Thursday, August 30, 2012

Polish Mecha Charging Germans Tanks

Mecha are kin to Starfighters in science fiction. Are they cool? Oh, hell, yeah. Do they make any sense? Not a damn bit. But did I mention they're cool? Oh, hell, yeah.

You can find numerous arguments as to why giant combat robots don't make any kind of military sense. If you have fusion reactors and superlasers for a combat robot, it'll make more sense if you put it in a tank. I won't belabor the details, just hit the high points:

  1. It's easier to armor a box than a humanoid form. Tanks will absorb more damage than a robot. 
  2. Robots are tall, drawing fire. You'll note tank designers put a premium on lowering the height of their designs. The Russians even had a maximum height for tank crew, 5'9", just to keep the profile down. 
  3. Mechanical complexity kills. Variable geometry wings (swing-wings, like the F-14) carry a weight and complexity penalty that could not be justified, despite the advantages. There hasn't been a new swing-wing to enter service since 1980. Now imagine the complexity of a dynamically-balancing, fully-articulated robot versus a tank with a turret and treads, not forgetting that tanks are already maintenance hogs. 
  4. The g-forces on the larger robots like Gundams would be murder. Animes will show these mecha getting into physical combat on par with professional wrestling. A pilot sitting in a head-mounted cockpit in a 50ft tall mecha that simply falls backwards is going to feel like he's falling off a 5-story building. Even if the robot itself could survive the G-forces, the pilot could not. And we've already reached the point where we can design aircraft who can pull more G's than anyone could survive. As an additional note, air-deployed combat vehicles always have their crew drop separately, whether it's via high-altitude parachute or a low-altitude parachute extraction. 
  5. As stated previously, if a combat robot has a great powerplant and a great gun, it'll be just as good in a boxy tank and better-protected at that. 

Mecha vs. tanks, mecha should always lose. But are mecha cool? Hell, yeah. Can we think of examples in military history where rule of cool has kept a weapons system or set of tactics around long past the point at which it should have been discarded? Hell, yeah. Especially when social status and a way of life is tied up in the concept. Can we say landed knight in a feudal society? Of course we can, class.

So, imagine that we've got ourselves a collection of polities we can call Ersatz Europe. Multiple competing countries in close proximity, sharing a religion that has shaped concepts of civilization, honor, and chivalry. Further, let us imagine that significant disputes are settled via ritual warfare with trials by combat, legally binding, agreed to by all parties. While this may remain lethal for the combatants in question, the civilizations involved will avoid the widespread devastation of unrestricted warfare.

Let us imagine that this system has endured for many generations, mecha technology being the pinnacle of military research. Let us assume that the mecha are not unreasonably large, they can be successfully, survivably piloted by humans, and mecha only face other mecha in strictly officiated tournaments. Therefore a country's military is all about building a proper mecha force, of fighting in a tournament. No thought is given to a land army, to an air force, to a navy. All of this is absurd because warfare is between mecha, trial by combat. Nobody has fought with an army since before civilization! Could such a situation arise? Sure. The Meso-Americans practiced ritual flower wars. The Tokugawa Shogunate not only shut foreigners out of Japan, they were even able to remove firearms and keep traditional weapons around for the duration. Barring any significant external threat to such conventions, the only way it will fall is through internal dissolution.

And that's what happens. Sooner or later, some bright leader is going to wonder if he can just do things the really old-fashioned way, i.e. fight an open war. Technology has developed over all that time. What happens when the bright leader says oh, the ritual battle went against me? I have to give concessions to the victor? Make me.

It doesn't matter if what the bright leader has done is unthinkable, it doesn't matter if he's going to be excommunicated from the Church, threatened with the wrath of the gods. He's done it and now everyone else has to decide how they're going to deal with it. What kind of weapons can be created when we are no longer interested in ritual combat but total war? And what of the once-important champions whose specialized skills are no longer relevant?

The story here would be about the mecha pilots. In a moment they have gone from the military elite to useless dinosaurs incapable of justifying their existence. Desperate pilots will try to adapt their machines of romance and chivalry to a form of war that cares nothing for such sentiment. There will be a sense of valiant futility, like the French military academy cadets marching to war in 1914 with white gloves and natty uniforms, destined to be gloriously machine-gunned to death in futile charges in short order. While apocryphal, the imagery of Polish cavalry charging German tanks perfectly captures the death of old romance, crushed in the gears of industrial warfare. One might also look to Takamori Saigo and his Satsuma Rebellion, the last samurai and his fellow romantics blown away by modern firepower.

