how societies fight can be useful for defining the terms of conflict in your stories. When you have powers that share a lot of culture and history fighting one another, like a world based on medieval European kingdoms or the states of ancient India, it makes sense to build in rituals, displays of power, and rules of war that are generally recognized. Of course, just because rules of war exist doesn’t mean that everyone follows them, but breaking those rules has consequences, not just for how your enemies treat you but for how your allies or potential allies think about you, too. Therein lies plenty of potential for interesting conflict and character development.

On the other hand, when two or more very different cultures run up against one another, such as in the borderlands between different cultures or at the edge of an expanding empire, warfare is likely to take on a more predatory nature. The absence of agreed-upon rules of war or rituals for establishing dominance without fighting will lead to more violence and brutality. Again, even within a predatory context, there can be opportunities for displays of power taking the place of fighting or the emergence of rough-and-ready rules of engagement. These sorts of developments would be important in-world events for characters engage in, too.

Image: “Battle of Bunker Hill” via Wikimedia (1909; paint on canvas; by E. Percy Moran)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Chariots

War may never change, but the technology of war is always being updated, adapted, and replaced with new inventions. Because of the powerful emotions invoked by our experience of war, outdated military technology is sometimes invested with cultural meaning and takes on a new symbolic life when its functional utility is past. Suits of armor designed to protect soldiers from spears and arrows in wars hundreds of years in the past have become decorative objects that convey a sense of antiquity and dignity to a stately home. Swords have been obsolete on the battlefield for a century, but they still exercise such a fascination for us that we give them to heroes in stories set in the present and future. The town where I live boasts of its possession of a disabled artillery piece from a war more than a hundred years past. In the ancient world, chariots went through a similar transition from practical military hardware to symbolic possession.

A chariot is a light cart, usually on two wheels, though four-wheeled examples exist, designed to be pulled by one or more animals, usually horses. Four-wheeled versions, using heavy solid wheels and pulled by onagers (a type of wild ass) are documented in southern Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium BCE. These wagons would have been relatively slow and ponderous, but they allowed the transport of fighters across the battlefield faster than infantry on foot and provided a defensible fighting platform. Light, fast chariots became possible with the invention of the spoked wheel on the steppes of Central Asia around 2000 BCE.

Light, mobile chariots pulled by horses offered several advantages in war. They allowed swift movement around the battlefield, provided an elevated platform from which to observe the progress of battle, and, on open ground, could stage mass charges to intimidate opposing troops. Horses that were too small to carry a rider under the rigors of war could be used to pull chariots. Between 2000 and 500 BCE, the use of chariots spread across a large swath of Eurasia and northern Africa, from China to Ireland, and from Egypt to the Baltic Sea.

Chariots also had some drawbacks, however. They required skilled construction and maintenance. To be effectively mobile, they had to be built light, but such light construction also made them relatively fragile. They required lots of space to operate and were of limited use on narrow, uneven, or muddy battlefields. Driving and fighting from a chariot solo was a virtuoso feat that few could manage, so the need to provide separate drivers in addition to the fighting troops was a drain on fighting power. In most places, chariots were retired from the battlefield as soon as horse breeds that were large and strong enough to carry an armored soldier became available.

In a few places, like the wide, open plains of Mesopotamia, where the terrain was favorable, chariots were used for fighting into the first century CE, but in most places they had vanished from military use centuries earlier. The glory of the chariot, though, kept its hold on people’s imaginations. In most places where they had been used in war, they were repurposed for symbolic and artistic purposes. In China, chariots were used to make impressive showpieces of engineering, like the famous South-Pointing Chariot, equipped with a figure that always pointed to the south no matter how the chariot turned. In India, chariots were reimagined to become vessels for carrying images of the Hind gods in ceremonial processions. In the Mediterranean, they were used for racing and military parades. In many of these places, chariots also entered mythology, remaining the conveyance of heroes and gods long after they had ceased to be used to carry soldiers around the battlefield.

Image: Model of a four-horse chariot, photograph by BabelStone via Wikimedia (found in Takht-i-Kuwad, Tajikistan, currently British Museum; 5th-4th c. BCE; gold)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Quotes: Tanks Being Repulsed by Pistol Fire

After the Finnish centennial in 2017, I’ve been reading outside my usual periods of Finnish history a little, including on the Finnish Winter War (1939-1940, for 105 days against the USSR). Here’s another literally incredible detail.

