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Realities of War


Disciplines > Warfare > Articles > Realities of War

People die | Practical paranoia | Much tedium | Stupid orders | Action confusion | Colleague importance | See also


In planning, strategizing talking and thinking about war, it can seem like a game, a distant and abstract thing. Even in war games, whether on the field or the computer screen, it still has an underlying safety net. Only when you are out there, facing a real enemy, do realities bite home. Here are just a few.

People die

The first reality of war is that people will die. Not quietly and cleanly in their beds, but noisily and awfully on the battlefield. People get blown apart with blood and guts spilling everywhere. They get mortally wounded and slowly die screaming. Death is close and immediate. Shrapnel is just as effective as bullets. The person next to you can be killed at any time, as can you. 

Death in war is intentional. You are sent to kill others and they are sent to kill you. You are a statistic. Commanders know that they must send people to their deaths and, though they may not spend their resources lightly, will choose to do so if enough ground may be gained.

To go to war is to face death every day. All around you, staring at you, unblinking, in the eye.

Practical paranoia

Risks in war are not small. The enemy will seek you out by any means. Deception is normal and 'rules of war' are easily broken. When you face an apparently empty landscape, there may be a whole army hiding in ditches and behind rocks. When you send secret messages, they may be intercepted or the carriers subverted, coerced or bribed to give you away.

The practical approach is to be ever alert and never assume you are safe. Scouts are always sent ahead to check the nooks and crannies of the territory. Sentries are needed even far from the front. Spies are spied upon. Secrets must be kept at best as need-to-know and those who do know are always suspected.

Much tedium

Despite the risks, much of warfare is unexciting and boring and many soldiers may see little or no action. A lot of time is spent in preparation and training, which is at least better than the tedium of moving, waiting for orders or waiting for the enemy to act.

This creates a tense paradox where inaction means you stay alive, yet in that boredom soldiers may long for action, just to relieve the tension of not knowing what or when things will start to happen.

Stupid orders

When you are on the front line, orders from above can easily seem stupid. And maybe they are and maybe they are the best thing to do now. Officers at headquarters may not know your present realities, of the fatality of moving, or the desperate need for reinforcements.

Officers may also know things you do not know and are balancing need with resources at their disposal against risks and possibilities, yet all based on limited and possibly incorrect information. From where you stand it may still seem stupid, but refusing orders of any kind is a recipe for court martial and dishonor.

Action confusion

When a battle commences or even a brief, limited action, despite all planning and training confusion can quickly be all around. If you put your head over the barrier, will you be seen or shot? Where are the enemy? Are they behind you? As you are fighting hand-to-hand, how will the luck fall of who kills or is killed first? Where are those reinforcements? I can't see for all the smoke. What was that noise?

And so on. When every action or inaction may increase the risk of failure, hopefully the instincts instilled through training and previous action will kick in. Hopefully you will do the right thing. And may you never be seen as incompetent, foolish or, worst of all, get your colleagues killed.

Colleague importance

In army training, much effort and exercise is put into bonding small groups of soldiers into cohesive units. For example they may be dropped in the middle of nowhere and told they must all get home, even if it means carrying injured personnel. Exercises that require everyone to pull their weight creates strong interpersonal bonds and help form a tight unit.

In any battle, the person next to you is very important. They are your support, keeping an eye out for dangers that may affect you. They are your friend with whom you caroused last night. They are like your family and you care more about them then the stupid war. So you watch out for them too, even sacrificing yourself so they can live.

While heroism is lauded, tough-guy heroes are dissuaded. Wasting your life just to look good is not what heroism is about. Blind seeking of personal glory is not only a way to get killed, it also gets your colleagues killed.

The person next to you is also a witness. They will attest to your bravery and see any cowardice. They will know what you do and, even if you die, carry word back to the platoon, the regiment and your family. You do not choose to be a hero. You are made a hero by others.

This is why soldiers will charge machine gun nests and throw themselves in harm's way. Not for God and country, but for the very real colleagues around them.

This is how armies change minds and turn ordinary people into effective soldiers.

See also

Sacrifice in war


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