Speculative Fiction Writer’s Guide to War, Part 7: The Fearless Elite

How likely is it to find the farm kid who is fearless in the face of danger and ready to kill the enemy? Rarer than you think.
on Oct 19, 2018 · 26 comments

Last week we discussed factors that influence a person’s ability to take another person’s life.

It’s hard. The closer you are and the more intimate the manner of killing, the harder it gets. We’ve discussed some of the psychological impacts that affect a person’s desire to engage in combat, those core fears that must be overcome to bring oneself into the arena, so to speak, to engage the enemy. Yet in speculative fiction across every genre we are exposed to characters who wade into battle without hesitation (or hesitation that is not fully developed), and perform the most miraculous of feats with nary a second thought. We love the fearless Aragorns and Legolas’, the intrepid space marines and underdog-turned-superhero who make up the large majority of our casts of characters.

Back to our Grossman reference of On Killing. The vast majority of people must overcome strong resistance to take a life in combat. Yet some people feel little fear of this kind of “up close and personal war.” Statistics derived from World War II, but consistent with records from other conflicts indicate that when human beings are locked in close personal combat for a period of around six weeks or more, between 96% and 98% of those fighting become psychological casualties. What it means to become a psychological casualty we’ll talk about in a later installment, but notice here that 2 to 4 percent do not suffer psychologically at all, or to a much lesser degree. This group, this unusual minority, we’ll call “The Fearless Elite.”

“Fearless” is not really the right term. This minority can experience fear (though not all do). But unlike the overwhelming majority of us, they can fight in sustained combat conditions without showing any sign of damage to their inner-selves. Note that since the fright or surrender reactions are involuntarily triggered by psychological stress, this small minority also seem resistant to throwing up hands in panic or uncontrollably running away. They may still feel fear and still surrender or run–but they would do so by choice it seems, because it makes sense at the moment, rather than because of an uncontrolled emotional and mental reaction.

Why is this small minority different? The answers are not completely known, but it seems the group can be divided in rough halves according to On Killing:

Half of this group are immune to the psychological damage of combat because there is something deeply wrong with them–they are psychopaths. Psychopaths, sometimes interchangeably called “sociopaths” (but there is a difference between the two terms), do not feel empathy for other human beings or only feel it in the tiniest amount. Killing someone else is nothing to them and they likewise are much less concerned with their own deaths.

The other half seems to be composed of people who are otherwise perfectly normal, who react differently to combat than most people for largely unknown reasons–though being naturally calm and highly resistant to getting stressed out seems to be related to what makes these people unusual.

Remember our opening: 2 to 4 percent of the total human population exhibits this behavior, and split that in half for each of the possible causes.

An author of tales should immediately recognize that a lot of war story writing has been focused on these unusual people. The villains, those who kill and feel nothing for any one–the heroes, who do feel, but are so calm and level-headed they manage to do the right thing even in the worst of scenarios. These are the men of legend and history, these are the Odysseus, the Achilles, the Spartacus, and Audie Murphy figures; the other half represents Genghis Khan, Ashurbanipal, and Joachim Peiper.

The Fearless Elite.

Conditioning and selection of the elite

It might be tempting to say that the 300 Spartans who stood with King Leonidas at Thermopylae were all naturally elite soldiers. But there is no suggestion based on scientific evidence that any nation of people will have a higher percentage of natural warriors than any other. In fact, the historical record seems to indicate that Spartan courage was not the product of natural affinity for warfare, but of superior “unnatural” training. In fact, elite training is the main ingredient in what makes certain individuals and military units superior to others. Training can condition any soldier, but is particularly useful in conditioning the already elite.

Though it is also true that joining an elite unit is voluntary, people of this “warrior elite” mentality (both halves) tend to seek to join elite military units. So, whether among King David’s mighty men or the U.S. Navy Seals, Army Rangers and Green Berets, or other elite units, the percentage of warriors more resistant to the psychological harm of combat is higher in elite units than in ordinary ones. This is partially why modern airborne units, in which every member has to face the fear of jumping out an airplane, tend to be considered elite. Or put another way, fear suppresses the effectiveness of a military unit in combat and so “elite” units who recruit from people who are the most fearless—who have passed through some form of ordeal proving their courage–fight more effectively and have a greater capacity/capability to conduct certain missions than “regular” units.

It might be interesting to write a story about a non-human race where all the soldiers naturally behave as if they were elite. Or where human beings are genetically engineered to fight without remorse or fear. Note that someone who fights without any regrets or fear would be lacking something psychologically–this lack should show somehow in a story. Even if the lack is missing the ability to enjoy ordinary events because of supreme natural calmness.

