Monday, October 13, 2014

Story Combat Realism Part 4--the Barbarian Way

Last post I gave ancient and medieval examples of what I could have simply (but boringly) called "the professional warrior." The examples I gave were by no means identical, but they all shared in common an emphasis on long, disciplined study of war and weapons and hard training, on maintaining a code of conduct, and on staying as calm and level-headed as possible on the battlefield.

There's another warrior tradition of note--the barbarian warrior. There are commonalities and overlaps between barbarians and the pros (and even what it is meant by the term "barbarian"), but what I'm marking here as the fundamental difference between them is how they fight. The barbarian, whether a real one of history or fictional analogues, doesn't see any particular value in maintaining a level head in a battle. Not to say all of them are out of control at all times, but they do not specifically train to maintain calmness. Instead they rush into battle in a frenzy of rage and fury and fight with no concern for tomorrow, at least for the moment. That's the barbarian way.

Historically, when the professional warriors faced down barbarians, the pros almost always won. The Roman legions especially made breaking barbarian hordes their bread and butter. Celtic or Germanic (or other) tribesmen would charge the Roman line, howling in battle fury. A series of javelin volleys would slow the charge just enough to break up the momentum of the charge as it crashed into the unmoving wall of shields of the Roman professionally-trained soldiers. After some frenzy and thrashing of long swords breaking into shields answered with quick stabs into body cores for maximum damage by Roman short swords, the battlefield emotion would change from rage to panic. The barbarians, almost as suddenly as they had charged, would psychologically break and turn and run (or surrender). Roman cavalry had the specific mission of running down people in panicked flight on the battlefield, killing them as they fled. (Cavalry was normally held in reserve by the Romans until that point.)

But sometimes the barbarians would win. It turns out the barbarian way does have certain advantages over the training of the military pros:

1. Barbarians are masters of their harsh environment. Hunting down animals may have been a training exercise for Spartans and a passion for knights, but for the barbarian, hunting is a survival skill. The professionals are supported by a peasant class or for modern-day professionals, a base of taxpayers, one that produces food and needed supplies. If the pros come out into the wilderness to fight, they may have already trained in the wilderness and have skills there, but the barbarians are from the wilderness and their useful but non-fighting skills of stealth, tracking, basic survival, and weapons fabrication at least matches the pros and is usually (but not always) greater. The pros may learn to endure the rigors of the field while training--the barbarians live in the field and take the deprivations of battlefield life as a matter of course. Barbarian armies do not need a supply chain, or not much of one. And in general, while out in their home environment, the barbarians know how to blend in, while the pros tend to stand out.

2. They train to fight in informal ways. Barbarian warriors do train for war in contests and struggles with one another, sports of wrestling, horseback riding, archery, and more. But their training lacks the scientific rigor of the pros and specifically lacks the mindset that war should be approached under strict emotional control. However, note that the classic barbarian trains not only in games and contests, he lives in such an austere environment, he naturally develops a very high tolerance for pain.

3. What they lack in training, they make up for in numbers. While historically barbarians have been from harsh environments that did not support populations as large as the civilizations of the professional warriors, training the elite fighters of each civilization took so much time and effort that it was never the case that a majority of a civilization was under arms. Among the civilizations, it seems the Romans hold the record of keeping the largest standing professional army relative to the total population (roughly 1 out of 8, or 12.5%, of all Romans were in the Army). But for some barbarian peoples, every last male of a certain age was a warrior and for some others, every last available woman, too. The harsh lands of the barbarians might be under-populated relative to the territories controlled by literate and sedentary civilizations, but if the barbarians were able to unite, as the Mongolians did under Genghis Khan, they could build a storm cloud of fighters that could overwhelm the more restricted numbers of professional fighters from a sedentary civilization. Hence why the barbarian horde overwhelming helpless defenders is the stuff of legend.

