Speculative Fiction Writers’ Guide to War, Part 3: Levels and Types of War

As Star Wars: Rogue 1 showed, warfare normally happens at three levels: tactical, operational, and strategic. And has many different types.
on Sep 20, 2018 · 46 comments

Travis P here. We started the discussion of warfare by first looking at basic motivations for war, what essentially causes fighting. Then we followed up with a higher level of causes of war by looking at the types of calculations a nation must make in regard to other nations, especially in relation to balance of power, before deciding to enter a war.

But when a nation goes to war, what exactly does that mean? It’s helpful here to define warfare itself a bit as broadly as possible, while still making it clear that armed conflict happens at different levels and includes different types of fighting.

The most ancient concepts of warfare really involve two different levels of war–strategy and tactics.

Tactics means how to use combat power in the best way on the battlefield in a single fight or single engagement. Tactics is heavily focused on weapons systems and how to employ them most effectively. Of course issues other than weapons feed into tactics–tactical supply is an issue. Troop training will manifest itself in tactical situations. Tactical situations also require troop movement and the ability for units to communicate with one another.

Strategy is the use of combat power at a national level, looking at all the forces a nation can muster. Strategic considerations are thoughts a ruler could have such as, “How can I make my enemy surrender? How will I keep my troops fed all winter? Where will I get new troops next year? How can I leverage my alliances to help me get draw the enemy from a key mountain pass I need to take?” Things like that.

While the strategic level of thought about war is by nature focused less on weapons systems than the tactical level is, weapons systems still matter. Though strategic considerations of what a good weapon system is may be quite different from a tactical level analysis.

For example, during World War II, the German Army’s Tiger tanks were far superior to the US Sherman tank at the tactical level. They had better armor, a better gun, well-trained crews, and an excellent communication system. They were very deadly to Sherman tanks–US tankers dreaded going up against Tigers.

However, at a strategic level, the Tiger was a terrible tank. It took much more time to produce than a Sherman tank; it also required more maintenance, and used more fuel. The US could produce and supply five Shermans for the cost of one Tiger–and while a Tiger tank was better than a Sherman, it wasn’t five times better. The United States Army overwhelmed the Germany Army with sheer numbers as a result (though most armies try to build weapons which are effective both at the tactical and the strategic level).

Modern warfare has defined a third level of warfare, the operational level. Operations develop campaigns–note a campaign is a series of engagements linked together. At the operational level, military planners assign specific units to specific missions that fall in line with the national strategic plan. This is where generals and admirals and other senior military personnel work most of the time in a modern military. (As opposed to the top leaders of government, who in modern democracies are civilians, who are in charge of the strategic level of warfare.)

Note that the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of warfare can be used to talk about nearly everything that happens in a war. Tactical communication is focused on the radio in a soldier’s hand–at the operational level communication concerns how separate units get in touch with one another, whereas a strategic look at communications would look at how the entire military communicates–such as by satellite systems. Tactical supply might be the amount of ammo in the back of a military truck; operational might be supply depots, a system of trucks, and routes and movement, while strategic could be movement of ships from the home country to ports in a distant country, national rail assets, national food production, etc.

You may have heard nuclear weapons called “strategic weapons” and the reason why is that even a single “ordinary” nuclear weapon affects an entire country at the national level. While there have been efforts to develop extra-small “tactical nuclear weapons” (which might be used to destroy, say, a single aircraft carrier), generally speaking, nuclear weapons form a special case in which a type of warfare really only exists at the strategic level. There is one nominal outcome. With nukes, there are no campaigns for operations to be involved with and no specific engagements to win. Not in our current world.

By talking about nuclear warfare, we’ve slipped into talking about warfare types. Though there are many different types of warfare that can’t really be given full consideration until we talk a bit about the psychology of war. But for now, let’s look at some types of war through the lens of the levels of war, as we already did with nuclear weapons.

Worth mentioning first because it helps make the difference between strategic and tactical levels even clearer is aerial bombing. A single aircraft (or a few) dropping bombs to help a ground unit defeat an enemy in an engagement is the use of tactical bombing. The type of bombing that happened in WWII, where hundreds of bombers would go out and destroy entire cities to reduce enemy industry nationwide were examples of strategic bombing.

The operational level of war becomes king during maneuver warfare, which is where armies attempt to take valuable terrain and supplies behind enemy lines (i.e., maneuver to gain an advantage). Maneuver warfare also seeks to destroy an enemy’s willingness to fight by separating them from what they need to win the war. Operational planning is vital to maneuver warfare–oh, of course tactics and strategy also matter, but maneuver war is won and lost with the kinds of plans that top commanders develop and execute. Think Erwin Rommel or George S. Patton.

A war of attrition, in contrast to maneuver war, is where opposing armies seek to destroy their enemy’s ability to fight with greater numbers. This is how zombies fight–or in far too many science fiction movies, aliens. It’s also happened in the real world. In World War I, a great deal of attrition warfare happened, a specific example being when German commanders decided that the way to break the stalemate on the Western Front was to send so many troops at Verdun that the French would be “bled white.” The plan didn’t work, though it did kill about 150,000 soldiers on each side of the fight.

In ancient and Medieval times, the siege of a city qualified as attrition warfare. Sun Tzu recommended against besieging cities, by the way (The Art of War book 3, 3-4)–and in fact, most military commanders would agree with the idea that attrition warfare is best avoided, except as a last resort. Note though if used, a war of attrition will usually be won for strategic reasons, i.e. who can afford to lose the most troops.