Fighting was going on near Hulkoniemi village (close to Suomussalmi) near the eastern border in December 1939:

“[T]wo Red tanks attacked a Finnish squad caught in lightly wooded terrain near the village. A lieutenant named Huovinen taped five stick grenades together and crawled forward toward the tanks; his friend, First Lieutenant Virkki, intended to provide covering fire, despite the fact that he was carrying only his side arm. At a range of forty meters Virkki stood up and emptied his 9 mm. Lahti automatic at the vehicles’ observation slits. The T-28s replied with a spray of machine-gun fire, and Virkki went down. Those watching felt sure he had been killed. But he had only dropped down to slap another magazine into the butt of his weapon. That done, he jumped up and once more emptied his pistol at the tanks. Altogether this deadly dance step was repeated three times, at which point the Russian tankers seemed to become unnerved. They turned around and clanked back to the village. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Huovinen had been crawling closer to them from the rear and now had his arm cocked to throw the grenade bundle. Just at that moment the tank nearest him put on speed and retreated. He lowered his grenades in astonishment. Surely there were not many instances in modern warfare of tanks being repulsed by pistol fire.”

– William Trotter, A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940

I’m flabbergasted! Gobsmacked! Slack-jawed! Astounded! A pistol against two tanks, and not a scratch!

In school, we’ve been through the major whys and wherefores, but I don’t remember small-scale stories like this. If you’d put this in a fictional story of any kind, I’m not sure I’d believe it. And, yet, it happened to countrymen of mine.

Trotter, William R. A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1991, p. 157.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Quotes: Finns Know How to Listen to the Stillness in the Great Forest

After the Finnish centennial in 2017, I’ve been reading outside my usual periods of Finnish history a little, including on the Finnish Winter War (1939-1940, for 105 days against the USSR). Here’s another tidbit that caught my attention:

“Finns know how to listen to the stillness in the great forest; for them it is never absolutely silent, and they can read considerable information about their environment from the sounds of which outsiders are not even aware. Finns, in short, can adapt to their environment because they feel a part of it.”

– William Trotter, A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940

I know people who love water, to be on and in the water, whether a lake or an ocean. I don’t. It’s nice to look at or splash in now and then, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t adore it.

I’m in love with woods.

I need trees to feel whole and at peace, and preferably wild instead of planted and pruned trees. Whether in the cool, clear incandescence of summer nights, or wet, loamy autumn rain, or the crisp, brisk dark of winter, or, finally, the unhurried, budding, green spring, Finnish woods are dear to me.

Trotter, William R. A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1991, p. 145.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Quotes: Finns Were on Intimate Terms with Winter

After the Finnish centennial in 2017, I’ve been reading outside my usual periods of Finnish history, including on the Finnish Winter War (1939-1940, for 105 days against the USSR).

It’s easy for a modern Finn—at least this modern Finn—to get tired of reading endless takes, almost exclusively by foreigners, condemning the horribleness of the Finnish winter. Like in this excerpt from a book on the Winter War:

“One of the main factors that enabled the Finns to destroy forces much larger than their own was surely rooted in the differing psychologies of the men engaged on either side. To the Finnish soldier, the cold, the snow, the forest, the long hours of darkness were all factors that could be turned to his advantage. To say that the Finns were on intimate terms with winter is to voice an understatement. In Finland winter is the fact of life, and all else—the economy, the culture, the national psychology—is colored by, or derived from, that single overriding reality. The relationship between the Finns and winter constitutes something of a contradiction. On the one hand, winter makes life harsh and lonely and something crude. It is this aspect of living with winter, the cumulative effect of endless subarctic nights, the unearthly silences of the winter landscape, the harsh and marginal quality of rural life, that imparts to the Finnish character that dour and brooding quality that is so hard for foreigners to penetrate.”

– William Trotter, A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940 [original emphasis]

It is true that we stayed poor quite long and urbanised quite fast, pretty much during my parents’ generation, so it’s easy for me to lose perspective. Even as late as 1950s (I believe) it wasn’t unheard of for more remote farms not to have electricity. And our winters are undoubtedly long and dark compared to even central Europe, not to mention the Mediterranean and further south.

What bugs me, though, is that people seem to expect conditions like Siberia or Greenland. Hate to disappoint you, but our climate is greatly tempered by the Gulf stream and it isn’t that different from, say, New England. Another detail I’d like foreigners to really learn is that less than half of the country is arctic, and that means the rest is not. The southern coast is, in fact, part of the temperate broadleaf forest zone which covers most of central Europe, Britain, southern Scandinavia, and southern Russia.