Soldiers in sci-fi

Travis C. here with some discussion and illustration from the literature. One of the first DVDs I bought was Kurt Russell’s 1998 movie Soldier, a science fiction story about a soldier produced by a program that takes orphans and conditions them to suppress those natural reactions and fears, creating an elite fighting unit. The program weeded out the other 96-98% quickly, leaving that Fearless Elite to fight for humanity. When exposed to a shipwrecked homesteader community, the main character must adapt to integrate into society. Fast forward that concept and you have the beginnings of M. Night Shyamalan’s After Earth.

Here we’re getting closer to the fantasy and sci-fi writers realm of the fantastical. The race of S’krells have an objective to conquer the new human homeworld of Nova Prime. Their weapon? Creatures known as Ursas who can sense fear in the human population. How do humans respond? The Ranger Corps, an elite unit of soldiers selected and conditioned to suppress their fear in order to combat the Ursas (a skill known as ghosting). It’s with that context we watch a pretty vanilla story about a father-son relationship.

Likely? Not particularly. Again, 2 to 4 percent of people have a capacity to operate in a combat environment without the natural resistance to combat actions we discussed earlier. Now let’s temper that with the research: that resistance to killing is directed towards humans. The Ursas seem pretty horrific, and there’s a clear sense of present danger driving the actions of the Ranger Corps (i.e., the extinction of the human race). Also as we said, it’s not that the Fearless Elite don’t feel fear, they are just capable of operating without significant limitations in those conditions. But we do see a common theme: conditioning of the soldier, possibly an already elite and rare soldier to begin with, to create one even more capable in battle.

Let’s finish with another example from the realm of science fiction: the Star Wars universe and the clone army. The early Imperial army is made up of cloned soldiers from Kamino based on the genetic template of bounty hunter Jango Fett. After an accelerated growth period these soldiers are put through a rigorous training program to condition them into the Stormtroopers we’re all familiar with. (And if you aren’t familiar, just drive around your neighbor and look for the Stormtrooper family stickers on every minivan and SUV. Or suffer through Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.)

We witness the results of this genetic modification, combined with regimented conditioning, through the franchise, and only in recent years are we seeing the storyline of the movies open up to the possibility of a Stormtrooper breaking out of that mold in the character Finn. Stormtroopers appear fearless against any foe, against any race or species of the galaxy, even against the droid army on Geonosis. Just pull the blaster trigger. Don’t think, don’t react. Don’t respond to fear.

The fantasy hero

In the realm of fantasy writing, I’d suggest we writers examine one of our longest-living tropes, the idea of the untrained, unconditioned coming-of-age-teenager (boy or girl), who is thrust into a new environment/out of their old environment, and through a journey with a guardian alongside finds it in themselves to develop this fearless attitude/condition and overcome astronomical odds against a nearly omnipotent foe. We’ve certainly seen the evolution of the Hero’s Journey since Joseph Campbell proposed his monomyth theory and not all stories are quite so blatantly conceived. Many try to do justice to the change element in the main character, showing us their growth from unaware/naive/broken/weak into strong/courageous/fearless/skilled, but if we’re being honest, that’s an exceptionally rare occurrence if the result is getting to that 2-4% Fearless Elite state.

Admittedly, we want to hear the story of the average, everyday pigboy who becomes a knight and later a king. I’m more like Shasta the fisherman’s boy than King Cor of Archenland, but I love the hope that C.S. Lewis creates to become a great man. The world needs great coming of age stories to help inspire and guide the next generation of real heroes in every sphere of influence. However, we have the power to deceive them with unrealistic expectations of the human capacity for fearlessness.

There are Aragorns in the world, but we’re more likely to see a stout-hearted Samwise if we honestly look around us. Let’s be honest with our readers as we develop characters that are real and exciting enough to capture and hold their attention but also true to the human condition. Training and conditioning can go a long way to improve the capacity of the 96 percent soldier, but it’s a rare few that exhibit the traits we find in that last 4 percent. How many of your cast are from that 4 percent?

I also want to leave you and I with some hope. That other 96 to 98 percent? Training and conditioning benefits them as well, and will result in a spectrum of positive responses to fear in combat. Some will always struggle with reactions we’d deem as cowardice, but many will stand up and perform brave and honorable acts while suffering varying degrees of psychological damage as a result. We’ll talk about that outcome later in the series.

Lastly, let’s always keep close in mind God’s command and promise to all of us: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9, NIV). That’s great encouragement from the God who created all 100 percent of us.