A form of warfare that’s quite different from a war of attrition is a guerrilla war. Guerrilla means “little war” in Spanish and the term developed after Napoleon’s France invaded Spain (1807-1814). Spanish guerrillas (and those who fight like them since then), who were more often than not civilians, employed hit-and-run tactics, seeking to keep larger forces off-balance, and won not by eliminating the enemy’s ability to keep fighting, but by making the enemy’s presence so costly that they were unable to stay.

This kind of war is more commonly called “Asymmetric Warfare” in modern military terminology (because the two sides of the conflict don’t have equal or symmetric power) and is closely related to a war of revolution or a counter-insurgency. The still-ongoing war the USA has in Afghanistan is this type of war. In this kind of war, all the fighting happens at the tactical level, since there are no masses of enemy forces to maneuver around operationally and there are no centers of industry to bomb strategically. Yet while all the fighting in a guerrilla or asymmetric war happens at the tactical level, the decision of the more powerful opponent to leave or go is actually a strategic decision.

Note there are many other types of warfare, from cyberwar to chemical war to psychological war and numerous others. Yet by talking about the basics we hope to impart an understanding that war happens at different levels, with different considerations at each level. And that different types of warfare have particular strengths and weaknesses across the different levels of war.

Travis C here to continue the discussion. As Travis P opens this topic, we see three common levels that we describe warfare: strategic, operational, and tactical. We also describe several types, or “flavors”, that you as an author might want to consider, and as a reader you may encounter. To some degree, every story that involves war has these three levels playing in the background. You may not see it, may not need to show it, but the big gear is turning the little gear all the way down.

For this week, I want to analyze the Star Wars story world through the lense of one particular movie, Rogue One. We should be able to show a wide variety of levels and types all in one compact unit, with the advantage of knowing the broader story. For anyone who hasn’t followed Jyn Erso’s story, be forewarned… spoilers follow.

Rogue One tells the story of how the Rebels gained the technical plans for the Death Star, the Empire’s ultimate planet-killing weapon system. Jyn’s father, a weapons developer turned pacifist, has been taken by the Empire and made to complete the Death Star. The Rebels learn that an Imperial defector knows the location of Galen Erso and has a message for his daughter, and so bring Jyn into the plot. With a trusty band of untrustworthy misfits, she goes to the moon Jehda to learn more.

We see Imperial troops conducting patrols through Jedha City, followed by an extremist group of Rebels who conduct insurgent (or guerrilla) attacks against the Empire. Constabulary duty mixed with insurgents? Beautiful.

Tactical action. (Credit: The Wrap–from a scene deleted from the film)

We later see the tactics of a small unit attempting to infiltrate the research facility on Eadu, as well as the technical storage vaults on Scarif. Troop movement, calls for fire, aerial support (what we call close air support), and employment of various tactical weapon systems are all on display.

While we witness several convenings of the Rebel leadership, military and civilian, it’s on Scarif we also see the operational level of war play out. While the Rebel leaders debate what actions to take since learning the Death Star is operational, the Admiral Raddus deploys the fleet to Scarif to aid Jyn’s party and attempt to take down the Empire forever. Movements of this type, especially when supporting major vessel-on-vessel action while maintaining support to ground operations, are good examples of seeing the operational level in play. Multiple missions on-going, largely coordinated (or at least monitored) by a central command station.

Operational action. (Credit: Business Insider)

Lastly, we recognize the strategic element at play. If the Empire has a strategic weapon system like the Death Star, it’s game over for a Rebellion. We see several Rebel leaders effectively bow out of the fight when they learn the weapon system is operational. If the Death Star can be taken down though, if the weakness placed within by Galen Erso can be exploited, then the Empire can be shown to be defeatable. An alliance of like-minded people can bring down the giant.

While chronologically we must wait for Episode IV, A New Hope, to see the plot run to fruition, the foreshadowing of the Death Star’s defeat leaves us on a high note.

The Death Star–a strategic weapon (Credit: Expandedart)

For science fiction authors, you’ll always be in good shape to begin from the three major levels and derive your campaign actions from there. Certainly you will have technologies more advanced than today’s modern standards, but you can probably find a relative place for them at the strategic, operational, or tactical level. A recent example I’m reading is John Ringo and David Weber’s March Upcountry. What happens when every junior Marine has a kiloton-sized explosive projectile at their disposal?

If you are a fantasy author, you may not need to consider the operational level of war at all. When the king or queen marches with the army and commands from the front, there is a natural marriage of strategic and operational concerns and activities. King Theoden is able to make decisions for all of Rohan while in the saddle as well as direct the Rohirrim on the front. You may need to consider what role, if any, magic has on warfare. Is it the equivalent of a strategic nuclear weapon, or is it so commonplace that it blends into tactics like any other weapon? One of my personal favorites is Glen Cook’s The Black Company series, where the company has wizards embedded with them who are capable of doing pretty powerful things, but are often overshadowed by greater thaumaturgy at the strategic level.

Next week we’ll pick this topic up again as we introduce a spectrum of conflict and a progression, or escalation, of war. We’ll have the opportunity to demonstrate the shades of gray that lie between the simple levels and types described here.

Travis Chapman lives a full life as a submariner, an author, an engineer, an off-shore sailor, a hiker, a husband, and a follower of Jesus. He has a passion for men's hearts, initiation, and identity. You can find more writing at his website and Facebook page.
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  1. notleia says:

    I’ve heard that 90% of warfare is logistics. But thank you for the vocabulary for the levels of warfare, that’s handy stuff.

    For operations-level thinking, I’ve heard that having a concrete plan for what you’re trying to accomplish makes a huge difference, which is why WWII worked (defeat and occupy Germany/Japan) and Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan/Iraq didn’t/isn’t (something something communists/terrorists). Of course, I imagine it would help if Congress actually declares war (which they haven’t since WWII).