I do grant that the Finnish character hasn’t caught up with the technological development, at least not yet: in general terms, we still tend towards melancholy despite now having world-class cities, transportation, and tech.

Trotter, William R. A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1991, p. 144.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Quotes: Willful and Obstinate Little Country

After the Finnish centennial in 2017, I’ve been reading outside my usual periods of Finnish history a little, including on the Finnish Winter War (1939-1940, for 105 days against the USSR).

In November 1939, just before hostilities broke out, a Finnish delegation met with the Soviets in Moscow to discuss land transfers and other concessions Russians demanded from Finland. The following tidbit is reportedly from the delegation’s last meeting with Stalin and Molotov.

“But after an hour of futile discussion it was obvious to everyone that the whole business had come to a dead end. Each side bade farewell to the other. Since the Finnish delegates were clearly just as upset by this outcome as the Russians, the final meeting ended with remarkably little display of animosity by anyone. The actual parting, in fact, was almost jovial. Molotov waived and said, ‘Au revoir!’ and Stalin shook hands all around and wished the Finns ‘all the best’. Then he went off to confer with his generals about how best to subdue this willful and obstinate little country.”

– William Trotter, A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940

It’s not clear whether “willful and obstinate little country” is Stalin’s phrasing or Trotter’s. I like it nevertheless—it tells you a very important thing of the Finnish character: as we say, a strong will takes you through a grey stone. 🙂 Or, in this case, it slows down a massive army significantly enough to retain the country’s independence, which none of the other small Baltic states were able to do.

Trotter, William R. A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1991, p. 18.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Hoplites

The hoplite was the definitive soldier of ancient Greece. Hoplites are interesting not just for how they fought but for the social conditions that created them and the consequences that the hoplite style of warfare had for ancient Greek society.

A hoplite was a heavily-armored infantry soldier equipped with a large, round shield and a thrusting spear a little over two meters in length. While the shield and spear were the two crucial pieces of equipment, most hoplites also wore heavy armor including a helmet, breastplate, and greaves (armor for the shins). Altogether this armor weighed as much as 30 kilograms. Weighed down by so much equipment, hoplites were slow-moving and not adept at maneuvering. A lone hoplite was easy prey for a more mobile skirmisher or cavalry soldier. Hoplites were only effective when fighting as a group.

Hoplites fought in a tightly-packed formation called a phalanx. Their equipment was designed to be most effective in this formation: the center of the large round shield rested at the elbow, meaning that only half of a hoplite’s shield was protecting their body. The other half of the shield protected the soldier standing to their left, while they were sheltered by the shield of the soldier to their right.

The phalanx formation was designed first and foremost to offer as much protection as possible to the soldiers fighting in it. As long as the phalanx kept its order, casualties were low. When phalanges fought, they clashed head-on in a massive shoving match that was usually quickly resolved when one side lost its nerve, broke formation, and fled. Fleeing hoplites typically dropped their heavy shields to get away faster, but once one phalanx started to flee, the soldiers of the opposing phalanx were ill-equipped to give chase. The goal of a hoplite battle was to drive the enemy from the field, not kill them.

In order to fight effectively, hoplites needed several things in addition to their equipment. First of all, they needed lots of training. Maintaining the phalanx formation while advancing into the fray and clashing with opposing forces was difficult. Even more important, it required cohesion among the individual hoplites. A formation that depended on every individual in it standing firm and protecting those around them could only work when those in it felt they could trust and rely on their fellow soldiers. That kind of unit cohesion could be created in several ways. Spartans created it through a brutal indoctrination into a culture of conformity. Companies of mercenary hoplites created it through shared experience in the field. But in most Greek cities, the solidarity of hoplite warfare was intertwined with democracy.

Hoplites appear quite suddenly in Greek history around 650 BCE, so suddenly that they seem to have been a deliberate innovation rather than a gradual development out of earlier traditions. There were other dramatic changes happening in Greek society at the time. For centuries, Greek society had been dominated by aristocratic families who monopolized both control of farmland and political power, but the growth of overseas trade undermined their authority. Some ordinary people began to get rich off of trade with the larger Mediterranean world and to demand more of a say in how things were run.

