Tag Archives: writing tips

Q&A: Hand Signals

Why don’t soldiers usually learn one sign language? Wouldn’t this be useful if you needed to sneak or if gunshots were too loud to be able to hear anything? It seems like the more ways to communicate, the better, right?

The short answer is, they do. Calling military hand signals, “a language,” might be overselling it a little. You can’t carry on a full conversation. However, hand gestures are a very common form of combat communication. Particularly when electronic communications are out.

The primary function isn’t stealth, it’s to be able to communicate in combat, when verbal commands would be drowned out. It is silent, but that’s a useful byproduct.

Because these signals are a combat language, it is preoccupied with being quick at the expense of being flexible. It has numbers 1-10, but after that, the core tends to be focused on orders and warnings.

You can’t express complex concepts beyond giving orders, or relaying tactical information. You can tell someone you see enemies and how many, but you can’t distinguish between a bridge and a statue. The only difference between an order to take and hold either is where you’re pointing. If that kind of information is necessary, soldiers can always switch to their spoken language for more sophisticated orders.

What the signs do is give the commander the ability to quickly and clearly assign tasks in combat, and gives the soldiers the ability to relay information to one another.

Hand signals are not universal; militaries have their own versions. These vary by nationality, to the point that there’s no direct translations in some cases. Additionally, units may sometimes incorporate new, unique, signals to suit their needs, and some widespread unofficial signals may exist.

If you’re wondering why they don’t incorporate ASL (or another sign language), it’s about efficiency. Fairly complex concepts, like an incoming gas attack or a sniper need to be conveyed in a single signal. ASL isn’t designed around that. It is a full language, with its own syntax and grammar. The US Military used to use the ASL signs for 1-9, and used the ASL zero sign as a 10, but that changed at some point, I’m not exactly clear when.

You can’t have full conversations in military signals because, that’s not the point. That’s not valuable for how the system is used. If you need to talk to someone, you talk to them. When the bullets are flying, you don’t really have time for that.

So, the answer to, “why don’t they?” Is, “they already do,” for the reasons you suggested.

-Starke

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Q&A: Anime Weapons

A lot of times in anime and manga, you will see characters using these massive weapons of ridiculous proportions. While this is obviously unreasonable, there are weapons that are larger than the person weilding them, such as most pole weapons. What are some things to account for when using a weapon bigger than yourself?

pink-sparkly-pirate-jedi-weeb

This may sound like a nitpick but, you’re never going to find a melee weapon larger than its wielder in the real word. This is especially true of polearms. Note the word we both used: “Larger.”

Most polearms are relatively small weapons mounted on a long stick. They’re the perfect tool for those times when you want to poke a hole in someone over there, but you’re too lazy to walk over and shank them.

Melee weapons need to be fairly light. You’re going to be swinging that thing around all day. The heavier it is, the faster you will exhaust. Once you’re exhausted, you’ll fight at a significant disadvantage. This means, a light weapon that you can continue using for hours is a vastly superior battlefield choice.

As I said, polearms are relatively small (read: “light,”) weapons on a stick. This means they have the range of a much heavier (and probably impractical) weapon without the weight.

There’s other problems with super heavy weapons in anime. The part where they hit with ridiculous force ignores that the user would need to expend the energy to get it moving in the first place. It doesn’t matter if you can cleave through a Buick if you can’t swing the sword a second time. Once these start moving, you’re committed to the strike, and you can’t stop to defend yourself. The more mass the weapon has, the harder it would be to control. In extreme cases, the weapon may be so heavy an individual with (roughly) human mass wouldn’t be able to use it at all, regardless of their strength. They’d fling their own body around rather than moving their “weapon.”

As an art style, there’s nothing wrong with oversize weapons. If your art is consistent, exaggerating elements because they’re important to the audience is defensible design.

In animation, large weapons are easier to follow. It’s the animated equivalent to the roundhouse punch. Big motions do not work in real combat, but are beneficial for the audience, for the same reason. Bigger motions are easier to read. It’s easier to understand what’s happening. If you’re trying to kill someone, this is a bad thing. If you’re trying to convey a story to someone, it’s a good thing.

