Futuristic militaries are a staple in science fiction. With their powered armor and laser guns, military science fiction novels are among the most exciting reads out there. Except for one problem. Most are not really about warfare.
While military SF involves military personnel and technology, the cores of the stories tend to focus on elements other than warfare. Before I'm tracked down and shot for saying that, let me qualify that statement. Military SF novels aren't about the institution of warfare; they focus on the effects of war, on the soldiers, on the morality of an organization, and on what humanity will do to survive.
But warfare is much more than just its destructive effects: It is an institution with its own theories and reasoning. It represents significant strategic, economic and political events, all coming together in a destructive crescendo. When military science fiction focuses on people, there is very little about warfare, and how it is conducted. In these tales, futuristic warfare is often incredibly simplified, on both the storytelling level, as well as the actual elements that make up the story. Here are some of the biggest problems with representations of war in most military SF.
Military Science Fiction Needs to Forget About World War II
Robert Heinlein opens up his book Starship Troopers as the soldiers are about to jump right into a mission on an alien world. He writes:
You'll be dropped in two skirmish lines, calculated two thousand intervals. Get your bearings on me as soon as you hit, get your bearing and distance on your squad mates, both sides, while you take cover. You've wasted ten seconds already, so you smash and destroy whatever's at hand until the flankers hit dirt.
Essentially, he's describing airborne small unit tactics, developed early on in the Second World War by both the United States and Germany, and used in several dramatic instances throughout the war. The idea of airborne soldiers is an interesting novelty, to say the least, and on numerous occasions they have been incredibly useful units to be able to field. At the same time they are incredibly limited in what they can achieve on the battlefield.
Adapting futuristic scenarios from real-life military operations is certainly not limited to Starship Troopers. Timothy Zahn's Cobra trilogy follows a group of enhanced soldiers on the battlefield, the Halo video games portray a highly mobile military force landing on a small ringworld, and John Scalzi's Old Man's War sends genetically enhanced soldiers onto other hostile planets, where they all face alien forces on the ground. While exciting, interesting and a lot of fun to read, a lot of these stories pull their inspiration from the idea that individual soldiers, enhanced through various means, are able to operate in smaller units that replace a comparable amount of offensive force. In a number of these futures, small unit tactics become the norm.
In military strategy, this isn't really a good idea. Shifting one's entire military capabilities over to an airborne-style military is just crazy. While it makes for good storytelling, and it's a very dramatic style of warfare, there are a number of problems with airborne tactics. That's why large-scale airborne drops on the scale of Operation Overlord in 1944 simply aren't done any more. Soldiers tend to scatter; soldiers find themselves in enemy territory by themselves; and airborne units are generally unable to operate effectively against an enemy's heavy units, such as armor. While science fictional soldiers are generally enhanced, such as in Starship Troopers, Armor, The Forever War and so forth, they're still fundamentally individual soldiers operating without support.
Airborne units in the Second World War, such as the 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions, had a vital, but limited effect during Operation Overlord and later on during Operation Market-Garden. Airborne troopers found themselves outmanned and outgunned by the people whose territory they were invading. Because of physical limitations, soldiers carried upwards of a hundred pounds of gear: guns, rations, ammunition and survival items, in addition to any specialized tools that they might have carried (mortars, ammunition, bazookas, and so on) and that was it. Due to the nature of their mission, resupplying these soldiers was a difficult task, and oftentimes, while they had some supplies, units were far better at taking on their targets by sabotage and unconventional tactics, rather than a frontal or flanking attack, shortly after they dropped. After that point, they were reinforced by heavier forces coming in by more conventional means.
Largely, SF seems to ignore the practical elements involved with this style of warfare. In John Scalzi's Old Man's War, soldiers are enhanced, and then sent out onto the battlefield with conventional weapons, and that's it. The same thing goes for Heinlein and Halderman's troopers. While enhanced, these soldiers are essentially treated as conventional forces, attacking positions as regular airborne soldiers might - individually or in small numbers - undertaking entire campaigns without any mention of heavier support from other forces. The shortfall here is that there seems to be no thought put into some of the tactics that new technologies might bring with them. Power-suited soldiers are a great idea, and something that the US Army has already thought about, but you can be sure that these soldiers will be used very differently from others out in the field.
