To kill without running the risk of being killed

Friday, May 16th, 2014

Man taxes his ingenuity to be able to kill without running the risk of being killed, Colonel Ardant Du Picq reminds us:

When people become more numerous, and when the surprise of an entire population occupying a vast space is no longer possible, when a sort of public conscience has been cultivated within society, one is warned beforehand. War is formally declared. Surprise is no longer the whole of war, but it remains one of the means in war, the best means, even to-day. Man can no longer kill his enemy without defense. He has forewarned him. He must expect to find him standing and in numbers. He must fight; but he wishes to conquer with as little risk as possible. He employs the iron shod mace against the staff, arrows against the mace, the shield against arrows, the shield and cuirass against the shield alone, the long lance against the short lance, the tempered sword against the iron sword, the armed chariot against man on foot, and so on.


  1. Zhai2Nan2 says:

    I always find it bizarre when soldiers brag of how they are risking their lives.

    An ancient warrior could risk his life in good conscience.

    A modern warrior who risks his life is usually following an incompetent leader with a poorly-designed battle plan. It might be necessary to take that risk, but one should never brag about it.

    If you get into a fair fight, someone in your chain of command has made a strategic error.

    Perhaps if wars were small and chivalrous and fought between natural aristocrats, we could have risky wars in good conscience again. I think there was a time in the middle ages when a European peasant could happily wave as his lord went to battle, knowing that regardless of whether the lord won or lost, the peasant would be no worse off. (Sadly, I have no history book to cite for this notion.)

    I would be happy to see a world with less modern slaughter and more natural aristocrats in the Jeffersonian mold, but I’m not going to hold my breath while I wait.

  2. Rollory says:

    I used to play a lot of turn-based strategy multiplayer war games. Back in the days of Usenet there was a certain ethos about it: all-out hard-charging do-whatever-it-takes within the game, good sportsmanship and intense interest and discussion outside the game. Backstabbing, betrayals, surprise attacks were all part of the toolset to be used, and their effective use was admired.

    Then came the age of phpBB forums, and different games. I thought I’d pick these up and have the same fun I recalled from earlier. Very quickly I ran into a shock: there was different standard of accepted behavior. Specifically, performing a backstab within the game was considered to reflect badly on the player’s character without the game. The accepted standard of behavior for everyone was that if an alliance was to be broken, the player doing so had to give several turns’ warning according to predetermined conditions, thus giving the other player a “fair” chance to prepare for it. This was considered to make things easier for the weaker players and “more fair” for everyone.

    What they did not and as far as I know still do not understand is that the actual result of this is to empower the players who have a very specific and limited skillset; that of convincing people that a particular agreements is beneficial and of formulating agreements in such a manner as to lock people into situations that will become detrimental for them later. The weakest players end up getting locked into their weakness, all while thinking they are being protected.

    The nature of these games — as with the nature of real-world warfare — is that unexpected situations arise. Agreements made at one time can not possibly cover all possible contingencies, not even those one or the other party may be deliberately planning for at the time the agreement is made. Breaking an agreement and performing a surprise attack is an occasionally necessary tool even within a strictly moralistic perspective, as an answer to deliberate fraud; in an all-out war for survival (which most of these games present themselves as) it becomes simply common sense. In a situation where one party has gained a commanding lead, a surprise attack is the one method that might prevent them from winning the game, but they deliberately rule out such a basic option. These players have deliberately constructed a mental universe within which they operate which is significantly more divorced from reality than the basic nature of the game would require.

    I beat my head against this for several years before coming to the conclusion that it was a side effect of most of the players being die-hard liberals, and that it was not going to be possible to get them to perceive the problems with it so long as they remained committed to leftist principles.

    Once I realized this, I started really noticing how many games actively teach counterfactual lessons. One of the real standouts is Galactic Civilizations. Brad Wardell, the game’s author, is a self-described conservative, yet the game rewards the player for paying off threats and ransom demands and punishes the player for refusing to go along with them. (Payoffs make the aliens more friendly, refusing makes them more hostile. In the real world, as Kipling describes in “Dane-Geld”, what happens is the exact opposite.)

