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This world takes place in a continent with advanced 20th century technology. The one key difference from our reality is that war does not exist in the way we would think of it. Disputes between states are settled in ritual combat, where both sides choose an individual or groups of people to represent them. These groups would battle each other in games similar to the Olympics, which would be devoted to some deity. These games would take place annually, and also be used to resolve conflicts between nations when other alternatives have been exhausted.

This continent is divided up into various nations that worship a monotheistic deity. A religious order devoted to this god is present in some form among the states. All countries annually contribute to this order, and is protected from being interfered with by remaining neutral. These priests administer this faith amd maintain the peace between these countries through these war games.

These events would open up with a ritual human sacrifice conducted by the priests to earn the favor of the god. Games would put the best of the best from respective nations against each other. Games would have different venues. Some would be dangerous sports that would be played between teams in which death may be possible. Others would be more combative, with the purpose being to kill your opponent. Because of these events, outright war among humanity has been avoided for millennia. Those who die in these events would be considered blood sacrifice to the gods, and would be considered heroes for representing their nations.

I would like these events to serve as a suitable replacement for warfare, and have countries be encouraged to support this system. How could I make this work and remain sustainable in the long term?

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marked as duplicate by Mołot, Frostfyre, JBH, Dubukay, Gryphon Jan 15 at 21:17

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    $\begingroup$ You already seem to have set up the world in the paragraphs before your actual question. I think we need to know specifically what it is about this world that needs to be set up. $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK Jan 14 at 20:53
  • $\begingroup$ @chasly from UK what I want is to figure our how a system like this would realistically come to be and why countries would support it with today's tech. $\endgroup$ – Incognito Jan 14 at 20:56
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    $\begingroup$ Just to make a point: it wouldn't. The first time a powerful country disagreed with the outcome the games would be out and war would be in. We've hosted questions like this one before ("How can X replace war?") By definition, war is what you get when all other avenues of addressing disagreement are exhausted. Unless forced by a superior power (whether a god or mutually-assured-destruction), you can't consistently replace a more violent solution with a less violent solution. $\endgroup$ – JBH Jan 14 at 21:25
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    $\begingroup$ Isn't this the Hunger Games premise? $\endgroup$ – Willk Jan 14 at 21:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Willk and Mortal Kombat (replacing wars between worlds) and the short story Seventh Victim by Robert Sheckley (war is substituted by a global "hide and seek" type of assassination game to satisfy the lust for combat and death). $\endgroup$ – VLAZ Jan 14 at 22:33
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The biggest thing I can think of that your world needs to declare is the consequences of attempting to supersede the ritual combat.
Without strong negative consequences to acting outside of the ritual it would be unlikely for all to wait up to a year for the ritual in order to resolve the dispute.
You would also need a satisfying positive resolution for the victor for waiting and using the ritual.

For example, a border dispute in the absence of the ritual may have resulted in parts of one country being taken over by the aggressor. In order for the ritual to be maintained that sort of reward must be possible else border disputes would be fought over in the traditional way.

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Long-term sustainability would require a superior power holding the reins, not just the belief in a superior power. Beliefs change according to the societal undercurrents, and will lead to splits, open (see Church of England) or covert (see differently practised catholicism around the world), in the organisational metastructure of the faith. Such a split in the Olympian faith would render the whole thing ineffective (wars parallel to the games, 'police action' to forces some outcome in the games, etc.).

What you thus need is a true superior power that can sanction behaviour according to some rules. This superior power cannot come from within (i.e. cannot be the UN, for instance) because while that would work towards your plot-goal for a while, the Assembly has no gain in protecting the status quo - they might decree the games to be unbloody, more bloody (microwars) etc. If your plot needs those games to remain unchanged for a long while, the ruling must come from outside - godlike aliens (or godlike AI, godlike tech, whatever the perceived difference may be).

Also, you will soon come to a semantic hurdle - what is war? What activities in the War on Terror count as war? Is the fighting in eastern Ukraine a war? - Who are the actors, i.e who would send envoys/athletes? Could Catalonia send the five people willing to die for a secession, even though not nearly enough people in Catalonia would want to slug it out for real about the issue? Your country is economically dependent on Unobtainium. Your Neighbor BadCountry is the only source of Unobtainium and has a 100-year trade deal with you. They now stop delivery because they want more money, dastardly doing that right after the annual Games... Now you can either watch your economy die for the next 364 days till the next Games, pay their outrageous prices, or go for a little police action, you know, just enforcing standing contracts - so SWAT will take the nearest Unobtainium mine in BadCountry. Sure, some mortar fire will be necessary, but it's not a war, right?