Could the mecha be adapted into a practical weapon? Is doing so a quixotic deathwish or might they possibly succeed?

My own feeling is that it would resemble Japan's position towards the end of WWII if facing an equally-exhausted opponent. The only pilots left are the very good or the very green. There is no time to train the green ones up to the old standards, just enough to get them in an aircraft and fly straight. It's suicide to even take to the air, even if crash-diving into an enemy ship isn't your goal. But if the enemy is as bad as you are, then there might be some breathing room. The Japanese never had that against the US.

I think that the perfect tragedy would be for the mecha pilots to eventually find a place for themselves on a battlefield filled with tanks and aircraft, albeit in mecha far different from the ones once piloted in the ritual combat. If laser and missile weapons are sufficiently powerful, aircraft might not be survivable on the battlefield. Artillery fire might not even survive defensive laser fire.  Small, nimble mecha might serve as fast scouts while tanks represent the decisive force on the battlefield; they persist in a necessary, diminished role. The metaphor here might be birds, the last survival of the dinosaurs, perching in treetops in a land ruled by lions and elephants and gazelles where once tyrannosaurus and triceratops walked tall and proud. (Yes, I know neither of them lived in what would become Africa. Don't ruin my metaphor.)


  1. Usually the driving force isn't internal but external.

    Classical Greek Hoplites fought in closed ranks not only to fight other hoplites but to exclude the aristocratic cavalry and poor light infantry (who could not deliver enough fighting power to break the Phalanx). Once exposed to the Persians, light infantry and cavalry were integrated into Greek and later Macedonian warfare.

    The Japanese readopted gunpowder once the inevitable reappearance of gunpowder armed foreigners happened.

    The Meso Americans tried to adopt new forms of warfare in the face of the Conquistadors, but couldn't change fast enough. The Conquistadors would not have recognized the Tercios, who were a response to changing conditions of warfare in Europe.

    So I think your Mecha warriors would have to change not because someone broke the rules (he would probably be smothered in his sleep rather than defeated on the battlefield) but because they were facing a threat from Oceana or Eastasia. The endgame will probably be the same as you described (an interesting counterpoint might be the POV of Oceanian infantry stalking a Mecha through the woods to get a good shot with an anti armour weapon).

    But things don't usually change without an external push

  2. The analogy I'm thinking of is something like Europe under the dominance of the Catholic Church as well as the disruption of a Napoleon sweeping away the old forms of warfare.

    I hear what you're saying with the other examples but I find it harder to imagine ritual warfare being dominant to the point of not even having a conventional military unless there are no other examples to show another way. I can buy mesoansricans having flower wars when they did but it's harder to imagine them doing so in the 20th century. They would either be completely steamrolled or would have radically armed up like the Japanese.

    Given that mecha technology would be like late 21st century at a minimum, it's hard for me to imagine any nation or group of nations plausibly sticking to mecha if other nations had demonstrably effective conventional armies. For this scenario to work, I think the last conventional war would have had to be something like 19th century tech with all future r&d going into ritual combat. Then when the revolutionary figure breaks convention, we see them invent the tank for the first time, though they would likely call it the mech-destroyer. Rifles probably wouldn't have been developed past the deer rifle. Imagine the disruption of someone inventing automatic weapons or discovering that such weapons were designed in the past and put under proscription. Maybe the church has an entire vault of dangerous ideas.

    I think that there has to be a "you will be damned to hell" angle from religion as well as a strong cultural tradition to make conventional war utterly beyond thinking. And even at that, this is a very special case.

  3. Perhaps the conventional military has been socially excluded for some reason.

    The ancient Greeks were well aware of cavalry and light troops, but large groups of farmers wearing impressive armour arrays and in closed ranks and locked shields were not threatened by the sort of missile weapons aristocratic cavalry (without stirrups) or light troops could bring to bear. Since these farmers could not be challenged in any meaningful military sense by poor or aristocratic Greeks, they also had the ability to dominate politics and the economy as well. Once the Persians came and upset the apple cart, the Greeks became pretty enthusiastic about "all arms" cooperation.

