Friday, June 26, 2015

Story Combat Realism 9: Battlefield Injury, Dying, Death, and Healing

Fictional portrayals of how people die in speculative fiction are often unrealistic. This topic has the potential encompass an entire book of its own, but this blog aim has the aim of correcting major errors and re-orienting the speculative fiction writer to how death and injury on the battlefield should look.

Let's start with epic fantasy and work our way to futuristic science fiction. Epic fantasy, of course, relates to real-world human ancient and medieval warfare, which provides the insights this post discusses.

Epic Fantasy Battle Observations

1. The single blow/single shot rarely kills: You've seen it in the LOTR movies--Legolas fires into an orc, who is blown back by the force of impact of an arrow. And never moves again. Or an orc is stabbed in the chest (right in the middle, no less) and may make a final shriek, but falls down after that, dead, never to move again. I find blows in the middle of enemy armor, without a magically sharp sword or something to explain how useless the armor is, especially annoying. But let's just focus on the wound. Most penetrating wounds to the chest will probably hit a lung, since the lungs fill most of the chest cavity. Will that prove to be fatal? In ancient times it almost always was--but never immediately. Also note that an arrow imparts far less kinetic energy than a bullet does. Arrows would not blow a person back like a shotgun blast--arrows are designed to slice through flesh anyway, not force a hole through it. A ballista would put out enough force to provide that kind of blowback power. But not a regular bow.

The orcs Legolas shoots should slow down but not stop. If they get rocked back and fall (or fall forward in pain) they should get up. For an ordinary chest shot.

2. The headshot exception to #1: True enough, a decapitating blow is an instant kill. So is a head-cleaving ax blow. Or an arrow in the eye. But UNLESS you are Legolas, archers find it hard to deliver a killing blow to the head. It's small and continually moving and usually protected by a helmet. It's easy enough to miss and hit the cheekbone and leave someone seriously maimed but still alive. Also, not deliberately being gruesome, but blows intended to wholly or partially cleave heads have missed often enough in real combat, leaving the recipient more likely than not certain to die, but not right away, and perhaps still able to fight. And while a powerful, sharp sword can perform an instant decapitation, swinging such blows does not always land right due to armor, an enemy ducking, etc. I remember reading one particularly unpleasant historic account in which a blow intended to decapitate only cut the major tendons on one side of horseman's neck. He galloped off, still alive, but not able to keep his head up, it dangling down like a tetherball (this happened in a battle between British forces and Afghans). The man eventually died of his wounds, but much later...there are reasons why aiming for the body of an enemy made real sense in ancient and medieval warfare, just as why it makes sense to aim a firearm there today. The target is easier to hit. Characters that have unerring aim like Legolas should put every arrow they fire through an eye. Or through the base of the skull against an enemy with the back turned, which would not be an instant kill, but instant paralysis. But characters who aren’t as good a Legolas will aim for the body. Which means no instant death for those they hit.

3. The top 3 ancient/medieval battlefield killers: The three things that would cause someone to die in the short term (not always immediately) on the battlefield in the sort of way you'd see in epic fantasy, listed in the speed in which they cause death, would be:
          a. Head injuries, discussed above.
          b. A penetrating wound to the heart. Much easier to land on an opponent without armor, this wound would usually incapacitate immediately and would cause loss of consciousness in seconds. However, there are accounts from ancient times of warriors, particularly in a battle frenzy, who would continue to fight for a minute or so after having the heart pierced through with an arrow or a sword or spear thrust.
          c. Bleeding to death. While this is the third on this list I've made, it was by far the most common cause of someone dying on the battlefield. There are so many arteries in the body core that a single arrow blow could easily nick one. Or a single penetrating sword stab could cut one as well. In fact, it was pretty likely a well-executed sword stab would hit at least one artery. But bleeding to death depended on the rate of the bleed, from the size of the vessel(s) cut, from whether they were naturally under pressure or not. The femoral artery that supplies the leg can cause death in perhaps three minutes (and unconsciousness before that). Other wounds to the gut or lung might cause someone to bleed to death--but only after several hours, or in a few cases, after longer still.

4. Mortal wounds: On ancient and medieval battlefields, it was extremely common for a person to receive a wound that would eventually kill, but may not even seriously incapacitate in the short term. As a generality, penetrating wounds into the body cavity of a human being were always fatal. There were exceptions, but those people who managed not to bleed to death usually got seriously infected and died over a period of days after the battle was over. In fact, for many battles, more people died after the battle was over than during the battle itself.

It may be counter-intuitive, but plenty of people survived traumatic amputations or partial amputations of limbs. Applying a tourniquet or tightly-tied cloth to slow bleeding was knowledge widely held in times past and the risk of infection to a limb was far lower than infection to the main body cavity. Though of course surviving a lost limb required at least a primitive form of medical treatment. Leading to my next point:

5. Don't forget to include healers: From guys who know how to bind wounds in tight cloth to apply pressure and to cauterize slow bleeders, to highly skilled ancient students of the body like the Greeks and Chinese who knew how to clamp arteries and provide antibiotic and pain-killing herbs, to major magicians who could regenerate wounds, healers would be important on any battlefield. Tolkien, the inspiration for a great deal of epic fantasy, rather neglected the issue of healing battlefield wounds, except in relation to magic. Yes, Frodo gets healed from one particular injury, one magically-related. But most of the rest of the issue of injuries is ignored--yes, Tolkien was extremely successful as a writer of epic battles anyway, but I recommend you think and write about how injured soldiers on the battlefield will be treated in the both the short and long term.

