Tag Archives: writing advice

Q&A: The Perils in Writing Spy Fiction

I’m writing a James Bond-esque spy (excluding the misogynism). I know full well that real spies aren’t as chic and cool as the percieved image of them are, so how do I write a spy that is more realistic but still retains the cool spy image? She (yes it’s a woman) works for the MI6.

What is, “cool?” I don’t need an answer, I need you to ask that question of yourself.

The problem with Bond isn’t that he’s a misogynist, it’s that he has a casual disregard for everyone around him. James Bond is not a good person. He’s vicious and vindictive. Some adaptations try to soothe the edges, but at the character’s core, Bond is a sneering imperialist. (Ironically, the 2006 adaptation of Casino Royale even comments on this in passing.)

My intro to American Politics instructor started her 100 level course with the comment that, “everything is politics.” James Bond is a character that carries a very potent, and political, statement baked right into the core of Ian Flemming’s power fantasy. Bond is the last gasp of the British Empire insisting that it, alone is suited to rule the world. Bond’s anglocentrism isn’t cartoonish, but it’s always there, and it informs a lot about how he behaves.

The worst part about Bond is how the fantastical elements further this. It’s easier to couch the semi-fictional SMERSH (СМЕРШ) as simple cold war posturing. However, in an effort to make the novels, “apolitical,” Flemming transitioned to SPECTRE, an organization that was patterned heavily off the Italian mob.

Anyone else see the problem here?

By making Bond’s foes into cartoonish supervillains, it endorses his worldview.

How do you deal with this? By necessity, spies need to have a functional understanding of international politics. If you’re wanting to work around a real place, take some time, and read up on the background. Some of that is the basic demographics, and culture, but also get conversant in the history, and current events. It’s what a real spy needs to do before operating there, and as a writer, something you need to do as well. Ironically, the CIA Factbook is still an excellent overview. and can be a starting point before digging into more specialized sources.

Stepping back, James Bond, as a character, isn’t the problem, it’s the genre that Flemming created. I would actually argue that, in spite of being a detestable piece of shit, Bond is actually a fairly well written character (mostly.) (There are some details that don’t work, or are downright comedic, such as the sheer amount of alcohol he consumes on a daily basis, or comparing his daily athletic regimen with how much he smokes.) The real danger (and this has plagued the film adaptations) is lifting the character without really ripping him apart to figure out what’s going on under the surface.

If you’ve never read Greg Rucka’s Queen and Country, it is an excellent spy comic. Granted, it’s about as far as you can get from a James Bond superspy series. Worth noting that series protagonist Tara Chace is a Special Operations Officer for MI6.

Beyond that, the early seasons of Burn Notice do an excellent job of blending practical tradecraft into a fairly slick spy series. It rarely trends into international man of mystery territory, but there are some discussions on the subject. Really, if you want an easily digestible spy primer, you can learn a lot from Burn Notice.

Finally, John le Carré is another easy recommendation. Usually, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, is people’s introduction, but that’s actually halfway through a much longer series.

It may occur to you that none of those series are even in the same genre as Bond. There’s a reason, if you want to write a spy, you need to understand who they are as a character. The problem with Bond is that he almost never breaks from his cover identities. You can’t get an honest answer out of him about, basically, anything. Most of the superspy genre (and a depressing number of the Bond films) run with that, and accept the cover at face value. So you’re left with a character who only makes sense as a complete sociopath.

So, what you probably want to do is come to grips with the kind of person your character really is, and then you get them to pretend to be someone else on top of that.

Spies are difficult characters to pin down. The superspy genre tends to gloss over the surface read and leave you with superheroes and unfortunate implications. There’s isn’t a quick route into the mindset of a spy, but, stepping back from Bond, and looking at more grounded spy fiction, before continue will help you find that mindset.

-Starke

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Q&A: Battles in the Rain and Writing Character Action Games

Hello! I’m not sure if this was already asked, but do you have any tips for combat in the rain? I’m writing a monster hunting/fight scene DMC/Devil May Cry style. However I don’t want to make the character mow through enemies in this scene like they’re butter lol

Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that pretty much the combat of tempo of the Devil May Cry series? Individual enemies may be able to take a few hits, but the entire score system is built around smearing through them efficiently. Like most character action games, you’re going to kill a lot of things as you go. The only enemies who should stay on screen for any significant time are mini-bosses and the actual boss fights, which are a bit spongy.

It’s also worth keeping mind that the entire DMC series are spectacle fighters. This puts them in line with titles like (the original) God of War series, Nier (sort of), Bayonetta… actually, nearly everything from PlatinumGames, excluding Vanquish, come to think of it. The genre is characterized by flashy, visually engaging, combat.

When you’re wanting to adapt combat from that genre, the medium you’re working with becomes an important consideration. The key word there is, “visual.” Comics and animation can easily capture the kinetic quality to the genre. In prose, the genre struggles, because those visual flourishes slow down the reader. Most readers will mentally vocalize the text they’re reading, and this means when you take time to describe what your character is doing in detail, that will slow your reader down. The visually rich, high tempo combat style of games like DMC demands both detail and speed, meaning you’ll need to make some very difficult choices.

This is also an issue for comics. The more panels you use to detail what’s happening, the more that will slow your reader down. This is why things like motion lines can be very useful to imply action, without resorting to a storyboard structure (with step-by-step thumbnails), because that would slow the sequence down.

In prose, you’re usually interested in the results, and getting there as efficiently as possible. I’m going to use God of War for a moment. The Blades of Chaos are fairly dull from a prose perspective. Kratos swings them, and if he’s in the same zip code as his target, he’s going to connect. What makes them interesting is the animation behind the chains themselves. The way they spin. This can be conveyed in comic panels (though, the exact stylizing would be different), but as a potential weapon in a written work, they’re surprisingly uninteresting. In contrast, his Leviathan Axe (from the reboot) is a much better weapon choice for prose. It allows direct strikes with consideration for things like range, it has a built in limitation (it causes frost damage, making it useless against foes who are immune to the cold), and it has a distinct power with easily articulatable rules, (it can be thrown and recalled.)

This, sort of, brings me back to one of my reservations with “DMC style combat.” I’m not wild about the idea of having to write the air combos. Now, that’s me, I’m not writing your story, and if this really excites you, go ahead. From a gameplay perspective, extended air juggling is a skill based reward. If you’re good enough with the timing, you can juggle enemies and continue combat in the air. From a written perspective it’s ridiculous, and making it feel, “earned,” without being gratuitous would be quite difficult.

