The Blog

Characterising Warriors

Last year I was invited to write a series of blogs for Writing Historical Novels, a popular website focussed on historical fiction. I’d had one published and written another four when the owner fell ill and could no longer run the site. So rather than let them go to waste, I thought I would publish them here over the next few weeks. I hope you like them, and please feel free to comment.

Throughout history wars and the men that fight them have been so misrepresented that it’s difficult to get an accurate idea of what it was – or even is – like to be a warrior.

The reasons for this are manifold. At the more harmless end of the scale you have film, where Germans are equipped with American tanks and the 24th Foot in the Zulu War were a Welsh regiment (they were based in Warwickshire until 1881 and the great majority who fought at Rorke’s Drift were Englishmen). The warriors in these films are also more the product of the decade they were filmed in than the era being portrayed – take Donald Sutherland’s hippie tank commander “Oddball” in Kelly’s Heroes (1970)!

Donald Sutherland as Oddball

Propaganda is one of the worst culprits for warping the truth. The art of political misinformation is as old as war itself – Homer’s Iliad was propaganda in epic form – but it truly came of age during the last century. Throughout the Cold War Hollywood was keen to represent the Red Swarm as mindless automatons, devoid of emotion and ready to kill or be killed without compunction. This was a simple continuation of the portrayal of Germans during World War Two, as blue-eyed butchers brainwashed to hate the enemies of the Nazi state. This in itself was another progression from the baby-bayoneting Hun of the Great War.

Sometimes propaganda is also used to look back and distort conflicts and warriors of the past for modern political ends. The Great War is a very topical example. Since the Sixties, the liberal view of the War has become so dominant that the men who fought in the trenches might barely be able to recognise themselves in our modern portrayals of them and their efforts. To quote Lynn Macdonald, who interviewed many veterans and is one of the greatest historians of the period:

“They keep their thoughts to themselves, for they learned self-control in a hard school and they realized long ago how difficult it can be to explain the concepts of service and loyalty, as they understood them, to a more liberal, less reverent and perhaps more self-indulgent generation. Moreover, they themselves have not been impervious to the bombardment of scathing criticism of ‘the Generals’, the analysis of the conduct of the war, the re-evaluation of its worth, and the shift in perception of the ordinary soldier from brave hero to pitiful victim. They never saw themselves as heroes, nor even as particularly brave, for they were scared stiff most of the time, but they had some sense of achievement in what they had endured and they decidedly did not regard themselves as victims.”

This summarises perfectly the gulf between portrayal of warriors for political ends and the truth of who warriors are and what they have to endure.

Passchendaele, 1917

In recent years another great distorter of the truth has been sentimentalism. Before the 20th Century the British people generally looked down upon the Army as a vulgar collection of thieves and murderers (often true!) who were best kept out of sight and out of mind. This changed with conscription in the Great War, when fathers, husbands and sons were signed up and whisked off to fight the Kaiser’s army. Soldiers were no longer out of sight and out of mind: they were family and friends and have remained so ever since. But sometimes this makes us forget the brutality of fighting men, not just in battle. Many an uncle or brother killed enemy soldiers without mercy, even with a sense of relish, and for many more reasons than just duty and self-preservation. The same applies to soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan today. Like their predecessors they’ve learned to hate their enemies, often killing them without scruple and – as we see in the media – executing their wounded. And who are we to judge, having not lost friends to snipers and IEDs? But home sentiment tries to portray these men as road builders and defenders of female education, rather than hardened killers. Witness the badges produced by well-meaning charities of teddy bears dressed as soldiers, sailors and airmen. Nothing could be further from the truth! To quote Lieutenant-General Sir Robert Fry:

“The British ­people hold the Armed Forces in a state of excessive reverence at the present time. It is a greater infatuation than at any other stage of recent military history”.

My point here is a simple one. When creating fictional or fictionalised characters who happen to be warriors, authors should be wary of falling for false stereotypes. To portray a Great War Tommy as a victim of bad leadership and blood-thirsty patriotism, for example, is to do an injustice to the courage and skill of the men he is modelled on, many of whom were officers coping with unforeseeable situations or men who had volunteered for service out of a sense of nationalism. It also distorts historical reality, something that I believe historical writers have a duty to uphold in as much as they are able.

Writers also need to avoid the trap of overlooking or concealing the unique characteristics of fighting men. Throughout history warriors have been drawn from all walks of life, from the politician generals of Rome to the pressed sailors of Nelson’s navy. They’ve also been driven by a complex range of motives, such as the promise of plunder or the desire to serve their god or gods. And they have possessed every personality trait known to man, not just courage, cowardice and other war-related qualities. What makes them warriors is not so much what they were but the shared experiences that shape what they become. These begin with the homogenisation of training, uniform and equipment; next comes the bonding with comrades in the barracks and on the battlefield; then the witnessing and committing of previously unimaginable acts that forever differentiate them from their old civilian selves; and finally how they cope with that differentiation. Such things make them warriors forever, even after their wars have finished and they have returned to their home towns and families and the jobs they left behind.

Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of a warrior is the fact that they are killers, by choice or compulsion. This is what makes them so fascinating to writers and readers alike. It is such a unique act that what makes a character in a novel become a killer is often his pivotal attribute. With my books, set in the Bronze Age, one of the main characters – Eperitus – is initially driven by a thirst for glory and a desire for vengeance, traits that were prevalent among warriors at the time (if Homer, our greatest resource for the era, is to be believed). Killing for glory and vengeance was the only way to give oneself eternal life, by creating and defending a name that would be honoured from generation to generation and never forgotten.

Classical Greek Hoplites

Again, it is too easy to be shaped by modern sentiments. In the modern West, we value our own lives so highly that the thought of death on the scale encountered in war is unthinkable. The reason the USA lost in Vietnam was because the public at home were not prepared to tolerate the casualty lists. But that does not mean that warriors in the past had the same attitudes. People to whom death is a commonplace thing are less shocked by the thought of it. Those who had a genuine belief in life after death may be less frightened to risk their own lives, or indeed take the life of another. Similarly, those who were brought up believing that service to god, nation, family or regiment was more important than the preservation of their own lives would be more prepared to kill or die for their cause – something incomprehensible nowadays, and too often misrepresented in fiction. There are darker motives, too, such as wanton brutality. The warrior class of any era has always attracted those personalities who enjoy inflicting suffering on others, for whatever reason, even today. In portraying warriors, then, writers need to engage with the core reason why their character is prepared to take life. I also believe we should respect the context of the time and not be too ready to water it down for modern tastes.

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