    • Travis Perry says:

      Notleia, a counter-insurgency/insurrection/guerrilla war (the terms are not entirely interchangeable, but in this context they relate to different aspects of the same thing) is something that guys trained at the operations level have been historically ill-suited to win. They are thinking of campaigns and mass actions and tried to import that mentality with specific air campaigns in Vietnam, for example. Bombing Hanoi again and again. Bombing the Ho Chi Min trail–but that’s not where the war was really being fought.

      Since the very nature of a guerrilla war has action mainly happening at the tactical level, winning this sort of war involves retraining tactics to include “winning hearts and minds” of the populace at the most basic, front-line grunt level. Not actually better operations–other than providing for the better tactics, of course.

      And since I am a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, I would say that both wars were in fact moderate successes (though in the case of Iraq especially, after much blundering) that required a minimum level of follow up to maintain. The United States did not have the stomach for arguing the case with the Iraqis to stay there past 2011, so we left, leaving them vulnerable, leading to a significant but not total collapse on their part (which was, sadly–from the perspective of someone responsible for developing training for the Iraqi Army–predictable). As for Afghanistan, in spite of a number of blunders, we are still there and in fact will win that war by transforming the majority of Afghan culture, bit by bit, if we have the temerity to stay the course–but it will take a minimum of 40 years to do so in my estimation. Or in other words, a bit more than 20 years from now–best case scenario (worst case would be like 80 to 100 years total time).

      I can explain in detail why I have the opinions I have about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, by the way. I had access to information when I was in each war that far exceeded what was normal for someone of my rank (due to circumstances I did not specifically influence myself).

      • It’d be interesting to hear your opinion of that, if you don’t mind sharing 🙂

        • Travis Perry says:

          I’m sorry Autumn, but I’m not quite sure what you are referring to with “that”…

          • Ah, sorry about that, I keep forgetting that replies don’t always stay right below the post they’re replying to.

            I was referring to the last paragraph in one of your longer posts, where you said you could explain your opinions of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

            • Travis Perry says:

              I see. It might take some length to explain all for both wars, but let me mention right now that when I was in Iraq, I got attached to a team that had the purpose of coordinating training across all coalition organizations. I attended meetings and briefings that covered all aspects of training that happened in Iraq for both military and civilian agencies (with the exception of training for intelligence agents and special forces, which was kept separate).

              So I knew the status of Iraqi training and preparation and how much time it would take for them to be fully ready to defend themselves. One example–for their Air Force pilots to be trained to international aviation standards, they had to learn to speak English (the international language of aviation) which takes several years. Then they have to go to pilot school, which takes another couple of years–so it took five years to train an Iraqi Air Force pilot. How many jet pilots had been trained in 2008 when I was there? Zero. How many had been trained by 2011, when US forces withdrew from the country? Sill zero or very close to it (and none of the military jets the USA promised to sell the Iraqis had been delivered, either). That plus numerous other factors made the collapse of the Iraqi Army verses ISIS not surprising.

              In Afghanistan I spent 2 1/2 months as a liaison to the Italian command of the western region of Afghanistan. As they looked forward to the future when they would hand over their region to Afghan control, they were required to write a set of plans on how to do so. Since the international language of NATO is English, I wound up helping the group of senior officers writing those plans, since I was a more proficient writer in English than they were. So I knew a huge amount of details about the actual status of the Afghan military and civilian government in that region–and for lots of reasons (such as a lack of training in maintenance for equipment we provided the Afghan Army–or even really a culture that understood machinery well enough to keep it running right), they were a long way from being able to take over for themselves.

              I’d be happy to answer any specific questions you have. But explaining all of everything is a bit too broad for me. 🙂

      • notleia says:

        Well, it is over-simplifying a hugely complicated thing. That would be one tiny thread in a weave of f*ckery.

        Prolly a larger issue is that there is only one big-money industry there (at least in Iraq): oil (also I can’t remember if I’m stealing this talking point from NPR). Same with Venezuela and Russia, taking over the oil industry (ie, the money) is the short way to becoming an effective dictatorship. I can only make half-educated guesses about the Afghani economy.

        • Heard poppy farming/opium is kind of another one in Afghanistan, though that hasn’t worked out so great for them, either.

          • Travis Perry says:

            The war on poppy farming, ironically, was most successfully conducted by the Taliban (a fact not widely known in the USA). But when I was there (2010-11), we had various programs to encourage Afghan farmers to produce different kinds of crops. Where I spent most of my time in Afghan-land, Farah Province, local farmers grew pomegranates that had the potential to gain them much more money than they would get from opium. However, with bad roads, attacks on roads, and no cold storage facilities, they had little way to get their crops to market.

            This kind of problem can be solved, but it takes long-term investment in a society.

            • notleia says:

              *gets out agricultural soapbox*

              Hemp. Hemp grows effing errywhere* and it has lots of uses that aren’t even marijuana-related. (Rope and textile, prolly lots of potential for bio-fuel.) Still doesn’t solve the lack of infrastructure, tho.

              The US should also grow more hemp, but we don’t because marijuana scaremongering. It wouldn’t need as much babying (ie, water) as corn and would be a valid alternative for the dryer parts of the Midwest/South.

              But effin marijuana scaremongering. Yeesh. [Insert why we can’t have nice things meme]

              *Some conditions apply

              • If they can keep the hemp from being used for recreational drug purposes(most of the time. They can’t control it completely obviously), I wouldn’t mind it. Not sure about trading one drug product for another, though.(That’s how some drug epidemics started or were augmented)

                Even poppies have way more uses than just drugs, so that doesn’t automatically make it a good thing. So, whether or not I agree with you depends on what system is put in place to deal with that. Kind of also more of a fan of the agricultural crop idea since that can give them more to eat as well if need be.