As for writing fights in the rain… it’s rain.

In prose, writing environmental conditions is a lot easier than it sounds. You establish the condition, and then you only need to reference it after that point when it becomes relevant, or the conditions change.

So, if it’s raining, you only really need to say that. Depending on perspective, you probably want to be able to describe the experience of being in the rain. Including details like how heavily it’s raining and the temperature, along with whatever steps (if any) your character may be taking to avoid getting wet. Though, at some point, the fighters will probably be out in the rain.

After that, the only times you need to worry about the rain is when it either adds texture to the moment, such as the character getting wet, their clothes getting heavier as they’re soaked, water on their weapons (or the weapons’ grips.) Possibly washing away grime. Dirt deteriorating to mud, making the ground less stable. Blood getting washed away by rainwater.

As the writer, you want to keep in mind things like how long and heavily it’s been raining, and then evaluate how that affects the environment, but you don’t need to include that except when it’s relevant. Simply saying that it’s been raining heavily all day, can help set the scene for the audience. On the other hand, you can have a fight in the cold front before the rain starts coming down, and fight through the storm arriving.

In the latter case, you’d want to note things like when the rain starts, and if it starts pouring. It’s important to remember that most fights don’t last very long, so this is unlikely to happen mid-combat, though if your characters are fighting in a series of skirmishes broken up by downtime (such as one trying to escape), then this can extend the sequence to the point where you would see significant changes in the weather.

One storm related event that might be worth noting are lightning strikes. These will break up the sequence, and slow the pace down, but they can be useful to subtly suggest how far away the storm is. There’s a seven second per mile delay between seeing the lightning strike and hearing the thunder. Closing the gap between these two can allow you to communicate to the reader that the storm it getting closer, without having to be heavy handed about it.

-Starke

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Q&A: Scuttling your own Argument

So, before we get started today, we don’t usually respond to every misogynistic shitpost that hits our inbox. So, let’s turn this garbage into a teachable moment.

Women have a lower reaction time than men, this has been proven. How would this affect combat?

There’s a couple problems with this. I mean, there are many flaws with this question, but I’m going to focus on two.

The first: As we’ve said many times, “bold claims require strong and convincing evidence.” This may come as a shock, but, “this has been proven,” does not count as a citation.

We live in a world where people actually argue that the planet is flat because they cannot physically see the curvature of the earth. Keep in mind, we’ve been to space.

We live in a world where people are more inclined to believe in ancient aliens than accept the idea that the non-European civilizations were able to construct great architectural works.

This is before we get into examples like Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield falsified his research on MMR vaccines in the late 90s. He claimed he’d found a link between the MMR Vaccine in common use, and incidents of autism. Except, his entire goal was to capitalize on the resulting vaccine scare, making money off of a new market for diagnostic kits, and a “replacement MMR vaccine.”

“This has been proven,” doesn’t mean a thing without a citation.

Now, what has been proven is that the author of this question is an idiot, and the evidence is in their text.

Women fight all the time. You only need to look as far as your local police blotter to see evidence of that, in case you’ve somehow never observed this personally.

Beyond that, many armed services include women, including in combat roles. The most famous example is the IDF, but Germany, France, Australia, the UK and US all train and deploy women in combat roles. Russia is often also held up as an example, and during the Second World War, they fielded female snipers, though, as far as I know, they don’t currently allow women in combat roles. In the case of the US, there are women in the SEALs and Rangers, which seriously undermines the idea that they’re somehow unfit for combat. Seriously there are female Special Forces Operators. (There may also be some women in the British SAS, I’m not 100% sure, though the Service is not gender restricted.)

Also, those militaries conducted extensive testing to determine if they found women eligible to serve, and before you hop on an unfounded argument of, “political correctness skewed the results,” it’s worth remembering that military testing often skews hard to support the status quo. If your claim had any merit, you could be assured that various militaries would have been proclaiming it from the rooftops as the reason they couldn’t accept women into combat roles (or, why they should be blocked from military service entirely.)

So, I said the author was an idiot, and I’m not basing that on their unfamiliarity with military service demographics. When you’re writing an argument it is very important to chose your words carefully. The way you phrase things can shape, or undermine, your argument.

In this case, it’s his question: “How would this affect combat?”

The choice of, “would,” assumes a false variable. When you’re asking a question where all of the components of an argument are true, you ask, “how does this affect combat?”

For example, after a technical discussion of the internal workings of the AK47, you would not ask, “how would this affect the rifle’s performance in combat?” You would ask, “how does it affect the rifle’s performance?” If you were speculating on changes to the design, then, “would,” would become the correct term.

(Also, “would,” is the correct term in the previous paragraph, because you are not asking those questions.)

The two variables in the author’s question are their reflexes assertion, and whether women fight. They probably assumed women do not fight. (I can only assume this is because they didn’t do any research, and apparently, have never met a member of the opposite sex.) However, once you establish that women do fight, “would,” dictates that the other variable must be false. Meaning, they have just unintentionally stated that their reflexes assertion is untrue.

What I can’t prove is that they’re misreading early neuroplasticity studies. If you’ve never looked into it, neuroplasticity is a fascinating subject. Your brain is a remarkably adaptive organ, and this can result in significant neurological differences between individuals based on their experiences. Neuroplasticity can affect reflex time, and it is probably why martial artists who get their start as children have significantly faster reflexes than those who start as adults. Your brain is far more plastic (meaning adaptive) during childhood. Plasticity does remain in adulthood, but your brain loses adaptability as you age. However, if that is the case, it’s important to understand that these differences are the result of experiences and activities, not gender.

-Starke

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Followup: Firearms for Monster Hunting in the Roaring Twenties

Meteor hammer anon again! First off thank you for all the info, it’s deeply appreciated (and yeah, sapient is actually the word I should’ve used haha).

