New Worlds: Military Types

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

We’ve talked some before, both earlier this year and back in Year Two, about violence on an individual scale. But of course that’s only part of the picture: humans fight each other not just one-on-one, but in groups ranging up to millions of people in size.

One of the fundamental organizing principles that underlies military conflict is the question of what type of troops you’re looking at. This can get subdivided to a very high degree; in modern times, the increase of specialization (in all fields, not just warfare) means you wind up with very fine gradations. I’m not going to attempt to chase that particular thread to its end, but we can certainly do a quick survey of the basic types — including some attention to how things might work in speculative contexts.

We’ll start with infantry, because that’s where basically everything began. Infantry are your foot soldiers: the people whose job it is to fight with their boots literally on the ground. The weapons they fight with will vary depending on a lot of factors ranging from tech level to the tactical situation, but they almost always make up the bulk of the armed forces for any particular state, in part because they’re relatively simple. Hand someone a weapon (and hopefully also teach them how to use it), and you’ve got a foot soldier.

Infantry can be subdivided along a couple of different lines. One is the aforementioned weaponry, especially as warfare becomes sophisticated enough that the various armaments start to play a significant role. A unit of pikemen is going to fight differently than a unit armed with swords or axes, and it’s important for a commander to keep that distinction in mind. In turn, those melee fighters will en masse be different from your ranged units, whether they’re slingers, archers, crossbowmen, or musketeers. Some of those weapons require a lot of practice — witness the famous saying that to train an English longbowman, start with his grandfather — while others are more accessible to new conscripts.

In some cases you can also talk meaningfully about light infantry vs. heavy infantry, though these categories aren’t always clearly divided from one another. The lightness and heaviness refer both to how the troops are equipped, and to how they behave on the battlefield. Light troops carry light gear and are more mobile, engaging in activities like scouting, harassing enemy troops with skirmish attacks, and raiding undefended targets. Heavy troops are more weighted down with armor or significant weapons, and they’re the ones who hold the line, going toe-to-toe with the enemy rather than engaging in hit-and-run tactics.

The other dividing axis has to do with that question of mobility. Just because infantry are the people who fight on foot doesn’t mean they always walk to where they’re going. Mounted infantry ride animals to the fight, then dismount to engage in combat (because knowing how to fight on horseback is a very specialized skill). Naval infantry, aka marines, are assigned to ships as their base of operations, then do things like raid targets on land or secure a beachhead, as well as fighting in boarding engagements against other ships. Ditto airborne infantry, aka paratroopers — not so much with the boarding engagements in their case, but their job is to be parachuted into combat zones. Modern times have also given us motorized infantry, transported in trucks and the like, and mechanized infantry, whose vehicles are armored for use in combat.

As the above implies, these groups interface with non-infantry types of armed forces. Cavalry used to be the second big category, as the domestication or introduction of horses revolutionized warfare around the globe. A warrior on horseback enjoys some significant advantages over a foot soldier in height, speed, and striking power — but at a cost. Keeping horses is quite literally expensive, and you have to train both horse and rider to execute complex maneuvers and keep their heads in battle. As a result, cavalries have tended to be the elites of their respective militaries, consisting more of the well-born and wealthy than the common peasant.

Cavalry can be subdivided along similar lines as infantry, with significant differences between lancers and horse-archers, or light cavalry and heavy. And of course there are related types of force that don’t use horses: in the desert it might be camelry instead, riding animals better suited to that environment. In parts of the world you find elephantry, though that never really became a lasting feature outside the natural habitat of elephants — they’re even more expensive an investment of time and upkeep than horses, for not enough increased benefit. If you can’t capture and tame wild elephants, but have to raise them from infancy, the historical evidence suggests that it just isn’t worth it.

Horses have a purpose in war besides being ridden, of course, and I don’t just mean their use as beasts of burden. (Donkeys and mules are often better for that anyway.) For a time in the ancient world, especially before the stirrup was invented, the most common use of a horse on the battlefield was to harness it to the front of a chariot. With one person to drive the chariot and another to fight, you had a highly mobile unit. But it isn’t as effective as cavalry, so chariotry mostly died out for anything other than ceremonial purposes quite a long time ago. Then cavalry in turn has mostly died out with the advent of mechanized vehicles, giving us not just motorized and mechanized infantry, but armored forces rolling across the landscape in mobile weapons platforms like tanks.

And we’re still not done! In addition to those types of forces, we’ve already alluded to navies — responsible for all ship-based warfare, not only on the ocean but on rivers and lakes, and underwater with craft like submarines — and air forces, operating up in the sky. Militaries also tend to separate out artillery as a distinct group, with the term referring specifically to the operation of heavy firearms like cannon, but also being used to speak of pre-gunpowder war engines like catapults and trebuchets. Sometimes a force may distinguish other specialist units as well, like military engineers whose job is to do anything from build a bridge to undermine a castle wall.

Speculative fiction can encompass any or all of these types, depending on the tech level. But it can also include new things, and the way those get incorporated should generally reflect the same underlying principles. Mages, like archers, will probably be a distinct subset of infantry or cavalry. Warriors who ride fantastical beasts into battle might be referred to as griffinry or unicornry, and they’re likely to have the elite status enjoyed by cavalry. Whether spaceships are more like navies or like air forces depends in part on what the spaceships are like; if they’re the long-term home of a large group of people, that’s going to feel more like a naval vessel, whereas if you’re looking more at individual units operated by small groups or single pilots, that will feel more like an air force. (Or you can combine the two, as with modern aircraft carriers — and of course they might carry space infantry as well.) The same even applies to dragons: mostly they’ve been depicted like flying cavalry, with a single rider engaging in combat, but Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series gives them small crews who carry out different roles in the fight.

The organization of an armed force is only one consideration, though. There’s also the question of how those people are raised and trained — so in upcoming weeks, we’ll take a look at that.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Military Types — 3 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds: Military Types - Swan Tower

  2. Cavalry was particularly important for scouting.

    One major factor in the Battle of Gettysburg was that a cavalry commander scouted out the site, realized that certain hills were vital, and had his men dismount and pretend to be infantry so that Confederate forces would think they were already held in force. Held on long enough for actual infantry to back him up. But it all started because his forces were looking about.

  3. There’s one other, extremely important (historically) distinction among “infantry” that deserves attention — “field” versus “garrison.” Until the late 1500s (both in Europe and in Asia, for different reasons), if the infantry was expected to be more than a couple days’ walk from home, that generally required the thing that governments hate most of all: Paying them. Equippage, training, logistics, tactics, numbers — they’re all substantially different up through the widespread deployment of breechloading firearms.

    Then there’s the constant specter of siege warfare to consider, which also relates to the field/garrison problem… and introduces the problem of “collateral damage.” It’s still around — considering comparative tempo and mobility, the seige of Leningrad was “longer” in engagement terms than the siege of Troy.

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