    European knights had a similar set of advantages (and are probably closer to your model) until factors like the growth of armed citizenry in walled towns and the re-adoption of heavy infantry capable of closing ranks and standing up to a cavalry charge (or masses of missile armed troops in the case of the English) were adopted. These developments were all "outside" of the social, economic and political universe of the aristocracy, and in the case of the Welsh longbowmen, literally from beyond the civilized borders as well.

    So once the seething masses of Eastasia come bursting across the border, the Mech Warriors confidently stride into battle, only to have their heads handed to them. The conventional military suddenly becomes important, but since there is little time to build them up, mech warriors are still needed to throw themselves into the gaps to try to stem the tide.

    A very religious or otherwise stratified society will resist internal reformation, and probably eliminate heretics rather than put up with them. Being "demoted" from the Mech aristocracy into the regular army might be a good kick off point for your story, though, and perhaps the demoted aristocrat could end up taking command of the force much like Xenophon did with the 10,000 after the primary leaders were lured to their deaths.

  4. Good thinking, good thinking.

    Having given it some thought, here's the way I think the society would look.

    A truly heinous war saw the end of the old system and the beginning of the new. The old system was what we would recognize as intrigues and wars between nations. The church had less and less influence up to the point that the final war was fought and scared the bejezus out of everyone. We all know that the War to End All Wars didn't turn out that way. In this setting, it did. People turned to religion in this time of turmoil and the religion helped to codify the new war of war, between champions.

    The one sticking point with the timeline is how the mecha came into this. I think as part of the religion would be the idea of cities being represented by fighting machines blessed by the gods. Conventional thinking about the development of Greek mythology is that there had been a fairly nasty war that saw the fall of much civilization and what we've had passed down as the Greek Pantheon were myths developed from the cloudy memories of once-living kings and men. Therefore, the idea of a giant, man-shaped machine facing another such machine to divine the will of the gods in holy combat would have enormous religious resonance, the same way that the Crusader's sword resembled the shape of the cross and tied into their martial cult.

    Another comparison for this is Japan's obsession with mecha. They've built life-sized models of Gundams, robot hobbyists make tiny Gundams, otaku shut-ins buy life-sized sex dolls that only lack internal animatronics to turn them into the dream girls of anime.

    So, I think the original system immediately after the Final War would be exqusitely trained champions fighting in combat with traditional, honorable weapons. Precedent for this would be the Catholic Church banning use of crossbow against fellow Christians in honorable warfare.

    If the religion embraced the idea of learning the mind of God rather than seeing it as blasphemy, then there would be every support for becoming as the gods, in making copies of their holy war machines.

    In the system that developed over the following decades, there would be rules such as with Roman gladiatorial combat. Some matches would be fought to first blood, others the editor decides whether the vanquished should live or die, or the fight is to the death. Armor would protect the pilots somewhat but death is always a possibility. And sometimes the match could even be settled with personal combat with swords, no mecha involved.

    I would avoid directly aping the nomenclature of feudal systems but it would bear similarity to the landed knight as you pointed out. Each state is made up of provinces. Politics being the art of deciding who gets what and how much, talking does most of the work but honor combat settles what talk does not. The honor of the province is represented by their mecha and the most powerful, important people in the province are involved in the design and construction of mecha and the training of pilots.

    Internal disputes of national impotance are settled in the capital's arena. But when the state itself is represented against other states, the best of the provincial mecha are on the national team.

    If I recall the way the World Cup operates, the details are similar. England has a number of local teams who compete for the national title, the best of them are selected for the national team who then compete for the Cup. No national team exists in the years between Cups. In a way they are like a feudal levy.

    So, how is internal order maintained? I think it would be state police but on the Japanese model. Japanese police don't carry guns as a general rule but the long sticks they wield can crack skulls with lethal ease. Firearms would be known of for hunting but are considered a polite weapon for those who lack strength to draw bow. The thought of shooting someone with such a weapon is dishonorable, being shot with one also dishonorable.


  5. Once such a system is in place, changing it becomes difficult. The mecha houses have the most power, money and prestige. And as far as political disputes go, the system works. The people believe in the religion, the religion says this is right, crops get to market, goods get to stores, and everyone is happy in their place.