There is a single book that I've come across that actually incorporates a number of these missing elements: Glen Cook's Shadowline, the first book of his Starfishers trilogy. In it, military actions, on the part of mercenary outfits, include detailed talk about terrain impacting movements, artillery and logistical forces to support front-line units and longer strategical moves to outwit and ultimately defeat an enemy force. Ultimately, however, Shadowline isn't a military science fiction novel, falling more towards the Space Opera side of the house, where it works extremely well. What is does show, however, that this sort of story element can be put to use. However, there is a tradeoff between the strategic elements and the hardware used in warfare for stories. It doesn't have to be.
Military Thought and Theory
Tactics, strategy and doctrine are all products of military experience and theory. There are reasons why Roman soldiers massed in large units. Used properly, this was an effective defense against enemy formations and counter-infantry measures, such as cavalry, and allowed for the best chances of success. While unit layouts are the products of war, so too are unit discipline and cohesion in the midst of fighting. With the introduction of gunpowder weapons hundreds of years later, the rise of artillery forces prompted the introduction of new designs for fortifications, and counter-artillery batteries that specifically existed to nullify an enemy's advantage on the battlefield. The end of World War I brought about the introduction of maneuver warfare, which was later perfected by the Germans at the beginnings of World War II, and is still used to an extent by US forces. Add science fiction writers to the mix, and suddenly, powered armor and space cruisers take the center stage; but authors keep drawing upon examples from the past to create stories.
To date, I've yet to see a science fiction novel that really puts combat and warfare into this context of armed evolution. Concepts are crudely dropped into the future with little explanation as to how they got there, which complicates the problem. While powered armor and space cruisers potentially might become standard doctrine in the future, they will be the product of warfare, with specific uses and a body of tactics all to their own. It will be very, very different from the larger unit tactics that are generally portrayed in any number of books. Starship Troopers saw massed units of soldiers working largely in concert with one another, Old Man's War's unit tactics were something similar to tactics used in the Second World War and Vietnam, and the soldiers of The Forever War found themselves in loose formations in fields and open areas. These ideas certainly work in the stories, but these units aren't utilizing tactics that are the product of theory with their specific hardware.
Taking a Planet, with Small Units
While small unit tactics can cover small engagements and individual battles, combat extends to encompass larger strategy. It follows different theories on the conduct of war as the situation allows, while also branching out to different areas of society, namely the political sphere. Most military SF looks exclusively at battlefield tactics, ignoring that these are contained within a greater plan for the military direction: war strategy.
The Napoleonic theorist Carl von Clausewitz has been a mainstay for tacticians throughout the era of modern warfare, with his book On War, and there is no reason to believe that his lessons and theories won't apply to engagements and strategy in the far future.
Clausewitz's basic finding is this:
War therefore is an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.
He defines this will as politically motivated, based on the individual policies of any given governmental body. In a number of military SF books, Earth is attacked and the protagonists are part of an Earth government that is fighting a holding action or retaliating against an enemy. While the will in this case is usually survival, the typical storyline involves the complete destruction of an alien home world or species (such as in Ender's Game), presented as the only option for humanity.
Old Man's War goes a bit further by explaining the living space situation in the galaxy as being fairly limited, and as a result, wars are fought to find places to live. While military SF books tend to get the overall governance of strategy right on some very basic levels, there is an immediate leap from the motivations behind strategy to direct battlefield tactics. This is the ‘broken' element in military science fiction.
Warfare, especially in its modern form, is an incredibly complex beast, and that's just dealing with a single planet. In numerous books, planets are approached as if they were countries, with warfare being conducted as small scale tactical assaults that are over by the end of the day. Not only is this unrealistic to the nth degree, it's an incredible oversimplification and abridgment of how warfare is actually conducted. Furthermore, with many of the aforementioned books using units that focus on highly mobile, unsupported tactics, the idea of capturing a planet becomes flat out unrealistic. (Well, more so than military units fighting on other planets.)
A large gap in a lot of military science fiction stories that's never really been filled adequately is wartime strategy, or the connection between each tactical step in battle and an overarching plan that fulfills the political goal of bending an enemy to one's will. To my knowledge, there aren't any good military science fiction books out there that really cover this step, and it is a vital aspect of the nature of warfare.
There's a very good reason for this pedantic and fairly narrow argument: None of these books are about warfare. Starship Troopers looks to the political spectrum, Ender's Game looks to a soldier's morality, Old Man's War is about the stresses of combat and The Forever War is about how society changes over long periods of time.
While these books all heavily involve warfare, none are about warfare. And although there are many works that depict futuristic battles, there's virtually nothing about the actual evolution and usage of warfare. At the end of the day, we have science fiction novels that use the military as a setting. But I would argue this is not military science fiction, which should examine warfare on a theoretical level too. I am still waiting for a Clausewitz of the genre.