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. M. B. Aznoe says:

    I wonder if there is a difference when it comes to defending your home versus fighting in a distant land. We don’t really have any experience with that here in America since the Civil War, but I wonder if studies have been done in Syria or Croatia, etc. I also wonder if there was a difference in ancient times versus the more modern times. Were people more conditioned in the past than they have been in the past 100 years?

    I also wonder on the difference when someone considers their cause and their actions taken to be just. If someone committed atrocities while at war, will there be more psychological damage? It is interesting that in the Bible, we have a nation of slaves (the Israelites) who rise up and conquer an entire region without being conditioned for war without apparent damage. However, their cause was orchestrated by God Himself. Is that what makes the difference?

    All that said, you bring up some very good points.

    • Travis Perry says:

      From what I’ve studied on the topic, the feeling that a war was justified, whether because of defense of home or because of sense of righteousness, really does help a veteran over the long term avoid a sense of being haunted by actions of the past. This is something that will be mentioned again in an upcoming post that will discuss post traumatic stress.

      As for war in ancient times, while it was brutal, it was often over pretty quickly. The battles Joshua led were individual engagements with plenty of non-combat time between them spent marching various places. Most of the battles were over in a matter of hours once engaged and did not include long periods of time with enemy forces in contact with one another.

      Though note that Deuteronomy 20:5-9 has a set of instructions for addressing the people and excusing all men from fighting who either were just married, recently engaged in some other pressing personal matter, or who felt any fear. I have no idea how many men would have opted out of fighting under those circumstances, but clearly those we’re calling “the Fearless Elite” in this post would have eagerly stayed on. (It’s quite interesting the Bible plainly demonstrates it’s better to fight with a smaller group of warriors who are wholly committed than a larger group that included men wracked with self-doubt.)

      The book “On Killing” (and its sister work “On Combat”) by LTC Dave Grossman does make reference to ancient battles to a certain degree and other pre-modern wars. One of its fascinating findings is from the US Civil War, in which battlefield archaeologists have found numerous weapons of the period loaded with bullets multiple times, as many as seven rounds in a barrel stacked on top of each other, never fired. That’s evidence of a panicked soldier going through the motions of loading a weapon, but who was unable to actually pull the trigger when pointing at another human being. Something soldiers at the time never advertised themselves doing, but which we can be certain actually happened.

      Note that while we’re using LTC Grossman’s figure of 2 to 4 percent of people being naturally elite, I’d say there is insufficient evidence to say if under different circumstances than the WW2 study he references that there might be a higher percentage of warriors who naturally function as fearless. That is, there may there is such a thing as someone who can act fearlessly, but only for a short period of time. (The WW2 study, again, referenced soldiers who could fight continuously for 6 weeks or more with no ill effects.)

      It may be a bit surprising when talking about this sort of thing how much is actually unknown–but it’s pretty hard to objectively study the psychology of people in the middle of a battle. 🙂

  2. M. B. Aznoe says:

    One more thought. In the Industrial Revolution, society went through a huge shift from a primarily agricultural society to an urban society. In ancient times, 90% of the population was required to work in agriculture to provide enough food for the entire population. Today, it is 10%. When you work in agriculture, you are often intimately familiar with death (killing livestock, etc.). With this shift in society, how much effect did that have on our ability to handle death in war? I even see a difference between the hunters and ranchers out here in the west versus those who live in the Eastern United States and even between the hunters who kill occasionally and ranchers who kill a large number of animals. Ranchers don’t mourn the death of their pets like even hunters sometimes do. This would even explain the Israelites — think the Passover and animal sacrifice. Food for thought.

    • Travis Perry says:

      Yeah, though we do account for this indirectly in saying warriors who have been trained to kill are more effective than those who have not been trained to kill. Routinely killing animals would in effect function as a form of training for killing people when looked from that perspective.

      Also note that just because the Bible does not bother to mention any Israelites being disturbed by their participation in Bible battles, that doesn’t mean none of them were bothered. There are a number of things modern people focus on that the Bible skips over in its often sparse narrative.

      Though if you read Bible battles with morale in mind, its portrayal of warfare is very realistic. Many times Scripture records the morale of fighting forces breaking, troops running, and pursuing forces hunting them down. To give just two examples: I Samuel 17:51-52, in which the defeat of Goliath was sufficient to break Philistine morale. The Philistines fled when that happened and were hunted down by the Israelites as they fled. I Samuel 4:4-11 records the Israelites bringing the Ark of the Covenant to help them–frightened, the Philistines fight harder in desperation and turn the tide of morale. Now the Israelites, whose morale is broken and apparently without a clear escape route, flee into their tents, where the Philistines systematically kill them.