Characters like Bayonetta are the extreme example of this. Out of context, her proportions are bizarre, but it makes her very easy to read in motion. This especially important in games where you need to be able to see what your character is doing, as opposed to animation where if you miss a little bit of the action, it’s not a hard stop.

I’m also not inclined to be too harsh with exaggerated weapon proportions when the goal is simply to show off the design. The entire reason you’re looking at the art is, well, the art, and if artist/animator wants to take special attention to something, that’s their call. After that it’s a question of personal taste.

So long as you remember that it has no relationship to reality, and it fits artistically, oversize weapons are fine. It’s an aesthetic or thematic choice.

-Starke

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This is Bait

There’s a recent medical study that says men out punch women by 162%, and even the weakest man is stronger than the strongest woman. This really discouraged me to even stick to weight lifting and training tbh. There’s no point

So, as the title states, this bait hit our inbox last week. Normally, the appropriate response would be deep six this, but let’s use it for educational purposes. I’m holding out the possibility that the person sending this was being misled by someone else. I don’t think it’s likely, but their ask is worth debunking.

First, I’m not going to bother searching for that medical study. You notice, it doesn’t say, “a published study.” In fact it says, “recent,” which suggests that it hasn’t been published yet, and is still undergoing peer review. This creates the illusion that you’re getting in on credible information first, and all that’s left is the formalities. What it really means no one’s checked to see if the article is anything more than an angry screed written on dirty cocktail napkins.

In theory, a published study was examined by other academics in the field. (In the case of medical studies, we’re talking doctors, probably in that specialty.) They’ve examined the data sets. They’ve determined that the data supports the claims made. In controversial cases, they may even try to replicate the results before signing off.

The process of academic publishing isn’t perfect, but it does weed out a lot of garbage “research.” A couple high school students who grabbed some football players and cheerleaders could be described as, “conducting a medical study,” and it would probably return results very similar to this. If you submitted that to peer-review, you would be mauled for drawing those conclusions from your data set.

In fairness, peer-review struggles with outright deception. If a researcher (for example, Andrew Wakefield) decides to wholesale invent their data set, and that data would be difficult or time consuming to replicate, reviewers are less likely to take the time and expense to reproduce the results. That’s not the case here, because the conclusions are absurd, and the data set would be trivial to replicate. (Or, more accurately, it would be trivial to debunk the data set.)

The reason I said you’d be mauled for drawing those conclusions is two-fold.

First, impact force from punching isn’t strength. In fact, a body builder will have a harder time punching, because all that extra muscle mass will get in the way and slow them down. The critical element to being able to strike someone is knowing how to punch, not raw strength. Ask anyone who’s had any background in martial arts. This is also a warning sign about the researchers. (Whether they exist at all.)

The claim that men (universally) punch 162% harder than women is bullshit. This isn’t a video game. You don’t do a fixed amount of hand-to-hand damage every time you take a swing. You’d be hard pressed to generate that statistic in the first place, simply because you couldn’t legitimately get consistent data by gender. To say nothing of being able to cross compare.

The second claim is laughable. Or at least, would be if there weren’t idiots out there who take it at face value.

I’m not sure if, Rebecca “Becca” Swanson is the world’s strongest woman, but I do know she can dead lift over 680lbs, and she’s not the only female power lifter. So, you’re trying to tell me this phantom study found that every man on the planet can bench over 600lbs? I have questions about the drugs these researchers were on.

Becca Swanson also, excellently, underlines the stupidity of anyone arguing against the strength of women. Particularly when they try to resort to sloppy pseudoscience disguised as actual research.

A problem in research is that you cannot check everyone. There’s nearly eight billion people on Earth. It’s far too much work to study all of them at once. With that in mind, researchers will select “sample populations” of people. You can’t check everyone, but you can deal with a couple hundred people. That’s doable. Particularly if you have other researchers, or research assistants, helping collect the data. A reputable researcher will try to get a representative population. There will be statistical errors, but you try to minimize or acknowledge them. A less scrupulous researcher may try to cherry pick their population to support an agenda.

