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In the fantasy novel I am writing, there is a world-wide war going on. The war spans several continents and has many fronts, but the actual fighting is very similar to that of WWI - mostly waiting in trenches. The front lines rarely move far. This has led to several countries being permanently bordered by the fronts on one or two sides (no country is surrounded).

I'm envisioning these countries as being great military powers, constantly locked into a state of battle and tactics. I would like them to be powerful nations with powerful armies... but I'm not sure how realistic that is. My concern lies with economy. To become the rich and powerful nations I want them to be, capable of supporting vast armies, they need to have a massive income. With most of their population locked down by war, and one or two sides of the country completely closed off by enemy forces, how can this be?

Before I get to the details, I would like to quell any suspicions about this question being opinion-based. My question is: Can a country in such a situation be permanently rich and powerful, with either a stable or increasing income? Examples of how that can happen are certainly welcome as evidence to back up your answer, but the actual answer itself is a simple yes or no, followed by why or why not (real-life examples would be great, if they exist). I'm not after the best method to make this happen. I just want to see if it can happen at all.

  • The technology level of both sides is that of Ancient Rome or earlier. Nothing later.
  • Those attacking the countries are - not exactly human. Because there are so many of them and because they threaten the whole world, many warriors from different countries will join to fight them. Think crusades, except it's a massive front, instead of one city; and much of the world participating, instead of just Europe.
  • This is a fantasy novel, and magic is present, but it should not be considered.
  • These countries need to maintain the fronts, and maintain (if not grow) their levels of wealth and power over at least a hundred years. There can be no decline, no eventual fall.
  • The fronts are extensive. Collectively, they equal roughly twice the total perimeter of Australia. These borders need to constantly be defended, but also note that they can be broken up over however many countries are necessary.
  • This has to be the case with several countries, spanning different locations and climates. All countries have at least two separate sea borders, and are predominantly: mountainous icy wastes, hilly savanna, tropical rainforest, wooded islands, or vast temperate forests. So if agriculture and trade are parts of the answer, then they need to apply to all of the countries, and not just a few.
  • 'Rich and Powerful' means the countries are capable of recruiting, training, and maintaining massive armies, and still have the resources to handle normal internal affairs adequately (ie, the rest of the country isn't a big slum). 'Permananent' in this case means that these economies aren't dwindling or falling. They are stable, or growing if possible.
  • I will allow questionable government practices (tyranny, corruption, etc.), only if they don't mean the country will collapse within the next hundred years. I would prefer not to go this route, but I will allow it.

I will be happy to provide more details as needed. Just let me know.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm more than skeptical that a war which "spans several continents and has many fronts, but the actual fighting is very similar to that of WWI - mostly waiting in trenches" and yet has "technology level of both sides is that of Ancient Rome or earlier". In fact, I'd say that it's out and out impossible, because the only reason The Great War devolved into into static trench warfare was machine guns. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Aug 31 '18 at 1:32
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    $\begingroup$ In the real world history, the conflict between the Roman Empire and the Persian Empire spanned about 7 centuries. True, they did not fight constantly for 7 centuries; actually, most of the time they did not fight and engaged in trade. But the frontier between them always remained mobile, was always well guarded and fortified, was always on alert, and was always considered "the" place to be for an officer looking for glory and adventure. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Aug 31 '18 at 8:06
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    $\begingroup$ "All countries have at least two separate sea borders" - that's actually pretty unusual IRL. In Europe: Ireland, UK, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Denmark, Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, and Ukraine all only have one coast (I am ignoring islands). Russia has four, Germany, France, Spain, have two. In Africa, none do. $\endgroup$ – Martin Bonner supports Monica Aug 31 '18 at 9:07
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    $\begingroup$ @RonJohn Also, they had an industrialized economy that allowed to support the armies in the field. And a population enough to man the fronts, thanks to advances in sanitation and medicine. $\endgroup$ – SJuan76 Aug 31 '18 at 9:27
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    $\begingroup$ If a country is "rich and powerful" by your definition, it begs the question why is it not diverting some of those extra resources into the war effort to shift the balance of the war? $\endgroup$ – asgallant Aug 31 '18 at 19:14

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Let's ignore your WWI reference and take the rest of the question at face value

What this means is that there is no conquest. The war is static, perhaps even in a state of zugzwang, meaning if either player tries to break the current stalemate, the effort will put them at a disadvantage, thus the stalemate continues.1

Could such a nation remain properous?

