Let's talk about combat. Lord knows there's enough of it to go around, whether you're talking about real life or in fiction. Combat can be considered in some ways a necessary part of the human experience, from the dawn of civilization to the modern day. Combat is a means by which we resolve disputes and exercise influence on others, but it's also a way to establish social hierarchies and power. It's simultaneously immoral and moral, concerning both horrendous crimes and virtuous sacrifices. It is a realm where killing is sanctioned by society rather than condemned, and yet the experiences of war prove hard for civilians to relate to even today.
Not all combat is created equal, of course, and this is why there are so many contradictions in the previous paragraph. The reasons behind combat and the way it is treated by its participants vary greatly depending on the conflict in question. More and more, "moral imperative" becomes necessary to justify combat - it's not likely that, say, the UK would invade France for breaking a treaty like they would in the old days. There's obviously factors underlying combat throughout human history, from tribal skirmishes to world wars. To that end I propose we look at the two major kinds of warfare that exist, and use the difference between them to try to understand (a) why people fight in reality and (b) why people enjoy the concept of fighting in fiction.
The two primary aspects of warfare up for discussion today are "ritualistic" and "survivalist". While there are many causes of war that seem excluded by this somewhat simplistic pairing, the heart of the matter is the perspective present. What is the motivation of the combatants? What is the means by which the citizen is inspired to become the soldier? Why should the individual care about the problems of his or her ruler? Why does one person sacrifice their life for a cause? If war is so terrible, as we have been shown over and over, why do people still do it? These are the questions and issues I will be addressing herein.
|Appeal to Social Shame|
In modern terms, and ergo in modern fiction, the "ritual" aspects of warfare are what make its depiction "fun" and "escapist". It is a fantasy to be powerful and strong and to slay many enemies because that taps into a very well-established power structure that our brains support. Conflict, especially in video games, is not an unpleasant experience, but an adrenaline-soaked means for us to exert our agency over objectively inferior beings. This is why action stories center around individuals like Master Chief or James Bond and not around average soldiers - because they exist for us to draw visceral value from their strength and puissance, even though they're not real. Their strength is the reason they exist, and is their most valuable trait to the audience.
War in a ritual sense can be thus summed up as "glorious", because that is the role it takes to justify its own existence. For much of history this was the accepted nature of wars - societies were based entirely around the concept of lords and their subordinates fighting for a monarch because that's simply how things worked. Many cultures had concepts of "good wars", i.e. wars fought with mutual consent and limitations on combat, and "bad wars", which were unrestrained battles to the death. That's simply how things were; war was as much a part of life as anything else, and excelling at war was a way to advance your cause and your society. The important aspect here, though, is that there doesn't really have to be a better reason for a ritual war - a chance to prove one's own superiority is almost always enough. This doesn't really fly today, which is why most justifications for war in modern times make appeals to our second aspect:
|Appeal to Survival & Averting Tragedy|
Wars for survival, unlike ritual wars, cannot be avoided. The options available are to fight or to die, though as we'll discuss later this is basically the most severe end of the scale. While ritual wars can be avoided without particularly severe consequences, at least for the average person, wars for survival are an absolute necessity for almost every citizen. Notably, there are more "battles" for survival than "wars" - while many wars are started for purely political reasons, the consequences of individual battles can have horrifying effects on otherwise irrelevant civilians, such as when Antwerp was sacked during the Eighty Years War. In such cases there is no room for negotiation or attempts at peace - the choices are "fight or suffer", and it's often people who are unprepared for war who find themselves suddenly having to deal with it.
