So you have decided to write a fantasy/science fiction story (sometimes it is hard to distinguish the two, I am looking at you Anne McCaffrey) involving war, mighty armies, and impressive battle scenes; but there is a problem, you don’t know anything about the military, its organization, tactics, strategy, or the history of warfare. Some writers—Christoper Paolini springs to mind immediately—when faced with this problem will simply just wing it. I find this to be completely unacceptable, from both the prospective of a military history buff and an army brat. To help remedy the problem I have created this little starter kit to help any prospective writers out.
Now there is one important question you have to answer when writing your story: what is the national policy of the country/countries engaged in the conflict? You must answer this when telling about your fictional war. Bear in mind that there are five key elements that affect a country’s national policy. First is the country’s political leadership. Carl von Clausewitz—the Prussian version of Sun Tzu (whose book On War I would recommend you pick up and read if you want to write any type of military fiction)—defined war as continuation of politics by other means. Why do your country’s leaders want to go to war (saying they’re evil is not acceptable)? What do they hope to gain? More land, resources? Do they have an ideological agenda? Is it a preemptive strike? If you can’t answer these questions, I want to kindly suggest you stop writing and start thinking of answers instead.
The second is the economic status of the combatants. Wars are generally very expensive, you would be surprised how much money it can take to outfit a simple infantry battalion of a thousand men. Trying to maintain a large army, navy, and air force can easily bankrupt a country; which is why most countries tend to have a small permanent force during peace time and a larger reserve force that is inactive most of the time (Note: if you are writing a story set in medieval times, the countries during the time period have no concept of strategic reserves). So here is another set of questions for prospective writers to answer: How strong are the respective economies of the countries involved? How do they plan to finance the war? Higher taxes, taking out loans, looting conquered territories?
The next one is the size and condition of the military forces. How large is your army, what kind of equipment does it have, how well are the soldiers trained? These items are very important when designing the flow and ultimate outcome of the war. Take for example the Aztecs and the Spanish; the Aztec armies outnumbered Cortez’s Spanish expeditionary force by a considerable margin, but Cortez’s men had much better armor and weapons, not to mention they had horses and the Aztecs didn’t. If you don’t realize how much of a difference horses can, make please stop writing and do more research. Yet, superior weapons do not necessarily guarantee victory. Germany during WWII had the best weapons and equipment, but still succumbed to the Allies’ superior numbers and industrial base.
Also take into consideration the population of a country when deciding how large the army is. That is one of my biggest complaints with the Eragon books (I have a list of other complaints, and believe me it is a fairly long list). Paolini’s pseudo-Germanic wannabe Middle Earth country has at the most a population of ten million. Odds are its population smaller, somewhere around four to six million. And it apparently maintains a couple of field armies over a hundred thousand strong all the time. No, no, no, no, and for change of pace, NO! There is no way it should be able to support an army of that size, much less two or three, for any length of time.
Why, you ask? Well, lets look at what kind of manpower King Galby has to draw on and what hints are dropped in the books (there are a couple, believe it or not. Surely an oversight on Paolini’s part.) Note that for the sake of argument I am going to assume the country has a population of ten million, a nice round number. Our first clue is when Arya makes this wonderful little announcement:
Do not pamper me, human. Elves train both their men and women to fight. I am not one of your helpless females to run away whenever there is danger. (Eragon, pg. 477)
So now we can reasonably assume that Algaesian Empire does not use female soldiers. Fair enough, most medieval countries didn’t, but we have to factor that into Galby’s potential manpower reserves. Let’s say that women make up somewhere between forty-seven to fifty-three percent of the population and already you see the Algaesian Imperial Army’s pool of recruits has been cut in half. Next we have to weed out the people that are either too young (below the age of fourteen) or too old (over forty-five) to make effective soldiers. Making an educated guess, I figure that is somewhere between twenty-five and thirty-five percent of the population. That pool of recruits just keeps dwindling, doesn’t it?
Now, let’s factor in people who are not physically fit for military service (five to ten percent), people who have skills or jobs that are vital for the civilian sector and are therefore exempt from military service (about two percent, give or take), outlaws and other criminals (also about two percent), draft dodgers (around one percent), slaves (I don’t know how widespread slavery is in Algaesia, the slave percentage of the population could be anywhere from five percent like medieval England to forty percent like Byzantium) and a few other things, like disease, that are entirely unpredictable. The end result is that the Algaesian Imperial Army has a pool of potential recruits of somewhere between two hundred to three hundred thousand.
Now I can just people going ‘HA, HA, you just contradicted yourself lulz!!’ But we’re not done yet. You see, this pool of recruits is also used to supply other important Imperial posts like the Imperial Navy, the local town watches and constabulary, border guards, bodyguards for important Imperial officials, prison guards, so on and so forth. The end result is that the Algaesian Imperial Army would be only able to support a field force of around forty thousand to seventy thousand men. And I realize I have gone off on a tangent and I apologize. Still, keep this example in mind when designing your fictional armies.
The next factor in your fictional war is geography. It can often play a decisive factor in a number of ways. For example, one of the reasons France became the leading nation in Europe during the Middle Ages was because the mountain ranges and bodies of water that make up its borders made it difficult for large armies to invade. A more recent example is that the People’s Republic of China would just love to invade Taiwan, but its navy lacks the capacity to move a large number of troops across the body of water that separates the two countries.
The last factor in a country’s ability to wage war is its national will: how the people feel about the war, their leaders, and how far they are willing to support them. The US lost the war with Vietnam not through military defeat, but because the American people refused to support it any longer. And here is where the Eragon books run into another major problem. According to the narrator, the common people hate King Galby. So how is he able to continue fighting the Varden? He should be having desertions from his army left and right, people refusing the call to muster, people should be refusing to pay taxes to finance the war, etc… Yet, we don’t see this. There is word to describe this kind of oversight: pathetic.
Another important part of wars authors tend to ignore is logistics. Logistics is the fine art supplying the army in the field; soldiers can’t fight without ammunition, food in their belly, or boots on their feet. You want a prime example of how important this is, take a look at the Confederate Army towards the end of the American Civil War. In fact, there is a saying that you should memorize here: Amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics. A one hundred thousand strong army should have a large and well developed supply train. I could go into another tangent on Eragon here, but I have already done that enough. And that, ladies and gentlemen, should be enough to get you started on the right track.