Yes, but...

Prosperity means that the drain on resources (both manpower and materiel) does not affect the day-to-day lives of the citizens not directly engaged in the military-industrial-complex.

Thus, if within your own borders you had (ideally) every mineral you needed from the ground, every grain of wheat you need to feed your people, every manufacturing capability, etc. — in other words, you never need to transport goods or raw materials of any kind from outside your protected borders — and that with those resources you could wage war and provide for your people, then yes, you could maintain a completely prosperous society during a period of war.

But, there will eventually be problems...

For all practical purposes your world may have an infinite supply of food and raw materials — but you do not have an infinite supply of people. With every passing day there are fewer people as you draw replacements from the citizenry. Worst of all, the most common soldier is your prime worker, so the very people you need to keep that society prosperous are actually dying in the proverbial trenches.

Your second problem is that with a declining population, your ability to keep up with lost resources (consumed by your soldiers or lost due to battle, enemy ambush, actual robbery, etc...) will dwindle. You inevitably must divert what goods you can produce to the military because of that nasty zugzwang situation. You can't afford for your people to be first or you lose the war.

Your last problem is public disatisfaction. They'll be happy with their prosperity, but again, with every passing day another family loses a loved one, curses whatever gods they believe in, and turn a hateful eye to the government for failing to bring the crisis to a conclusion. Eventually, the number of unhappy people outnumber the happy people and your prosperity begins to tank.

Conclusion

For a period of time you can have a completely happy society. The more citizens you have, the longer you can remain prosperous. But, eventually fate and attrition will catch up with you.

Answer: Yes, for a while.


1Not unlike holding a wolf by the ears... you can't let go but you need to use the restroom.

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    $\begingroup$ “For all practical purposes your world may have an infinite supply of food and raw materials — but you do not have an infinite supply of people.” Not an issue if you can keep birth rates high enough to sustain or even grow population levels. Could also make for an interesting social structure where each men has multiple women since most of the men are sent to war. $\endgroup$ – Michael Aug 31 '18 at 7:29
  • $\begingroup$ @Michael, that's a good point, but without details from the OP, I had to assume something similar to what we have today. No matter how many babies you can conceive today, you'd need a minimum of 15-20 years before they can be soldiers. (Child soldiers aren't as useful physiologically matured sub-adults.) $\endgroup$ – JBH Aug 31 '18 at 17:08
  • $\begingroup$ The third problem is mostly dealt with, because the attackers are not the kind of people you can reason with. Think along the lines of alien invaders in terms of diplomacy. The people won't like the war, but far from blaming the government, they'll be grateful that the government has kept the enemy at bay, despite the costs. With this knowledge, would the remaining two problems be solved by a constant influx of fighters, plus some potential population growth 'measures' as Michael suggests? $\endgroup$ – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Aug 31 '18 at 17:16
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    $\begingroup$ Hi Thomas! You're applying logic where, slowly, logic begins to fail. A family that lost all its children to the war is far less likely to be grateful than you might think. It may delay things, but people will eventually tire of even this kind of war. You can delay the inevitable, but in the end, whomever has the most soldiers to feed into the war and the fewest number of complaints will win. It's not stable. (Bear in mind that unless your aliens are a hive mind they'll have similar problems, but their population might be 1000X the other.) $\endgroup$ – JBH Aug 31 '18 at 17:21
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    $\begingroup$ Oh, and keep one thing in mind. A powerful and prosperous economy means people have luxuries. That's an intrinsic problem because it includes the luxury of complaint. Constant fear of an alien enemy does not support the idea of a propserous economy, where people have the luxury to forget the enemy is a problem. In its worse case, people will have the luxury to protest for the dumbest reasons (we see this in the U.S. today), such as "oh, those poor aliens, we should stop killing them!" $\endgroup$ – JBH Aug 31 '18 at 17:24
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Rome was constantly at war. Here is a list of battles. Check out the time period from 343 BC to the establishment of the Empire in 30 BC. A 300 year time period with 49 separately listed wars. Rome was also rich. Doesn't need much explanation, but by 30 BC Rome had acquired the wealth for Augustus to turn Rome into a city of marble.