Thematically, the main difference between ritual wars and survival wars is that survival wars are almost always justified in a moral sense. They're about situations where people are pressed up in a corner with no alternative but to fight, and as such the warriors in question can hardly be blamed for fighting - rather, they should be lauded for making sacrifices to defend their family, friends, and way of life. It's also possible to take this too far - eventually, the black-and-white "we're good / they're bad" mentality can be used to justify almost any action done to the "evil side" on the basis of pre-existing moral justification. The Eastern Front of World War 2 was certainly a survival war for the Soviets, but once they won they engaged in all sort of immoral and debauched behavior on German (and Romanian, Ukrainian, etc.) soil because they justified it as being "deserved". In this way, the war transformed from a morally justified war for survival to an inhuman act of destruction and hatred, and the Soviet soldiers stopped fighting monsters and started being them. In essence, "survival" is moral as long as it's actually about survival - once it's not, the situation must be reconsidered.
|Appeal to Survival (in a Political War)|
However, regardless of the truth of a given war, it is to the benefit of the war-makers to evoke both ends of the scale. Propaganda posters from World War 1 and 2 make similar claims about the nature of the war they're depicting, which ends up being somewhat unreal when you think about the differences between them. World War 1, for example, was depicted at the time as being necessary for both sides - if you didn't stop the Germans, allied posters would claim, they were going to destroy our way of life. This was despite the fact that the conflict was largely political in nature, and the average citizenry could have ignored it entirely and would've been a lot better off. The contrast between how the war was depicted and the reality of the war created a cynical divide that would come to define a generation, especially since many of the members of that generation were directly involved in the fighting. It's almost poetic, then, that the war immediately following it was World War 2, a clear-cut survival case wherein many people refused to believe what was actually going on because it was the same stuff that had been put into the propaganda for World War 1. "Oh, another war where the Germans are evil and want to take over the world? Oh dear, we'll get right on that" sneered the collective Allied world, rolling all their eyes back at the same time. And yet we can see the same sort of duality even in modern scenarios - American troops exist to "defend our freedom", after all, so pretty much everything they do is justified.
|Appeal to Unavoidable Necessity|
The point is that these works are simultaneously ritualistic and survivalist - "ritualistic" because they're about drawing visceral pleasure from the characters' agency and strength in an unthinking sort of way, and "survivalist" because there is an unavoidable moral imperative to their purpose that attempts to thinly justify all the murdering they do. While speculative fiction such as fantasy and sci-fi can at least justify this through internal consistency ("this monster race only exists to kill and murder and doesn't feel fear or regret" is often good enough), with the depiction of human beings it's a lot more tricky and inevitably a lot more disgusting, because the human psyche doesn't actually work like that. What you end up getting is the dehumanization of human beings in order to support the idea of their deaths being necessary. They're not brain-controlled cyborgs or mindless zombies or alien mutants, they're just regular people with different viewpoints, and yet they're almost never actually programmed to act like people do. While it's nice to imagine that we can all separate fiction from reality for long enough to not take this kind of thing seriously, the problem is that psychologically we really can't - though some cases are more overt than others, especially when race gets involved. The heroes we choose, as a culture, are what define our collective values and expectations of good conduct, and it's a bit more important than just being a "power fantasy".
|Appeal to Masculine Exclusivity|
But really, what's the importance of this? If war is so terrible, why is it so important that we give women the right to take part in it? And why do only men have to register for the draft in most countries (an argument I have heard legitimately made by Men's Rights Activists)? Thus we encounter the problems with the dual-identity of war. Women are not allowed to fight because war is an important masculine task for important masculine men. However, war is also a terrible thing that men don't want to be part of, and thus it's unfair that men have to register for the draft and women don't. What it comes down to is respect: if war is important, it's stupid and pointless to prevent women from fighting it. Throughout the ages, war has affected women even when they weren't trained and prepared for it. The idea that war only affects fighting soldiers is archaic and inaccurate, and in some cultures, even when the woman was told to say home they were still taught to fight. The Japanese naginata, for example, is considered a "woman's weapon" because its reach and versatility made it valuable for defending one's home. In a true war for survival, as many conflicts purport to be for moral reasons, women are going to be affected even (perhaps especially) if they aren't trained for it.