This is where sexism (and outright misogyny) collide with with science. There’s a long, and very shameful history of science being used to justify prejudices. Much like science being used to justify racism, there’s a tradition of “scientific research” using irrelevant or misleading physiological data to support misogyny.

There is also an issue here: The medical field is struggling with a lot of institutional sexism. This ranges from women being under-researched and under-diagnosed. It is a serious health issue. Doctors are, statistically, more likely to disregard a woman’s reported symptoms than a man’s. Medical issues that predominantly affect women are far less researched. In recent years medical researchers and doctors have become more aware of this, and it looks like change is coming, but this is a real problem.

The point to life is what we create for ourselves. No one else can live your life. No one else can tell you who you are. There is no point in letting small-minded little shits shut you down.

-Starke

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Q&A: More Gunfire

Hi. Yet another gunfire question, actually two: 1) While ricochets can be just as lethal, are they more realistic for “flesh wounds” that don’t break (shatter) bones? 2) Looking at stats like muzzle velocity, many late 19th-century rifles seem roughly the same power as modern handguns of the same caliber. Can we use this to estimate what the bullets can or can’t do?

cathreese-blog-blog

I’m going to focus on a minor, but critical part of this question: Grazing hits from direct fire and ricochets are equally realistic. Both of these things occur. It’s not that they’re particularly common, but it’s no more or less realistic for a character to suffer a superficial injury from a gunshot than from shrapnel or a ricochet. These things happen.

With gunfire, a graze is one that doesn’t penetrate deeply. It may skim across the surface, though in some circumstances a bullet will skate across bone. The victim walks away with a minor injury

Of course, a bullet doesn’t need to break bones to kill you. A through and through that ruptures an artery is immediately life threatening. A shot to the lower abdomen is an excruciating way to die. Either of these can occur without any skeletal damage. If you get shot, you can bleed to death and die from, “a flesh wound.”

This is before you get into, “fun,” concepts like hydrostatic shock, which holds it’s possible to cause neural damage from suffering a gunshot elsewhere on the body. (Though, last I checked, hydrostatic shock was a disputed phenomena.)

While we’re on the subject, it’s worth reminding people that it’s quite easy to miss the fact that you’ve shot in combat. The adrenaline means your pain response is dulled, and your body doesn’t know what to make of a gunshot wound. This has a few implications:

First: You don’t know if you’ve received a grazing hit. You probably won’t find out until afterwards.

Second: It’s entirely possible to end up with shrapnel in your body that you don’t know about. This is unusual, but not particularly noteworthy.

Third: It’s possible to suffer a terminal injury and not realize it. You can’t feel the injury, and in the adrenaline fueled state your only warning is if you realize you’re bleeding heavily. It is entirely realistic for someone to just keep fighting until they lose consciousness and bleed to death.

The exception to that final point is if the gunshot does shatter bones. That is something you cannot ignore. It’s not a pain issue, you need your bones to function, break them and you’ll be unable to use those limbs.

As for 19th century weapons? No, not really. I’m not going to say it’s completely impossible to take a 19th century weapon and find some modern analogy. Physically, it’s the same principle; you’re ejecting a chunk of metal at your target, so, if the math lines up, all things should be equal. However, the engineering is entirely different. That engineering meant that 19th century weapons had a lot of issues we just don’t see anymore. Rapid fouling (the buildup of unburnt powder) isn’t an issue. Overpressurizing the chamber causing the firearm to explode is still technically possible, but you’d only see that with sloppy hand loads, faulty weapons, or loading the wrong cartridge into a weapon.

There is a significant difference in how you’d use a 19th century firearm compared to a modern one. Because reloading took significantly longer, you couldn’t afford to spray and pray, the way you can with modern box magazines. This means less bullets in flight, more focus on making sure those rounds connect.

So, can we compare 19th century firearms to modern ones? Not really. Even stuff like ballistic gel tests are going to be somewhat suspect. Just remember that any bullet can kill if it hits something vital.

