Dogfights, battleships, & sword fights

January 23, 2014

Is it any wonder the original Star Wars movies included space dogfights, battleship-style ship-to-ship combat, and laser sword fights in a universe dominated by guns?

Some types of combat stand the test of time. Not because they’re better – each of these have been supplanted by superior technologies in real life – but because they call to us. They’re more dramatic, satisfying, fair, and interesting…in a word, they make for better stories.

Aerial dogfights – Where once you had to get up close and vie against your opponent in a test of skill, now aerial combat is fought with missiles fired from many miles away, when it’s fought at all.

Battleships – Some of the most fascinating naval battles of all time happened during WWI and WWII, when fleets of battleships hammered each other with massive guns. Then the aircraft carrier came along, with its ability to project power and sink ships before they ever got into range.

Sword fights – This one hardly needs explaining. Next to guns, the up-close-and-personal dynamic of a sword fight is much more exciting. Its also a realm where skill and mastery are rewarded, rather than a gun which can easily allow an amateur to kill a master.

So don’t be surprised if these styles of combat keep popping up in your fiction. They might not make sense in our world, but if a good writer can make them work – if she can create her own lightsaber – then they’ll give us a much better tale than watching your enemy disappear on a fighter jet’s computer screen.

My combo counter: Editing chain, 12 days. Writing chain, 1 day.

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By Stephen W. Gee

Author of Wage Slave Rebellion, Freelance Heroics, and about two good blog posts out of a hundred.

3 Comments

  1. Reply

    daikama

    I very much agree with your post, except for the part about battleships (see discuss below). Perhaps it would count too much towards your “combo-counter”, but exploring why this type of storytelling is more compelling would be an interesting topic. IMO, it comes down to two factors – skill and personalization/the “human” element. Technology reduces or even eliminates both. You succinctly state the “skill” aspect quite well. A sports analogy that comes to mind is the difference between watching a human pitcher strike out a batter vs. a pitching machine.

    Personalization/”Human Element”: I don’t remember exactly where this came up during college, but this point was brought up in one of my courses. Weapon technology “depersonalizes” combat/fighting. Killing someone with a knife/sword/club is MUCH different that shooting someone at a distance. Not just the risk of potential counter-attack, but with a melee weapon, you feel the attack. It is indeed “up close and personal”. Quite possibly you are sprayed with blood and you feel the impact of the weapon. You see clearly the pain and shock of your opponent. That’s why psychologically, it’s much easier to kill with a range weapon than a melee weapon.

    Keep increasing the distance – particularly beyond sight and the “enemy” become even less human – a “casualty number” That’s something mentioned by a few WWII bomber crew members. They commented upon how at 10,000-20,000 feet, you don’t see the death toll. It made “the job” easier in that respect. The more you take out the “human element” the harder it is for readers/viewers to identify with the characters and situation.

    —————————————————–

    RE: WWI/WWII Naval Battles. Certainly the ‘ol gunship battle is very dramatic with massive 16″ guns belching flame and car-sized shells flying though the air at supersonic speeds. However, keep in mind that “close range” for a BB battle can mean 9000m (over 5 miles) as the main guns can fire as far as over 30,000m (17 miles). 3000m (almost 2 miles) is essentially “point blank” range. Even so, the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal (particularly the “First” featuring the USS Laffey’s (DD-459) heroic standoff against the IJN battleship Hiei) was one of the most exciting naval battles of WWII without question.

    However, the Battle of Midway was also one of the most exciting naval battle of WWII as well. Arguably, it was the most exciting naval battle of the entire war when you factor in what was at stake along with the almost incomprehensibly fortuitous, random chain of events upon which US victory rested (there’s actually a book entitled “Miracle at Midway” for that very reason). And it was all fought by carrier and land based aircraft.

    Keep in mind that people piloted the planes and manually aimed the bombs/torpedoes as well as manning the opposing AA batteries. The “action” was as much, if not much more, “personal” than gunships banging away at 10,000m, 15,000m or 20,000+m. Pilots flew close enough for sailors to see their faces (and I don’t mean Kamekazi pilots either).

    There was a TON of dramatic, exciting, and even startling action during that battle – including in no small part the essentially suicidal charge of heroic US TBD “Devastator” torpedo bomber pilots against Vice-Admiral Nagumo’s four carriers. Of the 41 TBD Devastators launched from Enterprise, Hornet and Yorktown, SIX returned. None of the planes scored any hits, yet their seemingly meaningless sacrifice would not go unrewarded as the battle played out.

    So IMO, the WWII style carrier based naval battle can be just as exciting and satisfying as a naval gun battle for the same reason that “old school” dogfighting is satisfying. Technology has yet developed to the point it usurps the individual’s skill in determining the outcome of the battle.

    1. Reply

      Stilts

      You’re right, and of course that fits completely within my larger point (as you rightfully note). I compared battleships to carriers, but where carriers are concerned it’s really a matter of old carriers vs modern carriers, or more broadly, dog fighting versus modern aviation. Carriers themselves don’t like coming under fire, so not much drama there. It’s all tied up in their planes. When those planes are getting close, dog fighting, feats of skill and bravery…yeah, that’s going to be a riveting tale for sure.

  2. Reply

    ewok40k

    It is now wonder all three kinds of combat are featured heavily in, for example, Star Wars universe.
    From X-wings skirmishing with Tie Fighters, to Mon Calamari cruisers trading broadsides with Star Destroyers to the iconic lightsaber duels…
    And Lucas used the old WW2 combat footage as base for his “space combat” physics be damned – and it worked wonderfully. When you look closely we have even sort of re-created Midway at Yavin – first agile Tie Fighters massacre slow Y-wings re-creating massacre of Devastator torpedo bombers by Zeros, then a lucky X-wing piloted by Luke re-creates the plucky dive bombers that managed to land a series of critical hits and sink 3 of 4 Japanese carriers in quick succession…
    As for not much drama with the carriers, I’d say it is when the enemy breaches their defences drama jumps up to maximum… See the excellent short scene in Sum of all fears (movie) where US carrier gets ambushed by bribed Russian bombers and devastated by missile hits.

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