              • notleia says:

                The druggie varieties are bred to produce more THC than is naturally occurring. They also use different parts of the plant: the leaves are the smoking part, the stem is what produces the bast fibers for spinning. I don’t know enough about hemp varieties, but you can always breed for more stem and more delicate leafage.

                But I also think the mary jane should be decriminalized and put on the same level as alcohol consumption.

              • It’d be interesting to see some strains of hemp being developed that are still useful but not for drug use.

                Flax seems to be kind of like that in a sense, though I guess without the drug use and it probably grows in a different climate.

              • notleia says:

                IIRC, flax prefers more water.

                Heck as a literal distaff counterpoint (LOL I DID A PUN) to the warfare articles, I should write a series on cloth. Because culture is worldbuilding, and cloth IS culture.

              • Travis Perry says:

                Not giving this a full answer, but marijuana is already grown in Afghanistan quite a bit. It has a different growing season there than poppies in most places. So loads of people are growing both. I.e. “hemp” cannot replace opium. Saffron can, but it’s hard to grow.

                And as I stated already, in Farah Province, fruit growing, especially pomegranates, would make the local farmers far more money than poppies do. But requires a much more rigorous support system.

              • notleia says:

                I will freely admit to ignorance about the growing seasons and preferences of opium poppies.

            • That’s interesting. Kind of sad that people are able to transport/sell something like opium, but unable to do so with something useful that feeds people, like pomegranates, though. Maybe if they manufactured them into a product before transporting them(if a market could be created for dried pomegranates or something) maybe that could help with the cold storage issue at least?

              What was the Taliban’s interest in going against poppy farming?

              The long term investment thing you mentioned reminds me of something my business class textbooks talk about with global business. Basically, there’s a lot of profit to be made in less developed countries, or countries with large problems, but it is difficult to do so because of war, crime, lack of infrastructure, etc.

              But, at the same time, the businesses that make their investment by actually building infrastructure to help solve those issues stand to make a pretty high profit down the road. Maybe there’s some hope for something like that in the area? Though maybe that could get politically sticky.

              • notleia says:

                Assumes someone there has money to invest that ISN’T from war profiteering. The US certainly has the money to do it, but we can’t even get Congress to agree to fund an infrastructure bill in the domestic sphere, let alone for foreign interests.

                Tangent: That’s why drug lords often had good reputations in their home stomping grounds, because they would invest some of their money in community improvement and got a reputation for generosity.

                Also from what I remember, the Taliban is anti-drug (deffo anti-alcohol). They also cracked down on pedophilia. But don’t worry, they’re still douchebags.

              • Travis Perry says:

                Addressing things in no particular order (and with the time I’ve got, sorry for the brevity):

                The Taliban was indeed anti-drug, but they changed their minds when they realized a really good way to fund themselves was through opium sales.

                The resin of a poppy plant is easy to extract. It doesn’t rot. It doesn’t quickly go bad. It’s light and easy to transport. It also grows well without fertilizer in soils and climate common to Afghanistan. And provides enough money to put food on the table.

                Saffron is a plant that is a common seasoning used in the Middle East and West and South Asia. It is hard to grow and takes work to process, but transports well and brings in more money per pound than opium. US types were trying hard to increase saffron growing in Afghanistan–but it’s hard when the stuff is a pain to grow.

                And next in order of my responses (for no particular reason), when I was doing US Army stuff in East Africa, the USA would do small humanitarian projects funded through the military as goodwill gestures. Whereas, China was busy building a lot of infrastructure, outspending the USA at what some people estimated to be 10 to 1. Building roads that just happen (sheer coincidence, ahem) to lead to mineral fields and important resources.

                And last, Afghanistan has the world’s greatest known deposits of lithium. If Elon Musk winds up driving our future, Afghanistan has about 2 trillion dollars of battery-making-minerals underground. But you need roads for that kind of thing, too…

              • notleia says:

                IIRC, saffron is the pollen/stamen from a particular kind of lily(?), and the problem is mostly in getting it harvested in the time before the flowers drop. But depending on the kind of climate it likes, it may take lots of babying for it to grow in Afghanistan.

              • Travis Perry says:

                Yeah, I knew about the harvesting of the stamen. I accounted for that by saying “takes work to process.” My understanding also was it requires fertilizer to grow in Afghanistan. Though I’m not sure how much or how hard it is. I know some saffron was grown there.

                But my bottom line was that growing poppies and harvesting their resin is easier.

  2. Still kinda trying to decide the exact conflicts in my current WIP, so I haven’t figured out all the types of warfare they’ll use. Most of my characters tend to be strategic in general, though, and would probably rely on sneakier types of warfare more. Some guerrilla tactics will probably be involved, though there probably won’t be huge size differences between a lot of the warring factions. Psychological warfare will probably also be important, too.

    One interesting thing about warfare is how even the smallest advantages(and how they’re used) can make the largest difference. In my current WIP, there’s a bunch of factions in conflict with each other. Faction sizes will vary, but probably not exceed a few hundred individuals, which means the average fights are smaller(except in the cases of a full scale invasion, which tends to only happen if one side is extremely weakened and pretty much destined to lose.) Which factions get ahead, or which individual fighters have the advantage, can come down to small genetic traits or circumstances within each faction. Factions with a high amount of demon and angel descendants in it, for instance, might have better night vision, or the right temperament to do well in a warsome environment. Better night vision could make it easier for certain individuals to infiltrate enemy territory without falling into traps, being seen, etc.