    • I live on a cattle ranch, so I will say, ranchers due mourn the death of pets, and even cows. (A year later and I’m still sad about a freak accident with a young milk cow named Winter.)
      However, rural people live in a culture where emotions are more often kept down and we get over it, not mope around, and if we are depressed about something dying, we don’t often admit it.
      Another thing is because we’re a long ways from a vet, and often dealing with large animals who can’t be transported, if an animal is sick or injured and suffering, we’ve got to shoot it. Taking it to the vet, or waiting hours for the vet to arrive would be cruel to the animal.
      Even so, I do theorize it might make us better killers because, while we still don’t like it, we tend to push those emotions down and do what needs to be done, instead of passing the responsibility onto someone else.
      To be fair, another thing my family dislikes is hunters who kill for the fun of it. There’s a difference between killing out of necessity and killing for the joy of killing. (Note I don’t have anything against hunters who enjoy the hunt itself, but we really dislike the ones who, rather than enjoying the hunt or looking for meat will drive around until they find a large deer, then shoot it for bragging rights without any sporting.)

  3. One thing this reminds me of is when people get angry after hearing about average civilians not always rushing to defend others in certain situations, especially dangerous ones. It’s like they’ve idealized people so much that they can’t realize that humans tend not to perform well in situations they aren’t conditioned for in some way.

    The same thing tends to happen with a lot of dogs, actually. Many will bark or even attack/defend, but many will not simply because they’re scared or don’t know they’re supposed to. That doesn’t mean dogs aren’t good deterrents still, since at the very least most will bark at an absolute minimum, and many people won’t gamble that a large dog won’t bite. But, just like with humans, a dog’s full effectiveness comes from training, and not all individuals are suited for conflict. Yet, some people assume that their dogs will always protect them.

    Genetics seem to be pretty important when it comes to this stuff. A lot of my angel descendant characters are written with a much more aggressive and territorial psychology, so their fear reactions tend to be different. Sometimes fear will even go unnoticed in them because their mind occasionally channels that fear into viciousness/belligerence/etc. They can usually afford that kind of a reaction since they tend to be so much more powerful than everything around them.

    What do you think about writing chars that are somewhat of a ‘fearless elite’ when it comes to some things, but not others? One of my favorite characters I used to roleplay was raised in an assassin guild from day one and had tons of psychological conditioning, so when she makes her first kill at a young age she doesn’t really feel much, except for maybe annoyance at the people who looked at her as a monster for it(she only killed to protect two people, and those two people only saw her as a monster for being willing to kill at such a young age) Her uncle was also proud of her, so that only fueled her lack of remorse on the matter.

    But at another point in her early childhood, she took in a puppy that was the runt of his litter and was nursing it back to health, and she grew really attached to the pup. But then she was later ordered to kill it, which was exceedingly traumatic for her, due to her young age and the fact that she wasn’t given much explanation as to why. She had a similar situation later on where she had to kill her best friend, which is part of the reason she becomes very cold and comes off as cruel and distant to people at times during her teens and adulthood. Some of her earliest ancestors aren’t human, so that does factor into her behavior quite a bit.

    • Travis Perry says:

      Good observations on dogs and training. Yes, like that, human beings are much more effective at doing what they are trained to do than what they are not trained to do. But yes, some people are genetically more suited to certain things, in this case fighting in a war, than other people are.

      It’s not very PC in the modern world to say so, but men are generally more suited for warfare than women are, not just by being larger and stronger on average, but by being more aggressive and less empathetic on average. That is not always true by any means and I wholly support portraying women who are exceptional and who are great warriors. But unless you have created a story that fundamentally alters what are essentially genetic differences between men and women, a warrior society in which half the warriors are women and half are men is unrealistic–and so of course is a society of all women warriors. Or perhaps such a story could also work if the fundamental nature of warfare were different in the story–for example, women would be every bit as effective as men in piloting spaceship fighters, if not more. What they might lose in aggressiveness, they’d make up for in less consumption of oxygen and other supplies.

      As for the story you referenced, I think adding complexity to a discussion of what it means to be a fearless warrior is a good thing. Though I think what is “exceedingly traumatic” may be different for someone accustomed to killing than you or I. I would hazard that instead of having flashbacks of the event, the warrior in your story should be full of rage at the thought of having to kill that dog.

      As far as being very cold and distant, I would say this is a realistic effect seen in the personality of someone who has been exposed to too much (or too traumatic) killing. What I just said may seem in contradiction to the paragraph just above this, but I think it’s the toll of having emotions too much strained by combat, i.e. a very strong emotional reaction, that causes warriors to infamously shut down emotionally, turning cold and distant.

