War! (Of Equals)

Eric Manwill asks:

I’ve really enjoyed reading (and re-reading) both Vignettes of the Star Empire and The Core War. I did end up wondering about something, though. In most cases, when the Empire and/or its citizen-shareholders faced down an enemy, they did so from a position of obvious technological and offensive superiority. The outcome rarely seemed in doubt. Have they ever had to go appendage-to-appendage with an opponent who was at least as strong or as dangerous as themselves? How would they handle it? What happens if they lose?

(Been noodling with this a few hours trying to find a good order to address the various factors at play here. Not sure I’ve found one. So I apologize if this seems a little disjointed.)

Well, the first part of this is a matter of doctrine. As the Thousand Wise Analects of the Supreme Warlord, Xian Anandonos-ith-Anaxios, put it, with regard to the question of how to go to war with a technologically or otherwise superior enemy:


“No, seriously, don’t.”

“Well, if you absolutely can’t avoid it, cheat. Cheat first, cheat second, and if that hasn’t worked yet, consider cheating.”

(I may be somewhat paraphrasing the elegant phrasing of the original 7th-century text, here.)

So, factor one: avoidance. There are powerful elder races and Powers in the galaxy: but even as the polity of the eldest of the younger races, the Empire doesn’t go around picking fights with them, because you don’t prosper by starting an ass-kicking contest with God.

(At least, not until you can reasonably claim to be a minimum of three times more God.)

As a side-note here, this is essentially doctrine for all circumstances, not just this particular.

To paraphrase the words of the Supreme Warlord in modern idiom, again, “There are people who seek out fair fights. Those people are gamesters. As an officer in the Legions, it is your responsibility to ensure that any battle you engage in is as hilariously unfair as possible, preferably to the extent that it’s mathematically impossible for the other side to win.”

Or, to put it another way, the Empire has never had the demographic luxury of playing silly buggers with straight-up fights or the We Have Reserves mentality. Their edition of The Book is the one that relies on seizing and maintaining every technological advantage possible, admixed equally with the gentle art of being sneaking, cunning, devious bastards whenever possible. Preferably, if at all possible, without actually having to engage in war at all – if a discreet assassination, meme campaign, or some militarized accounting will solve the problem for you, well, that’s a much bigger win.

Factor two, on the other hand, is very similar to Earth’s issues with superpower warfare: which is to say, we avoid the hell out of it. Brushfire wars and proxy wars, maybe some privateers and commerce raiding, etc., are one thing, as is trimming back the kinds of rogue states that might disturb the general equilibrium – but no-one wants to see two of the Great Powers actually throw down, because that’s the kind of thing that blasts entire regions of space, with devastated worlds, gigadeaths or worse, and all hell breaking loose. Everyone within the Worlds has a distinct interest in this sort of apocalyptic scenario not happening, and thus far enlightened self-interest has prevented anything major from breaking out between the big boys. It would be a much harder fight, I guarantee, if we saw the Empire facing off against, say, the Photonic Network, or the Consolidated Waserai Echelons, or the League of Meridian, or especially a combination per the doctrine mentioned here. But all of those four powers have a definite interest in not letting it, ever.

(This, incidentally, also applies to the Republic. The Core War is something of the exception that proves the rule: it was fundamentally more of a large deep-penetration raid than a generalized invasion, and was won by, essentially, strategic trickery: but also is an example of the Powers walking carefully around each other to avoid escalation. The Empire hit the enemy fleet in being with a hammer of just the right size to shatter it —

— but that’s because they weren’t looking at the full Republic fleet pouring over the Borderline, because while it’s technologically inferior, there’s a hell of a lot of it. The Republic isn’t larger than the Worlds, but it’s over twenty times the size of the Empire, which buys a lot of metal. They might not win if they invaded en masse, and the loss ratio would be spectacularly not in their favor, but they certainly would kill trillions and depopulate thousands of worlds trying.

No-one’s underestimating the danger of that. This is why people are gravely concerned about the instability of the Republic, because while the Empire et. al. may not like the Republic’s current government, they do credit them with not being actually insane. But if it comes apart, and doesn’t so so cleanly… well, that’s what we have people whose job it is to worry about existential threats for, yes?)

Now, having said all that, it’s not like there aren’t people worried about the possibility of other threats turning up, because the explored space of the Worlds isn’t the whole galaxy, not by a long shot. For which there are all sorts of codeword operations, like –

  • BERSERKER VOID, which concerns itself with why there aren’t more and older elder races (i.e., the hypothetical Great Filter);
  • BLACKWATER BISHOP, which researches Outside Context Problems and theoretical response patterns;
  • DEMIURGE ERRANT, which keeps an eye on elder races and seed AIs that might one day present an ex-threat;
  • EPOCH SHATTER, which investigates epistemological and extrauniversal threats;
  • GHOST WHISPERS, which tracks high-energy civilizations beyond the far horizon;
  • REWARMED MORBID, which makes sure sleeping perversions don’t wake;

and so forth.