    Day to day, their more blatant fights usually take the form of small border skirmishes(or even simply arguments) that are used to kind of push each other around in order to gain scraps of information, or see what they can get away with, in terms of claiming more territory. If, for instance, one side seems a bit hesitant to engage in skirmishes several times in a row, the other side might assume the hesitant side has some sort of disadvantage they don’t want to reveal(maybe they’re too busy on another front, or they just had their numbers culled by a disease.) Other than that, each faction is going to spend their time gathering information in secret, or covertly honing their skills and strategies and finding ways to sabotage the other side.

    Something that interests me as well are situations where groups aren’t actually at war, or might even officially be allies, but are still always trying to find ways to one up each other, and there’s a certain underlying hostility since each group knows that there will be war as soon as one group is too provoking or shows enough weakness. That vibe was kinda there in the earlier time periods of Naruto’s story world. There’s this multi nation event called the Chunin Exams, but whether or not each nation wants to participate will depend on politics and each nation’s strategy. There was one episode where receiving an invitation to the Chunin exams made one leader angry, because he thought it was simply a ploy for the leader of a rival nation to look for weaknesses.

  3. Jay DiNitto says:

    Digging this series, since I have no mind for military and this info could be useful for future writings.

  4. Wow, I leave to teach class and return to 22 comments, the latest flavor of Afghan war, oil, poppies, hemp, Naruto… I’ll jump in with the broad caveat: my personal opinions and not an official position. Autumn, same offer as T-1, feel free to reach out to bounce ideas off; 2 cents is always free.

    When I boil down the motivation question, you either wants things to change, or you want them to stay the same.
    – We were attacked and want revenge and to prevent it from happenings again: desire change
    – We are at peace and want to deter future war: desire stability
    – We are at peace but the threat of conflict is brewing, so let’s get over there and prevent it from flourishing: desire change (though not war)
    – We’re at war and it’s good for my agenda: desire stability while at war.

    As you can imagine, “agenda” can be a lot of things. Profitability of a corporation, political prestige/power, getting come-uppence, reducing military capability to nothing, gaining control of territory, etc. I would suggest, by and large, the fascination with this “stability in war” theme, well wrung out in Hollywood, is not true in fact. At least, not the sinister “We need to keep fueling the engine” version. However, people are very good at trying to take advantage of a situation for altruistic justifications. “Hey, we’re already in the pot, we need to help protect our team from harm, so they need the best kit, so let’s sell a bunch of expensive solutions that may or may not truly be ‘worth’ the cost.” We’ll probably talk about that cost calculation in future posts.

    But let’s look at the change question. As authors especially, we tend toward plots that resolve around change (let’s face it, no one would watch a movie about nuclear deterrence unless the threat of launch were in it. It’s pretty much a non-starter plot otherwise!) So a solid basis, a solid context to approach an analysis from is: everyone wants something, and most likely it is for something to change. Might not even be for them to change, but for an aggressor to change and leave them alone. As T-1 said, we’ll discuss spectrum of conflict next week and operations-other-than-war.

    A very general analysis of the current war in Afghanistan. The Taliban wants things to change: they want to stop the influence of Western culture in their respective territories. Sorry, but they don’t want their kids growing up to become the next Hollywood/popstar disaster. Many of the average Afghani want things to change: they want some Western influences to be part of their lives. Kids wants iPhones across the globe. Certain Afghans, I’d suggest a relatively minor proportion, want power and influence, and see a way to maneuver to it. From my 2nd hand experience, and what I found in Africa, is that the majority just want to be left alone (want change in that they don’t want others trying to change them). We also saw a very extremist group of people who took the desired change of the Taliban but were much more aggressive in achieving their outcomes (to be clear, both sides were/are aggressive, but there are differences in approach).

    What does the coalition of nations still deployed to Afghanistan want? I think fundamentally, it’s to not be there. Each partner tried, or is trying, to take what actions they believe will most likely (hopefully most effectively, most efficiently, most reliably, most enduringly) lead to conditions that stop future extremist attacks from generating in Afghanistan, attacks against Western nations and against the local population itself. Initially that looked a lot like invasion and progressive operations to reduce adversary capacity, followed by trying to change a culture into something that can self-service it’s own problems (i.e., a credible, respected, effective police and military within Afghanistan). If we’d feel comfortable with conditions, that we didn’t need to be there (and there’s a great question: what does that look like?), then we wouldn’t be.

    Many of others have written more extensively on the Afghan campaign, justifications, bases, impact of our efforts, etc., and I don’t pretend to be an expert on it. There are countless military lessons learned as the campaign has evolved, especially around the impact of clear, unwavering, highly distilled mission definition and endstate. Our focus is to use fantasy/scifi examples in this post series, but if there’s something for authors/readers in parallel with real conflicts, happy to discuss.

    Africa: Since T-1 and I were both deployed to East Africa we share strong experiences with Western influence in that region. I will double down on his story. The model we (US) have taken against extremism in Africa is to train/prepare/equip African nations in coalition (African Union) to restore a credible defense force in Somalia, in particular, but across the Sahal in general. We also do humanitarian projects to 1) honestly to help people that might need it (vaccines, health clinics, drilling wells), 2) because we need to practice some of those skills ourselves, so may as well help someone doing it, and 3) hopefully to earn good will. It’s also a seed we hope will prosper; wouldn’t it be great if the families of the troopers deploying were healthy and they didn’t need to worry about the homefront while they deploy?

