The military, war, and weaponry of your world
Rebecca Mikkelson, CBD Authors 4 Authors Publishing
This week, I want to talk about war making and what it can mean for your world. Your modern systems will be shaped by the people of the past, and to create a rich and believable world, you need to know how, and why, they did it.
I like a man in uniform
Before you can wage any sort of war, you’ll need a military of some kind. There are plenty of examples for how to structure your military, but I want to just go over what kinds of armed services you can have. Let’s start with the basic ones that we have today: the Air Force, Army, Marines, Navy, and Coast Guard. I’m going to separate them out, talking about your land, air, and sea options.
Having an Air Force in your novel will only serve you if your world is technologically capable of having one, there’s magic that allows people or objects to fly, or you have mythical creatures. This is an armed service that will likely be used more in a SciFi novel, where they could have both an Air Force and a Space Force. What these would do is patrol the airspace for any sort of enemy or oncoming attack.
Next, you’ll have the land fighters—this will be your Army and your Marines.* You can call them whatever you’d like, they can all be the army, they can all be foot soldiers, they can all be knights; it’s your story. But these are the men who are going to get their hands the dirtiest because they’ll be fighting close up. There won’t be any water between them, nor will there be sky. I would like to quickly mention that if you don’t have an organized military, any force that forms to fight an enemy is called irregulars.
Lastly, you’ve got your sea options. Mostly, when people think of the sea-faring military, they don’t think of the Coast Guard, but this branch of the military does have a purpose other than rescuing stranded people. This branch enforces maritime law alongside the Navy. Generally, though, in a fantasy or SciFi novel, you aren’t going to see a distinction between the two, and they’ll likely get the blanket term of Navy. This force is what will be fighting any sort of sea battle for the protection of an island nation, or a nation that has water on at least one side of their border.
Now, this isn’t including elite forces that could be in any of the branches, like Navy Seals or Army Rangers and their specialized line of work. Whether you have those in your story or a single unified force in your story is going to be entirely up to your discretion.
*Yes, the Marines are a department of the Navy, but they are typically depicted as land forces and thus went into the land category.
Who can join the military?
Will there be a legal age of who can join the military in your world or limitations to one sex? Historically, wars have been fought by men, and if women participated, it was because they hid their sex in order to hide their gender and participate—I say this as a blanket statement, but as time goes on, archaeologists are finding evidence that there were women who fought without needing to hide their gender. In your world, you’ll need to decide exactly when and how someone can join. Another question that remains is, will your military be a voluntary service, a drafted service when the need arises, or a mandatory service for an allotted time to teach discipline and keep numbers up?
I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the ranking systems of military—this seems to be something that people want to avoid putting in their books, and I can’t blame them. It’s difficult to come up with your own, and it can feel like you’re cheating if you model it after an existing one. But, here’s the thing: it doesn’t look any better when everyone’s a soldier, and you can’t tell who is in charge of whom. Go ahead and call someone a corporal or lieutenant colonel. It will help your readers understand any military situation better.
No Flag, No Country
Wars are often fought for the sake of colonization, but that isn’t the only thing wars are fought over. Wars can be waged over poor relations between countries, resources, colonization, and so on and so on. You can be a pacifist all you want in your world, but it doesn’t mean that your world won’t have a history.
How many wars have there been?
This is not a question you need an exact number for, but you do need to know the basic history of your world through war making. We don’t even know the exact accounting of wars that take place in our own history because our written history only started five thousand years ago. No doubt, between interbreeding, Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens warred with each other over hunting grounds and other resources.
What you need to know for your world will likely only be a few hundred years, and a millennia at most. You might think that’s a huge time span to know for your story, but each war will affect the way that your world is shaped. Take Genghis Khan for example: his leadership in conquering and nearly uniting all of Eurasia changed the world for the better. You might not think a man responsible for millions upon millions of deaths could spread anything as wonderful as religious tolerance, international laws, free trade, diplomatic immunity, and a regulated postal service called “Yam,” but all of that was the result of one man’s ambition. And all of that happened less than nine hundred years ago.
What kind of wars have been fought?
There are so many types of war, you might not even think of the possibilities for your world. I only want to cover a few of them because, otherwise, I’d be writing you a novel that you didn’t ask for and I’m not entirely qualified to write.
Wars of Aggression
These are wars that are fought solely for the sake of territorial gain and subjugation. So, basically what England did for hundreds of years until their empire was as complete as it was going to be. These wars might be hard to justify within your world—especially with our 21st century mindset—and just like in our own, often lead to rebellion and throwing off the yoke of oppression through more wars, which make for really great stories.
Wars of Independence and Civil Wars
It’s pretty easy to guess what this means, and it’s a war following a declaration of independence and autonomy as a new country from its sovereign country; said sovereign country sends military force to stamp out the rabble rousers. These kinds of wars are often seen in fantasy books because they make great stories of the oppressed winning against all odds.
The reason why I’m combining these two is that the only difference between civil wars and wars of independence is who wins. Let’s take the American Revolutionary War for example: if the British had won, it wouldn’t have been a war of independence; it would have been a civil war between England and its colonies. Or even the American Civil War—if the south had won, it would have been the War of Confederate Independence rather than the American Civil War.
As with Wars of Independence, it’s exactly what it sounds like. These wars are started to cut off any possibility of a future attack from another country that has either postured that they intend to make an attack in the future, or to avoid a shift in the balance of power.
You’ve likely heard this term often in reference to the United States and Russia in a conflict that spanned almost half a century. This kind of war happens when no military action is taken, but fought primarily either through espionage, economic, political, or propaganda measures.