Shifting from the world of fantasy to the world of science fiction, let me say that as medical technology advances in a story world, more and more injuries are survivable. Medics in the 21st century carry tourniquets that are so easy to apply they can be put on with one hand. Chitosan will stop a major arterial bleeder within the body. Antibiotics have defeated all but the most pernicious infections. Even serious head wounds can often be treated, if the wounded party can get to medical attention on time. But at the same time, weapons become increasingly lethal over time. Hence why I’m going to shift to talking about weapons a bit.

Futuristic Science Fiction Battlefield Observations

1. Future weapons should show increased lethality: This should be super obvious, but a number of famous science fiction stories in film have featured weapons that were not particularly effective. The blaster in Star Wars fires about as fast as a crossbow bolt--the light saber is more lethal than a cavalry saber, but not immensely so. A modern machine gun would do more damage than many fictional rayguns. Remember, this post is about realism and while certain stories may sell just fine with such fictions, I'm about to list realistic ways to increase the lethality of future weapons in stories:
          a. Ionizing radiation. It's everywhere but is infrequently featured in science fiction stories. It shouldn't be--an obvious tactic in a future battlefield would be to poison an area with high doses of ionizing radiation. Such areas would act like minefields. They would be deadly for everyone, but would be used to block areas and restrict enemy movement. Enemies with proper sensors would avoid radiation areas. Enemies without them would cross into the radiation zone, not seeing, tasting, or smelling anything. Until they began to throw up, their skin burning, any hair falling out. Death would by no means be instantaneous, but it would be certain.
          b. Real beam weapons. Real lasers travel at the speed of light--which means when you turn them on, any target in the range of a dismounted soldier would be instantly hit. Yes, these weapons use a great deal of power--but compacted power sources is a feature of science fiction. Note that a laser does not have to be visible to the naked eye at all--it can be, say, in the ultraviolet range and cut flesh. Or in the microwave range and instantly cook flesh.
          c. Mini/nano/tracking weapons. A host of flying robots, perhaps big enough to be seen with the naked eye, perhaps not, which would obey its owner but no one else is an obvious futuristic weapon. Individual homing missiles are also obvious--why use bullets that have to be aimed when every shot of a rifle could be a heat-seeking missile? (or other type of target seeker)
          d. Antimatter blasts. Not just on the starship level, but an individual trooper that could pull the trigger on a pistol that would release an explosion that's the equivalent to a 500 pound bomb is entirely realistic in the context of futuristic science fiction warfare.
          e. Destructive teleportation beams. Look, I'm not sure I believe in teleportation beams like the transporter in Star Trek, but IF you had such a thing, using them in warfare would be routine. It would allow placing bombs without an enemy seeing them until too late. It would allow stripping out key body parts (say hearts) or selectively removing a key element (say taking all the iron from the blood and leaving the rest of the body).
          f. Gravity beams: If gravity could be manipulated in the future, then it could become a weapon, rather like the teleportation beam, ripping hearts out of enemy chests instead of beaming them out...
          g. Increased use of robots, drones, and androids. To get living creatures out of the kill zone in the first place.
          h. Other: I created this category just to say my list above is not exhaustive and isn't intended to be. Think about the technology of your futuristic story world. If there is any way to use a principle of the science of your world as a weapon, someone will have thought how to do it. If people could make wormholes reliably, they'd use them to suck away the enemy headquarters. Etc.

2. Increased lethality should be balanced out as much as possible by defenses. Armies respond to more lethal weapons by trying to protect themselves better. If ionizing radiation can be shielded (realistically no one knows how to do that with a force field--lead and distance are the best things we know), then it will be less used. Or used only against enemies who can't protect themselves from it. Increased lethality will inspire increased mobility. And increased communications. Soldiers in contact with one another by advanced communications do not need to be in visual contact. And if an enemy weapon has a wide path of destruction, it would be natural to put soldiers as far apart as possible. I mean tens of kilometers or miles apart for ground troops. Starships would engage each other from as far away as they realistically could. Which brings up my next point:

3. Starships forces need to be accounted for: If missiles track enemy ships and beam weapons are more lethal, starships should be so far away from each other as to never be in naked eyeshot, assuming they can't make effective shields (which again, no one knows how to make even in theory). Ramming another vessel would be a ridiculous idea because the enemy would see you coming from so far off it would be easy to vector away from such an attack. Since the speed of light is a limitation, starships/space warcraft as far apart as they could afford to be would be partially guessing where their enemy is, because the distance would mean any sensory information would be from minutes or even hours in the past. A great part of the challenge would be to find the enemy craft, rather like submarine warfare. But increased lethality would mean a single hit with an antimatter bomb would tend to kill the entire crew of an enemy craft. Or a large proportion of them. Starship combat where only two or three people are killed is not very realistic, given the forces involved, even with improvements in medical technology. A fail in inertial compensation that rocks people in their chairs in Star Trek would splatter them against the wall in more realistic science fiction.