Rome became rich through conquest. That 300 year period corresponded with rome expanding from a single city to the entire Mediterranean Basin (and norther Gaul to boot). You need your country to be continually expanding. But Rome also had at least one permanent enemy in Persia; a land more or less just as rich and able to fight wars off and on with Rome over time.

You can have several rich, prosperous countries locked in battle with each other, as long as they all have opportunities to expand into other parts of the world, growing rich off of decades or centuries of conquest in the process.

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    $\begingroup$ It's worth emphasizing that the continuous expanding is crucial if we're modeling the nation after Rome - Rome's decline was in large part because it grew so large that further conquest became unsustainable for logistics reasons. $\endgroup$ – mtraceur Sep 1 '18 at 0:47
  • $\begingroup$ One wouldn't need a constantly expanding country: just look at modern day US, it is constantly at war with various other countries, right now it fighting islam, before that it was fighting communism before that fascism before that slavery. They are always at war with an ideology that doesn't fit theirs, without expanding and just using bloodshed for bloodshed sake: but they have an active healthy economy. $\endgroup$ – paul23 Sep 1 '18 at 13:32
  • $\begingroup$ @paul23 Bad analogy. US has not been in a congressionally declared war against another nation state since 1945. Iraq and Afghanistan are police actions, not wars. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Sep 1 '18 at 13:59
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    $\begingroup$ @kingledion quite frankly they are wars. It's just that for politics the US hasn't called them wars, but a "police action" is not something you can do in another country (that's the whole idea of sovereignty, that you can have your own rules without interference of other countries): when you do that you are committing an act of war. And continuously doing that means you are in a war. $\endgroup$ – paul23 Sep 1 '18 at 18:15
  • $\begingroup$ @paul23 Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan (nor Syria, nor Yemen, Lybia, etc) are countries. They are regions of the world with competing political factions. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Sep 1 '18 at 18:16
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In theory yes

But only if this is an Orwellian war rather than a real one.

For those of you who only pretend to have read Orwell's 1984, the world is kept in a constant state of war between three powers. Which power you're currently at war with or allied to is not important, what's important is to always be at war. It gives you a vent to dispose of violent or rebellious elements of society, it gives a rite of passage for young men, it allows you to always point to something to say "you must toe the line or they win".

To maintain a wealthy society you can't have a large proportion of your economy tied to the war unless you're winning. To keep the war running for long periods on a static front you can't be winning.

And so the war becomes Orwellian, maintained from above by agreement between the leaders of the powers as a benefit to all of them, but regulated in such a way that it doesn't do significant damage to the economy of any participant.