But I feel the need to refine my question a bit, if that’s ok. First, my story is actually going to be drawn web comic style, so the limitations of prose aren’t really an issue for me. Second, I suppose the crux of why I was sending that ask is because I’m having a hard time coming up with useful weapons that small species (like humans) could use agains larger ones, especially in a stealth environment. I thought of the meteor hammer cause it’s easy to hide and can deal a lot of damage – but that’s really it. (I’m not very well versed on weapons ^^’). Guns ARE an option, so long as they are from around the roaring twenties (the character in question is actually already carrying a pistol – a C96 to be exact, though I’m not sure if it’s the best choice). And finally one last comment – it is worth noting that most of my ‘dragons’ are so derived from the original concept the term almost doesn’t apply anymore – the point being that most don’t actually have the hard shells of typical dragons.

Thank you again for all the help you give writers, and I’ll look forward to any response you give me if you decide to! (You guys are awesome!!)

Okay, so, first off, visual media is where the meteor hammer shines. It’s a very visually dynamic weapon. The only hitch is, that this is the weapon of a martial arts master. Your characters can’t just pick them up and roll with it.

So, basing your setting off the 1920s immediately, and dramatically changes your weapon options. If you need to take down something significantly larger than you, firearms are the first solution.

The C96 is a legitimate option, but it might not be the best choice. It was chambered in either .30 Mauser or 9x19mm. There were Chinese manufactured .45 variants, though I’m not sure on the production dates for those. Also, there are C96s chambered in 9x25mm, but those are a rarity. The biggest problem is simply reloading. The C96 loads 10 rounds from a stripper clip. (There were 20 round variants produced before World War 1.) Individual rounds can be loaded at a time. However, the box magazine is not detachable. (There are variants, including ones manufactured by Mauser with detachable box magazines, however most of these date from the 1930s or later. As far as I know, the only ones from the 20s were Spanish bootlegs shipped to China, starting in 1928.) There were also select-fire variants, though the earliest examples I’m aware of date to the mid-30s.

On a similar note, the Luger P08 went into production in 1898. These were chambered in 7.65mm and 9x19mm. They use a more familiar, detachable box magazine loaded into the grip. They have an 8 round capacity, and the top of the slide is articulated strangely (it folds vertically when ejecting rounds, instead of traveling straight back.)

The British Webley Revolver was a break open revolver chambered in .455, and .38. The Mk 4 .455 entered military service in 1915, and the .38 caliber Webleys saw police use in the early 1920s.

While it’s archaic, today, the Colt Single Action Army entered production in the 1870s. These were chambered in .45 Long Colt (though, the gun can be found in an incredibly wide range of calibers today, and it can be a little difficult to determine when a given cartridge first popped up. Even in the 20s, this was a remarkably accurate and reliable revolver. The biggest downsides are that you have to manually load each shell separately, and it is single action, meaning you need to manually recock after each shot. The gun is over 150 years old today, and it still holds up as an excellent sporting pistol, a century ago, it would have been a viable combat weapon.

Also, worth noting that magnum cartridge was developed by Elmer Keith in the 1950s. So, while I’m listing revolvers, and you can get a Colt SAA in .44 magnum today, those would not have existed in the 1920s.

In the spirit of the Magnum, there is one unusual example worth listing off. The Mars Automatic Pistol developed in 1900. Forgotten Weapons did a video on the pistol a few years back.

Finally, the elephant in the room is the Colt 1911. These were adopted by the US Military in 1911, and were revised in 1926 (this would be the M1911A1.) The original 1911s had some reliability issues if they were loaded with anything other than ball ammunition, but this would become one of the most widely adopted handguns in the 20th century.

I’m probably forgetting a lot of revolvers that would be contemporary. The Smith & Wesson Model 30 was in production from 1903 to 1976, for example. This is also not a complete list of handguns, off hand I know the Smith & Wesson 1913 was in production throughout the decade. So, you might be able to find some other more obscure options.

One weapon that I expected would fit, but doesn’t, is the Browning Hi-Power. I remembered these as entering production in the mid-20s, but they didn’t actually hit the market until 1935. In the 20’s FN was still producing the Browning M1903, and M1910/M1922.

For larger weapons, there were bolt action rifles. The Mauser 98 (or Kar98, with Kar being short for Karabiner, meaning Carbine) was the standard Germany infantry rifle in World War I. The M1903 was the American equivalent. While you’d be hard pressed to hide these unless you were wearing an overcoat, both are excellent, accurate rifles. Winchester produced a lever action rifle (the Model 1895), which would have still been commercially available in the 1920s.

The Thompson Sub-Machine Gun entered commercial production in 1921, and would see military adoption in 1928. (These had 20 and 30 rounds “stick” magazines, or the 50 and 100 round drum mags.)

The BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) entered commercial production in 1917, and military use in 1918. This is a fully automatic rifle chambered in .30-06, with a detachable 20 round box mag. It’s heavy (at nearly 16lbs), but it is a lot of portable firepower. There was a lighter, semi-automatic version, called the Colt Monitor which was marketed to police, but also ended up on the commercial market, however that didn’t enter production until 1931.

Thanks in large part to Terminator 2, we’re probably all familiar with the Winchester 1887, it’s a lever action shotgun, though there were iterations, including the Winchester Model 1901. The 1887 is notable for how much you can cut the gun down and still have a functional weapon. The nickname for sawed off 1887s is a “Mare’s Leg.” So let’s look at some shotguns you didn’t expect.

The Winchester Model 12 was an early pump action shotgun. While the pumps you’re used to seeing, like the Winchester 1200, the Mossberg 590, and the Remington 870 would be 40 years away from your setting, the Model 12 was already there, and saw use during World War 1. The Model 12 is, for the most part, the pump action shotgun, you’re familiar with today. The design hasn’t changed that much in over a century. There’s also the Winchester 1897, which is another early pump action shotgun. The 1897 notable for its external hammer spur, which would become unusual in later pump action shotgun designs.

The Browning Automatic 5 was a five round semi automatic shotgun developed by John Browning. Remington produced a variant called the Model 11. The Browning Auto 5 was the first semi-auto shotgun dating back to the final years of the 19th century. This had a 4+1 magazine capacity.

If you absolutely need to take something out silently, the crossbow is probably your best option. Alternately a bow is viable. These are harder to conceal, though I wouldn’t count them out entirely.

The first firearms silencers entered the market in 1909, and regulation wouldn’t catch up until 1934. So, the 1920s were an odd era when you could purchase silencers as mail order items. Of course, silencers do not fully silence a gunshot, but they were commercially available in the 20s, and they can drastically reduce the amount of sound a firearm produces.

