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Non-Lethal Warfare
In Real Life, warfare is hardly an entertaining and carefree experience, and can seriously mess with kids' heads... not to mention their bodies. However, warfare and fighting can easily make for good, clean fun in entertainment media, and is often marketed to children. Most parents and Media Watchdogs are okay with media portraying Non-Lethal Warfare, regardless of the nature of the combat, its origins, the Fridge Logic or the Unfortunate Implications it may engender. No matter how lethal the weapons are, how dangerous the environment is, what the attitudes to enemy combatants and civilians are, no-one gets hurt and no-one dies. At least, not on-screen.

Commonly, the combatants will use weapons or powers that stun or KO rather than kill, or at least have the option to. Anyone with more lethal weapons or power sets won't ever hit their target because the target knows Deadly Dodging. Lethal or destructive weapons will only hit the scenery or vehicles, and in the latter case, the crew will usually have ample time to eject or bail out first. Generally, the above will give an impression that things Could Have Been Messy were anyone playing for keeps or slightly sloppy.

We should mention the rules set out above assume that the setting allows for the possibility of death at all, and that it can happen off-screen. If the target audience is too young even for that, the scale of Nerfed violence increases (er, decreases?). No one will use bladed weapons or guns (arrows might fly, though.), traps, tanks, and other large scale weapons will be completely non-lethal, perhaps even designed to humiliate the enemy rather than knock them out. Likely "weapons" for use will be "energy" guns that are about as dangerous as laser tag guns... scratch that, less dangerous. Laser tag guns can at least potentially blind you. Or perhaps blunt weapons that "can't kill" because they don't cause bleeding.

This trope isn't an indicator on the quality of the on-screen fighting though, which doesn't need to be lethal or scarring to be entertaining. If it were to be considered "bad" it's only when it fails to carry Willing Suspension of Disbelief.

Compare with Bloodless Carnage and As Lethal as It Needs to Be. Contrast with how Snowball Fights and Paintball Matches are Played for Laughs with exceedingly 'gory' acting from the participants, especially when those involved act excessively militarily. Compare and contrast Nobody Can Die, where death is a narrative impossibility even when dealing with explicitly deadly weapons and situations.

See also Stun Guns, Family-Friendly Firearms.


Examples:

Anime
  • Mahou Sensei Negima! had this kind of war at the end of the school festival, with the attendees playing magicians fighting off a Martian invasion. With lots of magical guns and staffs against robots with clothing destroying lasers and telportation bullets. What do you mean real magic, it's all CGI folks! This only worked due to the only actual Martian (we think) Chao Lingshen being a total Anti-Villain. It still managed to be one of the series' greatest Crowning Moments Of Awesome so far.
  • Starship Girl Yamamoto Yohko.
  • In Parallel Trouble Adventure Dual, the war between the UN and the Rara Army is deliberately handled this way, with either side surrendering before the risk of serious losses. Of course, nobody tells the protagonist Kazuki this before his first battle — what, and spoil the angst?
    • They also schedule their battles and give the population time to evacuate before they start.
  • In Pokémon Special, Lance blows up a large section of Vermilion City. When Yellow protests to the lives lost, Lance points out since a major event was happening at the bay, the city itself was currently empty. In a slight aversion, he admits that there probably were a few people caught up in the blast, but not that he cares.
  • Zigzagged in Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha. The fluff details horrifically violent conflicts in the distant past featuring — among other things — armies of cyborg zombies, universe-destroying starships, and human WMDs under every freaking rock, all used at one point or another in a series of interdimensional wars which lasted thousands of years and devastated countless universes. It's enough to make a Space Marine wince. However the main series takes place over 100 years after the end of those wars and the Time-Space Administration Bureau has outlawed mass-based kinetic weapons in favor of magic-based weapons, the logic there being that magic can be set to stun living targets even when it's being used to level buildings or blast halfway through the interior of an ancient starship. The titular character follows this religiously as does most of the main cast, but several characters die anyways even with these weapons in use. And then there's the Force manga, which features a team of villains who are completely immune to magic, forcing the good guys to ditch the stun guns and use perfectly lethal magic-powered kinetic weapons against them. But that's okay, they can regenerate.
  • Toshokan Sensou. All the beligerents wear military-grade body armour. With few exceptions, their guns appear chambered for handgun bullets. Result: People get shot, people fall down with nasty bruises and possibly some cuts and are out of the fight. Few, if anyone, actually dies. This system seems to have been implemented on purpose since the Media Cleansing Comittee and the libraries are, essentially, involved in an institutionalized Civil War under state supervision.
  • The entire premise of Dog Days: war is literally a sport, complete with commentators, live coverage, betting and quite a lot of fanfare. When someone is slashed by a sword, they don't die, they temporarily turn into a cute ball-shaped kitten/puppy or have their clothes or armour torn. Justified, in that they wage their wars in a protected space that grants this ability to everyone there (except Shinku, supposedly).
    • Of course this becomes a plot point later on as wild monsters are not subject to this rule.
  • AKB0048 in regards to the stance taken against the DES soldiers. Any manned unit is to be disabled with strictly non-lethal force.
  • A plot point in Gundam Wing Endless Waltz. The Smug Snake is using a slain leader's daughter as a figurehead to command the loyalty of those who served that leader. The Gundam Pilots are aware of this, and deliberately avoid killing because they know the soldiers are being manipulated; the Snake's Villainous Breakdown (which includes shooting the daughter and tipping his real Take Over the World plan) gets him Fragged, at which point the entire army willingly stands down.

