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(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series. Many of the previous posts in this series eventually became grist for my handbook for authors and game designers, Beyond Kings and Princesses: Governments for Worldbuilders. I am now moving my attention to the planned second and third books in this series; the subject matter of this post fits into the third book, working title War for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)

The stories we write reflect our own beliefs of the world. If our beliefs change, that has the effect of changing the stories we write. This is particularly noticeable when thinking about how our stories handle war.

Nowadays, most fantasy or sci-fi stories feature only a few different types of wars:

  • The no-alternative war against some life-destroying calamity (such as Shai’tan in the Wheel of Time series, Ruin in the Mistborn series, or the Flood in Halo).
  • The defensive war against a ruthless invading empire, that has no reason for its invasion other than sheer lust for conquest.
  • The rebellion against an Evil Overlord who murders peasants for the lulz.
  • The seemingly noble war that was actually orchestrated by selfish interests, such as weapons dealers or oil companies (or their fantastical equivalents).

All four of these are based on the understanding that most wars are wrong and undesirable. To be heroic, it seems, a fictional war needs to be the last resort; where it is not, the protagonists are typically manipulated into war by the true villain, and the revelation of this perfidy sets off the true struggle, often featuring former enemies allying against their common foe. (This last category seems a particular favorite in American media, especially in the wake of Vietnam and Iraq.)

But the core understanding that these stories imply—that most war is wrong—would have baffled people living in earlier ages. Not very long ago, it was considered perfectly reasonable for Louis XIV to invade his neighbors for the sole purpose of magnifying his own glory, or for Napoleon to invade multiple continents for the same reason. In an earlier age, Aristotle assumed that wars were usually unjust when fought between fellow Greeks, but were always just when fighting against outsiders, for any reason.

In many tribal societies, fighting neighbors was the traditional way to gain respect or take plunder; often, such fighting had elements of a sports contest, with ceremonial weapons and rules that rewarded personal bravery rather than sheer killing efficiency. (In the Iliad, Paris was seen as effeminate and dishonorable because he used a bow, rather than fighting enemies face-to-face with spear and sword. Many American Indian societies would honor warriors who “counted coup” on their enemies—touching them in battle without killing them.)

Our modern dislike of war is obviously preferable to the older glorification of it, in the real world. But for fantasy or sci-fi writers, it is worth thinking about how people in your worlds might view war differently. Otherwise, you might unthinkingly base your story on a view of war that doesn’t really fit with the rest of your worldbuilding, and would seem anachronistic.

Thucydides, the famous chronicler of the Second Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, writes that while some wars are justified on noble grounds, such as enforcing justice against enemies who break oaths or otherwise violate norms, most wars are ultimately motivated by three things: fear, honor, and interest.

Fear is fairly easy to understand. You fear that your enemy will harm you now or in the future; so you either defend against an immediate attack, or you begin a preventative war on your own terms while your enemy has not reached its full strength. The tricky bit here is that fear is based on your perceptions; among the reasons that preventative war is frowned on today is that sometimes, countries assume that a neighbor poses a threat when the neighbor actually had no intention of harming them.

Interest too is not difficult to see. Many countries seek to build empires, to plunder their neighbors and enrich themselves. Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in order to seize its rich oilfields; Japan invaded Indonesia, in part, to secure its oilfields since Japan had little domestic oil production. Individuals too have interests, as we know.

Honor, on the other hand, is perhaps the hardest concept for us moderns to understand, or appreciate why people would fight and die for it. Yet most wars in history probably were motivated by honor more than concrete interests.

Why did Alexander the Great feel driven to conquer the world? And why would his army follow him? Because they sought glory that would last throughout the centuries (and it worked, since we still remember them today!). But remember that glory was important for the Greeks; their version of the afterlife, Hades, was a place of pale shades with little reward and punishment for moral behavior (as most of us today are used to). The Greeks believed that enduring glory, kleos, was perhaps the most worthwhile thing to strive for in life, since that was all that would last once you were dead. Glory was worth dying for, and more importantly was worth killing for.

More concretely, honor can have practical importance. In dangerous settings, a nation that does not fight to defend its honor will soon be bullied into subservience by its neighbors. Displaying your willingness to fight even over trivial offenses can sometimes prevent wars, because it signals to hungry neighbors that you will not be cowed.

For authors, remembering that people have many reasons to fight wars, depending on the moral and political calculations of the setting, can open up space for fresh and interesting stories. If you don’t want to write stories featuring amoral war, there’s nothing forcing you to do so; but people have all sorts of motives for everything they do, war is no exception, and the stories that can emerge from that can be fun.