|Appeal to Duty|
Speculative Fiction offers us the chance to view ritual and survival from new angles and ideas by creating situations that are not really possible in real life. It can take both aspects to extremes not possible in reality, so long as it stays consistent with its concepts and modifies human behavior accordingly. With fiction, we must accept certain aspects of a premise as being true in order to analyze the behavior present in the setting from a pragmatic or a moral standpoint. We can still use our "real-life" morality to look at it, as that just means that we look at the setting's reality as though we were there. Of course, it must be understood that the morality being discussed is situational - it doesn't make sense to justify a decision in-universe, then attempt to use that justification to do something in real life. That's how you get things like "there's an environmental message in James Cameron's Avatar", even when the situation is so far removed from reality that it can't be even remotely applied. Every situation must be examined on its own merits, not on the vague morals of a fictional story.
|This isn't really propaganda I guess|
However, unlike a lot of settings, there's a real effort made to explore the different mentalities of the races involved, instead of just handwaving the usual "always Chaotic Evil" stuff that D&D does. Orcs like fighting and don't give a damn about dying - they don't fear death, they're just sort of annoyed by it, and their inability to process the concept is mainly why they're a constant antagonist. Norscans (the human servants of Chaos) believe in an afterlife where they will be rewarded for a glorious death, and the magical nature of their particular end of the world helps cement that belief as being "more real than reality". The monstrous Dragon Ogres sleep for centuries, then regard their interactions with the waking world as their "true dreams". The Daemons of Chaos can't even die - they just get sent back to their own reality. The only mortal, death-fearing faction who still functions entirely as an antagonist to the other mortal races is the dark elves, whose view towards warfare is almost entirely ritualistic given that they worship a God of Murder. Conversely, there is a human faction - the Kingdom of Bretonnia - that treats combat in an absolutely ritualized way even when it is a matter of survival. Bretonnians are a knightly sort who treat both class-related and sex-related discrimination as major, unbreakable tenets of their culture, and are loathe to break it even in the most severe scenarios. This viewpoint is supported - once again - by their religion, which gives them blessings in exchange for essentially supporting the status quo. While religion-based morality is certainly present in reality, it's another thing entirely when the religion in question is constantly doing actual things and having actual effects in the world.
Warhammer deserves mention for the awkward and indecisive way it handles gender issues. It's allowed in all lands outside of Bretonnia that women will fight, and in almost all cases can't avoid combat - there are too many roaming monsters to get away without seeing at least a few goblins in one's lifetime. Also, magical talent is not picky about sex, so both men and women can be born with it (more of a curse than a blessing in most cases). However, there are no female models in the tabletop wargame apart from the standard fantasy "sexy bullshit classes" like "sexy elf" or "sexy mage". You also occasionally get snippets of terrible writing like this whole debacle, wherein an inherently survivalist institution (which is required to adopt all magic users lest they go insane and wreak havoc) is treated as some sort of simpering comic relief, as though we'd suddenly fallen into Discworld or something. I guess the occasional female knight in actual plate armor is enough to put it far above every other fantasy setting, though.
|I'm pretty sure this is how 40k got started.|
Combat is an almost-universal part of human history. People fight for a wide variety of reasons - for ideology, for religion, for greed, etc. - but I centered this discussion on "ritual" and "survival" mostly because of how they affect the way we look at combat. We like to have "good guys", generally, when we're talking about fiction. We like to have heroes, we like to have sympathetic characters, and we like to have people we can praise without feeling vaguely dirty for it. However, that's just the survival aspect - the ritual aspect plays just as heavy a part, but in a much more subtle way. For these duties to be enjoyable, rather than unpleasant, we have to somehow transform the grim business of murdering people into a lighthearted performance while somehow still maintaining moral credibility. We need this because the role that action plays in entertainment is that of visceral pleasure, to gift us with the power that we lack in reality and honestly shouldn't want. It's not fun to hear that real problems are solved with things like education and infrastructure and the development of constructive systems of government in impoverished regions. What we want is the ability to have our cake and eat it too - to enact the rituals that show us as powerful and strong, and to simultaneously engage in the necessary and unpleasant defensive conflicts that give us moral sanctity. Eventually, people are going to have to pick one or the other.