      • notleia says:

        I wouldn’t put it purely on genetics. Nature may have a say, but nurture also does, too. In most societies, women aren’t socialized to be aggressive the same way men are. It’s a popular topic, in feminist circles, that men are socialized to be too aggressive (toxic masculinity), particularly as our society moves to a customer-service-based economy which has fewer leeways and loopholes for poorly socialized people who can’t adapt (or are unwilling to, see: toxic masculinity) to society.

        • Travis Perry says:

          I think it was back in our interaction on The Shape of Water that I agreed that there can be such a thing as toxic masculinity. Though I would not agree all forms of masculinity are toxic (which is what it seems some feminists believe).

          As for the nature/nurture issue, clearly both matter. And some societies are far more warlike than others. However, legends of the Greeks and others aside, there are zero documented cases of a society in which all the women were warriors and none of the men were. And there aren’t any cases of a society in which women are more aggressive on average than the men in the same society. There have existed societies in which pretty much every person–men, women, and children–were warriors when needed (all I know of like that were tribal nomads)–yet even in those societies, men were the main warriors.

          In modern societies that deliberately lower physical standards for women soldiers to make it easier for them to become fighters, there are significantly fewer women who choose to enlist than men. Even in otherwise deliberately egalitarian countries like Denmark.

          Women are actually better at some military jobs on average than men are. But that mostly isn’t true for the combat jobs. (Being a fighter pilot seems to be an exception–women have been excellent fighter pilots on average.)

          As I said before, it isn’t PC for me to mention it, but the evidence seems to indicate that only a minority of women are able to perform as well in combat as the majority of men. And again, I’m all for those who can do so having combat jobs. But I’m against imagining that these differences are non-existent–or are only cultural.

          • As a side note, I think women can end up with behaviors of toxic masculinity, too, even without being socialized to do so, so I kind of wish people(especially feminists) would discuss that more, since otherwise women are going to end up with some more nasty behaviors as society moves forward.

            If someone wants to write an all women warrior society, maybe a convent or all girls school type set up would work. Basically, a place where women go to live for a variety of reasons(either because they want to to or need to in order to escape something) and that place teaches them all to fight. The only thing is whether or not that counts as a society or not, since they would probably exist as a smaller unit within or alongside a larger society (they would need to in order to obtain new members, since they probably wouldn’t allow men to live there, which means no children)

            If we want examples/inspirations for societies where females are more suited to fighting than males, there are several species of animals that provide an interesting case study. Hyenas are especially interesting, though a bit strange.

          • What military jobs are women usually more suited to than men? I’m guessing things in the medical field might be one of them, but then I’d assume men and women would be mostly equal as far as being skilled in that field, except maybe for women at least seeming to be more warm and nurturing on average?

            • I’ll make an imperfect attempt at an answer here in the context of writing & worldbuilding. What is the purpose of having a military function and military forces in a society? At other times in history that function has been dominated by either 1) defense of the homeland or 2) offense to claim new resources/lands (with various motivations behind each). When warfare was conducted through primarily force-on-force actions, the role of tactical factors like physical conditioning, prowess, weapon skills, unit-maneuver capability become more important to the success of the nation’s endeavors (how many big, scary warriors can I put on the field to deter the enemy, and if necessary, engage in combat and beat them till they surrender, die, or go away?) While strategic thinking and operational planning played a strong role, those in a position to execute those functions were likely the ones who rose up through the ranks of the former functions. History gives us examples of women who have, regardless, stood in the role of strategic thinking/operational planning and done well (and some examples of women who have succeeded in the tactical domain as well).

              Fast forward to modern warfare. Force-on-force actions are only part of, and some might say a minor part of, the military function in war. Statescraft, diplomacy, relationship-building, empathy-building, “winning the hearts and minds” type activities are increasingly the domain of the soldier in addition to bringing combat power to bear. This begins to look more like a constabulary role (i.e., establishing and keeping the peace) than what we recognize as combat. A male warrior, conditioned for aggression in the fighting pit and on the range, may not adapt to the role of in-situ diplomat nearly as well as a relational thinker we find in many women. Operational planning activities, typically a complex dance of balancing priorities and interorganizational relationships, may come easily to a woman who can think relationally compared to a male soldier who is single-minded of purpose. (and to be clear, there are examples of both genders doing great and awful in both capacities; I’m not maligning either).

              Shift to another sphere altogether: we’ve been discussing roles that appear on the battlefield. What if we step back to a mechanized military and it’s domain? Shooting torpedoes, missiles, and rockets from aircraft, ships, submarines, and land emplacements require a different skillset than wielding a rifle or sword. Rapid thinking, decision-making & filtering of combat input to determine the next action are more important than pure aggression & physical ability.