    I saw this most clearly in Uganda. Many places had very nice roads, built by Chinese companies using a mix of Chinese/African workers, as part of multinational exchanges. China was more than happy to exchange military technology, usually in simple forms like guns, and infrastructure improvements for access to resources. That was the string attached. When I spoke with locals, they understood that (maybe not perfectly, maybe not thinking through the implications, but they were intentional and appreciative). Compare to the US: we offer some high-end technology (in comparison), but have lots of strings attached. Humanitarian concerns, prohibitions for use, generally not our highest-end equipment. Uganda passed a law we didn’t like, and within weeks we had stopped training their troops before deployment as a means of influencing their government. Not surprisingly, Ugandan forces learned “You can’t rely on the United States”. Ouch. China, however, more than happy to give us guns and bullets we actually can use.

    Whew… that’s a lot. So, what’s the so what? The more characters, the more factions, the more whatever in a story means an exponentially growing problem for a writer to manage all of the relationships. Every pairing has a context, a relationship, that needs managed. Many times it’s groups that share similar, if not identical, feelings toward another and you need to manage those relationships. Everyone wants something. So, can you show the audience all of those relationships? What part of those relationships do you need to show (vital for the story) versus want to show? Maybe the most popular story of such relationships out there today is A Song of Fire and Ice by George R.R. Martin. Based on the War of the Roses (and hilariously derivative of it!) he manages about two dozen key relationships. Brandon Sanderson in The Stormlight Archive is similar. What should you do?

    Option A: Giant whiteboard, write all the “parties” around the edges, then start drawing lines between them with the nature of what each side wants from the other (alliance, territory, fealty, destruction, marriage, commerce, etc.) Then start thinking through 1) which relationships do I need to show to get the story across, 2) in what order do I show them, and 3) what is the mechanism I’ll use (a battle, a skirmish, a dialogue, a treaty negotiation)?
    Option B: Plagarize history and modify to suit.

    For authors (Autumn…) I’d also suggest that the war, the conflict, isn’t the story. It’s a vehicle you are telling a story through. There are so many movies & books with battles that we likely won’t write a battle scene that is “the One”, the most epic, amazing, impactful battle scene that leaves readers saying “I’ll never read anyone else again. I’m an evangelist now!” However, we can do a lot to create situations, opportunities, for our impact characters to draw readers into their heads, their hearts, and we’ll earn their love through experiencing the impact of a battle on the person. As long as you know where the conflict begins, what the endstate you desire it to end in, and can bring the impact characters into situations that are the lowest of the low (i.e., all is truly lost), and you show them overcome (or remain steadfast), then you’ll succeed. If anything, you want to have mixed reactions from your readers between factions (no way, the ____ should have won. I really liked their _____.) If it’s predictable, mweh… That said, be true and honest too. If the end isn’t unicorns and roses, then we should lament and mourn, rather than say “Whatever, it was always a lost cause so reader, remain hopeless.”

    • notleia says:

      There’s a lot of interesting discussion to be mined about how many strings we should attach to gifts.

      American culture generally expects lots of strings. Just look at our domestic welfare. Heck no do we want to just give people money, we have to set up a complicated system of vouchers so that no poor people can DARE to have anything not pre-approved. (I dislike this about our welfare system. Conservatives talk smack about Big Brother until food stamps/Medicare comes up, and then suddenly all the poor people are irresponsible teenagers who need a Designated Adult. Worst kind of classist discrimination, IMO.)

      Of course, China ain’t really give a crap about long-term stability in the region as long as they get the ore or the oil or what have you. I can’t say the ends justify the means, but I think doing more to respect others’ autonomy would gain lots better results.

      One thing we can do for the Middle East is to actually not flake out and take all the refugees we promised. The only reason we haven’t is because of effin racists.

      • Not sure how raising taxes on EVERYONE (or at least anyone with a decent amount of money) and feeding it into social programs is treating people less like irresponsible teens. That’s pretty much telling everyone in the nation that they can’t decide where unnecessarily large swathes of their money should go.

        A lot of the regulation people want of the welfare system probably comes from the fact that it takes taxes/raising people’s taxes in order to fund it. If people have to shell out their own money, they want to make sure it’s working, or that it’s not being taken advantage of. There’s nothing wrong with some accountability going into the welfare system, though I agree with you when you say people shouldn’t be micromanaged(I don’t think people of any class should be micromanaged too much)

        One business strategy that seems to be more popular lately, and that I support, is to have it’s daily operations be beneficial to society when possible. (These are things that the business itself chooses to do, instead of being government mandated) A business might need advertisement, for instance, so they might do so by supporting/working with local charities. A book publisher, for instance, might donate some books to school libraries in underprivileged districts. This boosts the publisher’s reputation and gets their stories out to more places where their popularity can spread through word of mouth, but they also are helping people that need it and helping society improve. This is a healthier way to do ‘no strings attached’, I think. Help is extended because there is a likely positive result for many people, including the ones extending help, yet the ones receiving help don’t owe anything in exchange.

        As for refugees…I agree with taking them(within reason, haven’t studied it to know how many or anything), but how many a nation promises to take should depend on a lot of factors, and there should also be a process for verifying them if possible. It’s kinda not productive to boil such complex issue down to racism, though. Everyone that disagrees has their own reasons, and shouting ‘racist!’ just fuels that resistance because it’s basically calling people evil without addressing the actual reasons people have for their opinions.

        • notleia says:

          Nope, I grew up in that culture. You don’t have to scratch the justifications hard to find the racism underneath. You can refine upon it by calling it a fear of change, but it manifests as racism.

