This morning I received a tweet asking how I handle ground combat. I really didn’t think I could give an answer in a 142 character tweet, or even in a series of tweets. Now I have never been in ground combat. I have heard rounds cracking overhead in training, and because of an error in basic my partner put ten rounds from a M16 within inches of where I was lying on a bunker prepping a practice hand grenade to throw into the aperture of the position. Some of what I learned about ground combat was in training in Marine JROTC, in the Army, in the Florida National Guard, and even in Explorer Scouts. In the Guard we spent two weeks learning how to conduct air mobile operations, in and out of helicopters. In Explorer Scouts we played search and evasion (advanced hide and seek) on the Myakka River, against other kids who were as good at woodcraft as I was, even against a former member who was a Marine. I also grew up with firearms, and have fired everything from .22 revolvers to the German Panzerfaust, including auto-rifles, belt fed machine guns and sub-machine guns. I still shoot quite often, pistols, M1 Carbines, AR-15s.
Then there were the discussions with people who had been there. Almost all of my NCOs in Germany were Vietnam Veterans. All of our squad leaders in the Guard were also vets. I can still remember a mission Sgt Gluckman, who looked like a clerk, led on us to find and destroy a Recondo HQ (they were regulars stationed in Panama). The little wimpy looking guy who was a combat veteran in Nam found and destroyed the HQ of these supposedly elite soldiers, which goes to show that real experience goes a long way. I talked with my brother, who had been in almost nine months of combat in Nam before he was wounded. He taught me that even a good shot (which he was) could miss everything in front of him due to the adrenaline rush of fear. I have talked with Marines who were in WW2, Korea and Vietnam, Rangers, Green Berets and Seals. Listened to their experiences. Heard their stories, both funny and tragic.
I have read a lot of books on history, from the Greeks to the Persian Gulf. Both the grand picture books and the personal stories. The memoirs of Eric von Mannstein and a book by a little know German LT on the Russian front (and if you really want a great description of hard core no holds barred combat, you can’t get anymore real than this.) First person accounts of the SAS in Iraq. Books on strategy and tactics, and how superweapons aren’t always the way to go, since your opponent will go all out to defeat them. Books on the organization of the German Army, probably the best military force of the Twentieth Century (and sure they lost, mostly because they were outnumbered and had a complete idiot at the top of the power pyramid). Books on the Panzer tactics of that army. Books about how the Roman Army was trained and organized. Books about the Napoleonic Wars, the Revolution, the Civil War. Hundreds of books of history. War is terrible, as Robert E Lee said. It’s also flipping interesting, no fascinating. Reading fiction also helps give one an idea of what its like. Bernard Cornwell does a great job in the Medieval to gunpowder era. Robert Heinlein’s Starship Trooper is still the classic book about powered armor. John Ringo continues that tradition. Michael Z Williamson gives great accounts of future warfare sans the armor, as does Jerry Pournell. For fantasy R A Salvatore does a very good job of describing fights with ancient weapons.
Games. Yes, games, both board and computer, can give you an idea about what combat is like, and what small changes might have ended battles with different results. Be careful here though, because sometimes the minds of games designers can come up with some ridiculous concepts. Still, I have played some of the good ones and gotten some really good ideas, like how to defeat a more powerful infantry force with cavalry in Rome Total War. Or how some wars were literally unwinnable because of disparity in industrial capacity (like World War 2).
And I watched war movies. Some can give you ideas because they are so good. And some can give you an idea of what not to do, or how to do it better, because they are so bad. Cross of Iron (Russian Front), Saving Private Ryan, A Bridge Too Far, Stalingrad, Enemy at the Gates, Waterloo, Glory. Watching the Roman legions deploy in Spartacus, an awe inspiring sight, and maybe too much for most opponents. Assaulting from boats into machine guns (Private Ryan), Airborne assaults (Band of Brothers). Seeing lines of men in lines shooting into each other at fifty yards using weapons designed to kill at five hundred. Everything is grist for the mill.
Finally some knowledge of near future weapons development, and the realization that what seems so fantastic today will be ancient in the future. The limitations of today, in battery power, in armor protection, in stealth tech, will not be the limitations of tomorrow. I studied the effects of lasers and particle beams, including their strengths and weaknesses. There are actual programs on the internet that will tell you how much power it takes to burn through different materials. The negative effects of weapons, like using something that vaporizes a target but fills the air with superhot steam, which could be a real bitch. I was asked particularly about smart ammo in the tweet. To us it looks like a great idea. In the far future, when you need ammo that can penetrate really tough armor, maybe a round that has to slow down so it can turn a corner might not be so hot. Then again, with explosive rounds capable of penetrating armor they might be just the thing.
What kind of weapons do I use in future combat. Tough armor that allows unprecedented mobility, stealth and protection. And the weapons that can defeat that armor. That goes hand in hand in weapons development through the ages. Maybe the armor can’t withstand a direct hit, or many of them, but if it can render a near miss by a particle beam something that doesn’t fry the soldier, then it has a purpose. The soldiers themselves will be highly trained, valuable, and something to be protected. Particle beams, lasers, and high velocity rounds that might have penetration aids built in. And of course nukes and kinetic weapons and lots of battlefield radiation, also necessitating some kind of armor or field protection. Cover and concealment will still be important. I wouldn’t want to be wearing a suit of powered armor that could take a dozen hits by the enemy’s best weapons, then stand out in the open where I could be easily hit thirteen or more times.
Finally, the human factor. Will future land warriors be just like us? Or will their emotions be controlled, making them heartless automatons? I personally think the second route is a dead end, as fear and anger have a place in combat. I might be wrong, and it is an area to explore. What will motivate them, what will they fight for? King and Country? Medals? Sometimes, but I don’t think that often. Sometimes soldiers do fight for a leader. I remember playing a war game years ago set in the Roman period, and one of the basic rules was that units panicked from losses and then took a beating as they ran. A caveat to this rule was that units that fought under Julius Caeser never panicked. Sometime people fought for flags or standards. I wouldn’t have been one of those people who grabbed the standard before it hit the ground, and then became a magnet for enemy fire that had already dropped the first ten people who had carried that piece of cloth on a stick. I would rather keep my weapon and shoot back. What people most often fight for is their comrades and the people at home. Study Vietnam and the Russian Front, and you will find that American and German soldiers fought heroically for their friends, the people around them. German soldiers didn’t fight for Hitler and the Nazi Party, unless they were fanatical. Russians didn’t fight for Stalin. And both sides fought fanatically to save their own people from what they saw as a menace. The Russians to keep the Germans from exterminating them. The Germans to keep the Russians from doing the same thing to their country that they had done to the Russians. And another lesson you learn from reading about past conflicts, which should translate into stories about future war, is that at times good people fight for bad causes, and bad people fight for good ones. Many of the soldiers who died for the South in the Civil War were not bad men trying to hold down their fellow man. Many Germans were not Nazis, but fought hard nonetheless. And there have been some truly horrible people who have helped the side we most would want to see win with their barbaric actions. I don’t think any of this is going to change in the future. There will be Saints and Demons in every Army, though they may be seen as universally one or the other depending on which side is looking at them.
Any way, that;s my take on how to learn how to write land combat, both future and fantasy. Learn about the real thing, talk to people who have been there, read the works of people who write it well, and get as many ideas as possible, so you can generate your own. I think next I will talk about naval and space naval combat.