War – Part I

Today’s post is about war, and how it can help shape a culture’s outlook.


(Disclaimer – no offence is intended with this post. Obviously, people have lost their lives during conflicts, and it’s not my intent to trivialise that in any way, shape or form.
Also, this world and its history are much too vast to include everyone, so I have taken a mere handful of examples. So if you have any you’d like to see featured or feel deserve a mention, leave a comment!)

Let’s consider a few concepts. This, of course, is an overview, and there are many specifics that I won’t be delving into this time (perhaps in future posts). For the sake of argument, let’s assume that you, dear reader, are building a fantasy world with fantasy races, whether that be an alternate humanity or splinter of existing humanity – perhaps they found a mystical portal, were taken there in a spaceship (be it a generational arc, abducted), a magical ship that fell through a sea, what have you –, or perhaps you’re thinking of developing your elven kingdoms (or republics, or oligarchies, commonwealth, federal states, the industrialised elven nations…), or perhaps the dwarven clans (or tribes, or martial orders), gnomish – well, you get the idea; you’ve got an idea of what races you want, but right now that’s just a concept: how will they interact with each other?

And that, dear readers, is an example of a really long sentence that you should probably never use in actual prose (or indeed, anywhere else).

Or perhaps you don’t have any of that; that’s okay, we’ll get to that in a later post, for now, read on and perhaps it will inspire you with a clearer idea of what you might want.

But onto the topic at hand! War. Historically, pretty much every culture I can think of off the top of my head has had some sort of martial arm. Rome, Sparta, the Celtic Tribes, Ancient China, those in the Americas (the Aztecs, Maya and Inca spring to mind), in Africa (Songhai, anyone?), and just about everywhere else. Even Tibet has a martial history, and the Vatican has the Swiss Guard!

It’s safe to assume that unless there is some kind of magical seal (perhaps an ancient curse) or technological wizardry (perhaps some kind of airborne nanite) that prevents fighting or causes pain, or perhaps immortality and people are just sick of fighting, the chances are that sooner or later, conflict will erupt. Assassinations, murder, revenge, trade, theft… you name it, conflict is littered across the pages of history and fiction alike. And unless it is restricted only to duelling (something that I use in my own work rather a lot!), the chances are that the guy with the big stick, sword, or hammer, will probably want his buddies around him, if only because the other side is likely to have his (or her!) buddies around him/her too.

Types of Warfare & Its Effects

This is rather an important distinction: What sort of warfare is waged? Is it champion based, as in the ancient Greek sagas, tales of chivalric valour, samurai calling out a challenge, or as some research suggests, part of the Celtic culture (I use the term loosely as although there was a common language, there was a great deal of variation across the various tribes), or is it more like Rome, the Greek phalanxes, where armies fought in pitched battles? Is it skirmished based, guerrilla units, warbands raiding one another – pirates at sea! – or is it a mix? You see, the type of war waged really impacts and determines how a culture views war to a great extent. If war is seen as heroic, there are going to be a lot more memorials to heroic figures and heroic deeds, even if those heroes were bloodthirsty tyrants and sociopaths.

If a culture values compassion and chivalry, then the chances are they won’t be killing one another – which also ties into captives and ransom. If it is warfare for the purposes of taking captives, (let’s look at the Viking raids, the Aztecs), then that, too, alters things. If it is waged using bands of mercenaries (such as was seen in Europe around the Renaissance, I believe but could be wrong), then that again changes things: most mercenary bands will probably want to live to fight another day, and it is more than possible that ‘war’ is simply a form of theatre, putting on a good show, the odd few dead, but really, the causalities are very minimal.

If it’s about taking captives, then that also changes things: are the warriors honoured for taking their victims alive, for example, or is it about taking slaves?

Is war a battle for survival, bloody conquest, attrition designed to slowly bleed a foe, is it about ideology? Maybe it’s none of these or all of them; perhaps it starts out as ideological and turns to something much, much darker.

A culture that is geared towards war and expects it, (plunder economy, looking at you, Rome!), it is going to be different to a nation that has just fought a long world war, seen its cities bombed, many families devastated and is generally weary of war. If it’s the sort of war where your best mate isn’t coming home, you’ve seen things beyond imagining, then you may have a very different outlook and probably discourage your children and grandchildren from signing on. If it’s conscription, national duty (another device I use in my own works!), it also alters the cultural outlook.

