On War in Fiction: The Politician and the General

Well, its good to be back writing for Lantern Hollow after a a hiatus.  My family and I had a bit of a transition in the meantime–a new career in a new state and all that entails.  Hopefully I still have something worthwhile to share!

I would guess that most of us who decide to take up our metaphorical pens these days to write fiction have probably never been in an actual war.  (That includes me, of course.)  It is interesting then that war and conflict are featured so prominently in fantasy and science fiction.  Don’t get me wrong; I think inexperience is a good thing.  I would much rather we have to stretch to understand that subject than that we know it too well, but it does present a problem:  How do we write believable stories that involve war when we really know so little about it?  The answer is (and hopefully will remain) that we must learn by proxy, from the experience of others.

In this series of posts, I’ll be exploring some themes gleaned from military history to illuminate points that I think many people misunderstand or perhaps just blindly disbelieve because they desperately wish it were otherwise.  I hope you find them useful!


War is the continuation of politics by other means.

–Carl von Clausewitz

Carl von Clausewitz--one of the most influential thinkers on military issues in western history.

Carl von Clausewitz matured at a time when the vast majority of military thinkers believed that war was a specific profession, isolated from the rest of society and not influenced by it.  Moreover, the idea sometimes arose that generals performed one job while the politicians performed a different, entirely separate function in society.  Even today we often see a similar dichotomy that rarely has anything to do with the way war actually works.  In reality, as Clausewitz notes above, war is generally a subsidiary of politics, not its master or even its equal.

You might be thinking of the stereotype of the diplomats striving to keep the militant generals from embarking on another pointless war, pursued for its own immoral purposes.  Perhaps you remember Caesar, the general, taking over the state and bending it to his militant will.  In either scenario, “war” is an independent entity, separate from “politics.”  Both are more or less equal, independent, and often opposed to one another.  Politicians are not warriors and warriors are not politicians.

Or are they?

Part of this has to do with a faulty definition of what “politics” actually involves.  We tend to think of politics as the peaceful resolution of human differences and war as its opposite–a violent resolution.  In reality, politics means much more.  Properly understood, it describes the general interaction of peoples both on the inside (domestic policy) and on the outside (foreign policy).  It happens in the villager’s hut and on the floor of a statehouse.  Politics, just like death and taxes, are ubiquitous.

Politics, death, and taxes. I don’t know anyone who likes any of them!

When we apply this idea it means that war not really the equal of politics–it isn’t even a handmaiden.  War is a tool of politicians.  It is “a continuation of politics by other means.”  When a nation realizes that it must resort to violence to get its way (or in some cases that violence is vaguely convenient) it will sometimes act out. What we are really seeing in the “competition” between politicians and warriors is simply another facet of a larger political picture where one individual is willing to use the tool and the other is not.

So, when you see a conflict between a diplomat who wants peace and a soldier who wants war, you aren’t seeing a distinction between government and military at all.  The military and the potential will to use it are a part of all governments.  You are seeing a conflict of personalities–you are seeing two politicians who disagree on the best way to achieve their respective ends.

That changes our whole perspective on the role of war in society and its relation to politics, and it should change how we depict both in our created worlds.  War never exists in a vacuum.  It is a part of a much bigger process and usually isn’t the first “tool” that a politician resorts to in order to solve a problem.  (There are some leaders who do use it more than others–they tend to be known as “dark lords,” “war mongers,” “horde leaders,” and the like.)  War, then, is a thread in a complex tapestry, and the best authors aren’t the ones that give the topic a stereotypical, straw man treatment.  The best convey the that relationship to their audience with all the nuance and detail that we see in the real world.

The Tisroc counsels with Rabadash

One good example of a fictional leader acting in just this context is the Tisroc in C. S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy.  In the scene where Aravis overhears the Tisoc (may he not live forever) speaking with Rabadash about the possible invasion of Narnia, we see in a mature political thinker who has grasped the role of war contrasted with the stereotype of the unthinking militarist.  The Tisroc sees military action as one way to achieve his political ends, and he will not hesitate to use it when there is promise of success.  Still, he is determined not to overreach himself, and therefore he will use all of the means at his disposal, war and diplomacy, each in its proper place.  In Rabadash we see not a “true” militarist, but an immature personality for whom war is the equivalent to a temper tantrum.

Note that the Tisroc is a negative example, but you could very well set up a positive one.  The idea is embodied in the Federation in Star Trek all the way down to starship design.  The Federation has very few dedicated “war” ships.  Most can potently defend themselves or project power if necessary, but they almost all have other, more primary functions.  Making war is one way to achieve the Federation’s goals and it sometimes becomes a necessity–against the Klingons, the Romulans, etc.–but it is only one option in a much larger political palate.

So, avoid the stereotyping into which lesser thinkers often fall.  Follow the threads of your tapestry to all directions and use each to weave a story with many layers of contrasting color.  If you do it right, you’ll bring out something far deeper, more profound, and more real than you otherwise might realize.


Next Week–There is no such thing as a foolproof plan: The difficulty in making things happen in war.


2 thoughts on “On War in Fiction: The Politician and the General

  1. Hmmm. I remember the quotation as the continuation of diplomacy by other means–a related but different idea. Either way, you’re right: We need to think about our fictional worlds both ways.

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