              It’s a big topic, more than we can do justice to here (although maybe worth a post or two on?) I think it’s important for an author to at least give consideration to their choices and be honest with the reader. The phrase I think of is “You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.” For either gender to assume functions in society, there must be something that is given up instead. Maybe not completely, but at least diminished. We long ago came to specialize, and even within something like a militia there is a recognition that to train for battle you can’t be out planting the crops. I’d say that those soldiers who were top of their field made a sacrifice in other areas to be there, irrespective of gender.

              Just my 2 cents. Define the military function and then decide who may be better suited to fulfill it, on average, and then figure out the extremes. I find that “average” is much broader than we give it credit for.

              • The diplomat thing you mentioned is interesting and made me think about something. Some of the advantages girls might have, whether in a combat/military scenario or in a scenario based in other careers, like the medical field, might not fully stem from personal skill, but also human instinct, experience, culture, and a bunch of other factors.

                So, for instance, many women can be rude, uncaring or cruel sometimes, but many people don’t assume them to be at first glance. There’s a lot of reasons for this, partly because they’re smaller/less intimidating on average, or because historically more criminals/warriors/etc. have been men. Also, when people see a woman, they are more likely to be reminded of someone they’ve trusted, like a mother figure, teacher, sister, etc. Combine that with the fact that women tend to have a softer/more friendly appearance, and people just tend to be less on guard around them. So a woman might have the same amount of actual diplomatic skills as a man, but she still might have the advantage because a lot of people are more wired to feel more comfortable around women/be less suspicious of them.

                There are exceptions to this, of course. Someone could perceive a woman as irritating or weak instead of friendly and trustworthy. A woman would also be at a disadvantage if she was trying to negotiate with extremely sexist people, too.

                Another thing that interests me is the relationship between leadership ability and fighting ability. Those things don’t always go together, so that’s actually a pretty fun thing to write about. If someone rises through the ranks solely because of physical ability, and is a bad strategist and/or unwilling to learn leadership and proper battle tactics, then that’s going to have an extremely negative impact for those he leads, and maybe for him as well, if his subordinates decide they want to get rid of him.

                To an extent, that ends up being a thing in Hakuoki Reimeiroku. Serizawa was powerful and influential, so to an extent he was a good leader from the standpoint of accomplishing goals, fighting and networking. But he was so destructive people were pretty much jumping at the first opportunity to get rid of him. (The first two seasons of Hakuoki are kind of a typical, silly, reverse harem anime, so I’m not talking about those. Reimeiroku is the third season of the anime and a prequel to the rest of the series. Reimeiroku is still somewhat girly, but well worth the watch since the focus is mostly on the politics of a small military group dealing with a less than ideal leader as it tries to gain prestige. There are also some other interesting themes in there, such as the question of how much aggression and resolve is healthy for a human being to have)

            • Autumn, my mind is churning on this question and it’s nuances… Can’t grade thermo now…

              I’m thinking of the difference between “suited to” and “can be successful at and therefore, be rewarded and promote and do even more in”? And what that latter thing means in the context of historical, fantasy, modern, and futuristic warfare. I’m also thinking of the differences between warfare that is short-term in nature (immediate defense from invaders or a months-long campaign) versus medium-term (months/years campaign that includes training and preparing a force that will ultimately return home and disband) versus sustained/persistent (standing armed forces actively engaged for a prolonged period, i.e., professional, career soldiers). How gender plays into the context of all of those feels like it would vary.

              Here’s a fictional example: a particular mission is best represented by doing 100 pull-ups. Two soldiers, a male and female, meet every other mission criteria equally but the guy can do 100 pull-ups. He runs the mission and succeeds. Next mission is in an all-female marketplace that only she can enter without causing an incident. She runs the mission and succeeds. The commander can promote one but not the other: what happens? I feel that an author’s worldbuilding has a lot to say about the outcomes. What if it’s a society that values homemaking even more than soldiering, and for her to turn down promotion to pursue family is a greater esteemed choice? What if the society doesn’t recognize her role in the military as value-addded and she’s fighting the machine to promote? What if it was a single incident that she happened to be in the right place at the right time to help, but no intention to stick around further? Shoo…. you can imagine the countless directions an author might pursue. Some would support the plot, some the character’s fictional self, some the author’s theme/agenda in writing.

              • I think maybe it would depend on what they are being promoted for. If they are being promoted as leader of a small team of assassins or something, then promotion would probably have to come down to things like strategic skills and leadership ability, or even how well respected they are in the group they would potentially lead. Other than that…I don’t know, how are promotions in combat decided other than that? I’d assume such dilemmas arise even when choosing between two different guys sometimes, since no two people have the same exact skill sets.

