The Dying is in the Details, Combat Diatribes #4: Sir, That Bush Just Winked At Me!

Woo, things got a little heated on that last one, didn’t they? Let’s just return to safety of our abstracted pillbox to talk about a nice, low-controversy topic- brutal ambush warfare!

If you’ve ever read a science fiction book,watched a science fiction film, or played a science-fiction game, odds are good that somebody gets taken by surprise at some point. From what I’ve seen in such diverse offerings as Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica and the dozen shooters I’ve played set in Sci-Fi of some variety, people just love their traps. Thing is, the efficacy of these traps seems to vary a little too much along a certain divide- namely, the Good Guys-Bad Guys divide. Good guys ambush bad guys? Instant victory, and aren’t our heroes clever for totally violating their supposed code of honor? Bad guys ambush good guys, though, and somehow all of the bad guys still die within minutes- serves them right, the underhanded miscreants! Now, ignoring BSG’s admirable decision to start the series with the ‘good’ guys getting ambushed halfway to extinct, I’m not saying that no one’s ever survived an ambush, or indeed, fought their way out of an ambush to kick the other guy really hard in the teeth. That being said, the odds aren’t so great for doing that if the ambush is well planned, and, erm…

How is it that someone skilled enough to defeat an ambush ever falls into an ambush in the first place? Please ignore actual warfare in which some genius at HQ orders you into a town with zero warning or time to scout ahead, and stick to stories. You seriously expect me to believe a grizzled space captain with hundreds of missions under his belt, and the awards for them pinned willy-nilly over his dress uniforms, has never needed the basic skills to see an ambush before it happens? Because at some point, every ambush is totally avoidable. For some historical examples, the German Wehrmacht got very good at camouflage and ambush tactics, even with its tanks, and a number of late-war battles began with Tigers suddenly obliterating a Sherman or Cromwell from concealment. But a tank is only stealthy when totally covered in brushes and doing its best Elmer Fudd impression, which means that if a convoy happens to pass by a different part of the area, even if it’s just a few hundred meters east through the trees, the element of surprise is lost. In order for your ambush to succeed, the enemy has to walk into the killing zone. In film cases such as the Rebel strike on the Death Star II, the first part was a given, and I’m not comfortable with the idea of a reality in which we don’t have ‘It’s a Trap!’ emblazoned on T-Shirts and coffee mugs for public consumption.

Yet surprise attacks have, quite ironically, stopped being surprising, as has their extremely selective success- you’d think it was normal for eight people to shoot at ten people without warning, and have the ten people survive! The whole point of an ambush is that it makes it difficult for the enemy to figure out what’s going on, which in turn often leads to panic, and even when it doesn’t makes recovering and responding very difficult. Mostly I see surprise attacks used to justify a sudden action vignette, which reeks of a creative short-circuit. Inserting a battle into the narrative- and notice that I’m writing this as a guy who’s focused a lot on combat and its execution in writing, in an article about combat in writing- is something you shouldn’t do ‘just because.’ Wars don’t happen for no reason, and neither do battles. That doesn’t mean either of those things necessarily happen for good reasons, but they still have some sort of core drive behind them. You want your fights to mean something, to add some fire to the tale with which to temper your heroes, that kind of nonsense.

The other big issue, however, and one which seems worse to me, is that the directors, developers, composers and even, yes, the writers behind ambush scenes can’t help but foreshadow them to the audience. This’d be fine if they did it very subtly, but everyone seems to have forgotten how to do that. There’s always a cut to the explosives under the bridge before they detonate, or the composer keeps bringing in the Tense Violin Battalion (the TVB are always in demand), or you even just get a cut to the actual snickering bad guys. Just about the only people who seem to get this right are the ones directing actual war films, and that only some of the time. My favorite example of an ambush done right? Saving Private Ryan, hands down. Vin Diesel’s character, Caparzo, suddenly stumbles against a piano and then falls to the ground; at first, it’s not even clear if he’s been shot or just got bored of arguing about a situation involving a French child-the ambush is also preceded by a strangely farcical moment where a French father tries to hand off his daughter to the GIs as they enter the town . Only after Caparzo’s blood begins to stain the rainwater and the theory of a German sniper emerges do we get out answer, finally cutting to the distant Scharfeschutze. The piano and the sniper’s distance away also serve to explain why the shot’s never heard.

That scene also showcases the psychological value of a well-orchestrated ambush. A single marksman in a good position is able to hold up an entire platoon of infantry, because they don’t know where he is other than he’s probably outside their effective range of fire, and real soldiers have an admirable dedication to not getting shot pointlessly. The GIs only make it through courtesy of their own sniper, so just imagine what happens in a similar, real-world case where the ambushed troops don’t have one on hand. Now, let’s think about what makes that scene possible. There’s no music for most of the movie, just ambient noise, and the scene in the town is no exception. So the composer’s not able to get in the way by making us suspicious in advance, or less obviously by suddenly stopping the music. But the film also set out to demonstrate that people are not mystically spared in war, that you don’t get a heroic mystical bullet shield to prevent you from dying horribly if you do something stupid, or just have bad luck. Most importantly, Spielberg opted not to tell the audience that there was going to be an ambush.

Because honestly, it’s that simple. Don’t ever forecast a surprise attack unless your protagonist is on the giving rather than receiving end. Make it confusing. Make it scary. That’s the whole reason for having one in your gritty war narrative (or your rollicking space-opera, that works too). And don’t be afraid to kill Vin Diesel once or twice to get the idea across.

Say something, darn it!

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