-Starke

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Q&A: Residential Gunfire

In a story where the character has to take cover from bullets in a house, I actually read that a refrigerator (maybe steel) or cast iron tub could do a decent job of stopping ammunition. That or a safe. What do you think?

It depends on the bullet.

All bullets are not created equal. Handgun rounds (generally) pack a lot less punch than rifle rounds. Assault rifles have limits, but it’s still going to tear the place up. A high-power rifle will cut through most of the things you’d find in a house. An anti-material rifle will obliterate anything short of reinforced concrete.

I’ve never tested it, but a modern fridge probably won’t stop a bullet. The actual metal shell on the outside is quite thin. It’s more for show than actual structure. Metal is a terrible insulator and it’s heavy to move around. So, you put a thin shell over an insulated plastic frame, and you’ve got something that’s light weight, energy efficient, and looks expensive. Also, the metal shell is more resistant to casual abuse than the plastic beneath.

Heavy, metal tubs are becoming a rarity. They still exist, obviously, and depending on the tub, they may be heavy enough to stop some rounds. Ironically, the problems are the same as with fridges. The metal is a poor insulator, and the tub is extremely heavy. Even older metal tubs tended to minimize the amount of material used to keep the weight down. Fiberglass is the material of choice these days.

In either case, bullets will, probably, punch through, tearing ragged holes in the metal. And blowing apart the contents. If the bullet does stop, it’s still going to make a significant dent. You can look up what gunshot damage looks like, and it’s entirely reasonable your characters would try to take cover behind those objects, believing that they would offer safety.

The safe will do what you want it to do. It will provide shield against incoming gunfire. However, this is where things go a little off the rails. Free standing safes are a rarity. They’re fantastic for cartoons because it’s an instant cue telling the audience, “here’s a safe.” The problem with this is, if a thief wants what’s in the safe, they’ll just take the safe, and crack it at their leisure. The easy solution to this problem is to build the safe into the structure. The safe may be built into the concrete slab the house is built on. It could be part of the wall. It could be part of a larger furnishing piece that can’t be easily moved (such as a full office desk.)

The worst part is, a lot of these items will deflect the bullet. The metal shell on a modern fridge won’t stop a bullet, but it can cause it to bounce off in a new direction.

If you’re dealing with rounds that will fragment on impact, ricocheting can turn bullet from a single projectile into a spray of shrapnel. It is entirely possible to be injured from bullet fragments bouncing off concrete or hard metal surfaces.

Your characters aren’t going to have a lot of options for cover in a normal house. However, assuming someone is on the outside shooting in, they will have a lot of concealment. The best option is to hit the floor, make themselves as small a target as possible and try to avoid detection until the attackers leave, or they can find a safe way to escape undetected. It’s not, “safe,” but your scene doesn’t benefit from your characters safety. You may be interested in getting them out alive, but that doesn’t mean you should let your audience relax until you’re ready.

If your attacker is inside the house, then your character’s goals are to eliminate them before they’re found (and killed), or to escape (again, undetected.) If it turns into a gunfight, neither side has any cover. It is harder to accurately target someone through a wall, but you can make an educated guess for where they “should” be, and fire blind.

Incidentally, this is also the only safety your characters have. If someone is firing into into the house, it’s impossible to tell the difference between a kill, and someone dropping to avoid gunfire. Even if they did score a hit, walking in to confirm the kill is an extremely risky decision. They’re putting themselves in a situation where they could be easily ambushed and killed by people who know the layout of the place.

A house is not a good place for a firefight. You won’t be able to find safety when the bullets start flying. However, that is true for everyone. When you put your characters in jeopardy, you’re putting them in jeopardy, you don’t need to immediately walk it back and say, “but I’m sure they’ll be fine.” Tension works best when your audience isn’t sure what will happen next. Will they live? Will they die? Keep reading to find out.

-Starke

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Q&A: Different Kinds of Violence

Sometimes you say violence is viewed as monstrous and your character would be viewed with caution by real life bystanders but on the other hand, you also highlight blood sport and how the masses can be entertained by violence. So what causes people to perceive violence differently?