              • All good ideas. Using your assassin example, we might say “Ideally, an assassin is promoted to lead other assassins based on their leadership potential and credibility” In practice, maybe it’s based on number of successful missions, or interpersonal relationships with the decision-makers, or by seizing control (in theory through skill or cunning). If we weave in our gender dynamic, maybe I end up with a story where a male assassin is up for promotion to lead an elite team and his credential is having conducted 100 successful missions. He’s liked, and could be a good leader, but he’s been on his own a lot. The competition? A female assassin who has 50 missions but took a few years off to raise BB (cough…Kill Bill…cough cough). She’s also respected and does well navigating the relationships in the guild. If she gets the job, it’ll mean the guild doesn’t respect Assassin #1’s successful missions. If she doesn’t get it, it’ll look like male favoritism and impact the guild’s recruitment of female assassins. Either choice would lead to interesting plot directions. Wait, I feel like we’ve got a great story idea here!

              • Maybe 🙂 The only thing about this assassin guild is that they have along history of being more egalitarian(due to the influence of demon and angel descendants very far back in their lineage) so the gender politics part probably wouldn’t affect it as much, though decisions of who to promote and when would still be a very big issue, since they still try very hard to put the right people in the right positions, for a variety of reasons.

                Another thing about the assassins is that it’s not uncommon for them to work on very small teams, or have different people leading different types of missions. There might also be some cases where one team leader gets killed and the rest of his team might not be ready to lead yet. So, maybe, in the scenario you just mentioned, they might do something like assign the girl to lead the group she’s currently in, but the guy might be reassigned to a completely different group who’s leader recently died.

                I do love my assassin chars quite a bit, so they will get their own book some day 🙂 If you want I could put you down on a list of people I contact once this and other stories of mine become ready for betaing or sending out free copies in exchange for honest reviews.

          • notleia says:

            Feminists can and do distinguish between toxic and nontoxic behavior, but on the abstract level, is there much meaningful difference between nontoxic and masculine behavior and also nontoxic and nongendered behavior?

            Then again, I lean in a more genderfluid direction in my feminism and typically only use “masculine” and “feminine” as vocabulary of convenience for cultural constructs. Deep down, I probably believe that everyone is genderfluid to a greater or lesser extent.

            The Youtuber ContraPoints broke down identity politics in an interesting way in her video about Jordan Peterson, but she is probably not a mainstream cup of tea around here because she’s pretty darn irreverent, so I won’t link. Interested parties can google.

            • notleia says:

              Moar thoughts: the difference between men and women is more about hormonal balance than genetics. There are women who are genetically male but have an androgen insensitivity and “defaulted” to a female body.
              But since that leaves a foothold for trans people to transition, I’m willing to bet that why some people put all the emphasis on genetics.

              • The interplay between genetics and hormones seems pretty complex, though. We could say that our human genetics make hormonal balances, etc. manifest the way they do in humans(androgen insensitivity and all). And then we could say that the genetics of other creatures cause their hormones to manifest in different ways than ours.

                Hyena genetics, for instance, are different than ours, which one could say is part of why their hormone balances, etc. manifest the way they do. So from that standpoint it’s probably partly genetic, though not completely, as you pointed out.

      • A lot of my stories actually do have the genetic nature of males and females altered a little, simply due to the fact that male and female angel descendants tend to have less behavioral differences between each other, and the angel descendants intermarry with humans quite often.

        The structure of the assassin guilds in this char’s story is quite a bit different than our society, so maybe it’ll meet the requirements you’re talking about. Basically, they train everyone as an assassin until they’re at least fifteen, and test and observe them closely during that time. After that, those that qualify become fully fledged assassins and go out on missions that suit their individual skills, while those that don’t qualify are relegated to a more civilian role, though even the civilians are expected to keep training, that way they would still have a chance of defending themselves if the guild gets invaded. But while the assassins can fill a more soldier like role out on a battlefield and do pretty well, the assassins emphasize more indirect means of combat, like infiltration, traps, poison, trickery/manipulation, etc. So physical strength isn’t the most valued skill for them at all, even if it is important. Missions are also assigned according to individual skill sets, so there’d probably be ones more suited to women(sometimes female assassins are assigned as bodyguards for noblewomen, for instance)

        This assassin char I described actually does process killing the puppy(and many other difficult events) in large part through anger, so it’s nice to know that that kind of reaction makes sense to more people than just me. There’s sadness and helplessness mixed in as well, due to the circumstances, but it’s really hard to imagine sadness/helplessness being the only feelings someone would have toward being forced to destroy something they care about, at least long term. I suppose there’s other people out there that wouldn’t have any anger in that situation, though?

