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Speculative Fiction Writer's Guide to War, part 10: The Aftermath of Combat

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Travis P here. The picture I’ve included above is by Tom Lea, an artist who traveled with US Marines in the Pacific during World War II (this particular painting is called “The Two Thousand Yard Stare”). The image captures better than words ever can one of the effects combat has, a particular example of what the aftermath of combat can be.

I first meant this post to talk about long-term after the fact effects of combat, how it changes the warrior who fights in battle permanently. But I’ve found the actual information on this topic more elusive than I believed it was. So I’m going to broaden the topic a bit to talk about the effects of combat after the fact in general, not just long-term.

Let’s start with the “thousand yard stare.” I read one source that suggested that eyes staring unfocused in the distance is adaptive for survival, because by not focusing on any particular thing, the peripheral vision expands, so any potentially dangerous motion is easily detected. I mention this sou…

Speculative Fiction Writer’s Guide to War, Part 9: Perceptual Distortions in Combat

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Two articles ago in this series looked at exceptional human beings and their reactions to combat over the long-term in terms of their ability to manage the stresses of warfare without suffering psychological harm. This article looks at the physical effects a life or death struggle has on a person during fighting itself and next week’s article will go into long-term effects of combat on human beings. (Information below is derived from Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s book, On Combat. Psychological effects in general, including perceptual distortions, are summarized in an article on Lt. Col. Grossman’s website.)
Let’s observe up front that there are inherent difficulties in this kind of study. People going into battle don’t usually have heart monitors attached to them. But the available evidence from laboratory experiments shows that when the human heart rate increases from stress alone (as opposed to exercise), certain predictable effects take place:

Note a trend in this chart. A certain leve…

Speculative Fiction Writer's Guide to War, Part 8: How do War Injuries Feel?

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This post is inspired by a specific question from one of the readers of this series. The nature of the question is worthy of a specific answer, yet this particular topic was not part of what I'd originally planned to cover. It finds it's places at number 8 in the series due to an earlier error that skipped that number.

Let’s make a few things clear up front: 1. What is most life threatening and what is most painful are often not the same thing at all. 2. What is the most gruesome to see is not necessarily the most painful, either. 3. Different people experience pain differently, so coming up with any absolute scale of painfulness is impossible. However, there are certain tendencies that have been noted in how people react to pain, allowing us to make some general observations. Let’s take the topic of how different people experience pain first. Note this discussion will become a bit gruesome, though I’m not going to show any graphic pictures. But if you’re of a very sensitive …

Speculative Fiction Writer’s Guide to War, Part 7: The Fearless Elite

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Last week we discussed factors that influence a person’s ability to take another person’s life.

It’s hard. The closer you are and the more intimate the manner of killing, the harder it gets. We’ve discussed some of the psychological impacts that affect a person’s desire to engage in combat, those core fears that must be overcome to bring oneself into the arena, so to speak, to engage the enemy. Yet in speculative fiction across every genre we are exposed to characters who wade into battle without hesitation (or hesitation that is not fully developed), and perform the most miraculous of feats with nary a second thought. We love the fearless Aragorns and Legolas’, the intrepid space marines and underdog-turned-superhero who make up the large majority of our casts of characters.

Back to our Grossman reference of On Killing. The vast majority of people must overcome strong resistance to take a life in combat. Yet some people feel little fear of this kind of “up close and personal war.” S…