    The times that there's true disruption, the mecha take to the streets and demonstrate their effectiveness to the satisfaction of all observers. If a tank lacked any form of gun or other weapon, was simply a box with treads that rolled into rioting crowds and crushed everyone beneath them, we might recognize conceptually that it's not that great a weapon but the crowds would be convinced, especially if they lacked the means to construct any kind of improvised weapon against it. The Mesoamericans had for the horse because it was an unknown and lacked appreciation that they could have easily overwhelmed the Spanish who rode them. In the case of the people here, they represent the power of the mecha, lack any means of attacking, and fall back. The cases I'm thinking of when mecha would be used outside of arena combat would be similar to something like the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars by the Catholic Church.

    The training of a proper pilot, like a proper knight, starts from a young age and is a full-time job. Most pilots are born into fighting families but some children of great promise are recruited as well.

    The thought that comes to mind of who the rebel might be, I'm thinking this is going to be a young, rich son from a state that has much heavy industry. His family has a genetic weakness that makes them poor pilots and the weakness extends to many of the other aristocratic families due to intermarriage. Their best pilots are all mercenaries. The state is respected for wealth but considered dishonorable due to being incapable of fighting for themselves, having to pay others to be men in their place.

    The rebellious leader studied engineering and has contempt for the entire mecha system, not just because of the politics but his realization of how vulnerable the mecha are. He notes that many of the traditional weapons used by the mecha themselves have been designed to prolong combat such as beam weapons having power and recycle limits put in place by law, projectile weapons having small calibers so that a mecha couldn't be disabled with a single shot at the start of the combat, all these limits meaning that ranged combat might remain interesting but mecha will usually close to melee distance to settle a fight decisively. That's right, mecha with swords and warhammers. WAAAAAARGH!!!


  6. Many other states have kept their economies traditional, resisting automation to keep up full employment. His state had pursued automation over the years but kept most of the profits concentrated in the hands of the wealthiest families. This means that there is a growing underclass subsisting on the dole, incapable of earning a leaving for lack of work.

    He realizes a) he could defeat any mecha force out there, let alone the internal security guys with their sticks and swords and b) he could put the surplus labor to work in an army.

    His initial weapons should have a lot of bad ideas as they're being sorted out, much in the way most weapons systems did in our history. They may have advanced technology but he's not going to stumble across the AK-47 the first time he tries to make a lady's hunting rifle into an infantry weapon.

    The rebel leader's goal is simply taking over everything, conquering the known world. As I said before, I think it's impossible for a mecha society to exist if real armies were around in the world, if other powers already had tanks and artillery. I think a modern army as we know it would have to be entirely unknown in this world and come from the internal security forces from long, bloody learning in war.

    I do like the point you had about demotion awaiting poor pilots but I think it would be demotion to internal security.

    My thinking as to the course of the war is that the mecha nations would have some breathing room as the rebel expands and consolidates territory. His initial weapons will have teething problems. But attrition will prove that even if mecha take out ten tanks for every one of their own, he can make good the losses. The nations that refuse to adapt will fall as he expands and expands. The real kicker would be if he is an enlightened tyrant and properly exploits the resentment of those on the bottom of the economic heap by offering them a chance at position and advancement. Napoleon was loved by his men for a reason. The noble families of the countries he attacked were not very nice people as a rule.

    I think it's a good idea to keep on the pile.

  7. Another thing to consider is the relationship between the Mecha states. They would need common ground in order to have settled upon ritual warfare. Or perhaps a hegemonic power that officiates over all of them. Medieval Europe had the Roman Church and its King-making abilities. The Kings who warred against each other were all inter-related and had a stake in the aristocratic order which total war would have destroyed. The one who would be willing to destroy that would be one who had no stake in it, whether it was an external foe from outside the system, or an internal heretic/malcontent.

    The only way (I think) that the system would have emerged in the first place would be for it to have defeated the system(s) it superceded. Which means that the Mechs had to have done the defeating. Either that, or the states still have the more effective armies that would have given them hegemony in the first place, and would have developed the mechs as toys that wouldn't threaten the system.

    It would take more than people voluntarily buying into religion (or equivalent civic code) to bring about the mecha states.

    Other than that, the stagnation of ideas once the hegemony is established could play out as you described.

  8. Thanks for the reply!

    You are right that common ground is required for ritual warfare. That's why I'm positing a common religion among the warring states with severe sanctions both temporal and spiritual if the tenets of the religion are violated. Breaking the strictures of a religion you don't believe in isn't very scary. For it to have bite, you must believe in it, it must be part of your culture. So all of the mecha states should share in the same culture even if they don't agree religiously. Parallels are with the Greek city-states, the various Christian kingdoms that managed to war with each other, etc.