Board Games
  • In Shogi, captured pieces are truly captured, not outright killed.

Comic Books
  • In the Astérix series, the Romans, Gauls and other nations are constantly at war, and most books feature on-screen fighting, but no-one is ever killed.

Film
  • In Warriors of Virtue, the forces of good an evil have been at war for years.. but never kill anyone. Ever. The leader of the good guys accidentally killed someone before the start of the film and the titular heroes are about to go their separate ways in disgust. When the human POV character asks why everyone is so aghast at the idea a war might result in death he is repeatedly shouted down. "IT WAS A LIFE!"
  • In Mystery Men, the heroes go to see Dr. Heller, who told them that he was a weapons designer. However, he didn't say he designed non-lethal weapons, which leaves them unimpressed and disappointed, until he demonstrates two of his weapons: a tornado-in-a-can and a blamethrower. As he puts it, "nonlethal" doesn't mean "harmless".
  • The Hunt for Red October is set in a Non lethal Forever War between the US and Soviet navies that is threatening to turn hot because of the defection of a Soviet sub. Sean Connery as a Russian sub captain once lampshades this by musing that it still has casualties, because it causes anguish on the families that have to endure long separations.

Literature
  • The Secrets of Droon. It got to the point, even for a kid, where you wonder what everyone's so worried about.
  • In the Alcatraz Series, both the Free Kingdoms and the Evil Librarians use weapons which put the targets into a coma rather than kill them. Justified by three considerations:
    • First, since neither side knows how to cure the other's coma-weapons, stunning an enemy takes them out of the fight just as effectively as killing them.
    • Second, stunned soldiers still need to be fed and hydrated, meaning that they are still a drain on the other side.
    • Third, if the Librarians win, they can awaken and brainwash the Free Kingdomers one batch at a time, saving the trouble of finding new inhabitants for their conquered territories.
  • In Kang's Regiment a squad of draconians left to themselves after the war set up camp and start raiding a nearby dwarf village. The dwarves raid them back. After a short while of killing each other, the draconians realize that dying is a serious problem as they can't breed yet and killing the dwarves is also a problem as they rely on the supplies they raid. As a result, on their next raid the draconians make sure to keep all the dwarves alive. In return, the dwarves start doing the same in their raids. These non-lethal raids go on for a while until a dwarf is accidentally killed.

Live-Action TV
  • RoboCop: The Series took advantage of the publicity given to NLW at the time to avoid having Robocop kill anyone in a series aimed at children (unlike the movies). Robocop is instead armed with an array of Non-Lethal Weapons which he uses to capture the badguys.
  • The A-Team: Though there was lots of gun play and death threats throughout the show's run, fire fights never actually resulted in anyone getting killed or even injured.
  • "Set phasers to stun." Though they also have a "kill" setting, the good guys rarely ever used it. This meant some of the rare fights with good guys opposing good guys ended with only minor scrapes and bruises.
    • A creepy variation on this trope in "A Taste of Armageddon", where two planets at war have decided by mutual agreement to just simulate all their battles on computer and then execute anyone who would have died.

Video Games
  • In the Sonic the Hedgehog RPG spinoff, Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood, Tails works out a way to send the Nocturnus echidnas back to their own dimension in a non-lethal manner. Enemy Mine Dr. Robotnik seems almost affronted by the fact that "It won't hurt them? Not even a teeny bit?"
  • Combat in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is somewhere between this and a Blood Sport, since if you agree to an official duel arbitrated by a judge, the judge's magic will (depending on which translation you're playing) either keep you from dying even if you're unconscious and face-down in a river, or keep you from staying dead. Of course, things get uglier if you're fighting in a lawless region, and the Japanese version implies that innocent people can and frequently do get killed in the crossfire.
  • Touhou has the Spellcard System, which means incidents are solved by danmaku instead of by youkais' innate abilities. The draft for the spellcard system, written by the Barrier Maiden Reimu Hakurei, includes these concepts:
    That youkai can easily cause disasters.
    That humans can easily resolve disasters.
    That use of one's full abilities is to be denied.
    That there are no things superior to beauty and thought.