As we’ve said before, getting into melee with something considerably larger than yourself is a recipe for disaster. Spears and lances might be effective options, but they don’t exactly qualify as stealthy. Granted, most firearms only fit that definition in the sense of getting into position undetected, and you would need a trench coat to conceal anything larger than a handgun. However it is much safer dealing with a dragon at three hundred yards through the scope of a bolt action rifle, than trying to hit it with a rock while standing in claw distance.

A few things worth remembering:

The M79 Grenade Launcher entered development in the 1950s. Before that the US military relied on either throwing hand grenades or mortar strikes. The Bazooka dates to 1942.

In World War 1, tanks were neutralized using, what we’d now call anti-material rifles. Anti-Tank rifles are in their own category of firearm. They’re not stealthy, they don’t have the accuracy of something like a TAC-50 or M82, but they are period appropriate and would absolutely put down whatever they hit.

World War 1 saw extensive use of chemical weapons on the battlefield, and while this would eventually see the use of such weapons curtailed by the Geneva Protocol in 1925 (this is different from the Geneva Convention, there were a number of distinct international treaties negotiated in Geneva in the 20s regulating warfare.) It’s not hard to imagine a world where these protections wouldn’t extend to “monsters.” (There’s a lot more political history here, I’m not going to get into.)

Additionally, while I can’t find hard data on the first White Phosphorous small arms munitions, white phosphorous grenades first saw battlefield usage in 1915. This is a very vicious weapon that would make a mess out of anything caught in the blast, as white phosphorous burns on contact with open atmosphere (technically, it’s reacting to the moisture in the air), and will continue burning in the victim’s body. Worth noting, phosphorous munitions will leave particulate matter in the air after use, and this can cause injury to anyone moving through the area immediately after bombardment, if they’re not using gas masks and covering their exposed skin.

Production of chemical agents like Phosgene or chlorine gas are depressingly easy, and I’m not going to be going into further details on these, but they’d probably be just as effective.

So, yeah, you have options. There were a wide range of commercial and military firearms on the market in the 1920s. World War 1 had just ended, and depending on where you were in the world, there were a lot of weapons still in circulation. There were also a lot of people who’d been in a military conflict and still had the training to use them. It’s a very complex moment in history, and worth digging into if you’re going to set your story in it.

-Starke

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Q&A: A Brief look at the Meteor Hammer

Would a meteor hammer be a good back up weapon in combat? Would it work against sentient creatures like centaurs or dragons (think httyd size, but sentient)?

In spite of the impressive sounding name, a meteor hammer is just putting your pet rock on a leash and engaging in flagrant mineral cruelty.

Okay, that’s not completely fair. A meteor hammer is a weight (usually metal) attached to a length of rope. (The exact length is based on the user’s size.) In some cases, a second weight is added to the opposite end and both will kept in motion by the user. It is one of the eighteen traditional weapons in Shaolin (using a soft rope and a copper or iron weight. The soft rope is to reduce the risk of self-injury while practicing with the weapon.)

The basic design idea is fairly primitive, but the resulting weapon is remarkably sophisticated. Using it safely is significantly more difficult than you may expect. You need to keep the hammer constantly in motion. In the process of striking, you will bring the weight back towards you, and at that point you will need to redirect it. This is a weapon that requires the user’s entire body to attack. Launching the weight can be assisted from the knees or feet, and both hands are involved in controlling the path of the hammer.

Once the mass moving, it is remarkably effective on contact, however, because the meteor hammer is a “soft” weapon, there is a real danger that it will strike an unprepared user.

Answering the question, “is the meteor hammer a good weapon?” hinges on one factor, “do you know how to use it? ” It can be quite effective in the hands of a skilled practitioner. However, it is also an extraordinarily difficult weapon to master. Following the traditional training pattern from Shaolin, it is the last weapon a martial artist will train with, and use of the weapon assumes staff training, seven section staff training, and rope dart draining. If you can use it, I’m sure you can make it work for you. However, if you simply pick it up and swing it around like an improvised flail, it will be a very limited weapon.

This leads to the specific cases you were asking about. Could a meteor hammer be useful a centaur? Maybe? I’m not entirely sure, but there is some potential. A skilled practitioner can get surprising reach out of their hammer, and if the centaur is unarmored, that could inflict some serious harm to them.

As for dragons? I’m just going to say, “no.” Or at least, almost certainly not. Most dragons (in myth and fantasy) have some kind of protective shell. Throwing rocks at them is rarely an effective strategy, and getting into melee with one isn’t a particularly good idea either (most of the time.)

A minor nitpick, but most animals (including the dragons in How to Train Your Dragon) are sentient. That just means they’re aware of their surroundings, and able to respond to them. You’re probably looking for, “sapient,” meaning the being is also self-aware, and capable of thought (whether it can, or chooses to communicate is irrelevant.)

So, is the meteor hammer a good weapon? It depends on the user. It is a difficult weapon to use. In almost all situations, someone skilled with the meteor hammer would have better weapon options available, and the training to use them. If nothing else, a staff or spear would probably be a much better choice.

The only real exception here is if the meteor hammer was the only weapon available, and the character had extensive training with it. Which is, slightly contrived, but it is the kind of thing you’ll see in the wandering martial arts master subgenre.

Is the meteor hammer the right weapon for your story? It’s a little more complicated. Most weapons are relatively easy to write. They exist in fixed states until a character uses them. So, a sword is in its sheath and remains there, until a character draws it. At that point the sword is in a fixed state of being held. You don’t have to worry about how the sword can move, of the sword doing something unexpected, it remains in a fixed state until your character uses it.

This is not true for the meteor hammer. Readying it will require constant motion and attention from the user. If your character draws a sword, or a gun, they can simply hold it, and be ready for combat, however a martial artist who pulls out a meteor hammer will be engaging in constant activity, even while they’re not taking any other actions. If you’re writing this, you need to understand what those actions will look and feel like.

The meteor hammer is real, but it is a weapon that requires a great deal of skill, both from its users, and from any writer that wishes to use it (in prose.) While it is a good weapon, and beautiful in demonstration, it may not be the right weapon for your story, and that’s a more important consideration.

-Starke

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Q&A: The Social Implications When Chosing Your Character’s Weapon

Hi! I have a character that used to be in the army and is now a guard for a lower noble family. I’m still deciding on what weapon she should use and I’m stuck with either a battle axe or a sword. What are the pros and the cons of using an axe vs. using a sword?