In many places, aristocrats who were on the outs took advantage of popular discontent to put themselves forward as sole leaders who could keep the other aristocrats in check and represent the interests of the common people. The Greeks called these rulers tyrants, a word that did not originally have the negative connotations it carries today. These tyrants organized the people into a political force that could overwhelm the old aristocracies, and it seems likely they were also responsible for organizing them into a military force for the same purpose. The old aristocrats had relied on followings of professional warriors to compete with one another and protect their power. The hoplite phalanx was made up not of professional soldiers but farmers, crafters, merchants, and other ordinary folks who paid for their own armor and took time away from their livelihoods to train together. Their cohesion and solidarity overwhelmed the aristocrats’ paid fighters.

The tyrants, backed by their hoplite forces, enjoyed a brief ascendancy, but most soon revealed themselves as little more than ambitious opportunists who had little real commitment to making life better for their supporters. The ordinary people turned against them. The experience of solidarity in common cause that had been instilled by the hoplite style of fighting became the core of a new way of organizing society, and after ousting their tyrants most Greek cities embraced forms of government that allowed for broad citizen participation. It is significant though that Greek democracy was always centered on the hoplite phalanx. People who did not have a role in the phalanx—women, the poor, slaves, resident foreigners—rarely had any role to play in Greek democracy.

Thoughts for writers

Human societies are complex systems. Their various parts interlock and affect one another. The ways in which people fight are shaped by the societies they live in, and shape them in turn. If your story has characters fighting in a particular way, you should construct your world to reflect the origins of that fighting style and its consequences. It is possible to have a hoplite phalanx without democracy (Sparta), and it is possible to have a democracy without a hoplite phalanx (medieval Iceland), but understanding how each one supported the rise of the other in ancient Greece will help you construct fuller and more believable alternatives.

Image: Chigi Vase, reconstructed frieze via Wikimedia (7th c. BCE; painted pottery)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Heroic Warfare and Mass Warfare

There are many ways to fight a battle, even in worlds without modern weapons and techniques. Two terms that are useful for thinking about pre-modern battles are heroic warfare and mass warfare.

Heroic warfare is centered on a small number of leaders. These leaders are usually the most experienced and best equipped fighters their side of the fight can muster. They rely on their reputation as great warriors, so they need to stand out and be seen by everyone on both sides. In heroic warfare, battle begins not with both sides rushing into the fight but with the leaders stepping forward to identify themselves, boast about their victories, taunt leaders on the other side, and generally try to intimidate the enemy while boosting their own troops’ morale.

Mass warfare relies upon large numbers of soldiers who are all similarly equipped and who fight as a group. Commanders often stand out so that their own troops can identify them and follow their lead on the field, but they fight as part of the group and success does not depend on their individual reputation.

Historically, heroic warfare tended to be practiced in small-scale, culturally homogeneous societies. As societies grow larger and more complex, they tend to shift away from heroic warfare to mass warfare. There are practical reasons for this. The advantage of fighting in heroic style is that it greatly limits the number of casualties. The point of all the showing off and boasting at the beginning of the battle is try to convince the other side that they can’t win and so they’d be better off coming to terms and avoiding the fight altogether. For that to work, though, both sides have to have enough confidence in one another that they can make an agreement and expect the other side to honor it. That kind of confidence usually depends on having a shared set of cultural norms and values. It is much harder to manage across a wide cultural divide.

At the same time, heroic warfare is not all for show. The message that a heroic leader is trying to send is: “If we actually do start fighting, we’re going to beat you.” For that message to be credible, the leader has to be able to back it up, and even the best leader is no good without followers. Heroic warfare depends not just on the leader standing in front but on the soldiers standing behind them ready to fight if the other side doesn’t back down. Heroic warfare works when the number of troops on both sides is small enough that one well-equipped, skilled leader’s participation in battle might actually make a difference. In larger societies that can put thousands of soldiers on the field, the talents of individual leaders are much less relevant to the outcome of a fight.

Thoughts for writers

We like heroes. As storytellers, we tend to focus on the stories of individuals, even in settings where the actions of groups matter more to the outcome. There is nothing new about this. Ancient myths and medieval romances are full of heroic warriors, even though they were told by people who lived in times of mass warfare. The ethos of heroic warfare is undeniably appealing, but if it is going to make sense in our stories we have to think about how to make it work in settings where it doesn’t naturally fit.

There is a place for heroic warriors in settings of mass warfare. Where most of the real fighting is done by mass armies, there are still times when a powerful leader can make a difference—when events that play out on a small scale matter to the larger battle and when threat and intimidation are called for. These are the moments we need to craft as writers.

