Introduction to Dogs of War
COSTS AND BENEFITS
These are stories about wars which haven't happened, can't happen, and generally never could have happened. I've chosen them because they're good stories, and because they explore two questions which I wondered about before I was drafted to Viet Nam and which I've wondered about a great deal more in the years since:
1) How do you make a soldier? And
2) What do wars do to the people who fight them?
There's no single answer to either question, but the first one seems to boil down to two alternatives--you start with a natural soldier, a warrior if you will; or you take an ordinary man (or maybe woman; that wasn't common in the past for reasons involving muscle mass, but that's less a factor today), strip him of all civilized norms, and build him back in the form you want for the new task you've set him: killing other human beings.
Most people writing military SF focus on the first group, the warriors. Many species have certain members specialized for the group's defense. In social insects like ants and termites, the warriors are physically larger than the workers and may have jaws so hypertrophied that they can't even feed themselves. Likewise, male lions are twice the size of females, but don't hunt for themselves when they're living as members of a pack (or pride, if you prefer the collective noun that gained currency at the end of the 19th century). Physical variation isn't as important in the human species, but there's evidence that one or two percent of the male population is psychologically specialized for similar duties.
If all goes well, the warriors spend their entire lives doing nothing but eating the fruits of others' labor. Nice work if you can get it.
But if resources are limited, there's going to come a time when your colony or pack or tribe has something that another colony or pack or tribe wants. This is as true for developed nations of the 21st century as it was sixty millennia ago when humans hunted herds of bison with spears of flaked stone. When that time comes, you'd better hope your group has somebody walking the boundaries, watching the would-be interlopers; and needs must, closing with those interlopers in the willingness to kill or be killed for your sake.
Natural warriors are, as I said, a small minority of the population. The military leadership of developed nations has learned how to make passable substitutes by teaching perfectly ordinary men to kill. That's the easy part. The process nonetheless leaves a problem that governments rarely address, at least directly.
Despite most fiction and almost all TV and movies, the only people who can kill without compunction and remorse are sociopaths. It doesn't matter if the soldier kills in a good cause (all causes are good in the minds of those who decree them), if he saved his own life and those of his loved ones by killing, or if he returns to honor and glory among his fellow countrymen as a result of that killing: he's still paid a price, and he'll continue to pay, to a greater or lesser extent, for as long as he lives.
There are ways around the problem. Sometimes killing can be made impersonal, a matter of switches and icons rather than blood and screams. Even so, reality may intrude unexpectedly: the firestorms that devastated Tokyo during WW II lifted the smell of burning flesh up to the B-29s raining incendiary bombs from two miles high above the city.
The soldier at the sharp end doesn't have the option of pretending he's fighting map coordinates or phosphor dots, but he can withdraw into himself. His training has already started his process of desocialization, so it's a natural progression. He's no longer fully human--in fact, he more and more mimics a sociopath--but he can continue carrying out the tasks required of him for much longer than would otherwise be possible.
If the process goes on too long, he'll break nonetheless and become useless to his group, his society. That won't matter much to society. He'll have guarded the boundaries while he lasted, and society will by then have trained somebody else to take his place.
And it won't matter to him: there's no 'him' left, after all, in the sense of a human being with human responses.
Those who were close to him in the days when he was still human may regret what he's become; maybe they'll even be able to help him return to a greater or lesser extent. And the others whom society has sent down the same path and who've managed to come back--they'll care very much about the poor bastards who used to be men but are now locked in their own heads with no reality but their own hellish memories.
We may not be able to help, but we'll care.