    As you said, the one who would be willing to destroy the system has no stake in it or is a heretic/malcontent. That's what I was imagining. Someone who is willing to fly in the face of convention and do what he felt was necessary, no matter the cost.

    As for defeating the previous system, you are correct in surmising this would not be a system that could survive in competition. My thinking was that whatever came before would have been swept away with conventional forces and the mecha developed in the time since then. Why develop mecha? Because it comports with religious ideals. For an example of that I look at the Fortean stories of Indian vedas talking about sky machines that could fire missiles destroying cities. Who knows what the original scribes were thinking. it was probably not a recounting of ancient nuclear weapons and flying warships.

    So imagine if a religion had the idea of animate statues or machines in the likeness of man doing battle in the name of whatever gods are venerated. So even if it's not exactly a sensible weapon to develop, it's the sort of thing that a society could throw itself behind as a sort of reenacting of religious tradition, an embracing of religious faith. These machines are of the gods, the creation of them is an act of worship, the employment of them is an act of worship. The mecha are holy things.

  9. I was thinking not so much of the religious power of a religion (which is rarely deep among elites), but the temporal power. The Roman Church, for instance, did not become dominant because of the inspiring story of Jesus. It had real diplomatic and espionage skills, money, and the allegiance (through its network of abbeys and bishops) of the people beneath the Kings. The Church was there before the post-Roman Kings, and the Kings did not really rule national entities. The King's war was the King's war, not the country's, and he had to hire soldiers like everyone else.

    'Religious' power is not real enough to bind separate countries ruled by different and competing elites.

    When state entities come together in 'agreement', it is nearly always because they are pulled together by a hegemonic, temporal power. The UN is, in fact, dominated and ruled by the US, who invented it. The EU is held together by Germany.

    So in your scenario, either the religion, or one of the states, must rule the entire shebang, even if they rule 'by consensus'.

    The heretic will be striking out against the (perhaps hidden) ruling power. He may even be helped by one of the states (or their elites) who may wish to be rid of the hegemony (like the tribes that allied with the conquistadors to bring down the Aztec overlords).

    But if the mechs are truly holy machines, and if the religion has become established among the masses (and has not decayed), then the heretic will be taking on powerful forces that go beyond mere technology. Toppling a mech may be the equivalent of toppling the twin towers. The ruling religious hegemon will be more likely to mobilise the masses than the heretic.

    The heretic could find himself in the position of Spartacus - winning almost every battle but unable to truly bring down Rome, and finally succombing to attrition. For in that particular balance of power, the Church/Rome can afford to make many mistakes. For the heretic however, any mistake may be his/her last.

  10. To add - the kicker is that, if the heretic wins, he/she will have torn apart everything - culture, social fabric, etc - and the result may resemble the apocalyptic war to end all wars that you opened the scenario with.

    Mechs will the gods remembered from before 'the schism' - badly remembered, but nostalgically attractive nevertheless. Legendary even.

    And perhaps when the apocalyptic war has ended, the new power(s) may adopt the mechs as items to worship and cheer - and so a cycle has been created... and I don't know where I'm going with that, it just popped into my head.

  11. Well, the general idea is that whatever the situation was when the Current Order is established, things have developed since then and the entrenched powers have a good things going. If football games were used to settle disputes between the states here in America, regardless of how sensible you think it might be, doubtless the biggest political players would have fine football programs established and a lot of money invested. This is working for them. Many wouldn't even question the validity of such a system.

    My thinking is that the terror of the last war is what compelled everyone to join up in the current system. The power of the church is likely to change over the intervening time period.

    One of the standards of "oh crap" stories is when there's an established social order and way of doing things that nobody questions and some smartass or sociopath decides to question things. And what he demonstrates is that the only reason why a given thing is unthinkable is because nobody allows themselves to think it. He then proves that transgressing such a boundary does not bring a thunderbolt from the sky to strike him dead and now everyone questions what is permissible.

    You do raise good points. And yes, the rebel would tear that old system apart. People may seek a return to it because at least then there was certainty, there was order.

    As I'd mentioned earlier, it's like the mounted knight who has spent his entire life training for war discovering he has been made obsolete by peasants armed with crude firearms protected by pike squares. How could this be? It's like the order of society laid down by God has been cast into the mud and trodden upon. It feels like blasphemy.

  12. I still want a PPC, mounted on a Mech, a tank, or a goddamned horse.