Religious Wars (aka Holy Wars)
We’ve all heard of this type of war, thanks to the crusades and the medieval Catholic church. This type of war is rooted in religious ideologies and can sometimes be used for land grabs and sometimes for conversions. For the sake of peace and decorum, that’s where I’ll leave it.
How are wars waged?
You don’t need to be a brilliant tactician to be able to put this kind of information into your book. As with the kinds of war, I only want to go over a few kinds of attacks that can be waged during battle for the sake of brevity. Keep in mind, some of these tactics are going to feed into each other.
I want to talk about this first because we can see examples of it throughout history before the term “guerilla warfare” was even coined. This is when a group of combatants use ambushes, raids, sabotage, and petty warfare to achieve their goals. In other words, this is a hit and run of people in times of war. Historically, you’ll see this tactic used by the Goths in ancient times, Europeans to prevent the Mongols from taking a stronghold in all of Europe, and, even in more recent history, the World Wars.
This is very similar to guerrilla warfare in that its purpose is to wear down the enemy by continual losses in personnel and/or resources. What this means is there will be small parties that launch raids to either execute personnel or steal/destroy supplies from their enemy as they do in guerrilla warfare, but on a much grander and continual scale. This is used in an attempt to take away the enemy’s ability to fight, and if you want a good example of this type of warfare, you can look at General Grant’s strategy to win the American Civil War.
This is another tactic that you’ll see in a lot of wars, and it can arguably be said that you can’t fight a war without using this tactic. Maneuver warfare is when you try to wear down your enemy’s decision making abilities with shock or disruption. This tactic aims to make your enemy lose the will to fight.
A siege is a military blockade of a city or fortress where the forces or residents within refuse to surrender. This is really a combination of both Attrition Warfare and Maneuver Warfare in that it aims to not only prevent the enemy from fighting, but also to make them lose the will to fight through lack of resources. What’s unique about Siege Warfare, though, is that it can work both ways. If a fortress is well stocked and fortified, the longer an army is forced to stay staring at a fort with no end in sight, that army will gradually become demoralized and give up because they’re needed elsewhere. If that fort isn’t well provisioned, the soldiers within can quickly grow weak and demoralized for seeing no way to win and then surrender.
This isn’t something entirely new to warfare, but what we’ve come to think of as chemical warfare is after WWI. What our current definition is, is using things like mustard gas, chlorine gas, or hydrogen gas to subdue an enemy. But, that’s not the only thing that quantifies as chemical warfare. This can be using poison arrows (like Hercules did, using the venom from the hydra), arsenical smokes like the Chinese used, and poisoning water supplies with deadly herbs. All three of those tactics were used in the ancient world, so your fantasy novel doesn’t have to be limited to only modern era technology.
Let’s talk a little bit biochemical warfare. There's a long history for spreading disease to enemy camps through contaminated supplies, contagious locals/prostitutes, or launching animal/soldier corpses via catapult. So, you could easily have some smallpox blankets given to locals (ahem, colonials) to kill them off so you can grab more land.
Weapons are going to be an important part of any defense, whether it’s self defense in the home or defending your country on the battlefield. I only want to go over a couple of types of weapons that can be used by almost anyone, and since five seems to be the magic number of this post, I’m going to limit it to that.
These I see so often in fantasy novels that they’re practically a staple of the genre. These are small weapons that can be easily hidden for self defense or sneak attacks and don’t require years and years of practice to use for the purpose of self defense. Is it better to have it? Sure. But that young lady traveling in a caravan doesn’t need much further knowledge than to stick people with the pointy end to get them to leave her alone. Another wartime purpose for the dagger is to deliver a mercy blow to a wounded and dying soldier on the battlefield.
Heaven above, there are so many swords, I don’t think I could list them and their definitions in five pages, much less this short paragraph that I’m going to be writing. The only two that I want to talk about are the quintessential fantasy swords: the longsword and the broadsword. If you want a quick visual reference, the sword that Brienne of Tarth uses (Oathkeeper) is a long sword—it’s longer than the average sword, and the hilt is long enough for two hands, but it can be used with one or two hands, depending on the strength and skill of the wielder. The broadsword has a basketed hilt—which means that there is metal that goes over the hand for its protection—and is meant to be used with only one hand, not two. If someone is using that two handed, they’re going to look like an idiot. These two swords are often mixed up and are definitely not interchangeable.
Out of the four types of bows, it’s likely you’ll only see three within fantasy novels. These will be recurve bows that are often used on horseback in military or hunting excursions, longbows made for long distance shooting during wars, and crossbows. Bows have their place in and out of war and can be an effective weapon if used correctly.
These are going to be your cannons, muskets/rifles, pistols, and mortars. Pretty much anything that needs to be propelled and goes boom that isn’t a futuristic weapon only seen in SciFi novels and shows. The type of boom-boom weapon that you’re going to want to use is going to depend on your setting and the advancement of your people. If you’re writing in a medieval setting, your average cannon is the way to go. Do you have a more futuristic society? Probably a gun of some sort.
This a particularly useful weapon in mounted warfare. Some of you might know what these are, and some of you might not. A caltop looks quite similar to a jack in the game “jacks and ball” but can sit mostly flat on a surface when thrown down, and they have sharp ends to puncture the hooves of mounts or soles of foot soldiers. These are thrown down before a mounted attack and are very effective in felling a large number of horses at once.
And on that happy note, I hope you’ll join me next week when I talk about magic!
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