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    $\begingroup$ This nails the "rich and powerful" criteria as laid out in the question, but wasn't a major aim of the constant three-way war in 1984 to absorb surplus wealth in such a way as to never improve the standard of living of the general population? I don't have the book handy but as I recall that was the topic of one of the chapters of "Goldstein's" book. In any case, I think that this answers the question but also points to significant repression as a major goal. Is the inter-state agreement necessary, or could a legitimate stalemate and propaganda fill the same purpose? $\endgroup$ – Upper_Case-Stop Harming Monica Aug 31 '18 at 17:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Upper_Case, here we have a different purpose for our war, we want a constant state of hot war, but never a risk of victory (or defeat). Left uncontrolled in a stalemate situation there's a risk that one party might actually throw more resources at it in an effort to bring some sort of resolution, hence we need a tacit agreement to throttle our war at a lower effective level than in 1984. A certain level of repression is expected, don't forget absolute monarchies were the stable form of government for thousands of years, these free democracies we now consider normal are a recent event. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Aug 31 '18 at 18:16
  • $\begingroup$ The nation in 1984 didn’t have a powerful economy. There were always ration cuts, things like chocolate couldn’t be found, they were living in post-war damaged houses. $\endgroup$ – atayenel Sep 1 '18 at 12:09
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I think the easiest solve for this, if it’s possible in your world, is that in addition to fighting the unending war, a portion of the powerful countries’ military is employed elsewhere and engaged it maintaining imperial colonies - that is, the superpowers engaged in fighting off the invasion are drawing wealth (and probably conscripts too) from other parts of the world that they have subjected politically, militarily, and economically. This is basically how it has worked/works in real history.

As far as other “questionable government practices”, I would think that at the bare minimum there would be some internal political suppression (ie of an anti-war movement, etc - people are bound to blame their leaders for such a long war), and with all of the above I’d also assume that there’d be some internal disparity of wealth/class.

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    $\begingroup$ Exactly right. War is an example of the Broken Window Fallacy. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Aug 31 '18 at 1:38
  • $\begingroup$ @RonJohn what about 1984? The whole premise is that war helps society $\endgroup$ – John Locke Aug 31 '18 at 11:06
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnLocke the book 1984? It's been a long time since I've read it. Did Ingsoc say that it was good for the economy or did Orwell (not an economist) just write it that way? $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Aug 31 '18 at 13:25
  • $\begingroup$ @RonJohn the idea was that never-ending war would use up all of the products of society. The premise is the middle class would tell the lower class if they help overthrow upper class they can be the new middle class. Then the middle and upper classes switch but the lower class never gets to move up. By stopping society from advancing with a war, the government can stop the class switching and that is presumably better for everyone. $\endgroup$ – John Locke Aug 31 '18 at 17:27
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In most wars one side gets a small advantage, uses that to get a slightly larger advantage and snowballs into winning the whole thing.

To avoid that, you need a strong home field advantage.

Let one side have a strong cavalry, unbeatable in open areas.

Let the other have more people and better infantry, unbeatable in uneven mountainous terrain.

Or let there be some other reason the front lines get locked in place.

So, the war has been going for a few years, and there is no end in sight. People start asking about the purpose of it all.

Attacking and conquering places seems pointless, since the enemy will only take them back later.

Raiding makes some sense, that is attacking, looting and retreating. However, areas near the front line will get looted out and raiding too will slow down.

Defending makes perfect sense. You don't want your family or yourself to die after all. Have to stop those enemy raiders.

So, you get a defensive war. City walls, fortifications, maybe a full Chinese/Hadrian-style Wall.

At this point there will not be much fighting, so the war can go on without ruining the economy. Basically forever.

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  • $\begingroup$ I like your last line where you mention that without much fighting, the war can go on forever without ruining the economy. Are there any examples of that in history? A war without much fighting, but while borders were constantly maintained? $\endgroup$ – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Aug 31 '18 at 14:51
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    $\begingroup$ @ThomasMyron, the border between England and Scotland was like this for hundreds of years: declared wars may have been uncommon, but cross-border raiding was effectively constant. The border between the eastern Roman Empire and the Persian Empire was similar, but with more wars and less raiding (and more minor border shifts). $\endgroup$ – Mark Aug 31 '18 at 20:21
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It depends...