And they also have a variety of response cases planned for this contingency, be it something minor or a full SKYSHOCK BLACK (“a full-scale invasion of the Associated Worlds or Imperial Space by an excessionary-level threat from beyond the far horizon”) – which in turn range from the relatively benign SVANEK WHITE (“make nice until we can get hold of their tech, reverse-engineer it, and build an equivalent or preferably better version”), up through medium-range strategic responses, and then high-level ones like destroying gate links, using relativistic kill vehicles, and blowing up suns, up to things like ADHAÏC CALYPSE (“unleash the swarm fleets from the depths of Armory’s well”; where a swarm fleet is what happens when you crossbreed a Rapid Offensive Unit with a von Neumann machine, and something normally kept entirely off the list of options because self-replicating autonomous war mechanicals with fast-burn capability scare the crap out of everyone) and NIGHTFALL ASUNDER (“take the specially-designed lurking-in-deep-space craft carrying a backup of our entire civilization and book it for the other end of the galaxy – or if necessary, another galaxy – exploding everything on the way out”).

So, y’know, there are plans.

Losing, though? That ain’t going to go well for anyone. Hypothetically. I mean, they can lose at daehain (which is basically a wargame used for arbitration), and have, or at teirhain (civilized war, between honorable gentlesophs). No disgrace, there, nor consequences likely to be unendurable.

But zakrehain (“barbarian war”) or seredhain (“blood war”, fought to extinction)? Not going to happen. They take their Live Free Or Die seriously ’round those parts. If it comes to that –?

The Galaxy’s going to burn.


Trope-a-Day: Weapon of Mass Destruction

Weapon of Mass Destruction: Per the Ley Accords (i.e., the Laws and Customs of War), in descending order of aargh, you’ve got star-killing weapons (nova bombs, including specifically star-targeted strangelet bombs, twist-pinch bombs, and most hypothetical causal weapons), planet-killing weapons (large/fast kinetic impacters, including asteroid drops, planet-targeted strangelet bombs, and relativistic k-kill weapons, extremely large [strategic-plus] energy-burst weapons, including nucleonic and antimatter warheads, and self-replicating planetary-scale war machines [berserker probes]), and uncontrollable self-replicating infoweapons and memetic weapons (that affect systems beyond their legitimate targets, propagate themselves widely across the extranet, and lie dormant in archives to come out and kill innocent people ten thousand years later), and ecocidal weapons (merely large [strategic-plus] energy-burst weapons or ongoing bombardments with same, general bombardments with small kinetic impactors [smaller asteroid drops, de-orbited satellites/stations, or orbital k-kill systems], uncontrolled self-replicating weapons [autonomous goo, unchained bioweapons, technophages, and clanking replicators], global ecoweapons and phage weapons, or the use of persistent ecoweapons and bioweapons, salting nucleonic weapons [say, cobalt bombs], or chemical weapons likely to permanently damage or accumulate in ecosystems).

Using any of the first three types anywhere, or the fourth on a garden world, will get your entire polity blasted and governance wiped out even if it takes the use of otherwise prohibited technologies to do it; these are technologies that eliminate habitable worlds – and those are really goddamned expensive – or tend to run beyond any reasonable control.  Ergo, they’re the galaxy’s primary do-not-fuck-with list.

Mere tactical-to-strategic nucleonic/antimatter weapons, non-persistent chemical and biological weapons, incendiary weapons, cerebroergetic weapons, and nanoweapons are not covered by this treaty, or considered the equivalent of WMDs.  Not enough mass.  They’re all fair game.

Trope-a-Day: War is Glorious

War is Glorious: The doctrine of one of the Flamic war gods: Kalasané, Laughing Warrior, Sword of Heaven, Lord of the Two Swords, the eikone of battle, courage, valor, victory through strength, and personal combat, who approaches the whole thing with a degree of enthusiasm that would impress the mythological Norseman or the fictional krogan. You are standing on the edge of civilization, facing down barbarism and desolation! How should that be less than glorious?

(The other one, Dúréníän, Noble Warlord, Grand Master of Strategies, Champion of the Just, the Ice Warrior, eikone of righteous war, battle, conquest, strategy and tactics, and patron of the sentinels, prefers to take a distinctly more sober attitude.

That both of these approaches have their strengths and the perfect warrior exists in a state of dynamic tension somewhere between the two is exactly why they have a pair of war gods.)

