Saturday, November 15, 2014

Story Combat Realism Part 5--Evil as a System of War

David Grossman's On Combat (as well as his earlier work, On Killing) has largely inspired my blog post series on combat realism, though I'm not delivering the exact same conclusions, nor putting things in the same order he did.

When he discussed the factors that make it easier to for a human to kill another (for almost all human beings are naturally adverse to killing members of our own species), it struck me how a certain combination of factors have defined some of the most terrifying militaries that have ever existed on the face of Planet Earth. These factors define armies that rightfully should be called "evil," a distinction Grossman never talked about specifically. These factors include:

1. It's easier to kill if an authoritative leader is telling you to do so (psychologically, this relieves individual guilt). Let's call this the "Nazi mentality"--"I was only doing as ordered."

2. It's easier to kill if you are with a group of people doing the same thing (individuals tend to feel less responsible for their own choices when doing what everyone else is doing). Let's call this the "mob mentality"--seen in the violence that happens in any urban riot.

3. There is pleasure to be found in surviving the death of an enemy. Among the highly trained professional warrior elites throughout most of history, most soldiers have been instructed not to enjoy the death of an enemy too much (indeed, the Spartan and Stoic schools of thought discouraged enjoying anything too much), But there have been militaries and fighting forces who took the opposite approach--who took as much pleasure in the death of their enemy as they could.

Add to the factors above the reality of the fight-flight-or-surrender response (talked about in the Part One of this series) and it winds up being true that brutal armies have a type of psychological edge over those who are less vicious. Because enemies who are terrified before the battle even begins are more likely to break into flight or surrender.

Modern armies have as a general rule embraced the concept of a moral warrior (I believe the influence of Christianity on Western culture is a large part of the reason why), so it may be hard for modern fiction writers to fully conceive of the idea that there have been many, many armies in the history of the world in which soldiers were expected to enjoy brutality and were also expected, commanded even, to commit atrocities after a battle for the purpose of breaking an enemy's will to fight. That's what I'm calling "Evil as a System of War"--warfare in which armies, whether highly disciplined or not, find the means to either enjoy killing or act with utter brutality towards their enemies with the deliberate purpose of inspiring terror. 

Of course there are evil soldiers within armies that do not embrace evil as a system--and war has evil effects no matter the moral philosophy of those fighting it. But there is a difference--some military systems have wholly given themselves over to what I'm specifically defining as "evil," while others have not.

As I'm writing this mainly for speculative fiction writers, it's true that the epic sweep of many fantasy and science fiction stories lends itself well to portraying armies who revel in terrorizing others. No doubt many readers of this blog will have made attempts to portray evil in an all-encompassing way. But this post is drawing on historical examples in order to help a writer make those portrayals more realistically, to show that an army deliberately embracing evil in warfare does have a "method to its madness" and should be portrayed as such. 

Again, while modern armies do mean to inspire terror in their enemies (as in "shock and awe" as Donald Rumsfeld put it), modern militaries in general also embrace the idea of the military member as someone with a family, someone who obeys a code of ethics, someone who should be respected and admired as well as feared. There have been plenty of societies where soldiers have inspired both fear and respect, but it's those that focused primarily on fear I'm discussing in this post. These included among others the ancient Assyrians, the Huns, the Mongolians under Genghis Khan, the Aztecs, and the Nazi Waffen SS.

Note that some of these terror-inspiring militaries have been barbarian armies in the sense I described in Part 4 of this series, armies that fight without strict emotional discipline and maintain certain other advantages not shared by professional armies. But it was not always true that barbarian armies embraced evil and used terror as a weapon. Nor were all terrifying armies composed of barbarians. Undeniably members of the Waffen SS maintained strict emotional control and in other regards were "civilized" men. Certainly for them the most important factor in what allowed them to kill was not a lack of an ethical system so much as one that called for "inferiors" to be destroyed without mercy and which also emphasized absolute obedience to authority--if the authority said "kill" they were taught to obey without hesitation. Whereas barbarian hordes such as the Cossacks or Huns, while they did believe in and practice discipline in battle at least to a degree, borrowed more from the "mob mentality" than the "Nazi mentality" to become accustomed to killing.