War is a risky and very expensive endeavour - because of this it is usally only commenced in the hopes of furthering some Very Important Issue - but if VIIs can be achieved by expending five people, why not also spend five more on some Mildly Important Issues? There is currently a spat over the naming of some province in Greece vs. the country of Macedonia. It has enough people inflamed that there would be people willing to die for it, but it would never escalate to a war - how would the Games weed those MIIs out?

In the last 20 years the United States lost about 7000 soldiers in wars. 350 a year. Public opinion in the US is that these are heroes, but also that the number is too high. Perceived war goals were survival, oil, freedom and other VIIs. Stated war goals of the other side (though not state actors, see semantic problems above) were destruction of the US, faith, freedom and others. Now this is a Game: Five athletes go head to head in martial bobsledding. The outcome will determine... what? Whether the US is destroyed? Whether oil will be sold to the US at prices of their own making? Who will do the destruction? Who will arbitrate the sales? You need a superior power.

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This depends on the purpose of the war

Small equally matched city states or tribes who raid each other for money, crops, cattle, brides, etc. Doing battle by use of champions may be preferable. Sparta was an example of this.

However if you're invading for conquest, then you're going to have trouble. As soon as there's significant disparity in the strength of the groups it breaks down. Why should you play the game when you can just overrun them? How is a game valid for a battle of survival?

Keep your belligerent parties small and weak, such that neither can afford to lose significant numbers of combatants, then combat by champions could work.

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There is a model for this already in the world.

Moriori

As a small and precarious population, Moriori embraced a pacifist culture that rigidly avoided warfare, replacing it with dispute resolution in the form of ritual fighting and conciliation. The ban on warfare and cannibalism is attributed to their ancestor Nunuku-whenua.

...because men get angry and during such anger feel the will to strike, that so they may, but only with a rod the thickness of a thumb, and one stretch of the arms length, and thrash away, but that on an abrasion of the hide, or first sign of blood, all should consider honour satisfied.

— Oral tradition

This enabled the Moriori to preserve what limited resources they had in their harsh climate, avoiding waste through warfare, such as may have led to catastrophic habitat destruction and population decline on Easter Island. However, when considered as a moral imperative rather than a pragmatic response to circumstances, it also led to their later near-destruction at the hands of invading North Island Māori.

If the Moriori were the only people in the world then the unfortunately and terrible events of 1835 (when they were invaded by non-pacifist Māori and massacred, enslaved and literally eaten) would not take place. Instead they would be able to spread and expand.

If the societal pressures and customs were strong enough and enforced well enough then this could be stable over a long time period.

The main change I would institute is to avoid the choice of Tapata and Torea. Allow the pacifism to be broken in order to handle transgressors. If someone were to take up other forms of violence then everyone would rise up to deal with them and then return to traditional ways afterwards.

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Yes, but only if there exists a legitimate threat of coercive violence.

The system you describe is possible, but will only realistically work in the long term if there exists a legitimate threat of reprisal against any nation which doesn't agree to solve conflicts in that manner. For example, if nations have the option to either solve conflicts through the Games, or else face excommunication from the church, subsequent loss of church protection, and finally destruction at the hands of those nations still bound under church rule, it makes sense for them to obey church doctrine, especially if the populace is largely monolithic in their adherence to the faith.

This is predicated, in part, on no nation having sufficient means of defense to break off from the church. If such a situation arises, it's likely that the renegade nation will break away from the church and do what it wants, rather than remain bound by religious rules. The Church of England, for example, broke away from the Catholic church as a means for Henry VIII to annul his marriage, which was possible in part due to the isolation and defensibility of England as a nation. Were the Catholic Church able and willing to violently subdue England in response to an attempted schism, such a split likely would not have happened.

If your continental theocracy is made up of a large number of small states, with open license to wage war against outside powers, the system which you describe is certainly possible. The larger your states become, and the harder and less profitable it would be for the rest of the states to band together to destroy a renegade state, the more tenuous the Games will be as a legitimate means to replace war. Similarly, if major tension breaks out between large coalitions of states, it will be substantially more difficult to prevent the outbreak of war.

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First I would like to talk about why this set up is highly implausibly in the established circumstances and then give my suggestions how this could be made more realistic. So bear with me for a bit.