The simple answer would be to say, “Different kinds of violence are different.” It’s a little reductive, but when you change the circumstances around violence, you radically alter how it will be perceived.

There’s at least three major things parts to this: Structure, distance, and context.

Sports fighting is very different from real violence in a number of ways. I’m generalizing a little. For example: underground fight clubs aren’t going to follow the same rules as UFC, however there are some basic tenets to how you structure sport fighting.

The purpose behind sports fights is to present entertainment. The violence needs to be drawn out and slowed down so that the audience can actually see what’s happening. This is also true for violence on films. How many movies have you watched where the characters find themselves engaged in protracted slug fests?

Professional wrestling is a wonderful example of this. Before anyone asks: Yes, professional wrestling is semi-choreographed. The wrestlers are working together. It’s a performance, and their goal isn’t to hurt one another, though injuries do happen. However, they’re able to present a simulacrum of combat in front of a live audience. It’s slow, telegraphed, easy to watch, and easy to follow. This isn’t how real violence works; it’s romanticized, packaged, and presented for consumption.

Stepping back from that, even in things like UFC or boxing, the rules slow things down, and help the audience watch the fight. These rules serve to protect the fighters. Each one represents a significant investment, and the goal is to keep them alive and in fighting shape after their bouts.

Fencing is a good example of a sport that struggles with a more realistic understanding of violence. Even if you know what you’re seeing, it’s difficult to spectate. Fencing bouts are extremely fast. The foils have adapted to be safe for use, and the fencers move at a speed appropriate for their weapon, which is to say, “too fast to see.” Fencing has become utterly dependent on electronic scoring. It’s an amazing sport, but it struggles to get attention because it’s nearly impossible to understand what’s happening in the moment.

On the surface it may sound like I’m saying that practical combatants simply move faster. That’s not entirely accurate, practical combat tends to focus on techniques and movements that minimize motion and avoid telegraphing. So, even if an individual strike is only marginally faster, your brain has a harder time parsing what’s happened. The other part of this is that practical combat focuses on neutralizing the foe as quickly as possible, this means that it will be over in far fewer strikes.

The idea that the person next to you in line at McDonald’s was just killed in less time than it took you to read this sentence should be terrifying. and you’re still not sure what happened. This is not the violence that TV prepared you for.

Incidentally, I’ve been focusing on hand-to-hand here, but adding weapons only ramps the speed up. Add a blade or a gun and someone will be dead or dying before you realize what’s happening.

When you go and watch boxers, there’s structure. There’s a referee. The fighters are brought out. You know what’s coming. You know who these people are. You’re here for this.

When you’re walking down the street, and suddenly all you’re sure of is that the guy over there just executed someone in the street, and there’s blood everywhere. Things are a little different.

That’s the second thing. When you go to a sporting event, you’re up in the audience. You’re watching the fight from a safe distance. Even if you’re ringside, there’s still the ring itself. Sometimes it’s just some ropes delineating you from the fight, other times it’s chain link. Either way, the fight is happening, “over there.” Even when you can say you saw it live, it’s still happening at a safe distance.

In the real world, there’s no ring. There’s no tangible barrier between you and the carnage. It’s not something you’re observing, you’re part of it.

When we’re talking about firearms, this gets worse. Firearms are (basically) line of sight weapons. Additionally, bullets penetrate soft tissue, and can ricochet off of hard surfaces. If someone starts shooting in a crowded space, you are in real danger of taking a bullet unless you can put some solid cover between you and the shooter. More than that, a lot of things you’re prepped to think of as cover, like furniture, interior walls, or cars, are not. Hide behind a car, and you can still end up taking a bullet. This isn’t the gunfight tempo that TV, Movies, and video games promised.

The violence isn’t happening in some safe environment. It’s not on the other side of a barrier. It’s not safely in a fantasy world on your TV. It’s right here.

The third part is something that has been sprinkled through all of this, it’s context. In a sporting event you’re already primed to understand what’s going on. You know that a fight is going to happen. You know who the participants are, at least in concept, even if you’re not familiar with the fighters as individuals. There’s even fully developed rituals to how the fight starts, when it pauses, when it’s over, and how the winner will be recognized. At every step along the way, you’ve been told what’s happening, either by the actions themselves, or from someone explaining them to you. Sport fighting, even blood sport, has rules, and as an audience member you’re cued into them.