The historical record is not as complete about the ancient Assyrians as it is about more recent armies, but they also seem to have reveled in brutality while simultaneously maintaining a cool, level head. Note the following inscription from Assyrian Emperor Ashurbanipal"I built a pillar at the city gate and I flayed all the chief men who had revolted and I covered the pillar with their skins; some I walled up inside the pillar, some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes." This was the routine order of business for the Assyrians and seemed to be carried out with a gruesome dispassionate attitude. It seems clear they were disciplined in their approach to inspiring terror among their conquered enemies. They didn't flay people alive because they were angry, but because the effect it had in causing their enemies to submit.

So what I've called "evil" above--what are some of its distinctive features as a method of fighting war? And what advantages or disadvantages does it have? 

1. Evil armies embrace the concept that war is and should be terrible and in they fact enjoy it as such. Chivalry or mercy to the weak they see as wrong. All enemies deserve to suffer or die and have no rights to their property or persons--and the word "enemy" is described as anyone who gets in the way of the horde--or anyone the evil army has been ordered to destroy--no matter who they are, what they have done, whether they are good or evil, weak or strong.

Advantages: An evil army does not have to worry about caring for prisoners and usually does not hesitate to take booty and to rape and pillage. Fighting in such an army can be very profitable and even enjoyable in a sinister way, which does draw a certain kind of recruit. And if any soldiers are incapable of being sufficiently brutal, they too can be gotten rid of. No actions are ruled out in advance, every option is on the table--so in some ways it's more efficient to be evil.

2. As already mentioned, evil armies inspire a state of terror, which can actually prevent some battles and give an edge in others.

Advantages: When coupled with an offer to "surrender and be spared" versus "die horribly at our hands" the terror of brutality has inspired plenty of people to surrender to armies with a reputation for brutality without a fight. This gives a vicious army an advantage over one that tends to be lenient to enemies. It can also give a psychological edge when not coupled with an offer to surrender, so that enemies of an evil army are too unnerved to fight as well as they otherwise would.

3. Evil armies are always looking to "make an example" of someone and have zero tolerance for the least sign of resistance, in particular among those who have already surrendered.

Advantage/Disadvantage: This trait does tend to reinforce the terror evil inspires. But it also comes with the disadvantage that those who have already surrendered may wind up suffering for relatively trivial reasons. Which does not inspire genuine loyalty on their part (when forced to be loyal with brutality, people tend to look for the first realistic opportunity to betray that loyalty). And which tends to work against new enemies surrendering when it is evident they will suffer at the hands of the evil army no matter what they do.

4. Forces of evil publicize their triumphs and the humiliation of their enemies. They often did this historically with body parts displayed, as in the flayed skin already mentioned. Or body parts of enemies kept as trophies or distributed around to be seen over a wide area. (This kind of thing gets sanitized in some science fiction and fantasy stories. Yes, Darth Vader crushes any rebellion against him. But where are his trophies? Where is his actual lust to make people suffer? Compared to some real historical figures, Darth Vader is rather a lightweight in evil...)

Advantage: The advantage is again to produce an effect of terror especially among already-conquered peoples. But the disadvantage is that it can backfire. In fact, the principle disadvantage of an army wholly embracing evil is that the reputation for terror can cause resistance to stiffen, especially if the brutality is against those who already surrendered. And nations who would not otherwise get along, have no problem building an alliance to fight against a perceived evil. 

So while outright evil has some advantages as a method of conducting warfare, notably its efficiency, the psychological edge on the battlefield it gives, and its ability to inspire surrender without a fight, it does not have all the advantages over "good." Good armies, or ones that include systems of training soldiers that embrace a concept of ethical duties that go beyond the interests of the army itself, have a much easier time rallying together an alliance than do evil armies--and they inspire greater and more permanent loyalty.

Another advantage good has over evil lies in the long-term psychological effects combat has on those human beings who fight in wars. These effects we'll look at on the next post on this topic...



  1. Your thorough understanding of the topic shows in your fiction. It is a great example for all writers, whether they use violence or warfare in their stories or not. 'Know your subject matter' and 'do the research' and your work will come alive. (As yours does.)

  2. Tracy, thank you so much for the positive comment. I really appreciate it.

    Though I am of course continuing to learn and also continuing to improve as a writer...