    I see stuff like this and I wonder how many people are wandering around with completely mystical and magical conceptions of how things work, derived from situations like these and similar, that are exactly the opposite of the truth, and what consequences that is going to have.

    Zhai2Nan2, I can not find a specific citation for this, so it may be bullcrap, but Jerry Pournelle has repeatedly referred to Frederick the Great saying that “the peasants in the fields and the burgers in the towns should neither know nor care if the State is at war”. Pournelle has repeated “fake but accurate” stuff before, and google keeps pointing back to Pournelle himself as the source for that quote, so it may or may not be true.

  3. Rollory says:

    I should add: an essential part of gaming through a surprise attack (both on the offense and defense) is intelligence gathering, and understanding the other’s position. If you do it well, you can guess that the other player has reason to want to backstab you, and be prepared for it; or you can cloak your intentions and capabilities so as to lull them into complacency. It’s an entire other level of skill and maneuvering. What most of these players who insist on clear warnings want is not to have to think about it. They don’t want to do the work to figure out what the other guy might be doing, or wanting, or thinking. They want it all clear and telegraphed. They don’t want to have to deal with actual human motivations.

    Again, when transferring these sorts of attitudes to the real world, the consequences tend toward the disastrous.

  4. Zhai2Nan2, even the best executed ambush carries significant risk for the ambushers, and even if the attacker achieves strategic surprise there’s often going to be a lot of head-to-head slogging at the tactical scale. It’s often simply unavoidable.

    Both Friction and the Fog of War conspire to render even the best plans unreliable in such an inherently unstable environment. That’s why pushing initiative down to the lowest level possible is so important. The men on the scene frequently have the best grasp of what’s going on, even if its still critical that the general thrust of their efforts be coordinated from above.

  5. Alrenous says:

    “I can not find a specific citation for this, so it may be bullcrap, but Jerry Pournelle has repeatedly referred to Frederick the Great saying that “the peasants in the fields and the burgers in the towns should neither know nor care if the State is at war”.”

    Because I’m a Serious Intellectual, my source is David Eddings. The sections with the Arendish serfs, they express this sentiment. Given Edding’s age it means that’s what he found in his background research. I think it also shows up in the Tamuli when Sparhawk stops at some random manor. (I remember the scene, I remember the writing style, but I can’t remember who’s in it.)

  6. Toddy Cat says:

    I’ve almost never heard an actual combat soldier brag that he risked his life. Maybe you’re hanging out with the wrong kind of soldiers.

  7. Now that you mention it, Toddy Cat, none of the men I’ve known who’ve been in combat have said anything like that either. It’s important to remember that, as you note, Zhai2Nan2, very few soldiers in a modern army are involved in the actual fighting. The general progress of warfare in the last century has been to make that an ever smaller number of people, substituting technological firepower for sheer weight of meat. You may have been talking to boastful support personnel with little combat experience.

  8. Toddy Cat says:

    In WWII, they called those guys “Garritroopers” or “Chairborne Commandos”. My father, an actual WWII combat veteran, used to tell all sorts of war stories, but most were either funny or horrifying, and none glorified himself. When I pressed him about this once, he said rather severely, “All the real heroes died over there”. I never pushed it again.

  9. If you get into a fair fight, someone in your chain of command has made a strategic error.

    What other reason could there be for a fight? If the outcome of the fight is certain, there would be no reason to fight it. Unless at least one of the parties were insane. (Which may be a realistic possibility.)

  10. Erik says:

    One of the parties may be fighting a delaying action.

  11. Zhai2Nan2 says:

    Rollory & Alrenous: thanks for the author references.

    Scipio Americanus: indeed, risk is inevitable and danger is horrifyingly unpredictable.

    Toddy Cat: Most of the braggarts are only known to me online. I don’t even know that they are actual combat vets. Many years ago I spoke to a combat vet whose story checked out, and I think he was unquestionably proud of his combat performance, but he didn’t boast of the risks he took, but rather the results that he accomplished.

  12. Toddy Cat says:

    Yes, people can claim to be anything online. And yes, that sounds about right. My dad was certainly proud of serving his country, but he never bragged about his bravery or the risks he took. I’m sure that there are some good soldiers who are are blowhards, but in my experience, they are very much the exception, not the rule.

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