A war that does not threaten the core lands, as we see with the current wars waged by the USA, for example, can be run continuously with not much ill effect on the economy.

Likewise, a war of expansion, as in the Roman Empire example already mentioned, can finance itself by plunder offsetting any economic downside.

Essentially, as long as the core lands are not under threat, a country can decide how much resources it wants to dedicate to the war.

However, once the war turns against the country, and it becomes a matter of survival, choice goes out the window. Now, the country needs to bring resources to the fight even if it means damaging the economy. At the end of this escalation, the entire economy is dedicated to the war.

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Stop thinking about World War I. With technology equal to that of Ancient Rome, you're not going to get near the logistical capability to support that many people in that small of a space for any length of time.

What you want is something like China's Great Wall, or Hadrian's Wall in Britain. Those are actually both very topical for you, as they are both fortifications of some size which were maintained by very prosperous civilizations. Look also at Rome's Germanic frontier and how that was maintained.

In addition, if this is truly a multinational fight, with foreign reinforcements coming in, your country would probably have established routes of transit heading to 'the wall' with many businesses, small and large, designed to extract money and resources from those military men in various fulfilling ways. (Think brothels, inns, tourist traps, bars, et cetera.)

If you want to make this especially attractive, embed some kind of economic incentive in this 'not quite human' enemy. Maybe each of the enemy has a flawless diamond in its forehead for a third eye. Maybe their pancreases contain a rare substance needed for religious rituals. Maybe they all carry around nuggets of pure gold. This would help with the motivation for people to put up a lot of expense to equip themselves and travel many miles to help fight.

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  • $\begingroup$ The idea of the enemy being the source of the country's power is actually really good, and one I hadn't considered. It would also help to explain how there are several of these 'front countries', and they are ALL rich and powerful: they're facing the same enemy! $\endgroup$ – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Aug 31 '18 at 21:13
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The source of "wealth" in ancient times was effectively agricultural crops, natural resources (mines for precious metals, marbles, jewels). Cotton, linen (from the flax plant), hemp, and various spices are all agricultural; technically silk is an animal product, but treated much like an agricultural product.

Give all your countries arable land, and limit trade severely. Make them expert farmers/ranchers. They can be self-sufficient and rich, they are turning dirt into wealth by growing food.

Better sanitation results in fewer deaths and thus more people for labor on farms, mines, and other productions, and the excess people can be expended in the war efforts. This can be a conscious decision of the despots in charge; to keep only as many people as it takes to provide the labor the country needs, and "cull their herd" by keeping the best (people with skills or beauty, artists and story tellers, dancers and singers) and sending others to the front to fight for more space. Let people find glory in fighting, rising in the ranks. For skilled fighters, the military can be a route to marriage and wealth as a plantation administrator (baron or lord or some title like that).

Natural resources can feed, clothe, and provide luxury for many centuries. Labor turns dirt and water into foodstuffs, even in early medieval times with no machinery, one man could do the labor to feed four people indefinitely. It would be about 16 hours of work a day, but not hard labor all day. A family of four could get by with 4-5 hours of work for each, each day. Both frontier families in early America and modern survivalists prove it, and hunting is not a necessity (although there is no reason your characters cannot hunt or ranch).

That disparity in the work required also leaves many people to provide secondary "derived" services. Making products out of the agricultural and mined products. Cloth, wood stuffs like furniture and boards, forged and refined metal products, paints, sculpture, flours, baked goods, etc.

Along with a large excess of people, thus the wars provide population control, and some small opportunity for the royal families to grab more territory, or a valuable natural resource. The most natural cause of such endless war would be over the natural resources themselves. Streams, ponds or lakes, mines, farmland, woods or hunting ground, fishing areas.