National Myths & Impact

There are, of course, national myths too – let’s take the Battle of Trafalgar, of Waterloo, the Battle of the Somme, the Battle of Britain, Dunkirk, the battle Cannae (between Hannibal – the chap who crossed the Alps with thirty-eight (if I recall) elephants – and Rome), Thermopylae (Three hundred Spartans and a few thousand other Greeks vs. the Persians), there are many others – these have all embedded themselves as part of the national mythology of their respective nations, either as defeats or as victories.

The first Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, used his victories in the Napoleonic war as a platform to become prime minister, if memory serves; Gaius Julius Caesar also used his victories for political ends. Victory in battle can translate to political power. It is also a powerful way of galvanising the nation. “Remember [battle]”. And then, of course, there’s the legend of King Arthur – the once and future king, who will return in Britain’s greatest hour of need. How’s that for a myth?

What great victories and defeats can you think of for your world, that your characters reference, either solemnly and/or for national pride? Can you place any larger-than-life tales on great heroic figures and/or generals? How about a general who was virtuous who becomes a corrupt political leader, still remembered for the glory days? How does that translate as a sympathetic villain, one who starts off with the best possible intentions, is brave, saves the nation, but as time goes on, bit by bit, he or she makes one too many compromises. Perhaps it wasn’t what he/she fought for; the realities of peacetime are not the same as war (more on that in another post).

Life at Home

Now, I’ve not talked a great deal about maritime nations in this. If war takes place away from home, it can allow for propaganda. If people on the home front aren’t in any immediate danger, what will your citizens actually know what’s occurring beyond their borders and will they care? If plunder and slaves are pouring back into the land and enriching everyone (or perhaps the elite few, or just those on campaign…), how does this affect them? After all, consider for a moment if this has been going on for generations and the ‘ethics’ that have been taught since great-great grandpa Bill all say ‘the victor is glorified’, then how is the loser viewed?

Which raises another point: what are the borders like? Are your nations constantly at war, has it lasted generations? Is it ‘for a thousand years’ on paper (also something I use!) but the reality is that it’s only every decade or so a skirmish or pitched battle takes place. Is the enemy hated? How hated? I mean, is it ‘the old enemy’ as the English saw the French (let’s look at the battle of Crecy, Agincourt, and then the Napoleonic wars – bearing in mind that the Anglo-Normans, who seized England from the Anglo-Saxons (also not native), were in fact Vikings who got given Normandy so they wouldn’t keep raiding France, and then, having had lands in France, they wanted more, along with Wales, Scotland and Ireland, because why just stop with England*? -_-), and have a history of feuding?
*This is in no way unique to the Normans by the way. Just about every empire, regardless of how it was founded, is prone to expansion and as it expands, it tends to bring about cultural advance in some areas while crushing others. We could sit here and talk about the benefits and pitfalls of empire for several lifetimes, but that will have to wait for another day. Whether you see expansion as good, bad, neutral, or both, it still happened and we have the benefit of hindsight.

Is it an ideological war of religion, at least on the surface (let’s face it, most wars are political and involve some form of economics), such as the Spanish Armada and its reason for invading England (spoiler: it failed, mostly on account of the weather… or so I’m led to understand).

“So what’s this all about?”

The point is, what a populace is told, how long a conflict’s been going, and the type of conflict all play a role in shaping those within the realm. If it is a realm that is constantly being raided, threatened, or otherwise bullied, or even conquered, its people will have a very different outlook. And what about different populations being brought in? Either through conquest, planted settlers (I’m actually going to leave this one alone), refugees, or immigration. Maybe trade with locals. And while we’re on the topic of migration, how many of your realms are actually settled? The classic example of nomadic peoples that spring to mind are the Huns, the Mongols, the Manchus, the Berbers, those great explorers of the Pacific, the Polynesians. There are, of course, many others. Perhaps have a ponder over how many of your peoples should be settled, migratory, or semi-settled. Migrations happened a lot more frequently in history than we often realise!

Next up, part II!

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