Visual Novels
  • Maji De Watashi Ni Koi Shinasai has the Kamikami War, the most extreme of actions two feuding classes can take. Weapons are non lethal, no broken bones, no punctures, no holes! This despite weapons like a bow with arrows that can pierce metal shields.

Webcomics
  • Played with in Penny Arcade. They did a series of strips of an alternate Earth where there was no nuclear war; instead, all disputes were settled with Ping Pong matches. Potentially deadly Ping Pong matches.
  • Sluggy Freelance has the Dimension of Lame, where getting nuked meant receiving a bunch of Notices of Unified Kindness Envelopes.

Web Original
  • When raiding Frollo's house during his birthday in The Frollo Show, the villains make it a point to not harm innocents, and instead put them in a pot called the PITy. This is the reason why Stocking kills Batiatus after he murders Ib in cold blood. The entire idea was suggested by Stocking herself so as to minimize damages.

Western Animation
  • G.I. Joe. The really bizarre thing about G.I. Joe looking back at it as an adult is that their "laser guns" don't look like sci-fi weapons at all, instead virtually all the guns are animated to look like realistic depictions of identifiable real-world guns. Snake Eyes clearly is packing an Uzi, Duke blasts away on what's obviously a Colt .45, Falcon has a pump-action shotty etc. etc. But instead of firing bullets, these realistic firearms inexplicably shoot lasers, which is very dissonant. Sometime you can even see the guns expelling shell casings! That's right kids, LASER BULLETS!
    • Resolute, an 11-episode miniseries created to hype the movie, averted this. The guns actually do fire bullets (they did feature red muzzle flash and blue muzzle flash as a shoutout). There's plenty of A-Team Firing and the Cobra Blueshirts are still unable to hit anything, but the Joes do manage to gun them down often.
    • Most other adaptations (like the comics and the movie) avert this, as we've got characters on both sides firing real bullets and actually scoring some kills against enemies.
  • With Harmless Villain Drakken around in Kim Possible, this is unsurprisingly the norm. Not that he and the other villains don't try to blow Kim away, though.
    • Kim also gets a few exceptions, at one point firing a homing missile at Drakken and Shego's fleeing hover car, and kicking Shego of a roof into an electrical tower at the climax of So The Drama.
  • Battles in Transformers tend to involve lots of lasers and big weapons, but characters rarely die outside the movies and some of the comics. Even if they do, Death Is Cheap in Transformers. This was averted most visibly in Beast Wars, though every series has one or two onscreen deaths.
    • However, one episode of Beast Wars there was an official truce going on, so they couldn't use their guns. It involved a lot of slapstick comedy and Amusing Injuries.
    • Averted during the first act of Transformers: The Movie
    • Transformers Animated seems to instead largely avoid showing direct warfare: most of the battles we see are small scale, and all of the fighting in Ratchet's flashbacks are implied instead of shown.
  • The Sonic Sat AM cartoon was set in a world where the heroes were a small band of Freedom Fighters fighting against difficult odds, so they had to have some losses. However, they also could Never Say "Die". The solution? Robotnik's main way of disposing of his enemies was to "roboticize" them—that is, use a machine to turn them into mindless robots that would follow his orders. This was very effective, as the person's personality essentially "died", and they were also forced against their will to act as Robotnik's soldiers. Robotnik's forces also used laser weapons, but predictably, they never caused any fatal damage.
    • Early in the second season, a temporarily de-roboticized Uncle Chuck explains that the mind actually doesn't go away, and the roboticized person is simply aware of what is going on around them without any way to control themselves. It's debatable as to whether this made it better or worse.
    • There's also the first episode, where the Freedom Fighters fend off Robotnik's robots with catapults shooting water balloons at them.
  • Spiral Zone justified this trope in its premise, since the "Zoner" Mooks are all Mind Controlled innocents; the heroes want to save them, and the villains want as many warm bodies as they can get.
  • Rambo: The Force of Freedom has a very low body count compared to the latter movies.
  • In An American Tail: Fievel Goes West the final climactic battle is fought with slingshots rather than real guns.
  • W.I.T.C.H. has armies with swords duking it out impressively... and nobody ever actually depicted being cut. The heroines disposed of villains by evicting them from the area with elemental attacks, or forcing them to retreat by pounding but not permanently damaging them with the same.
    • Probably justified in that they're still young girls and wouldn't want to kill anyone if they could help it. There are two large battle scenes towards the end of season one that should have had a lot of deaths but seem to imply a lot of Gory Discretion Shots.
    • However, it should be noted that in the original comic book, the heroines don't mind killing (or sending someone tumbling through empty space for all eternity), with no apparent guilt or angst.
  • In Avatar: The Last Airbender, the Mechanist's people fight the Fire Nation with smoke, fire, and stink bombs. They also use presumably deadly fire bombs, though any death they might cause is obscured by the smoke and flash of the explosion. This becomes a standard for fighting on Avatar as a whole: people get flung around and bruised on screen all the time, but death is only ever implied and done off-screen.
    • In the follow-up series, Pro-Bending has become the pro-wrestling slash boxing slash gladiator attraction of the world. With thick but light armor for the combatants and a ring surrounded by water, one wrong move and you're... wet. That isn't to say it wouldn't hurt.
      • The Lieutenant uses electrified kali sticks to take the Equalists' foes down, powered by a cleverly packed generator on his back.
  • Codename: Kids Next Door Has the Badass Army of kids at war with various adult villians who wish to oppress, harm, and enslave the world's children, and while most villians don't seem to shy away from trying to kill their KND foes, you never see it happen, nor do you see any KND Operatives doing any of the sort to them.

