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MIF #7 - Logistics

I alluded to the issue of logistics in my article about organization, but I felt like I needed to go into greater detail to make it worthwhile for those trying to create a realistic military environment in their fiction.

But let’s pause a moment.  I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating.  Creating a realistic environment doesn’t mean you have to describe everything in intricate detail.  It doesn’t even mean that you have to give every part of the military life any attention at all, and it certainly doesn’t mean you can’t bend the rules for the sake of telling a damn good story.  My goal here is to educate, not to direct.  In some places I’ve been giving bits of advice on how to integrate this information into good storytelling, but as we get into more specific detail I think it’s safe to say the reader expects less and less attention paid to it.  Frankly, the only people that want to read a book about logistics are logisticians.

What I’m trying to say is that please don’t write a story about logistics.  Please.

Starting from scratch then.  What is logistics?  Logistics is the art and science of getting your crap from one place to another.  That’s it.  If you remember from my article on military lingo, the general might say “we are having logistical difficulties”, while the grunt would say “where’s my s@$t?!”

It’s an incredibly complicated problem even in the civilian world.   In today’s global economy, businesses and governments are consistently debating over the most efficient way to get things from one place to another, weighing the cost of one mode of transportation over another.  Now take that problem and compound it with a bunch of people running around with guns.  When a shipment of toy ninja swords is late from China, a small stand in Manhattan loses a few dollars.  When a shipment of bullets doesn’t reach a unit in the field, people die.

Well, people are probably going to die either way, but I think you get my point.

Speaking of points, here are three of them.  In each of these I’m also going to show you how to break the principle of logistics.  This will help you if you’ve ever unsure how to set up some strategy, but have no idea where to start.

1.)  When do we eat?  It’s said that society is always three meals away from collapse.  It’s the same with armies.  If you can’t eat, you can’t fight.  That seems obvious, but it’s just as easy to miss.  If your army has been wandering through the desert for a week without a proper supply convoy following them, you’ve just created a race of superhuman soldiers that should by all rights be able to take over the world.  Hey, maybe that’s what you wanted.  I’m not judging.

To feed an army you need to do one of three things.  One – brown bag it.  Bring the food with you. The American military loves to do this because we have sensitive stomachs and shun food that doesn’t have the word “burger” in it.  We’re pretty efficient about it, too.  Next time you can get your hands on one, try a Meal Ready to Eat (MRE) and you’ll find out how to pack 5,000 calories into a small brown box.  I’ll give you a hint: it probably involves potatoes, and it probably doesn’t taste good.

Fun fact:  A World War II favorite was called “shit on a shingle” by troops because of its remarkable likeness in appearance (it was ground beef on a cracker) and less-than-pleasant taste.

Counter tactic for option one:  Interdict the supply train.  I’ll talk about that in the next point.

The second thing you can do is go nomad.  Live off the land.  This works great in forest environments, but not so well when you’re talking about navies or if your story takes place in the deep reaches of space.  It also only works proportionally to how large your army is.  The larger the army, the quicker they’re going to run out of deer to kill.

Counter tactic: If you’re retreating, raze the land as you leave so that the enemy has nothing to use as they go farther and farther into your territory.  Poison the water supply.  Dispatch Occupy Wall Street protestors.

The last way has two versions.  You can either a.) rape and pillage or b.) shop.  As your army conquers areas, they can take the food and supplies of the people they conquer because they have the weapons.  Many warrior societies in the past have used pillaging as a selling point for recruiting new soldiers, because it was an easy way to make a buck.  On the other hand, if you look at the German conquest of France in World War II, it was a more civilized sort of endeavor (comparatively).  German soldiers visited French cafes, grabbed a quiche on the promenade, and in general simply acted like tourists who, upon being requested to show their passport, showed the Panzer tank instead.

Counter tactic:  Torch your own villages before the enemy can get there or, as in the case of the French, start an underground resistance movement that uses the German economics to its advantage where it can.

