The Centuries Long Division

Contributed by on 30/04/09

I don’t know if it’s the state of the world, or if I’ve just been doing this for too long, but it feels like war is all about the numbers, these days.

Don’t get me wrong… when you’ve been doing anything for this long, the magic probably dissipates a little. But the romance definitely seems to be going out warfare. Now, it’s all about the maths, and the semantics.

Do you know the equation that determines how much a number of hours of training, and a particular sort of equipment, will affect a soldier’s ability to fight against a local militia with home-field advantage and decommissioned Soviet weapons? The particular mathematical arguments one needs to apply to that equation to take into account time in the field without rest, or the effects on the morale of the natives for each hour of artillery bombardment?

Don’t get me wrong… there was always a place for technical calculation in the old days. Though there’s no accounting for sheer balls, the thousand odd soldiers at Thermopylae wouldn’t have held out for so long against the Persian army without the tactical advantage of location – a position that reduced the numbers that could fight them at any one time until the ratio was manageable – and there was an algebra to the greater value that the Spartan lifestyle gave their three hundred soldiers that was beautiful in it’s simplicity.

And maybe it’s as basic as that. Though the calculations required are roughly the same, the permutations weren’t as complicated then, and you could take comfort in the straightforward beauty of the battle. A spearhead is a wonderful thing, graceful in it’s simplicity and pure in it’s direction – you run the numbers on the skill of the wielder, the ability of their target, and the sums solve themselves, one way or another.

A bullet can go either way, once it hits the body, and though there is a causality to the path it takes through the victim, and the state it leaves them in, the variables are so numerous and complex that it might as well be arbitrary. The grace of the arrow is lost in the sequence of numbers, creating a static noise of cascading accountancy.

That isn’t to say that there’s no place for magic, or art, on the modern battlefield – you can still nudge a misfire or a weapon jam, and there’s a kind of pliable surreality to who gets hit, and which shells fails to explode, in the average artillery barrage or bombing run. That appeals to my creative streak – the opportunities for narrative add a little soul to my job.

But there’s nothing like the sort of magic I could muster, back in the day. Granted, once the horse was through the gates at Troy, and the warriors were out, it was nose to the grindstone and sorting out attrition, but for that glorious moment of invention, this job was seriously the best in the world.

The love has gone out of the war god business, it feels like. These days, it takes months of meetings with the other deities just to agree on designation – back in the day, two tribes could get into a war over hunting rights or a woman. Now, the planet’s such a mess of skirmishes, feuds and special-interests, it takes weeks of bureacracy just to decide on whether I’m to take over a conflict as a full-on war, or one of the smaller gods will get to keep it on as an incursion, terrorism campaign or organised crime wave.

Time was, I could go on a two-day bender with one of the muses, and when the dust settled I’d have started some new campaign to get my teeth into. Now, I don’t even get to touch anything until it’s all over bar the maths.

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