From a strictly realistic sense, it doesn’t matter. If your character has the background, experience, and resources to pick an effective weapon, they would select one appropriate to the job at hand. Either a sword or an axe would be an effective tool.

So, let’s look at how they got here. Your character is armed with a sidearm, meaning, they’re probably either guarding the residence or the family itself. If they were guarding the grounds, it’s quite possible they’d be armed with a primary weapon (like a halberd or spear, depending on the technology) in addition to their sidearm.

Depending on the army they served in, it’s possible they understand how to use both the axe and sword, though this gets deeper into world building than you might expect.

This leads to the one major drawback of the sword worth pointing out: If someone has been trained to fight with an axe, doesn’t know how to use a sword but picks one up and tries to use it like an axe, they will wreck the blade. If your character’s army experience did not include sword training, and the house guard are expected to carry swords, it would be the responsibility of the guard’s leadership to ensure your character received that training. Though, the actual training would probably be delegated to a senior guard.

The biggest question is, “which weapon is more socially appropriate?” This gets into a deeper discussion of your setting’s technology and culture. Further, their culture affects their perception on the weapons.

The more technologically advanced a society is, the easier it is to produce quality swords. Particularly, if your setting is based on the Early Modern period, getting quality blades would not be much of an expense. However, if you’re in an early medieval setting, it’s possible that quality swords would be quite rare and expensive, to the point that arming the house guard with axes would be far more economical.

There’s also a complex bit with symbolism. In European history, the sword has a link to nobility, which results in it sometimes being a flashcard for heroes in fantasy. The hero of a fantasy novel carries a sword… because they’re the hero, and the sword cues the audience in on that fact. It can even be mildly subversive to have a hero who favors an axe or mace instead of a sword.

In world building, it’s entirely possible you play this bias up further. It’s possible that you have a setting where swords are exclusively restricted to the nobility, and peasants who wield them being severely punished. This could also lead to a strange gray area, where the guards of royalty and nobles are considered to act as proxies for their lords, and are allowed to carry and use swords, but only as agents of their house. Even if it’s not to the extent of legal restrictions, there could also be a strong pressure on the nobility to arm their guards with swords over axes because the latter is viewed as a peasant’s weapon. While this pressure probably wouldn’t rise to the level of a legal requirement, for a noble, having their guards armed with hand axes could easily be viewed as embarrassing.

I toyed with the idea that you might have a setting which swapped the axe and sword, with the axe as the weapon of nobility, and the sword being a peasant weapon. You could certainly have a world with cheap, mass produced, iron swords (this happened in the real world at some points in history), and where the nobility held the axe as status symbols or badges of office, however, because the axe also doubles as a basic tool, you can’t have the same kind of draconian punishments. You need your lumberjacks and carpenters, so imprisoning them for carrying tools of their trades would be nonsensical.

There is the possibility of the military being allowed swords even under an extremely draconian system. Where you have a royal army, that are considered to be acting for the sovereign and are allowed to train with, carry, and use swords, while any forces brought up through a levy are still prohibited from doing so.

Finally, it’s possible that knights would be considered members of the noble class, even if they weren’t originally. This could be a lot more complicated if knights legally become nobles when knighted. This could also provide the illusion of opportunities for advancement, if peasants could (potentially) be knighted for their accomplishments, even if those promotions were extraordinarily rare.

You’ll notice that, basically, none of that has anything to do with how the weapon itself performs, and is entirely in the range of how society views the weapons. This is an important consideration when creating your world and populating it. Swords and axes are both effective weapons, however, the reason to pick one over the other has more to do with how your audience will perceive it, and how your character and their world would view it.

-Starke

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Q&A: Fantasy Pirate Wanted, Exerience Welcome, but not Needed

Would it make sense for pirate characters in fantasy to be skilled in combat? if so, what combat would be the most likely? I’m not sure if a bunch of pirates being good at wielding swords would make sense, since their job is basically sailing. Would pirates fighting like a Retiarius Gladiator make sense? or would it be basically whatever the could get their hands on sort of deal? sawed off harpoons and knives?

threeeyesslitthroat

So, several questions, let’s hit them in order.

I should probably preface this with a reminder: Pirates have been a part of nautical civilization since the beginning of commercial shipping. They’re a natural, criminal, response to people moving anything valuable by sea. If it’s out there on the water, someone else will see that as an opportunity to take it.

It’s common to think of The Golden Age of Piracy as, “that’s pirates,” but the truth is, they’ve always been there. Piracy still exists in the modern world. It will continue into the future. In a random tangent, there’s a lot of realism behind the idea of space pirates, even if the implementation is fantastical.

So, with that said, when you’re shaping a fantasy setting, if there’s sea travel, there’s a place for pirates if you want them.

Your character’s background could be anything. Many Golden Age pirates were naval veterans, mutineers, or deserters. They learned to operate on military vessels, and then took that skillset and made a lot of money as criminals.

So, it’s entirely reasonable your pirates would have military backgrounds, and as a result be very well acquainted with how to fight effectively.

Conversely, during the golden age of piracy, a pirate in the Caribbean could make a small fortune on a single raid. This made piracy a very attractive career, in spite of the personal danger. Even resulting in labor shortages in some pirate cities, like Port Royale, as the available workers preferred to take the risk and work as pirates.

The short answer on your pirate’s combat training comes down to the simple question of, “what did they do before they became a pirate?” As I said, it’s entirely reasonable your pirate was a sailor in an imperial navy. It’s possible they were a mercenary. It’s possible they used to work on a farm, ran away from home, found a job cleaning a tavern in the port, and hired on as a pirate at the first opportunity.

It makes sense for pirates to learn how to fight, because that is a part of making money. They need know how to operate their ship. They’ll need most of the essential positions, and some redundancies. A ship needs a helmsman, it needs a navigator. If you don’t have those two, you cannot set out to sea at all. You need deckhands, you want a boatswain to manage them. You need a cook. You need a surgeon or medic, because people are going to be injured. Golden Age pirates needed a quartermaster, though the job title is a little misleading, as they acted as a kind of dispute adjudicator, and ensured that the loot was shared equitably, they would also take command of captured vessels. In the age of sail, you needed crew to man the cannons. Finally, you need boarding parties to assault and capture enemy vessels.

