When you go to war, what are you trying to do?
You might think the answer is obvious: “Defeat the enemy.” But even setting aside that you can find victory through multiple avenues (battlefield victory, outlasting the enemy in a siege, outproducing the enemy in a war of attrition, diplomatic isolation, et cetera), sometimes warfighters seem to treat victory as a minor consideration. Sometimes they even try to prolong wars, rather than winning them.
Mary Kaldor, writing about the 1990s war in Bosnia, noted that the casualties suffered by civilians dwarfed those suffered by military forces by about 10 to 1. In one sense, the nominal belligerents in the Bosnian War were actually collaborating with each other against their true enemy: the multiethnic, tolerant civilian populace. Serb and Croat nationalists, and to some degree Bosniak jihadis, strove to drive the ethnic populations of the former Yugoslavia apart from each other. By reshaping the populace and creating single-ethnicity communities, who are forced to view each other as enemies, the armed groups justified their own illegitimate power—they presented themselves as “ethnic champions,” so to speak.
Insurgent groups often continue their fight against the state government long after the fight is obviously hopeless. They have failed to gain the support of their home communities, they don’t have the strength to defeat government forces, and continuing the fight achieves no larger political gains and just gets more people killed. Why, then? For one thing, insurgent leaders are often competing with each other for the loyalty of their followers. Taking hard-line positions are often a way to shore up one’s support among the rank and file against competing factions. (I have read one argument that the 9/11 attacks came about because Osama bin Laden was feeling pressure from other factions within the jihadi movement, and needed something spectacular to reinforce his claimed position as the Amir. The attacks were successful in the short term, and may have harmed America in the very long run as well; but in the medium term, they were a strategic disaster for Al Qaida and its allies.)
Second, many insurgent groups are dependent on outside patrons for their support; very often, these patrons are other states, hostile to the insurgent group’s government and seeking proxies to cause it grief. (For example, many armed groups active in the Congo civil wars of the 1990s and 2000s were basically cats-paws for neighboring Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda.) In such a case, your patron may demand that you keep fighting long after true victory is outside your grasp, and will give you money and weapons to keep you in the field. (This is one of the most difficult complications in trying to make peace deals between sides in a civil war.)
In other situations, warring sides may be looking beyond their immediate enemy to some other actor on the sidelines, which constrains the choices they can make. For example, American strategy in Vietnam was hobbled by the threat that China or even the Soviet Union would (overtly) join the war if North Vietnam were seriously threatened. On the flip side, American willingness to continue a war they were apparently losing, even with a senseless and wasteful strategy, was an important signal for nearby countries such as Indonesia who were threatened internally by powerful Communist movements.
Similarly, many NATO member countries contributed forces to the Afghanistan war—not necessarily because they felt threatened by the Taliban, but because they saw it as important to vindicate the Alliance, since in the future they might need the United States to protect them from aggression rather than the reverse.
When setting up your fictional war, there are all kinds of juicy complications you can throw into the mix. Maybe that isn’t the kind of story you want to tell, and that’s fine. But if you do want something more complex than “Bad Guys are attacking Good Guys,” consider asking about the audiences for your warring sides. What are they trying to accomplish with the war? Who are they trying to impress, or frighten, or influence?
(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!)