Good writers write about people, individuals and military science fiction is no different. Combat is a different environment than most people are used to and for everyone the experience is different. A violent confrontation is very traumatic to most people and even though soldiers are trained for it, combat still traumatizes the best. A fight for one’s life can change a person forever in the most fundamental way.
When a person is faced with a life or death situation a great many things happen. Adrenaline is released into the system giving the individual a higher energy level. Legs, hands and arms can shake because of the excess energy pulsing through the veins. The heart beats faster to increase the oxygen flow to different parts of the body. Blood is withdrawn from less vital parts of the anatomy to be used elsewhere, that is why a person’s face can turn white or a penis shrinks. The individual has to urinate (this was probably because back before civilization urinating in a life or death confrontation made the legs slippery and bad tasting, and made the person ‘lighter’ in order to run).
As any martial artist can probably tell you, the body’s natural response is to stiffen up to resist puncture wounds from claws and fangs. A warrior has to relax his body despite this because a loose body can react much faster than a tense one.
Furthermore, when a person sees a target or a threat, his or her vision ‘narrows’ so they become more aware of the threat. This ‘tunnel vision’ can be dangerous because a person is less likely to pay attention to what is happening on either side or behind him or her. A properly trained person will spend time checking out the sides and rear just in case, but if the battle gets too intense even the best may neglect to do this.
When a person is injured the body can handle it in several different ways depending on the type of damage inflicted and several things happen.
One thing that usually happens is the muscles around the injured area ‘stiffen’ or go hard at the time of penetration. For instance when a person is stabbed, the muscles become tense to prevent additional penetration of the knife, fang, or claw. This is not always a good thing as in the case of a car accident where a loose body can help the individual avoid injury. Drunks often sustain fewer injuries because their muscles are relaxed and placid, acting more like a pillow than unyielding armor.
Also, the victim may feel a numbness, this is the body’s way of trying to keep the victim in the fight so no additional injury is inflicted. As the person becomes more conscious of the injury it has more effect and becomes more painful. This is not always true and sometimes the pain is instantaneous or the nerve endings have become so damaged the victim cannot feel pain.
A knife, despite what the media says, is usually much worse than a bullet and much more painful.
There are many ways a person can die. Many people believe incorrectly that once a target is hit by a bullet, knife or sword they die, especially if it is something like a .45 or .357. That is wrong and I will go into the effects of weapons on the human body later. Suffice to say a person can be killed instantly or slowly depending on a great many factors. Some people can get shot in the little toe and die from shock, others can sustain several mortal injuries and still fight on for a while before expiring. Still others, may sustain an injury, fatal or non-fatal, and find themselves unable to continue the fight. There are a great many factors that affect this ability to continue the fight, despite injury. The biggest factor is the injured person’s mental makeup and where he/she was hit.
Jason, the nerd who has never even so much as skinned his knee, will most likely expire if he gets shot in the toe. The sight of his own blood and the knowledge that he has been shot can kill him, because he will suffer from shock. Killroy, the warmonger, will most likely be able to fight on even though he has been mortally injured because he believes the wound is minor, he is unaware of the wound, or he believes he is just too good to be killed by such an inferior foe. Of course, like Jason the nerd, he might also be shocked to death at his own mortality. People are like that. The drug PCP is another example of how a person can fight on after he/she has been mortally injured.
One of the more important things to consider when a person is injured is whether or not the person is bleeding and if so how much. A person can bleed to death very quickly and this must be brought under control very quickly.
I won’t go into detail on life saving because there are libraries full of the subject. However, it is a common belief, that if a person receives medical aid within one hour of the injury, it increases the person’s chance of survival dramatically and decreases the chance of complications at a later time. This is why field hospitals are so important and casualties are evacuated as soon as possible.
Once a person is dead the muscles begin to relax and the heart stops. The sphincter muscle is one muscle that relaxes on death and causes the body to soil itself. This may be to make the body less appealing to predators, regardless, it still stinks. Battle fields smell like shit, as well as blood and gore for this reason.
As the body relaxes, blood begins to coagulate and the body begins to cool. Eventually, the body becomes stiff and unyielding.
After some time begins to pass, gases build up in the body causing it to bloat. Poking a hole in such a body can get messy as it will explode. In addition, the gasses released can be harmful to humans. Various diseases and illnesses can also be caught from a decomposing body.
As you might be able to see fear is advantageous to a human. It increases reflexes, alertness, strength and the desire to survive, but if fear becomes too powerful it can paralyze and maybe kill (by causing a heart attack).
People idolize that individual that has no fear but fear is natural. Fear is an ability that increases a person’s chance of surviving a life and death confrontation. A person who has no fear is forfeiting this great ability, and/or is stupid and severely underestimates the situation, which can be fatal. One popular saying I heard often in various ways was “All men fear, but only a coward lets it stop him, a brave man uses that fear to accomplish the impossible and a fool is too stupid to recognize it for what it is,” another good one is “A Hero is a coward that got cornered.