In other words, even when most of the fighting is done by these guys

you can still find a place for someone like this.

Images: Battle of Issus via Wikimedia (Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples; 1st c. BCE; mosaic). Stormtroopers via Giphy. Darth Vader via Giphy.

The Long and Pointless War

One of the common tropes in stories about war is that war is pointless and goes on far too long. This trope goes back at least as far as the Trojan War cycle in Greek mythology but a particularly strong version of it became prominent in twentieth-century American science fiction with works like Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Haldeman’s The Forever War. These works portrayed wars that have gone on for as long as anyone can remember and which show no signs of ever ending. The original causes for the war are long forgotten and both sides just continue to fight for no reason other than to avenge the ravages of previous battles. In more optimistic stories, all it takes to stop the carnage is for an outsider to point out to the combatants how meaningless their war is. In more pessimistic versions, the war just keeps going as the populations on both sides are blinded by warmongering propaganda and either unable or unwilling to ask what they’re fighting for in the first place. While stories of this kind may have a lot to say about what it feels like to be at war, however, they don’t match with what history shows us about the real causes of war.

Almost every society large enough to organize a substantial number of fighters, from ancient hunter-gatherer tribes to modern nations, has engaged in war. Some societies go to war readily, other reluctantly, and the immediate causes of individual conflicts vary, but certain patterns recur throughout history. Most wars ultimately come down to the need to control the resources that are essential to survival and prevent outsiders from threatening those resources. Most crucially, this means food, but other kinds of resources, such as access to trade routes, metals, and labor also contribute. People go to war because they are afraid of starving to death, not because they hate their neighbors.

The threat to survival may not always be immediate. Some wars are fought not for a direct tangible gain but to preserve reputation or prevent hostile forces from acquiring a competitive advantage. The danger that people fear when they go to war is also sometimes illusory or misjudged. Just because wars happen for a reason doesn’t mean that we all will (or should) agree that those reasons are good ones. Still, when you look behind the rhetoric and propaganda of a nation at war, you will almost always find a real fear about fundamental survival.

Ideologies, religions, political ideals, and other kinds of identities do play a role in shaping conflicts. They help to draw the lines between “us” and “them” and to justify why, in a time of crisis, “we” should live and “they” should die. Differences of identity alone, however, are not enough to cause wars. The history of the world is full of people of different faiths, ethnicities, and political persuasions living together in peace—not always harmony, but at least peace. War is the rare exception. To put it another way: war is a practical problem, not a moral problem.

Wars that arise from pragmatic fears will tend to last as long as those fears remain, or until the cost of continuing to fight outweighs the cost of accepting a settlement. History offers us plenty of examples of long wars. There were conflicts that lasted decades of more or less continual hostilities such as the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta or the Thirty Years’ War in early modern Europe. There were also conflicts that recurred between the same forces on more or less the same terms over generations or centuries, such as between the Roman and Parthian Empires or China and the peoples of the Central Asian steppes. From the point of view of ordinary soldiers and civilians living through them, any of these wars may well have seemed interminable and pointless, but behind all of them were real and practical fears of the threat that rival powers posed to control of essential resources. They continued for so long because these fears remained unresolved, not because of ingrained hostility. When they ended, it was because circumstances had changed—one power decisively defeated another, all powers were too exhausted to continue, or an outside force changed the dynamics of the conflict—not because people suddenly came to their senses and stopped hating one another.

Thoughts for writers

I’m not going to tell you that you shouldn’t write stories about long and pointless wars. This trope exists for a reason and it has an important place in our literature. It’s no surprise that the trope became popular among writers who lived through the Cold War and, in the United States, the war in Vietnam. Both of those conflicts seemed especially pointless to many, soldiers and civilians alike. Almost any war can seem meaningless from the point of view of the common soldier following orders and just trying to stay alive. Stories of this kind express something important about the dehumanizing effects of war and the common yearning for peace.

It’s not our job as fiction writers to try to perfectly replicate history. We have the freedom to be unrealistic, but we should know when we’re doing it. If you want to have noisy explosions in space because they make your story more exciting, go ahead and have them. If you want to write a story about vampires in Victorian London, don’t let the fact that vampires aren’t real stop you. Likewise, if you have a story to tell about war, tell it the way you want to tell it. Just be aware that actual wars begin and end because of practical need and fears, not because people just can’t get along.

Image: Modern soldiers visit the ancient city of Hatra in northern Iraq, photograph by George Gieske via Wikimedia

Post edited for clarity.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.