Your boarding parties needed to know how to fight, because they’d be going up against armed crews. Even if your character didn’t have a naval background, it is reasonable that they’d get on-the-job training to get them up and going if they didn’t have a background. Alternately, if they did have a naval or military background, it’s quite possible they’d be tasked with training some of the new recruits.

So, would it make sense for them to fight in the style of a Retiarius? No. We’ve talked about this before, but the Roman gladiator types were not designed to be efficient. In fact, they were specifically equipped in ways that would hamper their ability to swiftly kill their foes. The entire point of gladiatorial combat was to prolong the fight, with a focus on wounding rather than inflicting fatal blows. The Retiarius was armed with a weighted net and and a trident. While both of these items would make sense on a sailing vessel. Either would allow the crew members to supplement the ships stores with fresh fish, however, neither makes a particularly good weapon, especially during boarding actions.

This loops back to the question about the sword. The term “sword,” is very generic, and includes a massive array of bladed weapons. Some of these are very well adapted to shipboard combat, and it would make sense that pirates would use those.

Polearms are, in general, less well suited to close quarters, and you’d probably see fewer of those during a boarding actions. There might be a few on the ship, and some of the crew might choose to use them if they were engaging in coastal raiding.

There might be an element of, “whatever they could get their hands on,” but remember, piracy was a very lucrative career, so while their options were somewhat limited by what’s available at the ports they dock at, and the gear they plunder, “whatever they could get their hands on,” would leave them pretty well equipped.

The one thing I’ll point out from that list is knives. Knives are a must. Not, necessarily as weapons, but they’re extremely important as a utility tool, and their combat application is secondary to that. So, your pirates probably have knives, in addition to cutlasses, muskets, pistols, and blunderbusses. They might even have some halberds and other heavy weapons squirrelled away below decks in case they find a situation where those would be useful.

Obviously, that weapon list would be a little different if your pirates are operating in a bronze or iron age setting, but the basic idea is the same. If you have pirates in a pseudo-Roman Empire, then it would make sense if your pirates are using Gladiuses, and pelting the enemy ships with arrow fire. It’s all about the technology that exists.

So, yeah, it makes sense for your fantasy pirates to have a background. It’s part of the job. It also makes sense for them to be pretty well equipped after a successful raid or two. Though, they probably wouldn’t talk like they’d just walked out of the English West Country in the early 20th century.

-Starke

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Q&A: A Retired MMA Fighter Vs. an Armed Group

I have a character who was an MMA fighter, he is retired and now owns a gym where he trains people new to the sport. If he were to get jumped on the street by 4 men with improvised weapons, is his training any good in this situation?

This is a little tricky to gauge because there are a lot of potential, messy, outliers. The short answer is, probably not, and the slightly longer version could be summed up as, “probably not, but even if it is still useful, it’s still not going to be enough.”

As its name implies, MMA isn’t a single, uniform, martial art, while most MMA fighters don’t have combat backgrounds, it is possible (though, unlikely), that you’d find an MMA fighter with training in Military Krav Maga, Systema, MCMAP, or another practical combat martial art. In one of these examples, it is possible their training would be somewhat useful. However, if that’s their background, its highly unlikely they were using it in bouts.

When I say “unlikely,” I can count on one hand the number of Systema practitioners I can find who’ve competed in MMA tournaments. There could be more out there, but these kinds of martial artists don’t, often transition into sport fighting. A good illustration of why comes from the MCMAP training manual, which reminds instructors to watch for, and stop trainees engage in “sports fighting,” during training. All of these practical martial arts put a high priority on ending the fight as quickly and efficiently as possible. While it results in combatants who survive combat with minimal injuries, it’s not going to be an entertaining MMA match.

Having said all of that, if we ignore your character for a moment, and say that you have an ex-special forces operator who is unarmed, in that situation, facing four foes armed with improvised weapons, there is a very real chance that the ex-operator will end up seriously injured or dead.

With an MMA fighter, you’re likely looking someone with a background in Boxing, Wrestling, Kickboxing, Taekwondo, Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, Karate, or Judo. TKD, and Judo both have practical branches, but with an MMA fighter, they’re almost certainly training in the sports variants of their martial arts. While this results in athletes who are certainly talented, they are training to fight in a very specific situation; one on one, unarmed, with a wide range of limitations designed to ensure the relative safety of all participants. It’s not simply a matter of saying, “well, this time I’m going to just cut loose,” they’ve trained to fight this way.

In some situations, their training can carry them through an actual situation. There’s enough youtube videos of amateur MMA practitioners TKOing an idiot on the street. The key there is the singular. They punch out one individual. They’re not getting into a fight with multiple enemies.

Combat against multiple foes requires you split your attention across the entire group. You cannot afford to lose track of them, because if you do, they will be able to exploit that. Keeping track of multiple foes in the chaos of a real fight is extremely difficult. Everyone’s moving, some are probably trying to flank, and no matter what you do, you have more foes than eyes.

Once you do start taking hits, it’s likely to become a death spiral. Even minor injuries will impair your ability to continue fighting, making it harder to defend against subsequent attacks. This isn’t a death by papercuts scenario, the first few hits might not do much on their own, but they’ll open the victim up to more devastating injuries.

If that wasn’t bad enough, getting hit basically ensures you’re going to lose track of some of your foes. This means that even if you successfully defend against a strike, there’s a real danger you no longer know where all of your foes are, and can no longer defend against some of them.

And it gets worse.

Dealing an armed opponent while unarmed is extremely dangerous. It is something that an experienced martial artist may be able to handle, if they’ve been trained for it. However, there are a depressing of stories of experienced martial artists failing to execute a combat disarm and being seriously injured or killed.

Dealing with an armed opponent means you cannot afford to lose focus on their weapon. You need to know exactly where it is at all times, and you cannot afford any lapses. If you get hit with a weapon (even an improvised one) it will be so much worse than an unarmed strike. You can continue fighting after taking a punch, you cannot continue to fight effectively after taking a blow from a crowbar. Survival depends on finding a way to neutralize their weapon as quickly as possible.

So, here’s a problem, you have multiple foes which require you to split your focus, and they’re all armed, meaning you need to individually devote your full undivided attention to each weapon.

If you’ve found a way to divide your undivided attention, congratulations, you’re now a superhero.

