Worldbuilders who plan for their stories to feature wars as a key plot conflict face a fundamental tension: the “bad guys” must be powerful enough to pose a serious threat, yet must still lose (usually!). How this happens is often fertile ground for stories.
A common fictional pattern is for the enemy to have overwhelming force, but be fundamentally stupid—tactically incompetent, strategically myopic, prone to getting distracted by personal feuds and such. I would tend to view such stories as being far too convenient and even a sign of lazy writing, but the current invasion of Ukraine shows that this can actually happen in real life.
Still, fiction has the burden of needing to make sense. How then should worldbuilders proceed? Essentially, if you want your enemies to have an exploitable military weakness, you should be able to justify it.
This post will not give you an entire theory for doing so (I plan to spend about half of Book 4 in my “Politics for Worldbuilders” series on that topic), but it will lay out a high-level framework. Essentially, you can view military effectiveness as a product of the state structures (or societal structures, in societies without strong states) built to support the military. Those structures, in turn, were created (in part) because the ruling regime (or ruling elites, or dominant societal ethos, or whatever) decided on specific political-military objectives and then decided to devote resources and create structures to achieve those objectives.
- Political-military objectives come first, and lead to
- Strategic and organizational decisions for how to create a military that can achieve the objectives.
- This leads to the creation of structures for generating and supporting the military, such as recruiting capacity, manufacturing base, logistics, scientific research, the development of doctrine, and the cultivation of a particular military mindset.
- These then condition military success on the battlefield.
All of these can be discussed in great detail, and I plan to. Moreover, the arrow of causation isn’t in one direction. As Donald Rumsfeld famously said, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish you had at a later time.” So political decisions might be constrained by existing military weakness or institutional flaws.
But for a quick example, we can see how the political decision by the Russian regime to try and rush tactical success in Ukraine, as well as the long-standing policy of treating the infantry as a potential political threat that needs to be weakened and held in check, has led to drafted Russian soldiers being insufficiently trained. This means that they cannot execute complex tactics and are instead being thrown into the meat grinder in human wave attacks. So the seeming stupidity of Russian tactics is in fact rooted in a coherent (if equally stupid) set of political decisions.
For another example, the famed English longbowmen didn’t spring from the ground fully formed. English bowmen were required by law to spend their whole lives practicing; the English kings decided on this policy even though it made the peasantry more of a threat to the elites, while other states chose to disarm their peasants and rely on professional soldiers.
My aspiration is to give worldbuilders a clear structure that they can use to explain why their invented militaries look the way they do, think the way they do, and fight the way they do. In the interim, you can use the above model as a way to organize your thinking.
(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. The topic of this post will end up in the planned fourth book in this series, working title War for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)