          I’ve pretty much given up on trying to sweet-talk anyone who is not my dad out of it (because I love him and I have a vested interest in not fighting with him). For anyone else, I can’t find the energy to bother finding words that give them plausible deniability.

          • You grew up in your culture, not everyone’s. Calling everyone that’s cautious about refugees racist is like saying all pro choice people don’t care about children/infants. It’s true of some, but not all people. If someone refuses to take refugees at all, it could be racism. Or, it could be nationalism.

            Kinda of reminds me of when people assumed that EVERYONE that disagreed with Obama was definitely racist. Obviously, some people were, but it was strange that it never occurred to people that there were plenty of other reasons why Republicans disagreed with him. Like, well, the classic fact that people tend not to agree with people from the opposite political party?

          • Travis Perry says:

            Notleia, I think the term you’re looking for is “xenophobia,” not racism. The two things are actually different, the problem being with other cultures rather than other races.

            And a genuine problem with other cultures is sometimes they really DO represent trouble in that they may have attitudes about how to treat people (especially women) we’d find appalling or might really have a greater tendency than most Americans to support terrorism. So xenophobia is partially based on real things (unlike racism, which is based on wholly fictional ideas). Though xenophobes don’t reason it out and realize some refugees (say Druze Syrians) pose us very little risk–or that Sikhs have never supported terrorism in the USA (or anywhere else that I know of), so objecting to their turbans is just dumb.

            One of the telling differences between racism and xenophobia is when people react negatively to foreign languages being spoken in front of them–even if by people who are the same race as them. I think there’s plenty of that in the USA.

            For the record, I happen to be a natural xenophile–but foreigners are not always in fact better people than most Americans…

            • notleia says:

              That’s actually a decently actionable test, to compare how (white American) xenophobes react to, say a white person speaking Vietnamese vs a Vietnamese person speaking it.

              But I have a sneaking suspicion that the Venn diagram between xenophobic and racist only has a tiny sliver on the merely xenophobic side.

              But consider for a second that you may not be the most objective person to assess the racism of other white Americans. It’s easy for you to be generous with a societal problem that doesn’t impact you negatively.

              • notleia says:

                PS: I, too, am also not the most object person to assess white American racism.

              • One thing to note is that not everyone cautious about refugees is white(I see Latinos expressing this caution as well sometimes) Same goes with the illegal immigration thing. Around where I’m from, a lot of people are cautious around those topics, but are more upset about the conditions surrounding the entry of refugees and illegal immigrants into the US than to the people themselves.

              • Travis Perry says:

                Well, maybe so I’m not the best judge. But while Sikhs may be darker than the average American, they are actually classified as white people. And I’ve heard loads of people react to their turbans–when without the turbans, if they were speaking un-accented English, nobody would know if their background was Italian or something like that.

                See what I mean?

                And some Mexican people, a minority, sure, have light-colored eyes, hair, and skin. But as soon as they start speaking Spanish, it seems to me some people react negatively.

    • Lots of interesting stuff. Thanks 🙂

      So far, in this series, a lot of the main plot is figured out since it will center around the main characters and their struggles, but the details of the fights their factions face are taking longer to come together. To an extent, in the book I publish first, the main conflict with probably partially stem from this large swath of forest both factions use as hunting grounds. The details have been harder to figure out, though, like the exact instances that will set both sides off.

      Thinking about what you said, though, I did think of another possibility to explore(before, I was thinking maybe the forest is divided roughly in half and the dispute is over trespassers or one side wanting more of the forest to themselves. But maybe, instead, the forest should be a relatively neutral zone and the conflict could center around one side wanting the forest to stay neutral, while the other side wants to split it in half or something. The fun part is that they’re technically not supposed to fight in the forest because they don’t want to risk driving away the prey that lives there.)

      Just got to think about it more, I guess. You gave a lot of great information, though, so thanks 🙂

      • Autumn, I’ve been noodling over this since Saturday, so thank you for a great thought exercise. Couple of thoughts…
        – There are few examples of neutral, equally shared access, national-level resources on land in our history. My experience and memory show that when it comes to dirt, we tend to just draw a line and call it ours. Or at least, we feel it’s ours and behave that way.
        – Something that sounds similar in context to your world is the ocean, especially how the ocean in the South China Sea is playing out right now. International agreements, forged over a long period of time, have created several zones. Within 12 nautical miles (NM), is territorial waters and you enter at your own risk. If stopped by the national authority (USCG for us), you are subject to US law. Between 12 and 200nm is the economic exclusion zone. You are free to transit through, but you are not free to engage in commercial activities like fishing or mining. That’s reserved for the nation. Outside 200nm is open waters and anything goes. How do nations defend those rights? Coast guards and Navies, and very key…. territory. If you have territory, i.e., land, then you have a new place to start your radius from. China has developed several reefs, normally below or right at the water’s surface, into full fledged islands with airports, sea ports, and permanent residents, as a legal means of say “Hey, China is now here, too. So draw your 200nm radius from our newly made island and get out. Git. You git.” Obviously, many nations are not happy about that. The ocean is neutral until it becomes, slowly through island-creation and/or outpost staging, not so neutral. How is neutrality in your forest maintained? Is it distance between the factions? What does neutral mean? Is it just hunting rights, or forestry too? What if I need to make more arable land? Who maintains the neutrality? Border agents on each side, or a 3rd party, or something else?
        – Native Americans and African tribes practiced, sometimes and in some places, forms of land nonownership. No one “owns” the buffalo on the plains. That can work, in theory, until 1) a tribe decides they want more than usual (because the tribe has grown? because of a treaty obligation? because the year was especially hard?), 2) outsiders throw the system into chaos, 3) stabilization happens (we’re always here and setting down roots, so are going to draw heavier on that resource), 4) the resource itself is constrained due to outside circumstances (bad rains, disease, etc.)
        Lastly, and no news to you, I’m certainly drawn to stories where the forest is a character in itself. Give me a reason to care why the neutrality should be maintained, and especially if it’s not for just “The good side versus the bad side”. Princess Mononoke, Fangorn forest, the Ironwood from The Wind Through The Keyhole, Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind. You get it. Not that the forest needs to be an active character, but at least make us feel hurt that neutrality is no longer being maintained (and even better, make me feel bad for not siding with the faction that is doing the wrong!)