Many things happen to a person when a fight begins. For ‘green’ troops, newbies, the first response is usually disbelief. ‘Who is shooting? Is someone shooting at me? This must be some kind of mistake, someone IS shooting at me.” At first response to receiving enemy fire is sometimes slow. I have yet to see a good, authorized, training regimen that teaches a newbie to take cover the microsecond a loud noise is heard. This split second hesitation can be fatal because the first shot rarely hits, it’s the second and third shot that hit because the firer is adjusting his aim.
The next thing that happens, usually, is fear sets in. The body prepares for a life or death struggle, fight or flight. This is where training comes in. A trooper can be overcome with fear and take a passive role, or even try to flee. If the trooper is able to overcome his fear he may return fire. The more able he is to overcome his fear the more effective his return fire will be. This is where aggressive training comes into play. The more aggressive a trooper is the more likely he is to consider ‘fight’ than ‘flight’. Aggressive does not mean charge the enemy while singing a battle hymn. Aggressive is more like ‘that SOB shot at me and tried to kill me! That low life, how dare he?!’ This is why many military units teach their troops that they are superior to the rest, you don’t run from inferiors, you stomp the insolent bastards and teach them a lesson. Aggression in this regard is more of a trained instinct than a lot of rational thought and makes a trooper more likely to choose ‘fight’ than ‘flight’. Of course too much aggression is a bad thing and leads to beserkers who act regardless of the possibly suicidal consequences, again good training prevents beserkers.
Other things that can help a warrior overcome fear is Esprit de Corps. The knowledge that your buddies need you. If you don’t fight back they may be killed and if it is a tight unit (like most good combat units are designed to be) then it gives the trooper leverage on his fear. This is why people will charge machine gun bunkers in the face of certain death, or throw themselves on grenades.
Training is another way for a trooper to overcome his/her fear. When a person gets scared it is always easier to fall back on training which (in most cases) has been pounded into a person’s head from day one on what to do and what not to do.
Next is discipline. Non-commissioned Officers and Officers are often domineering for a reason. A person gets used to taking orders instantly and without hesitation from an NCO or officer during peacetime. When a person is scared he/she can become more malleable to this persuasion because it is habit.
Knowledge is another way for a person to overcome his fear. If he/she is backed into a corner and knows the only way out is through that guy with a knife then that fear becomes a real powerful force.
Of course a person may still cower and whimper behind a rock despite all this.
Some notable items on the subject. Bullies that boast and brag, are more likely to succumb to fear because they are suddenly faced with a threat that is bigger then them. Quiet guys on the other hand, can be the exact opposite of bullies, because they are more familiar with the fact there are bigger, tougher, more dangerous people out there.
People control their fear in different ways. Some boast and brag, trying to convince themselves they are superior. Some turn on their fellows in an attempt to prove to themself that they are superior and the inferiors are more likely to die than themselves. Some become quiet and try to rationalize things. Others get wild eyed and might begin to panic. Some people try to deny their fear and believe it is an inferior quality. A person could go through several stages as they try to find a way to deal with the stress and fear of upcoming combat. A professional might begin weapons check, mission review, code review or something to take his/her mind off of it. A non-commissioned officer or officer usually tries to keep busy and keep the troops busy preparing, because waiting, as is usually inevitable, can be debilitating and very bad on morale. Pep talks help get people psyched up as does encouragement from veterans. Insulting newbies is not a good way to help them deal with their fear.
The downside to fear is the after effects. Immediately after an adrenaline rush the body ‘powers down’ and the person may fall asleep. Fear also uses up vital resources in the body and can make the person hungrier than usual. Also, adrenaline can be addictive like any drug. That might be why combat troops can sometimes be such trouble makers. Getting into a bar fight in town helps them release a lot of tension and it give them their adrenaline ‘fix’.
Boot Camp, for most of the finer forces, is a really stressful environment for a recruit for several reasons. The drill instructors try hard to scare and intimidate the troops. In this way the recruits become more familiar with fear and how to deal with it. The recruits also learn to take orders from NCO’s in a fear filled environment and the Drill Instructors try hard to ingrain it into the recruits makeup. If a recruit can’t overcome his fear on his own then that ‘training’ allows an NCO to act as a prod to get the recruit into action.
As I said earlier, the battlefield is a very stressful environment and can cause people to have nervous breakdowns. When a person has such a breakdown on the battlefield this can be exceedingly dangerous because a wide variety of unpredictable things can happen. When a person ‘loses it,’ he/she loses all rational control. The person can turn on a friend just as easily as an enemy and that can get very dangerous. When a person gets close to the edge it is always better to evac them before they snap. When a person starts to approach this dangerous level it is referred to as battle fatigue.