Real Life
  • Sports are in essence non-lethal warfare. The competition can be real, (Cold War Olympics?) but the body count is significantly reduced.
    • Violence can still erupt over the sports. Just look at Soccer Hooligans for example.
  • Many cultures used to practice non-lethal warfare such as in the Native American custom of 'Counting Coup' (where a combantant would essentially touch a rival with a stick and that counted as a winning blow in a battle). This did not prove to be an effective form of warfare against European colonists.
    • It's believed that the Aztecs preferred to take captives than kill enemies in battle. Nastily subverted, however, in that the purpose of those captives was to serve as Human Sacrifices.
    • They also fought "Flower Wars" with their subjugated neigbours that counted half of this trope. Namely, the Aztec warriors packed real weapons, while the opponents were only allowed non-lethal replicas.
    • In Italian city-states it was common for there to be a specified spot(a bridge for instance) to have ritual brawls between neighborhoods.
  • In the book A History of Warfare John Keegan discusses in the first chapter non-lethal and semi-lethal warfare among low-tech tribes as witnessed by anthropologists. Much of this seems to be ceremonial resolution of quarrels and better described as "multi-participant duels" or even as "tourneys" than as warfare in the manner that more complex societies would think of the term.
    • Some of these same groups also build stockades which is an indication that they also have a concept of organized warfare.
  • Elections are a non lethal regularly scheduled Civil War. Nobody gets killed although many candidates probably wish they were dead after they are done.
  • Submarine patrols during the Cold War
  • The Toledo War was an armed conflict in the 1830s, lasting one and a half years, between the state of Ohio and the then-territory of Michigan, over a piece of territory known as the Toledo Strip. The war caused a total of one serious injury, on Michigan's side, which was not life-threatening.
    • While the Toledo Strip, which the war was fought over, is today part of Ohio, Michigan got the Upper Peninsula. At the time, the prevailing opinion was that Michigan got shortchanged, but that was before the generous mineral wealth underneath the Upper Peninsula's forested land was discovered. Today it's clear: the real loser of the Toledo War was Wisconsin.
      • Not that Michigan has ever forgiven Ohio. To this day, the long-running rivalry betwixt the University of Michigan and Ohio State University is as bitter as it is entirely because it directly stems from origins in The Toledo War. Even residents of Toledo and its suburbs aren't in full agreement. Although part of Ohio, Toledo is geographically closer, to the University of Michigan than to the Buckeyes' campus, so loyalty is divided evenly among those two schools, and their own University of Toledo.
  • The War of the Bavarian Succession is as close as an actual war between two global powers ever got. Essentially, Prussia and Austria mobilized several hundred thousands troops, but agreed not to attack each other. So, for six months time, nearly half a million people camped right next to each other, in two hostile camps, without ever engaging in battle. However, while nearly entirely bloodless, several thousand men died from starvation, as the logistics of supplying such a large number of troops clustered so close together proved very difficult, which caused a shift in military strategy, as seen later in the Napoleonic Wars.
    • In fact, the soldiers spent most of their time foraging supplies, earning the war the names Kartoffelkrieg (Potato War) and Zwetschgenrummel (Plum Fuss) in German.
  • The Pig War, a territorial dispute fought in 1859 between American and British military forces in the San Juan Islands (located between British Columbia and what would later become the state of Washington). The whole thing escalated from an incident where an American farmer shot a British pig which had been digging up his potatos. After word of the increasing tensions finally reached both governments, orders were quickly dispatched ordering forces on both sides to stand down and get back to whatever they were supposed to be doing. Ultimately, the only casualty was the British pig.note 

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