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Literature / An Instinct for War

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"Some of this actually happened and some of it didn't, but all of it is as true as I can make it."
The author

An Instinct for War: Scenes from the Battlefields of History is a collection of thirteen short stories by military historian Roger J. Spiller, published in 2005.

The stories cover various eras in military history from Ancient China to the modern War on Terror. What makes this collection unique is Spiller's decision to write his stories as fiction, without compromising historical accuracy or authenticity. By using fiction, Spiller is able to introduce important issues in military history, like the influence of Antoine-Henri Jomini on American Civil War commanders, the idea of war as a practical "craft" than an unchanging ritual, the issues of technology versus morale, and more in a very unorthodox package.

The stories in the book are:

  • A Sword is Drawn: In China, a court official tries to convince the emperor not to execute a disgraced general.
  • The Testament: Thucydides delivers a lecture to a new generation of Athenian commanders during the Peloponnesian War.
  • The Lesson: Machiavelli talks about state and nationalism with Rudolfo, his jail guard.
  • Scoundrel: Albrecht von Wallenstein meets Justus Lipsius in the afterlife.
  • La Noche Triste: María de Estrada's experiences in the Spanish conquest of Mexico.
  • Galen's Proof: Napoleon's chief surgeon finds out some shocking facts of battle.
  • In Winter Quarters: George McClellan meets one of the 19th century's prominent strategists.
  • The Very Last Civil War Historian: A wounded soldier sends letters home while the Industrial Revolution changes warfare.
  • Human Rain: Opposing Combat Philosophies go head-to-head in World War Zero.
  • Rain Stops Play: W. H. R. Rivers tries to help a PTSD victim after World War I.
  • The Final War: Kanji Ishiwara is interviewed by Major Popper, an investigator in the Far East War Crimes Tribunal.
  • At the Fair: The United States displays its weaponry and ideas at an arms fair.
  • The Discovery of Kansas: A conclusion set 20 Minutes into the Future.

An Instinct for War provides examples of:

  • Accidental Aiming Skills: In Galen's Proof, the reason why many wounded soldiers have back wounds was because the soldiers standing behind them were shooting as well, but had little open space to aim.
  • Ancestral Weapon: Motojiro takes his family's katana to battle in Human Rain.
  • Armchair Military: Wallenstein accuses Justus Lipsius of being one in Scoundrel. Lipsius replies that his students were Maurice of Orange, William Louis, and the tutor of the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus.
  • Armies Are Evil: What Justus Lipsius thinks of Wallenstein's armies in Scoundrel. He approves of national armies that fight for "love of country", though.
  • Arms Fair: As the title says, At The Fair is set at an arms fair.
  • Based on a True Story: A Sword is Drawn is based upon the life of the Han historian Sima Qian.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: In Human Rain, the crew of a Japanese torpedo boat and the soldiers onboard the steamer Kinshu Maru kill each other before the Russians are able to capture them.
  • Big Book of War: Clausewitz's and Jomini's works on war are featured In Winter Quarters. When Ferdinand Lecomte—Jomini's aide—brings up Clausewitz's On War in a discussion, Jomini dismisses it as "German philosophical junk''.
  • Blood Knight: Scoundrel depicts Wallenstein as one.
  • Breaking Speech: Machiavelli gives one to Rudolfo in The Lesson.
  • The Chessmaster: Jomini. He sees war as an elaborate game where every action can be carefully controlled and monitored. Lecomte's recounting of the American Civil War's beginning indicates that this it not the case.
  • Crapsack World: This is the world in The Discovery of Kansas.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Kanji Ishiwara in The Final War.
    Kanji Ishiwara: You mean to hang Doihara, do you not?
    Major Popper: If the court so pleases.
    Kanji Ishiwara: Oh, I am certain the court will so please. How convenient for the Allied Powers to have these courts. Official murder can be made legal. What a wonderful idea!
    Major Popper: You are under suspicion of conspiring to plan, prepare, initiate, or wage aggressive war.
    Kanji Ishiwara: Yes, well, it does not appear to have been sufficiently aggressive after all.
  • Death Seeker: Motojiro after the Nanshan battle. He ends up dying leading an assault on Port Arthur.
  • Driven to Suicide: Dr. Rivers' patient in Rain Stops Play shoots himself in a hotel room.
  • Eagleland: The military professionals, industry exhibitors, and Peter Haywood fully believe in Flavor 1 in At the Fair. It turns into Flavor 2 in The Discovery of Kansas.
  • The Emperor: A Sword is Drawn features a Chinese emperor (probably Emperor Wu). Hirohito's wartime role is discussed in the last part of The Final War. Major Popper believes that the emperor is guilty of war crimes. His superiors suppress any evidence that would implicate the emperor because they want to rebuild Japan to support the U.S. in the Cold War.
  • Forever War: What the war in The Discovery of Kansas turns into.
  • General Failure: The general in A Sword is Drawn. He's able to ably follow accepted military principles, but he cannot use his skills to wage war as a craft.
    • In Human Rain, Tretyakov's commanding officer became a general through the police force. Truth in Television, actually. General Fock was an officer in Russia's gendarme corps who transferred to the army as a police general.
  • General Ripper: The first Grand Commander in The Discovery of Kansas.
  • Guns vs. Swords: Most of the Japanese officers in Human Rain keep a revolver but they actually don't intend on using it, instead proclaiming a preference to the sword and bayonet.
  • Guilt-Free Extermination War: In The Discovery of Kansas, this is how the U.S. carries out their war against the enemy. The public approves when 27 million people in Rio de Janeiro die in an American attack and demand more actions of the same sort. The first Grand Campaign sees the wanton destruction of cities and the use of environmental weapons. None of these actions help them win the war.
  • Historical Domain Character:
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Kanji on the Soviets and the validity of war crimes tribunals in The Final War.
  • Inspired by…: Those who have read quite a bit of military history can find out what sources Spiller based his stories on. For example, Human Rain is inspired by Tadayoshi Sakurai's Human Bullets, Nikolai Tretyakov's My Experiences at Nan Shan and Port Arthur, and Charles à Court's The War in the Far East.
  • Lady of War: María de Estrada in La Noche Triste.
  • Lost Common Knowledge: Played straight two times in The Discovery of Kansas. When the narrator's unit discovers a scrap from Clausewitz's On War, none of the soldiers can read it and it's dismissed as junk or enemy propaganda. Later, the narrator discovers an abandoned military library preserved underground in Kansas.
  • Named After Somebody Famous: In Human Rain we have a Japanese officer named Akashi Motojiro, but this Motojiro is a lieutenant rather than an intelligence officer in Russia.
  • Off with His Head!: What happens to Rudolfo in The Lesson.
  • Old Soldier: Colonel Aoki in Human Rain. He received his military education in Germany and fought in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5.
  • Only Sane Man: The university professors and columnists in At the Fair come off as this. They ask some important questions about the United States' military role in the world, while the military professionals get lost in their world of fancy gadgets.
  • Opposing Combat Philosophies: Highlighted prominently in Human Rain. While Tretyakov is shown as a rational practitioner of war where technical methods reign, Motojiro is part of the group that sees victory achieved through ritual and unbroken morale.
  • Patriotic Fervor: —
  • Private Military Contractors: Rudulfo is revealed to be a former condottiero in The Lesson. Just like in his major work, Machiavelli dislikes mercenaries and tells Rudulfo that if there were large state armies in Italy, there would not be sellswords and foreign troops roaming around the country.
  • Screw the Rules, I Make Them!: Motojiro hears a tale of Japanese debauchery so offensive that such conduct would be an insult to the emperor in Human Rain. His major tells him:
    Korea is our colony now, to do with as we will, and when we have finished, Manchuria will be ours as well. We must learn to command inferior peoples, as the Europeans have done.
  • Self-Harm: In Galen's Proof, Napoleon thinks that the soldiers with back wounds deliberately hurt themselves to stay out of the fighting. Larrey has to prove otherwise.
  • Secret Art: In A Sword is Drawn, the emperor gives a story how sword manufacture used to be known by a few who kept their methods secret. As it turned out, these "sword masters" knew their art as a ritual than a craft. If they missed one step, the swords turned into abominations and no one knew why. When the art of swordmaking was finally known, it was realized that there was nothing special about the art—anyone could make them. More and better swords were able to be made. The emperor uses this story to support his point that the disgraced general is not a craftsman of war, but an unimaginative follower to the principles of war.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: One is featured Rain Stops Play. He seems like a cheerful guy when he's introduced, but W. H. R. Rivers' report shows otherwise.
  • Title Drop: In Motojiro's memoirs:
    The sky was raining pieces of human beings. Human rain. The 19th [Brigade] was disappearing before my eyes. The waves were a bloody froth.
  • 20 Minutes into the Future: The last story, ''The Discovery of Kansas" is set at an unspecified time in the future.
  • War Is Glorious: Played straight with Wallenstein in Scoundrel.
  • Worst Aid: The protagonist of The Very Last Civil War Historian dies of a post-amputation infection.
  • You Are in Command Now: By the end of Human Rain, every other officer in Motojiro's company is dead or wounded, so he gets promoted and put into command of the unit for the attack on Port Arthur.
  • You Have Failed Me: The emperor considers executing the general in A Sword is Drawn, but after hearing his chronicler speak and delivering his lecture at court, he decides retract the execution and ends up ordering the chronicler and general castrated.