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  • $\begingroup$ Why limit trade? Wouldn't that only increase income? $\endgroup$ – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Aug 31 '18 at 14:56
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    $\begingroup$ @ThomasMyron You don't HAVE to limit trade, but trade does cause inter-dependencies, thus leverage, and out of self-interest trade often comes with the nasty side-effect of "peace", which you don't really want. It could create the condition in which jealousies between nations over what is available are alleviated, by giving the jealous king a means of getting what he wants without going to war for it -- a terrible compromise! If all the countries are self-sufficient, then the wars are Malthusian survival wars, to seize new resources by force to feed their growing population. $\endgroup$ – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Aug 31 '18 at 15:22
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Israel has been in a state of war and\or pseudo-war since it's formation yet is considered to be an economy stable and powerful country where the quality of life (and salaries) are quite high.

The question isn't if there is a constant war, the question is how good are they in holding the front line in place and\or advancing them, if the front line reaches cities it would be impossible to have a strong economy as that requires investments and no one wants to invest in a place that's about to be taken over by an enemy, but if people are sure that the front line will either stay in place or will get further away I see no problems with it.

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I suppose

Take into account George Orwell's 1984. The entire country of Oceania is at constant war. I do not know if it would be considered a strong economy by today's standards, but it wasn't completely unoperational.

War constantly drains resources of a country, but giving the labor force a motive to work harder. Factories can now operate at max potential and flood the military with war goods while paying out lots of money to the general public.

A war is fairly good for an economy, as WWII brought America completely out of the Great Depression. A country at constant war would constantly benefit from the economical boost provided by a war, so in theory it could have a strong economy.

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  • $\begingroup$ Not being an economist myself, could you summarize that boost? A country at constant war is going to have huge expenses and drain on resources. How does this boost combat that? $\endgroup$ – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Aug 31 '18 at 14:53
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Ancient Rome level technology cannot maintain continent-length high-density battlefronts.

The powers in WW1 couldn't do it. Every one of the powers -- France, Germany, Russia and the UK -- was destroying itself trying to maintain the battlefronts.

France and especially the UK was a bit better off; but it was mortgaging its Empire (to the USA) in order to stave off the decline.

The German strategy was to try to get the other foes to burn themselves out before they burned out. It worked on Russia and was close to working on France and possibly the UK when their unrestricted submarine warfare brought the USA into the war.

These where industrial civilizations with insanely cheaper transportation and more effective logistics, insanely higher infrastructure, insanely more productive agriculture, stronger central states, and population densities than ancient Rome. Collectively they had a huge percentage of the world's resources at their beck and call. And even after the fall of Russia and the ending of the Eastern front, the relatively short Western front was destroying their civilizations.

The War would have to be far colder than WW1.

Roman armies didn't do anything approaching the continent-wide battle fronts you are talking about. They where impressive in their ability to project force over continent-scale distances, but they could not maintain battlefields the length of continents. These two tasks are at least an order of magnitude separate.

Even most 19th century warfare looked more like Roman warfare than WW1.

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Any 4x strategy game will be a decent simulation of how it could work. Start a game on largest possible map with a lot of opposing factions. Reach a desired tech level then start wars with everyone but don't conquer anyone; just constantly do battles with them. See whether you will be able to stabilize your civilization in such situation. I guess you would not be able to do that.

That said, your question basically boils down to "whether my society could prosper if I make daily sacrifices of manpower and resources to huge trash dump". If your income of manpower and resources is larger than the spending, you will prosper.

As was explained in the other answer, biggest limit is the people. Nowadays in Information age population increase tops at 3.8%. Let's say your country have 1kk people in it (HUGE population for High Fantasy setting). It means that it can realistically give you 38000 new soldiers per year IF ABSOLUTELY EVERYONE is conscripted and you have zero death rate before conscription age. This is pretty harsh conditions for a constant war, in my opinion, I hope your specific worldbuilding have enough handwaving for that.

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  • $\begingroup$ Computer games are not really a good world building tool. They are usually oversimplifying the reality far too much. $\endgroup$ – Philipp Aug 31 '18 at 13:03

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