As a bystander, real world violence has none of that context. It happens, and you’re left to your own devices to figure out what happened. Again, all you’re sure is that something happened which you were not prepared for.

It’s one thing to watch a prize fighter victoriously limping out of the ring. It’s entirely different when the person standing next to you is spattered in the still warm blood of their victim.

-Starke

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Q&A: Can a Woman Pick Up A HOUseCat?

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite: I was wondering since I read this in a fic… how true is that a woman wouldn’t able to use a great sword since it uses strength and mass?

Complete bullshit.

Great swords, like zweihanders, only weigh eight pounds. That is considered heavy, by the way, for weapons. They can be wielded one handed. You probably wouldn’t want to, but you can. If a small man can wield a zweihander, a small woman can to.

The argument a woman can’t wield a weapon because it’s too heavy is he-man machismo chest beating that’s often wriggling its way toward outright misogyny. It’s right up there with women can’t fight, and the bow being a weapon that doesn’t take much strength to wield. (Which can be true, but that depends on the bow’s draw weight. War Bows like the English Longbows? 180 pounds. That’s lifting a normal sized man with one shoulder. The strain these bows produced was so high they warped archer skeletons after periods of prolonged use. Now, if you’re asking, could a woman draw one? With enough training, yes. Same goes for men. You gotta build the right muscles.) We invented crossbows because shooting with regular bows required a lot of skill, and was difficult for the average person.

The irony is that heavy weapons work against battlefield goals. The heavier the weapon is the more drain it places on the combatant’s energy reserves and their endurance, meaning they can’t fight as long as they might with a lighter, but similarly effective, weapon. The trend in weapons development is always to make the weapon more effective, more streamlined, more usable, and ultimately more deadly. The better the forging techniques, the lighter a weapon became while maintaining its structural integrity. Bronze isn’t just a soft metal, bronze is heavy.

You don’t want a weapon (or gear) that’s heavy to carry when you’ve got to march six or seven miles to the battlefield and then fight. You don’t. Male or female, you can’t fight forever. The more exhausted you are, the higher your chance of being killed.

While often treated as anomalies, history is filled with examples female combatants. The truth is that women have always fought, even if they are often forgotten by history as leaders, battlefield tacticians, strategists, and warriors. As it turns out, the Amazons were real. They were Scythian, and recent archaeological discoveries about their tombs have discovered that about one third of Scythians originally assumed to be men were women. This has happened a lot to women warriors in history. Many archaeologists assumed skeletons buried in warrior tombs were men when they weren’t.

The truth is that the impediments to women pursuing a career in combat is cultural not physical. You don’t believe me? Read this article by Micah Ables from the Modern Warfare Institute refuting arguments against female combatants in the US Military. (That’s the West Point website.)

Martial combat is about enhancing your own advantages and stripping the enemy of theirs. Skill is the hallmark, experience, endurance, and luck are the secondaries. The arguments against women are dressed up in discussions about physiology, but it’s really just enforcing cultural gender norms. It’s racist and sexist phrenology all over again. (This is the 19th century pseudoscience which argued that because women had smaller heads than men they were less intelligent. Then, when they realized women had proportionally larger heads in connection with their bodies and thus proportionally larger brains than men, argued women were intellectually similar to children because children also had proportionally larger heads.) This is just someone trying to use science to justify gender bias and chauvinism. They show their hand by focusing on physical differences and factors which are simply not relevant. Or, they don’t understand martial combat enough to grasp the importance (or lack thereof) of upper body strength. Just look at this short list of weird things men have believed about women.

Think about this, the idea a woman couldn’t lift an eight pound weapon, much less effectively wield one, is as idiotic as the idea women can’t do math.

Now, go watch Hidden Figures.

-Michi

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Q&A: British Military Recruitment Physicals

I’m planning a story with an English character who joined the army during WW1 (because he didn’t want to be considered cowardly) but eventually became disillusioned with war and with the British Empire. He was born physically disabled but managed to conceal the disability in order to enlist. Are there any disabilities for which this would be plausible?

