Monday, June 11, 2012

How Soldiers Die - Ancient vs. Modern Warfare

Artist Impression of Spartan Warriors
Battle of Thermopylae
As an author of historical fiction set in the ancient world, I write a lot about soldiers. I also write about and research the things that might tie a group of men together or cause dissention in their ranks. There is always an element of the good and heroic, the bad and hateful. Soldiers are humans who have been placed in extreme circumstances and the behaviours that arise out of those circumstances are fascinating, inspiring and trying. The horrors and glories of war in the ancient world provide a rich canvas to be sure.

I listened to an interview recently with author, Michael Stephenson, whose new book, How Soldiers Die, A History of Combat Deaths, was discussed recently on NPR. Because writing is largely a study in human nature and the behaviour of characters, I was particularly interested in Mr. Stephenson’s views of how soldiers fight and die and how they deal with the experience of combat.

Artist Impression of
Celtic Warriors in Battle
When I compare war in the ancient world to war in the age of gun powder, the romantic in me tends to think of the former as much more heroic. How brave it was to stand in the front ranks with your brothers, shield to shield against the front ranks of an enemy. They would have been a sword’s length away and you would have been able to see the facial features of the man you were trying to kill, the man who was in turn, trying to kill you. With the invention of gun powder (something I still see as a tragic turn of events in world history), it meant that truly brave, heroic warriors were able to be killed by enemies at a distance.

Tank in Afghanistan
Mr. Stephenson highlights this as a central difference between combat in the ancient and early medieval worlds to combat in the age of firearms and then to combat involving modern technologies where soldiers rarely see their enemies. It is the discussion of fighting an impersonal, faceless war that is particularly intriguing and telling. The question of how fighting a faceless war affects the soldiers is one with various answers, depending on who you are talking to. In the radio interview, some Viet Nam, Gulf War and Afghanistan veterans call in to give their perspectives, including on the rituals, abhorrent or not, that can keep a unit of men closely knit.

Hector and Achilles
in Single Combat
I do not pretend to know the feelings of those fighting in modern wars, as most of what I know comes from the media, like most people. I do know people who have lost loved ones who served, who have felt the resultant pain. In the past, songs would have been sung of heroes who faced down their enemies sword to sword on the battlefield before thousands of others. Whether it is Hector and Achilles, or Leonidas and the 300 Spartans, songs are still sung of them, stories told. But who will sing songs or tell stories of the individuals who are blown away by a roadside bomb or taken out by a drone controlled by a joystick hundreds or thousands of miles away?

As the title of Mr. Stephenson’s books says, soldiers die. I believe it is important in fiction to relay that. It does not need to be overly graphic in my opinion but, neither should it be bloodless. George R.R. Martin shows us that war in a medieval setting is anything but bloodless and he describes it to good effect to the point where you can smell the terror of battle and its aftermath. Men are maimed and do not always emerge from battle as shining as when they entered it.

'Faceless' Drone
Soldiers are human beings and when it comes to historical fiction they should entail all sorts, from the truly chivalrous to honourless scoundrels and everything in between. In the end, the heroes and their deeds, and those who perform acts of selfless courage, will stand out.

It is important to remember, whether tales from Thermopylae and Marathon to the Somme, Normandy and Afghanistan. Soldiers deserve support for their acts of courage, not for the crimes of a few or the extremely poor decisions of the politicians who sent them into battle for their own greed.

Artist Impression of
Armoured Knight
I look forward to reading Mr. Stephenson’s book and gaining some more insight and a new perspective on what soldiers face in combat. Take five minutes to listen to the interview in NPR, here, and check out the book. I know I will.

My fiction recommendations for ancient and medieval war and the warrior ethic are many indeed so, here are a few authors and ancient works that spring to mind immediately: Glyn Iliffe (Odysseus series), Steven Pressfield (Gates of Fire), David Gemmel (Troy series), The Song of Roland (Medieval text about the brave rear guard action of Charlemagne’s army) and, Aneirin’s Y Gododdin (heroic poem about the about the Britons’ last stand against Saxon invaders). There are, of course many more. Happy reading and glory to the brave!
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