So, is your character’s training any good at this point? Yeah, if he understands how bad the situation is, and runs. Even at his age, he’s probably in excellent physical condition, and it’s very possible he can outrun them.

There is another problem, and it might impact his ability to run. Martial arts puts a serious toll on the body. This is especially true for competitive sports fighters. It’s entirely possible that he’d have mobility issues as early as his 30s. This also feeds into the reason why sport fighters retire at (relatively) young ages, or transition into less physically stressful careers. A career in competitive fighting will absolutely destroy your body. If you have someone who retired from the ring, it’s very likely that, due to a mix of old injuries, they’re physically incapable of fighting effectively. They can still coach people. They can train others. But, their body simply isn’t up to the task anymore. Throwing someone like that against a group of armed foes is a death sentence.

There are ways someone could get out of a situation like this alive. Like I said, running is probably the best option. If your character is in excellent physical condition, they will probably be able to outrun their attackers. If they can retreat to a fortified position, and hold out for help, that’s another option. A much riskier strategy is to immediately neutralize the group’s leader, as an intimidation tactic. This is more about convincing the remaining three that they have no chance of success, however, it’s a bluff, and one that can easily blow up in your character’s face.

Group combat is very popular in visual media because it’s dynamic. It looks cool. When you have an experienced group of marital artists working together, they can turn a group fight into poetry in motion. It’s not real, but that was never the point.

Because group combat is so popular, it can create an illusion about how accessible it is. Fighting multiple foes is extremely difficult and dangerous. Fighting multiple armed foes is the domain of superheroes and action movies.

-Starke

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Q&A: The Importance of Deescalation in Self Defense

What do you think of women’s self-defense that puts more importance in verbal de-escalation and not “making your aggressor angry” rather than defending yourself?

So much bullshit bait here. So, let’s unpack some of that.

First, that’s not a gender thing; any competent self-defense instructor will teach you to prioritize other solutions before resorting to violence. It doesn’t matter if the student is male or female, an adult or a child. Violence is the last option on the on the table.

The purpose of self-defense training is ensuring your own safety. In a turn of events that was only foreseeable by everyone with more than three functioning brain cells, getting into a fight is not a safe course of action.

If you get into a real fight against someone you don’t know, you cannot control the situation. You don’t know if their friends will join in. (And if you go up against multiple opponents you will lose.) You don’t know if they’ll pull a weapon. (If they do, your chances of surviving just dropped sharply.) If you chose to provoke them by being a smartass, there is a much greater risk they’ll escalate to violence.

Remember that phrase, “de-escalation?” There’s a point to it.

Intentionally trying to provoke someone is an incredibly stupid, and dangerous, course of action, with (almost) no upside. It’s possible to engineer a hypothetical (or fictional) situation where provoking someone has tactical value. But, that doesn’t often happen in the real world. The frequently cited, “get them angry, make them stupid,” thought process doesn’t work, because, at best, it will cause them to attack you. Worse, it increases the likeliness that they will engage more viciously. Unleash your inner asshole, and you could easily see someone who would have just taken a swing at you instead, pull a knife and shank you six or eight times, while their friend holds you down. They never would have done it under normal circumstances, but you insulted their mother, girlfriend, sister, dead dog, or favorite superhero, and it got them angry. Angry enough that they didn’t think through the consequences of their actions. They’ll have to live with that, but, that’s poor consolation if you died face down in the gutter.

Self-defense is about protecting yourself. The tools you use to do that are not limited to violence. If talking someone down is a legitimate option, it will be safer than getting in a fight. If you can walk away before you need to talk someone down, there’s less risk to you, and it’s far safer. From the perspective of a guy with a background in self-defense, if you see a situation getting out of hand, leave. Get out of there before things go sideways. The safest course of action is to avoid even getting into a situation in the first place. If you’re looking at something and think, “this could cause a problem,” and you don’t need to be there, just don’t walk in.

Self-defense is about safety, not bragging rights. If you can look at a party, and know that the mix of people and alcohol will get volatile, the best way to defend yourself is to walk away, and not engage at all.

Now, having said that, things are rarely that simple. People will go in, because their friends are there. They’ll go in because they want to. When things start getting on edge, they’ll stay, because humans are social animals, and there’s a legitimate point to not wanting to abandon your friends in a bad situation. They’ll stay because they can’t read the room, and didn’t realize a problem was fomenting. Like all forms of martial arts, self-defense will ask you to realign your instincts, or act against them. However, the social instinct to respond in kind to someone lobbing abusive comments, is actively dangerous, and getting into a fight (whether you have martial arts training or not) is very risky.

The combat element of self-defense training is real. In the US, “Self-Defense” as a martial art is based off of Judo, specifically the FBI/Police adapted form that became the norm in American law enforcement after World War II.

The combat goals of self-defense are a continuation of the overall goals. It is still focused on the practitioner extracting from a bad situation as safely as possible.

I’m going to emphasize that last part, “as safely as possible.” If you’re in a fight, it’s not going to be completely safe. The longer you stay in the fight, the greater the risk you’ll be seriously injured, incapacitated, or killed. As a result, self-defense prioritizes quickly hindering your foe and getting out. This this can include strategies like simply winding your foe with a well placed strike or throwing them to the ground, and then fleeing before they can recover. Your primary goal is to escape from the threat.

If you’re thinking of, “defending yourself,” as winning the fight, then you’re partially correct, self-defense doesn’t care about who won or lost, it is only concerned with whether you got out safely. Again, being able to say, “I won the fight,” is pretty damn pyrrhic if you’re bleeding to death from a ruptured kidney.

Self-defense is not about whether you won or lost. It’s not about asserting your ego. It’s about giving someone the tools to ensure they can avoid, or extract from, a situation while exposing themselves to as little danger as possible.

Like I said at the beginning, the question is bait. There is nothing inherently masculine or feminine about treating violence with respect. It’s worth remembering that you cannot fully control violent encounters. You can try to manage the threats, and this is part of what good self-defense training will teach you. However, you can’t fully predict what a potential threat will do, and antagonizing them will only make things worse.

So, what do I think about self-defense prioritizing non-violent approaches to potential threats before resorting to violence as a last resort? I think, when followed, it’s an approach that offers the practitioner the best chance of getting out of a volatile situation unharmed. Which, was the point.