Trope-a-Day: War for Fun and Profit

War for Fun and Profit: Mostly averted; the major arms manufacturers can make just as much money, what with upgrades, exercises, and replacements, from the peacetime market, especially once ongoing Space Cold Wars and loss-of-inventory-due-to-privateers-and-military-risks premiums have to be factored into the equation.  And the usual run of security companies, mercenaries (who often prefer to be paid not to make war… no, not that way) and privateers are better customers, anyway.  (Unlike most national governments, they tend to be regular, steady customers and pay in full and on time.)


The Empire has its monuments to its battles and retreats, to its victories and losses, but more curious perhaps to many are those monuments it has to those who fought against it.

On my way into the system, the liner on which I was travelling passed the moon Hyníne, where a beacon sponsored by the Office of Imperial Veterans marks the defeat of pirates who fought for the Cerenaith Alliance-in-Exile, but the pattern is repeated in many places elsewhere across the Empire. A monument-complex in Indimór honors the Indimóri who fell against the Empire’s legions as much as it does the legions who died there. The ash gardens in Lorai Vallis house the sophs of the 30th, 33rd, and 55th legions scattered among the forces of the Talentar Commonwealth that they battled, the Commonwealth from which the modern governance of the planet is descended. And even those legions descended from forces which once fought, and fought hard, against the Empire still carry and revere their ancient battle-honors from those days: the Winter Wolves of Telírvess, the Swordbreakers of Ancyr, the Swift Searing Flame.

I asked one of my hosts about this tradition: why permit, and exert such efforts, even, to honor old enemies?

“We deprived them of victory,” she said. “We deprived many of them of their lives. Those who fought for the wrong cause, we took that from them, too, but those who fought instead for their country, or duty, or family, they bled and died and lost everything just the same, and left the new day to us.

“Should we now deny the brave dead a patch of ground to sleep in, or the memory of valor, even ill-spent? We are neither so small, nor so righteous.”

– Travels in the Empire, Sev Tel Beran

Trope-a-Day: Rape, Pillage, and Burn

Rape, Pillage and Burn: Happens in various places with various less-disciplined armies, much as it ever does in history (well, probably with less rape, since there are rather more cross-species wars).

The Imperial Military Service, on the other hand, is extremely rigorous about averting this particular trope, to the point of giving any one of their own they catch playing it straight a public field execution right there (see: Kill It With Fire) and being sure to pay the market price for any materials they need to acquire locally.  (The reason being, ethics aside, that even back in the day when the Empire was going out conquering its own world, it knew perfectly well that the asset value of its conquest was very dependent on it being annexed in a not-wrecked state and with a population that at the very least hasn’t been provided with many, many reasons why they shouldn’t consider cooperation and assimilation.)

This is a military tradition now, of course, and one which they’re happy to share with anyone on the other side who forgets that War Has Rules (see: Laws and Customs of War).  Something that’s particularly important to remember if you hire one of those mercenary companies that promises to sell you the Glorious Military Traditions of Eliéra… because those may just include setting fire to commanders who seem a little too fond of atrocities.

Going To War With The Army You Have

Self-quoted from a G+ discussion in which the following Rumsfeldian aphorism came up:

You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want.

It is a truth I think greatly underappreciated (especially by politicians, alas) that unless you have paid the ridiculous-even-by-the-standards-of-US-defense-budgets amount of money necessary to have a genuinely omnicompetent army, then it would behove you to go to war in a manner befitting the capabilities of the army (or space navy) you have. Otherwise bad things will ensue… as we have seen a lot in reality, including thanks to Mr. Rumsfeld drawing exactly the wrong conclusion from his above-quoted aphorism.

(In the Eldraeverse, for example, the Imperial Military Service is a finely optimized instrument for patrolling, raiding in force, special operations, and glassing things from orbit. It is, consequentially, pretty much pessimal for tasks like “occupation”, and/or “nation-building”, and if the Minister President asks for that sort of thing, it’s the job of the First Lord of the Admiralty to look him in the eye and say “no can do, sir, unless you give us the budget and the time to develop doctrine and new units for the job”.

…this does occasionally result in more glassing of things from orbit than might be ideally required, but, y’know, it’s a resource-constrained universe and it’s not like they weren’t quite clear up front as to what the steps of this dance were, belike.

Although it is occasionally convenient that the chaps over at State & Outlands can point at the IMS and say, “Well, obviously we’re not out to conquer anybody; just look at our force mix. We couldn’t if we wanted to1.”

1. Spoiler alert: they could, but it would be expensive, inconvenient, and inelegant, thus unthinkable unless really provoked. Glossing over this sort of subtlety is what they pay the diplomats for.