        What you’re saying makes a lot of sense to me, and from what I’ve seen and felt, maybe that’s a pretty common human reaction to intense stress even outside combat. A few years ago I was dealing with some intense interpersonal conflict for a couple years straight, and that kind of did make me more standoffish and less able to have emotional reactions to things. That whole thing actually made me more empathetic, too, though, so it wasn’t all bad.

        But I can only imagine how much worse it’d be for someone that was subjected to that amount of stress for much longer(or more intensely) than I was, especially if they were actually in danger of dying. In that situation, one’s emotions probably have to be slowly deadened even simply for the sake of preserving their sanity.

  4. All absolutely great comments! Polishing this piece up was challenging because of the depth it deserves. In my head, there were two questions bubbling up:

    1) Will someone sustain moral/psychological injury from the act of killing?

    2) Can someone be conditioned/pressed to kill anyways?

    This post discusses the implications of the first question: a small percentage of the population can kill with no/very limited effect on their character. They won’t hesitate, they won’t wrestle with it later. Psychologically, it doesn’t affect them. The Fearless Elite.

    For that remaining 96%, they can be conditioned, they can be put in circumstances that they will react to, up to and including killing (in self/community defense, in anticipation of aggression, to deter further killing, in revenge, etc.), but they will suffer an impact. The spectrum of that psychological impact (sometimes PTSD, moral injury, spiritual injury, and others), is wide. Grossman’s analysis was that for many, the recovery and healing occur within a reasonable period of time and they get on with life. Our AWANA director is a hardcore combat Marine, scary dude by his looks, but totally OK and a super outgoing, positive, caring gentleman. You likely know of the other end of the scale, those who are very challenged in that psychological recovery. We’ll talk about that toward the end of our series when we talk about the results/aftermath of war.

    The second question is also one we’ll also attempt to answer, and T-1 has already gotten to it here in the comments. Answer: Definitely. Child soldiers in Africa, Germans fighting for the homeland in WWII, American Revolutionaries rising up against the British, the people of Laketown taking up arms against the orc horde, the boys of Rohan standing the walls of Helm’s Deep. What I find frustrating is the misunderstanding, intentional or otherwise, in how those actions impact the characters. Either we choose not to talk about it/show it (to pursue the plot elsewhere, to keep the audience excited and capture their attention), or we give it short shrift or a very generic consideration. The returning soldier is mad all the time and yells and punches walls and swerves around road debris and doesn’t sleep. OK, all of those can be reactions he/she will have. Why? Dig deeper into it. Show me that side.

    • Travis Perry says:

      Good comment overall, T-2 but I think there’s some complexity to the topic of child soldiers you didnt quite capture…though I don’t care to address it right now, either.

      • I feel like any one of those subsegments can become a complex analysis in itself, certainly more than we have space to unpack here. Certainly agree that the phenomena of child soldiers (African or elsewhere) is a weighty subject with a lot of nuance.

  5. I remember seeing an article that said soldiers who enlisted before 25 were something like 7X more likely to deal with PTSD. This got me wondering if maybe there’s a reason that the Biblical military age, nearest I can tell, was 20 and not 18. I also wonder if the writer is dealing with situations where people don’t age normally, the soldier is going into combat at 50-80, such as Aragorn, would that possibly lead to less mental issues than the 16 year old who is in the same situation.

    In my own story, I have my main character, Savora, who is probably what one would classify as fearless elite. Another fellow soldier refuses to take leadership, because a few years ago, when he would’ve been something like 16, he panicked and ran. It saved his life, but he knows he wasn’t thinking when he did it, so he thinks that he’s a coward.

    I have an idea, but no plot yet, for a story where the main character, a teenage girl, is unaware that she is a genetically modified super soldier. When the apocalypse happens, she ends up tagging along with a group of soldiers who give her a gun, and within a few months, gets essentially frightened of herself because she can’t understand why the other soldiers are mentally snapping, but she just shrugs off the horrors of war. (I thought making her female would make it even more apparent that she is not normal in the least.)

    • Jessi, that’s a great idea. It’s good you’re thinking it through too. We intend to get to the effects of war in the soldier after experiencing combat (like PTSD) that hopefully help you explore the space. I certainly think that factors like maturity can effect how well and quickly someone can recover from psychological impacts. So I would agree it’s likely someone like Aragorn could recover faster than a Samwise. He would naturally have more coping mechanisms and learned experiences to use in his recovery.

      I’m also a fan of the super soldier. I still watch reruns of Firefly and get choked up thinking of River’s experience and how she adapts to the real world!

What do you think?