3. Barbarians are masters of movement. In times past, cultures who lived in austere environments like steppes or deserts, who lived day in and out with horses, camels, and donkeys, were usually cultures that practiced warfare in the barbarian style. But there are other examples outside of the steppes and deserts, such as the Vikings and their longships. Barbarians make use of a transportation system as part of their daily survival and they use their skills of movement they naturally acquire in daily life in the way they fight war. (Since this post is not just about the past or epic fantasy cultures, imagine a science fiction space setting with asteroid miners each having their own little ships--that would be a great place to locate a barbarian warrior culture...) While barbarians tactically fight in a frenzy, on the larger scale of strategic combat, they carefully move along the best routes available to them, with speed and stealth, to surprise enemies unprepared. Which brings up their next advantage:

4. Outside the fury of the close fight, they plan and attack with cunning. Barbarians forces in history were often noted for employing clever plans and deceptions. The hordes of Genghis Khan were not scientific strategists, but they regularly employed clever plans to defeat their enemies, specifically taking advantage of their advantages in movement. Ancient Picts, Vikings, Slavs, or Comanches also tended to carefully plan the place and time of their furious attacks.

5. Barbarians don't give up because it makes sense to do so and don't hesitate to use sabotage or "irregular" warfare. Scientific warriors in history have tended to be either all or nothing in a fight, either fighting with all they have or maintaining peace. The barbarian warrior, if strategic conditions don't favor an outright attack, have no trouble making quiet raids and stealthy attacks. It might logical sense to stop the fight altogether, but the barbarian is primarily motivated by emotion, not logic, and will keep resisting an enemy on the large scale even if doing so doesn't make sense (which is of course a separate issue from barbarian armies becoming emotionally overwhelmed in the midst of a battle and fleeing or surrendering). Not all barbarian cultures are exactly alike of course, but in general, if they can't face a professional army in the field, they don't hesitate to take down who they can when given an opportunity. Barbarians don't usually have a code of honor except among themselves. A wise professional soldier always watches his back in barbarian country.

The 5 factors above, when used to examine armies of both fact and fiction, make it evident that most primitive warriors have met the characteristics I'm attributing to "the barbarian way"--but not all of them. Klingons of Star Trek, even with high technology, are best understood as barbarian warriors (even if they have a few aspects like professional warriors), while the Cardassians would fight like pros as would the elite of the Federation. In Star Wars, Imperial forces fight with self-control while in general the Rebel Alliance blends into their environment and leads with their emotions, keeping on fighting even when it doesn't really make sense to do so. Like barbarians.

Zulu warriors were primitive in terms of weapons they used (when compared to the British, that is), but they trained intensely and maintained emotional control in battle to the degree of ignoring gunfire decimating their ranks, so by the criteria I'm using, even though they have some aspects in common with barbarian forces, Zulus should be considered a professional fighting force. While the Taliban fight like barbarians in Afghanistan, even when they are much better equipped than Zulus were and represent a civilization that can read and write. In the struggle in inner cities between gangs and the police, the gangs fight like barbarians and the police usually fight like professional warriors--including having some of the disadvantages pros have always tended to have when it comes to blending into the environment and needing a supply chain and facing enemies who are cunning and unwilling to give up the fight, even if they lose almost every battle.

In the American Revolution, most Colonials were not warriors of any kind, but the frontiersman who mastered the use of the rifle as part of his daily life, who lived in the wilderness every day, represented a form of barbarian warrior who never hesitated to snipe at British officers. The British, who were the ultimate in drilled and trained professional warriors of their day, very rarely broke into surrender or flight on the battlefield, while Colonials often did. But in the end, the undertrained Colonials still found a way to beat the better-trained professionals, even though the main way they did so was by getting better training themselves and working to become more like the forces they opposed (that, and getting help from another set of pros, the French).

The aspect where barbarians do not follow a code of honor that extends beyond themselves leads to another set of observations I'm going to make next time, in a post that I'll call, "Evil as a System of War." Don't miss it. :)