4. Expand the capacities of the healing arts. Limb regeneration, memory restoration, brain reconstruction, paralysis correction, restoration of senses (Geordi LaForge is not a realistic character), perhaps even what would seem to us to be a form of resurrection, along with various enhancements of natural human abilities--these things should be all standard in futuristic science fiction. Medical science would try as hard as it could to counterbalance the increased lethality of weapons. Someone broken into a pile of mush could be reconstituted, if a medical professional could get to him or her on time.

In summary, the most important factor to keep in mind in dealing with weapons damage and healing is to remember you are not talking about analogues to modern times on Planet Earth. Where the story setting is radically different from our conditions, the issue of wounds and what is survivable should be different, too.

This post has been a broad overview of the topic that could be covered in more detail. Any questions or comments for further discussion are more than welcome. :)



  1. Hehe, I had a major geeky moment over the more lethal weapons part. Those are some neat ideas!

    I started my own WIP when I was 14, so the worldbuilding was pretty weak. :P They had Star-Wars-esque blaster guns, rode large animals into battle, and fought with swords and spears shot through with electricity. Despite the high tech used in the rest of the storyworld (teleportation, memory erasure, and hovercraft, for starters!) their weapons and style of warfare was more like high fantasy than sci-fi, except with a few futuristic elements thrown in for coolness. These weapons didn't seem particularly effective, either...with their tech they could easily prevent injury from all those things! For this current draft I'm working hard on the warfare aspect. My husband helped me find an explanation for why they use animals rather than vehicles, and use fairly small weaponry...the invading enemy, unable to bring much equipment when they teleported, had to start completely from scratch, but they started by capturing the mountain range where that world got most of its metal ore. It was a mostly peaceful world beforehand, so its people were left scrambling to create an army's worth of weapons with a limited and quickly dwindling supply of metal. I really should rethink their weaponry and tactics more, though...I'm just about to write the first real battle scene, so this is good timing.

    1. Ok. Well, explosives are pretty technologically simple. Afgans manage to make them in mud huts. So people would be able to make explosive and other kinds of booby traps in your world. Pipe bombs and molotov cocktails would be easy to scratch together, too. People should also be pressing civilian equipment into military use. So if you have a teleporter, yes people would find a weapons use for it. Swords are actually not that easy to make (spears that have knives taped or strapped to poles is easy), so your society would probably use swords only if a lot of them were already available. Say they kept large quantities around for ceremonial usages, then found themselves using them for real...

    2. Good to know about explosives! I'll have to think on how I can work more explosions in, haha. :D

      The world's natives DID have swords before the war (mostly used for sports sparring, but they've been repurposed for military use). The invading army tends to use a lot of spears, which happily makes a lot of sense given what you said about spears being easy to make. I'm not sure if their plasma weaponry would be something they could make with limited metal supplies, but maybe they used those for hunting before the war and they've been repurposed too.

      Both races of people are actually venomous, so I've been brainstorming ways for them to use their venom more effectively as a weapon in combat. The natives' venom is only paralyzing, though, not fatal - and it's self-limiting because once they deplete their stores of it they suffer a variety of symptoms like light-headedness, the shakes, etc. So they're at a disadvantage over the invaders, who have deadly venom and use blowpipes to shoot darts tipped with it.

    3. Can your native people produce their venom at will? Does it have to enter the blood through a bite? Can they, say, heat a large quantity of it to make an airborne version? If they CAN make an inhaled version and produce a cloud of paralysis, they would certainly do so...though it might take a bit to figure out the details. FYI.

  2. I just found this and I know it's a year old, but it's very informative. In my sci-fi, the weapons are about as lethal as Earth weaponry. (The tech of that universe is just passed Earth level, so a modern Earth military would be able to take on the alien militaries.) There is a cavalry, mostly because the aliens who ride them are a species that's only three feet tall and can glide, so they can't cary much without a mount, plus, their mounts are basically a cross between a giant canine and big cat, so that could have quite the psychological impact on whoever they attack. Their ammunition is rather ineffective due to them being too small to deal with large guns, but their mounts make up for that, plus, with mounts that are partially arboreal, they can be used in cities, unlike our world's cavalry.
    When it comes to killing, I wonder how much easier it would be for my aliens since they aren't fighting their own species. I'm guessing the fact that there's a four foot height difference between the two main species could make surrender less likely, as well as make killing easier.

    1. Assuming your aliens are psychologically like humans, killing someone an alien species would be easier than killing one of your own. Especially if the alien facial expressions and emotional reactions express themselves in a radically different way.

      If you ever want to brainstorm a discussion of your combat, I'd be happy to help.

      Thanks for your positive comments, by the way. :)