        • Also, my favorite excus… “reason” of all time:
          “Why did you decide to take that territory?”
          “Who was going to stop us?”

        • Travis Perry says:

          Prior to the Gulf War of 1991, there used to be a “neutral zone” in between Iraq and Saudia Arabia. (After the war, the Saudis took the zone.)

          Note this was a patch of pretty desolate desert that nobody already lived in–that’s one way a territory becomes neutral–if nobody can live in it. Since humans can live in forests pretty well, perhaps a good way for a forest to be neutral to two kingdoms that border it would be if at one time it belonged to someone else–say demi-humans like elves. Or even giant spiders or something. But those former owners have either died out or have grown weak, so now the forest has been settled by people from both kingdoms…but either nobody has drawn a border between the kingdoms through the forest, or the two kingdoms agreed to make the forest neutral.

          Anyway, it’s an idea, hope you find it useful!

          • Maybe. That could work since there’s a few species of sentient animals that get absorbed into the factions as well, so the forest could have once been the primary range of those animals.

            • Awesome. I look forward to a great read as it develops! I’ll second T-1’s comment about the history element. One of the few elements keeping me going through Game of Thrones was the unknown history of the lands beyond the Wall, and I’ve always appreciated Tad Williams’ take on ancient races driven out by the usurping humans. What would Narnia be if the Narnians were driven out by a race of seafaring interlopers… oh wait. You get the idea. Just one reader’s particular favorite flavor of story.

              With a forest setting that allows either faction to send emissaries up to their peer’s border, what keeps them from driving an army up to the peer’s border? Would the treaty expectations allow me to do that and still be in compliance? What about sending my hunters to take game nearer your side and leaving my own alone? Couple of ideas to wrestle through.

              Also (and please understand, I’m not saying how you should do anything!), I can see the idea of a neutral spot midway that acts as a parlay location for anyone in the forest. Maybe a nice glade with a lodge or tower, mutually supplied and only entered with weapons peace-tied. Normally a location for negotiations and meetings (maybe even trade?) A nice buffer between everyone, even if everyone flaunts it. I think Sanderson had something similar in mind in Arcandium Unbound (collection of short stories). I’m also thinking of his context for hunting gemhearts across the Shattered Plain in The Stormlight Archive, a case where hunting “rights” and battle mix together very well.

              • I’ll keep those particular things in mind. At present, I’ll kind of summarize my responses by saying that there’s a lot of things each group technically can do and still be in compliance(such as bringing an army right up to the border and just sitting there). But unless there’s an extremely good reason for such actions, they will often be seen for what they are: provocation, an act of malice/war, etc. The rival faction will then, at that point, call the other faction out on their behavior and if no agreement can be reached, the two sides will fight. So, basically, if a faction starts doing things that will aggravate another faction, they better be willing to fight.

                If you or Travis P. want to beta for this story and/or receive an ebook for review purposes once it’s done, I can put you guys on the list. It may take a long while to finish this story, though.

              • Travis Perry says:

                Sure! The email you can reach me at is:

        • Haven’t thought about the ocean in that kind of context much, but it makes a lot of sense that people would establish those rules. That’s something I’ll probably research more in the future 🙂

          Even though there’s many factions in this part of the world, the main conflict will probably be between two powerful ones. Neither of them are evil, really, but they are in competition with each other and have different sets of beliefs, so there is tension between them. Who people root for more will probably depend on which side’s characters they like better, or which sides’ reasons/behavior they think is most reasonable.

          The main set up is that the forest is between these two factions. ‘Neutral zone’ in my stories tends to mean that all sides agreeing to the neutrality can go there without much fear of attack(that doesn’t always stop potentially fatal squabbling, though.) So they can travel, hunt, forage, cut trees, etc. as they please as long as it stays within reason. They all have similar methods for using the forest sustainably, so it usually isn’t a problem unless, as you mentioned, some natural disaster like a drought makes prey more scarce. The neutral forest is between them, so each side can enter it as they please, but if they try to go further and cross the rival faction’s actual border, it will almost always be considered a malicious act and results in capture or death for those that get caught. (If they need to talk to a rival faction’s leader, they are expected to wait just outside the border until a patrol comes by. Then they can make a request to talk to the leader for negotiations or whatever.)

          Maybe what I’ll do is have some violent squabbles take in the forest, partly due to the rivalry of the two factions and partly due to some food shortages. Splitting the forest instead of leaving it as a neutral zone can be proposed as a way to limit those squabbles, but one side either doesn’t want to split the forest, or the two sides can’t agree on where the new border should be drawn. I’ll probably put some incentive there for one or both sides to want the zone to remain neutral as well.

          The faction the main character joins also took over another smaller faction recently, so that could be a fun part of negotiations, such as influencing how much of the forest the other side is willing to let the main char’s faction have.

          Characters in this story see rivalry/occasional war as healthy most of the time, so they aren’t going to be overly worried about it if they do have to fight to draw the borders where they want(except they are going to try not to scare off the prey species in the forest)

What do you think?