No. It would be difficult to hide any serious disability during the recruitment medical examination. In 1914, the sheer volume of recruits meant that examinations were fairly cursory, but, anything significant would have gotten washed out. Also, he wouldn’t be alone in that respect, somewhere between 40% and 60% of volunteers were turned away for being medically unfit.

There two major exceptions, that were sometimes, “overlooked,” by the recruiters.

The first was height, a British Soldier was required to be at least 5’3″ (later revised up to 5’6″ to reduce the number of recruits that were being processed), though this was not always strictly adhered to.

The second was age, the British military required recruits to be 19 or older, though estimates put the number of underage British soldiers who served in World War I at around a 250,000.

It is important to understand, “fear of being viewed as a coward,” was not a leading cause to join up. Certainly not for someone who had a disability that they would need to work to conceal. Peer pressure was a factor among underage recruits. For adults the leading factors were patriotic impulses, or an opportunity to adventure.

Worth remembering, World War I was a significant turning point for the perception of warfare in Europe. It was brutal, and destructive on an incomprehensible scale. Twenty million people died from 1914-1918. Another twenty million were seriously injured.

That last part is important for reference. There were a lot of soldiers that went to war with the idea that it would be a grand adventure. They swore to protect king and country, but returned horrifically maimed, after receiving front row seats to industrialized warfare’s opening act.

War has a long history of taking young, healthy individuals and returning them in much less intact conditions. Even if your character left for war in good shape, it’s entirely plausible they wouldn’t return that way.

Even though the characters are German, not British, All Quiet on the Western Front is probably something you’ll want to read. You may also want to check The Great War channel on YouTube.

-Starke

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Q&A: Waterboarding

Is waterboarding deadly? Some people say it isn’t and I don’t know what to think.

Not normally, but a torturer can botch this and kill the victim.

So, normally, waterboarding involves covering the victim’s face with cloth, and them pouring water over it. Water that gets in their mouth will trigger the gag reflex, and while the water is being poured, any attempt to inhale will pull water in, so it “simulates” drowning.

The asphyxiation is real. While the water is being poured, it’s impossible for the victim to breathe. If the torturer never stops pouring, then they will suffocate the victim.

Normally, the procedure is to pour for short periods of time, and then stop, giving the victim time to breathe, before continuing.

It’s kind of telling that waterboarding has been used in countertorture training. If properly administered, the physical danger to the victim is minimal. However, there are a lot of potential, “points of failure,” here.

I already mentioned asphyxiation. If the victim is improperly restrained they may harm themselves thrashing around during the process. Even if they are properly restrained, this is still a risk. All of the usual hazards for asphyxiation are present, including brain damage from lack of oxygen.

This is where things become a problem. There are a lot of factors that can determine how well you can handle a lack of oxygen: Age, adaptation (if you live at a higher altitude, you’ll adapt to lower oxygen levels), medical history, (particularly any respiratory or cardiovascular conditions) can all seriously alter how resistant you are to oxygen deprivation. When we’re talking about waterboarding, that resistance is the difference between, “fine,” and brain damage, or alive and dead.

So, yes, waterboarding can kill, but that works against the goal. There are far less elaborate ways to kill someone. The primary use of waterboarding is to elicit false confessions. Because the torture leaves few visible injuries, it’s easier to present a waterboarding victim’s confession as voluntary. Of course, as with any form of torture, there will be significant, lasting, psychological damage, but that’s not going to be apparent when the victim is being publicly presented.

-Starke

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Q&A: Refurbished Criminals

Do you know if it actually happens that the police (or similar force) would hire or work with a criminal with great fighting abilities? Because they would be expendable? Or is that just a trope used in fiction? I can hardly imagine that it’s true, but informants are a thing (from what I know), so such a kind of arrangement doesn’t seem to be too far fetched?

If I’m being blunt, I don’t remember seeing, “great fighting abilities,” being cited in one of those examples. Usually, what you’ll see is something like, “they’re a great thief,” or, “they’re a genius hacker,” not, “they’re an artist with a crowbar.”

