Books, culture, fishing, and other games

August 09, 2003

Wurt's Wars

I'm still working my way through Wurts's 5th book in in the big myriadology (The Wars of Light and Shadow). One thing I was going to gripe about is the deadliness of combat in her books. In the first major battle, around 8,000 of 11,000 engaged were KIA. Not casualties, dead. This was a battle on land, not at sea, where very high rates are understandable due to the drowning of otherwise unhurt men when ships go down. In the second big battle at Vastmark, a similar number of the host of 30,000 dies. I think I remember it was 24,000.

Magic wasn't exactly deployed in these battles so there was no weapon of mass destruction, per se. There were very good tactics and as the battles were defensive (on the part of the "good guys", though Arithon, the commander of the defenses worries about all casualties, not just "friendly" ones) the defenders made extremely good use of defensive works and kill zones. Large chunks of the dead came from big traps where a dam was broken to drown a division in one case, and a rockslide released to wipe out a comple of others in another.

Both of the traps were a bit unusually effective as traps go, but they can be justified, perhaps, by Arithon's scrying of future possibilities in the planning. Arithon didn't get credit for being a tactical genius (and a strategic one, for that matter). No, he got credit for wiping out whole armies using dark sorcery. Lysaer's propaganda is very effective.

Wurts called these levels of casualties "decimation," which grates on my nerves. I suppose she's correct by modern usage, though. Decimation is a term created by the Romans who used it to discipline (punish) legions that turned tail. They would put the cowards into formation and execute every tenth man. Thus "decimation." I would called what happened to these forces in Wurt's book "destruction." The involved formations simply ceased to exist. The few survivors were absorbed into other, much less severely damaged, formations.

All that leads up to a new book I just stumbled across and must read. The review begins: "What is more dangerous: A brace of F-18s with laser-guided bombs and AIM-9L air to air missiles, or a group of men with pitchforks and improvised clubs? Think carefully, the correct answer may not be the obvious one."

War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (review at The Mackenzie Institute) compares primitive battles, and casualty rates, to modern battles. While modern warfare may have the capability of killing many very efficiently, it also rarely has a need to kill a large percentage of the hostile forces or population.

One major factor is discipline. Primitive forces are generally poorly organized and discipline dissolves in the heat and blood of battle. When one side breaks, the other pursues and slaughters those fleeing. Then they go on to butcher non-combatants. This may happen at times with modern forces, but as a percentage of the totals involved the resulting casualties may be lower than in primitive wars.

One comparison the book makes is between Normandy and the battles of the Tutus and Hutsis in Rwanda. Both happened in the modern era, but the latter were primitive battles involving some guns, but mostly machetes, pointy sticks, and clubs. The daily death rate for the latter was 2-3 times that of the Normandy campaign, which was pretty bloody as a result of the beach landings. This isn't exactly a fair comparison since the whole war in Rwanda involved two peoples totalling about 14 million in population, while World War II involved most of the world's population and actually had a daily death rate of 7-8 times that of Normandy on its own. In fact, I'm not sure that the numbers for the overall war are lower, as a percentage, than that of the Rwanda war, but World War II incoporated a lot of primitive warfare on some fronts too, so can't be treated monolithically as "modern warfare."

The books cites other contrasts and apparently concludes, "On a proportional basis, the soldier in combat may be safer than the civilian in a massacre, or some other form of non-trinitarian warfare."

But going back to Wurts's combat and casualty rates... they don't look quite as out of line as I first thought.

A major factor remains the professionalism of the forces involved. The greater the professionalism of command and line soldier, the lower will be the overall casualty rates. I'm not convinced that weapons matter. Napoleon held with the value of morale, which may have referred to discipline, but at least incorporated it. I refer to not just the willingness to obey orders (a somewhat overrated form of 'discipline'), but the overall stick-to-the-purpose, stay-on-goal attitude that permeates planning, training, and execution. Professionals conserve resources, whether they be bullets, meals, hours, or men. They don't waste time, ammunition, momentum or lives.

That means they fight fewer engagements and fight them smarter, resulting in more dislocation of the enemy and less casualties. As Sun Tzu would say, "a war won without fighting a battle is the ultimate goal of the leader." That rarely happens, but with that as the perfect war, wars fought by professionals will tend to have far fewer amateurs than those fought by rank amateurs and mobs.

Arithon is a professional (except when his curse kicks in, and he fights to control when that might happen). Lysaer, due to his self-willed blindness (and the influence of his end of the curse which he doesn't fight well), while not a total amateur, counts too much on mob psychology and emotion to ever rise to a professional leader. Lysaer may deploy some professional units (and he has some good ones), but he mostly sees them destroyed en masse because he misuses them.

I keep coming back to Hitler as I think about Lysaer. It's not a perfect analogy, but the two share many characteristics. It might be intentional on Wurt's part. Certainly Lysaer is an Aryan ideal. Perhaps Arithon is a Protocols of Zion sort of shadowmaster.

Posted by dan at August 9, 2003 11:36 AM