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I'm dabbling with a short story involving two large but sparsely populated nations locked in a bitter war. Due to limitations of resources, technology, and terrain, neither side can conquer and hold enemy territory for very long, so although the border changes frequently, the overall picture has remained fairly stagnant for nearly 700 years.

A good real-world analogue to this scenario seems to be the Roman-Persian wars, which lasted just over 680 years without a clear victor. The sources I've been able to find about the Roman-Persian wars indicate that cities on the border were repeatedly captured, re-captured, sacked, destroyed, and rebuilt over the course of the war.

So here you have your humble garrison, defending City X from the latest wave of enemy invaders. Both sides know that this city has changed hands half a dozen times in the last few centuries, maybe even recently, and likely will again before the war is over. How would this knowledge affect the morale and determination of the defenders and of the attackers?

I recognize that the answer to this question can be highly subjective, so historical examples or suggestions to improve the specificity of the question are welcome!

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    $\begingroup$ In addition to my suggestions for your first question (nearly all of which are applicable here), What is the military structure of the combatants? Are the nations stable enough to guarantee regular payment/compensation? What is the status of equipment (are you running out of parts, able to deliver new innovations, etc.)? Is there a surplus of soldiers? How frequently are they allowed leave? Do they have access to counseling? religious services? entertainment? What is the quality of their food and is it regularly supplied? What is the relationship between the townspeople and the garrison? Etc. $\endgroup$ – JBH Dec 31 '17 at 7:32
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    $\begingroup$ The key word is the Roman-Persian Wars. Plural. During the seven centuries of "wars", war was actually quite rare; most of the time the two empires were at peace, and sustained a healthy amount of trade: that's why the border cities were always rebuilt and repopulated -- there was good profit to be made from the traffic. The (small) garrisons of those cities were not meant to resist the power of the other empire, they were meant to keep order and try to control smuggling. When war came, they fought a little pour l'honneur and to gain some time, then surrendered or fled... $\endgroup$ – AlexP Dec 31 '17 at 13:46
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    $\begingroup$ As I read this it sounds like the question is asking "Throughout history, how has moral been effected by long lasting wars? which reads more like a question for historians than worldbuilders. $\endgroup$ – Lio Elbammalf Dec 31 '17 at 16:45
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    $\begingroup$ You need to specifically highlight why the two sides are at war. Is it ideological, territorial, clan-related, race-related, or just simply a game between two leaders? The claim can be made that most so-called wars in Europe up to WW1 can be traced to 'just a game' between leaders, roughly similar to modern World Olympics. National pride. View your war as a sports competition between two rival national teams, and really, is it not just about playing? The losers still show up next year to play again. $\endgroup$ – Justin Thyme Dec 31 '17 at 18:58
  • $\begingroup$ I do not think that this question is highly subjective or opinion-based. The question has enough information to rely on existing psychological knowledge to give a relatively objective answer. IMO, the only thing that could make a difference is presence or absence of mass communication technologies (at least a radio). I wonder if you could provide clarification on this. $\endgroup$ – Olga Dec 31 '17 at 21:30
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All Quiet on the Western Front

WWI wasn't quite interminable, but for any solider who had been leading the invasion into Belguim in 1914 as a 19 year old; the situation in 1918 was pretty close. These people had spent four years, their entire adult life, in trench warfare. This is the situation covered in All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, a German soldier.

An appropriate quote from the last chapter to answer your question:

Here, on the borders of death, life follows and amazingly simple course, it is limited to what is most necessary, all else lies buried in gloomy sleep;--in that besides our primitiveness and our survival. Were we more subtly differentiated we must long since have gone mad, have deserted, or have fallen. As in a polar expedition, every expression of life must serve only the preservation of existence, and is absolutely focused on that. All else is banished because it would consume energies unnecessarily. That is the only way to save ourselves. In the quiet hours when the puzzling reflection of former days like a blurred mirror, projects beyond me the figure of my present existence, I often sit over against myself, as before a stranger, and wonder how the unnameable active principle that calls itself to life has adapted itself even to this form. All other expressions lie in a winter sleep, life is simply one continual watch against the menace of death;--it has transformed us into unthinking animals in order to give us the weapon of instinct--it has reinforced us with dullness, so that we do not go to pieces before the horror, which would overwhelm us if we had a clear, conscious thought--it has awakened in us the sense of comradeship, so that we escape the abyss of solitude--it has lent us the indifference of wild creatures, so that in spite of all, we perceive the positive in every moment, and store it up as a reserve against the onslaught of nothingness. Thus we live a closed, hard existence of the utmost superficiality, and rarely does an incident strike out a stark. But then unexpectedly a flame of grievous and terrible yearning flares up.

Super depressing! Have a good day.

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    $\begingroup$ Excellent, a firsthand account from someone who directly experienced this kind of phenomenon provides exactly the insight I was looking for. I shall have to acquire this book. Thanks! $\endgroup$ – MikeB Dec 31 '17 at 12:26
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Consider that a conflict like you describe would not be a "total war" with the full resources of the country poured into an effort to win. You cannot sustain something like that for 700 years.

Your war reminds me of the war in Orwell's 1984

the purpose of the unwinnable, perpetual war is to consume human labour and commodities so that the economy of a superstate cannot support economic equality, with a high standard of life for every citizen. By using up most of the produced objects like boots and rations, the proles are kept poor and uneducated and will neither realise what the government is doing nor rebel.

That is one spin on a forever war: the grim 1984 spin. The other reason for a war like this is more positive. Nothing unites like a common enemy, and bonds made between soldiers during war last a lifetime. A low level, simmering war of this sort could be used to instill feelings of unity and brotherhood - possibly among different ethnic or religious groups - and so sidestep or smooth over internal issues which otherwise might cause trouble in the governance of the country.

As regards morale for the soldiers, I could imagine that each might do a short tour of duty at the front in doing obligatory military service. The country would not want to make this a hellish experience or one likely to kill a lot of young men. That would be unsustainable. I found this good text describing how the Canadian government took care of its soldiers who went to the far away front in WW1 (and probably a more dangerous endeavor there than the forever war you describe).

from http://www.warmuseum.ca/firstworldwar/history/life-at-the-front/trench-conditions/maintaining-morale/

Many factors helped persuade soldiers to fight. The bonds of friendship, loyalty and community based on shared experience and common dangers were principal among them, leading to a strong sense of group identity, especially among small groups. Training, firm discipline and strong leadership also motivated soldiers and, the threat of punishment helped keep soldiers in line. Military traditions and values were also important, even in citizen-armies like Canada’s, and the firm sense that most soldiers shared in the justness of their cause. The military understood many of the challenges to morale and the discomfort caused by life in the trenches. It tried to provide soldiers with the comforts necessary to sustain morale.

You country would do the same. The war is the glue that holds society together. The men who go should be proud to be going, and should return with positive feelings about themselves, their comrades, and the country.

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