If a police force needed combat specialists for something, they already have those. Both in their own SWAT units, and also from ex-military members of their own organization. (It’s also distinctly possible that these groups would overlap. So you can get an ex-military SWAT team member.)

The irony is, you’d be hard pressed to find a real criminal, “combat specialist.” Violence doesn’t pay the bills. It is a tool that can used during the commission crime, but violence is only one aspect.

The best you can hope for is, like with cops, that your criminal has a military background. That’s not far fetched. They’ll understand how to fight and manage their foes, but by necessity, their specialty will be something that actually pays.

For law enforcement, violence is a tiny part of the job. Far more often, they’ll be showing up after the violence is over, and piecing together what happened. When looking at the aftermath of a violent crime, having a, “combat specialist,” on hand isn’t going to be that useful. After all, investigating a violent crime is a detective’s job. They are specialists. There’s not much insight a “combat specialist” can give a detective who spends their days studying murders for clues. For a detective, violence isn’t mysterious.

Now, reformed career criminals do have a real option selling their expertise as consultants. When you’re looking to shore up your company’s security, being able to hire a former criminal to learn about the weaknesses in your organization can be a major boon. And some reformed criminals do offer consulting services. Want to learn how a professional would break into your building? Hire an ex-thief. Want to know how a con artist would get access to your client data? Learn about social engineering from the people who used it.

There’s an entire field of security called Penetration Testing (or just “Pen Testing”), where you hire someone to break into your security. This could be a hacker, or a thief. At that point, you’re paying them to find ways to break in, so you can use the information they find to improve your security. Kevin Mitnick is one example, but there are a number of others.

Law enforcement organizations may choose to use outside consultants for specialized training. This could include people with criminal backgrounds explaining their methodology. However, in most cases, this would be things things the police are already familiar with from their own investigations.

What you would not see is the cliche of an ex-criminal who works alongside detectives in their investigations. That doesn’t happen. Any half-sentient defense attorney would be able to rip apart an investigation which included criminals as investigators. Because of cultural prejudices, criminals (and former criminals) don’t have a lot of credibility. While you can argue the merits of it, this is a cultural norm. As a result, criminal witnesses and investigators are far less useful than ones with a clean record. The closest you’d get are informants.

Informants are a complex topic on their own. The short version is, they don’t assist in the investigation, they report information they have to the police. In the simplest terms, they are just another witness, the only unique thing about them is that the police have “cultivated” them. They may enjoy informal protection from prosecution over minor crimes if they’re useful. This, in turn, means their credibility is virtually non-existent in court, and as a result, the police need to justify their findings.

With a criminal investigation, it’s not about the end result; it’s about creating a complete picture of what happened, and showing how you put that together from the available information. The entire concept of, “expendable,” doesn’t apply, because it’s all part of the picture.

Using criminals because they’re expendable is a thing, just not for law enforcement. For example, if you’re working for an intelligence agency, having criminals you can use and discard can be situationally useful.

Again, you’re probably not going to grab criminals for their combat expertise. If your operation requires combat specialists, you’re better off tapping your nation’s Tier One operators. The only thing a criminal combatant would be good for is a distraction.

Ironically, that same lack of credibility makes criminals very appealing for spies. If something goes wrong, if the criminal tries to burn them, who’ll believe a burglar? Especially when “they’ll say anything to save their own skin?”

Since someone will probably mention it, one scenario where you’d have cops working with criminals is when the cops are also criminals. The widespread corruption within Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department comes to mind as a good example of this. However, at that point, you wouldn’t be looking at a real investigation, you’d basically be looking at criminals (some with badges, some without), either trying to protect themselves or attack their rivals.

On the whole, the criminal working with cops motif is a method to spice up “Odd Couple” cop teams. It has very little relation to reality, and is entirely about trying to generate drama between the characters. There are ways an ex-criminal can put their experience to use without breaking the law, but getting partnered with a by-the-book, “too old for this shit,” cop isn’t one of them.

-Starke

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