2.)  The Concept of a “Supply Chain”.  Expanding on the idea of brown-bagging your army’s supplies, a supply chain is the act of positioning your supplies so that they flow easily from the home front to the front line.  This is how empires are built.  Think about it this way: If you can make one storage dump between your army and your garrison, you’ve just cut your resupply time in half.  You can get a new batch of goods in six months rather than a year, or one week instead of two.  That’s a pretty significant advantage.  Now take that and place a supply dump in every village you conquer on your way to the enemy’s border – you have fresh supplies coming in all the time.  It’s like you live on the battlefield.

When thinking about countering this, think of it like your enemy is hanging from a rope, trying to climb down the side of a mountain.  Each safety clip he has in the rock is like a supply point, a point from which he has support so that he doesn’t turn into soup at the bottom of the rocky gulf.  If you cut the rope all the way at the top, he still has 90% of his rope to work with.  You’ve hurt him, and you’ve probably inconvenienced him, but he can hang on to the side of that mountain with the rest of that rope. For a while. If you cut the rope close to him, he’s got nowhere to go but down.  He either has to turn back, accept defeat, or find a way to tie those loose ends back together.

3.)   Wear and Tear.  Nothing lasts forever.  Your consumables, like food, fresh water, and medical supplies, aren’t the only things that disappear over time.  You also have to look at the condition of your vehicles, your weapons, and your people. People get tired after long periods of time in the field, swords and armor get chipped and dented, powder builds up in rifles.  You need to have the flexibility, the materials, and the skills to take care of them, or you’re as good as dead.  What good is a sword that can’t cut anything or a tent that can’t keep out the rain?

This isn’t so much something you can counter as it is something you can take advantage of.  It’s the very basis of siege warfare.  If you can outlast the enemy, or at least make it impossible for him to resupply, repair, or refit, you can force him to capitulate.  What if you killed all the blacksmiths or broke all the forges?  There wouldn’t be much weapon manufacturing getting done.

What if, for example, you constantly needed new ball bearings to replace ones that were getting used up due to the high activity volumes of your machines – like tanks and airplanes?  The enemy, if they knew you relied heavily on ball bearings in order to maintain your mechanized force, would choose your ball bearings as a center of gravity, a point of weakness.  You would be Nazi Germany, and your center of gravity would be Schweinfurt.  This is exactly what happened during World War II.  The execution (and the intelligence) was poor on the part of the United States, but the principle is the same.*

Case Study:   History

I can’t really have a case study for all aspects of the military in all genres of fiction, and I can’t say I’ve ever read a book and said “Wow, the logistics in this novel are so real, I can almost feel the enemy starving!”  As I get into more and more specific details when it comes to the military, I’m probably going to need to start referring to actual historical events rather than works of fiction.  After all, history is the greatest story of them all.

If you want real examples about the successes and failures of logistics, you only need to put one word in Google:  Empire.  Empires start from a central location (Rome, Great Britain, Berlin, Istanbul) and extend giant tendrils of power over thousands of miles.  Each of the Muslim Caliphates covered territory from halfway into Russia to the southern coasts of Spain.  Napoleon made it into freaking Russia.  I’m not going to go into the details here because I couldn’t do them justice, but I will tell you that if you want to learn how to do logistics, go read some history.  Some particular campaigns to pay attention to:  World War II’s Pacific campaign, Napoleon’s conquest of Europe, and the Roman Empire.  Pay close attention to the different ways supply chains were established; the Romans were masters of assimilating and creating supply points as they went, and America is pretty good at bringing the whole country with us wherever we go.

While I don’t expect any writer to give us a detailed explanation of their army’s supply chain, I hope this gave you some ideas on how to maintain a realistic environment AND keep things interesting.  If you’re writing a book about an empire, how might it alter the course of events if a major supply city suddenly rebelled?  How about someone poisoning a major water source?  Don’t forget that there are always unintended consequences of these types of actions, too.  Everyone, including citizens, drink that water you just befouled.

I’ve been getting some good feedback on these articles and some good suggestions on where to go from here. Do you have any requests, any questions that you want answered?  Leave a comment, and don’t forget to attend some of my panels during WORLDCON this year.  Check the link at the top of my webpage for the schedule.

Thanks for reading,


*If you look at the link in the “belligerents” section, and notice the echelons, about which I spoke in MIF #6.  The large echelon is an “Air Force” (Eighth Air Force) and is composed of several “Bomber Groups” (BGs).

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