-Starke

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Q&A: The Historical Reasons for Conscription

I have a question about mandatory soldier conscription. Are armies REALLY going to send incompetent, poor, uncooperative soldiers, or especially ones who don’t want to be there out to fight? They’d get thrashed if the enemy are only sending out soldiers who voluntarily join, pass tests with high score, and get selected. What nation wants a high body count because they have piss poor soldiers they forced to join??

So, to answer your first question, “yeah.” In answer to your second, “The 28th of July, 1914.” So, let’s unpack.

Economically, it’s not viable for most feudal states to maintain a significant standing military. This was the general problem for European warfare for over 1000 years. During that time, conscription of the peasantry was used to quickly assemble an army, and then disbanded when they were no longer needed (and could no longer be paid.)

The results were large armies of disposable shock troops backed by small cadres of elite forces (such as knights, and mercenaries), composed of professional combatants. This structure works surprisingly well when paired against a similar force, comprised of a large expendable infantry, backed by a small elite cadre.

Throughout much of European history, the number of troops you could bring to the battle was considered more important than the individual quality of those soldiers. If you can only field a few hundred elite troops, and your enemy can field ten thousand disposable fighters, you’re screwed.

Now, someone is going to read that paragraph and cite The Battle of Thermopylae. There is one very important concept about melee based warfare, the number of soldiers you have in total is less important than the number of soldiers you can put into contact with the enemy. Thermopylae was about the Greek soldiers constricting the Persian advance so that only a small number of soldiers (on either side) could engage at any given moment. This effectively negated the numerical advantage of the Persian forces. (And, yes, Greek. While discussions on the Battle of Thermopylae tend to focus on the Spartan fighters, they comprised a fraction of the Greek forces present.) This isn’t relevant to the overall discussion of conscription, but there are ways for a numerically inferior force to overcome a numerically superior one even before we get into technology.

The major takeaway for conscription, as historical behavior, was that, it worked. As with much of Europe’s military history, armies on both sides were using roughly similar military doctrine, and if both forces are relying on conscription, you’re going to be throwing equally unprepared soldiers at one another.

In the early modern era, militaries started transitioning to maintaining standing forces in peacetime. The example that comes to mind was the Prussian Army, which also functioned as the beginning of modern military training practices. This also saw the expansion of professional officer corps, and even standing militaries. However, conscription persisted (in a number of forms.)

The other major change was technology. So, let’s look at those dates I listed earlier, and why they matter.

On June 28th, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo. This triggered a declaration of war, which then triggered additional declarations of war based on existing defensive treaties between the various European governments, beginning the first World War one month later to the day. (I’m being incredibly reductive here, and if you want more detail, I’d strongly suggest you take some time and read up on the geopolitical situation, because I cannot do it justice in a couple paragraphs.)

In the decades before World War I, there had been skirmishes between European powers, and in some ways the writing was on the wall for what was about to happen. However, there hadn’t been a war on the continent between the major powers in nearly four decades. (Yes, I’m cherry picking a little bit for this statement, and trying not to get bogged down under a string of, relatively minor, border skirmishes. If you want a takeaway from this aside, Europe was not a stable place in 1914.)

If you know your firearms history, you’ll remember that there were significant technological innovations in the 19th century. The European powers had been taking advantage of this technology, against non-European powers. They’d used early machine guns to quell resistance in their colonial holdings, but military leadership (at least among the British) failed to grasp how much these had changed warfare. They were content to attribute the force multiplier from automatic weapons to their own troops “superiority,” rather than address the idea that these weapons functionally negated contemporary military doctrine. (This is in addition to other new technologies, including the deployment of chlorine gas, the use of airplanes in war, and the introduction of instantaneous, electric communication via the telegraph.)

I’m going a very bold statement, and I realize I haven’t evidenced this enough to fully back it up. In fact, if someone has a better suggestion, I’d love to hear it. The exact moment that mass conscripts lost their value came sometime in the fall of 1914. If you really wanted, you might be able to pin this down to specific battles, maybe even identify a specific day. “This is the moment in history, when mass conscripted shock troops were outdated by technology.” You might also prefer to shift the date back to the development of the Maxim Machine Gun.

Historically, conscripted soldiers had value as cannon fodder. Conscripted soldiers would chew through enemy resources. They would protect more valuable fighters from enemy attacks. They’d literally soak incoming fire (hence the term cannon fodder. “Food for enemy cannon fire.”) While they wouldn’t be effective against the enemy elite forces (unless a conscript landed a lucky blow), they would slow and wear down enemy combatants. There was a real point to fielding large numbers of troops.

Then World War I.

If a small number of soldiers with ready access to ammunition could effectively negate entire masses of enemy troops, there isn’t nearly as much point to throwing out as many soldiers as possible. In fact, the proliferation of firearms actually flips the logistic economics. There’s a significant danger of conscripted troops being non-lethally injured by incoming fire, and requiring medical attention, straining the army’s medical corps (whatever name it’s working under.) At this point, cannon fodder becomes an actual liability.

As for high casualty rates? Most nations that sustained massive casualties didn’t particularly care about their losses. At least, their military leadership didn’t. If we’re looking back at the medieval levy system, the peasants called up to serve were viewed as disposable by their leaders. Similarly, even as recently as World War I, heavy losses were expected, it was simply the volume of casualties that military leaders weren’t prepared for, and political leaders had difficulty spinning.

While I’m saying this universally, the American military didn’t get especially sensitive about their casualty rates until Vietnam. The presence of press on the front line, with extensive footage being broadcast on the same day, combined with the continuation of the draft (along with other factors) helped to contribute to a sensitivity about about casualties (and also press access in wartime), that hadn’t existed before that. It wasn’t even that the numbers in Vietnam were particularly high, it was the war’s unpopularity and media coverage. (There’s a lot more to unpack on this subject that I can’t go into right now.)

So, to be brief, conscripted forces used to have a function. It was a horrific function that viewed them as expendable resources. It’s an important part of the discussion on standing military forces, and some of that persists today, even in volunteer forces. In some cases, soldiers (even those who choose to enlist) are viewed as expendable. Especially by the bureaucracy.

Nations conscripted because they needed bodies and didn’t care about the quality. (I’m specifically not addressing nations that require some form of civil service, potentially including military service as an option, from their citizens, that’s a little different from what you’re talking about here.) It used to be there were real considerations behind it. That’s less true today, and conscripted shock troops have very limited applications today.

-Starke

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