The only semi-realistic way I could see of making countries engage in this rather than go to war with one another is by giving each some sort of weapon(s) of mass destruction. (Kinda like how we (thankfully!) don't have major open conflicts today due to the nukes). Even then, however, the games would not exist in the way you've set up them to be in the OP. There is no way a nation with technological and scientific advancement that is more or less equal to the present day or even the 20th century would have such a wide-spread polytheistic religion, let alone perform human sacrifices. Having a multi-deity religion requires a certain mindset and a lack of understanding about the surroundings (as gods often represent forces of nature). But even if we assume that this is plausible, I doubt that gods who allegedly accept or even demand human sacrifice are benevolent and vary of war - thus this religion would contradict the continuous peace. The grass is always greener on the other side, you know. If the deity(ies) are well-meaning after all, but require/appreciate human sacrifice nevertheless, the games would still be at odds with religion. Since the gods are good and a sacrifice is meant to appease the gods and ask them for a favour in return, said favour would most likely be peace, which is supported by the gods. It would make engaging in competitions with varying level of bloodshed pointless, because the gods are already appeased. Plus, benevolent deities might not like, as it is not a sacrifice - just plain violence.

Little rant is over, now coming onto the ways to make this premise work a little better (IMHO, of course). As I've mentioned above, religions like this don't go too well with a scientific worldview. Naturally, this only applies if the people have developed their the tech themselves. Thus, I think it would be much more plausible and easier to explain, if the technology people have had been given to them by some supreme power/aliens/etc. The ability to use technology doesn't change their mindset and perception of the world around them, plus it's likely that they would make whoever granted it to them their deity and would (at least for a time) avoid breaking its command of not engaging in war due to fear.

Idk, it is still wobbly, but I'm sure you'll make it work if you like the idea!

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  • $\begingroup$ While I agree with much of what you say (for example MAD) I disagree with others. Religion or human sacrifice in of itself doesn't preclude scientific advance - it's only when the church sets itself against science that it does. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Jan 15 at 15:46
  • $\begingroup$ @TimB I agree, but that's not quite what I meant. Religion and science could develop independently and don't necessarily counter each other, of course. But polytheistic religions, in the sense we've often seen them in our world at least, are centered around deities that represent a certain aspect of life or nature. Thus, I really don't think that it would be possible to know the science behind rain or thunderstorm, for example, and yet still believe in and make sacrifices to associated gods. But that's just my opinion, plus there are always exceptions. $\endgroup$ – A.I. Jan 15 at 16:29
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    $\begingroup$ History (and recent politics around the world) shows that people will believe anything no matter how much the evidence stacks up against it if they are indoctrinated early enough and it is reinforced strongly enough. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Jan 15 at 16:51
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    $\begingroup$ @A.I. China, Japan, and India begs to differ, polytheistic religion is in no way counter to advancement. This is pure western ethnocentrism. $\endgroup$ – John Jan 15 at 17:51
  • $\begingroup$ @John I thought I clarified that never meant that religion counters advancement :) I considered only more western-style pantheons and haven't actually thought about eastern countries (wrongly, maybe) as they are much more intricate and interwoven with other religions of the region (not to say that western ones aren't). And we don't often get to see them in fiction, so forgive me for jumping to, perhaps, the most familiar examples. $\endgroup$ – A.I. Jan 15 at 18:00
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Possible explanation:

You start with a feudal caste system, most people being producers (farmers). Now you make your warrior-caste (your "knights") over-zealous of their position, to the point they, and only they, are the ones fighting the wars. There isn't a good reason for that (apart from religion, which works as justification for everything), but you could invent some plausible ones:

  • A very demmanding agricultural system: if +95% of the population of your fictional countries isn't farming all year long, there is a massive crop failure, famine and death. The society can only spare a few members for protection and war, the rest of the people are growing food.
  • Very long traveling times: in the same way, if any war takes years just for traveling it also takes a lot of time to grow the food to start the campaign and the society loses productive men for too long. Sending small forces of highly trained and specialized warriors has the best cost-benefit.

(None of the reasons above protects you against a massive migration like the ones that ended the Western Roman Empire, though)

- Very low fertility, maybe combined with a long lifespan: I always thought the death of an Asari in Mass Effect was a tragedy, a being with centuries of experience, but at the same time I found strange they were so willing to fight. After all, dying for them was renouncing to a thousand years of life. Maybe your society could be more reasonable, knowing a death in war is too costly and resorting to diplomacy and a few people taught since children their objective is to fight and die for their Lord, country, god, whatever. You said your "games" started with human sacrifice, they could be beings too old to enjoy living anymore or you could create a sort of "mutts" with short lifespans the rest of the society sees as sub-humans (and thus sacrifice them without remorse).

Once you have this very consolidated warrior caste, they could start seeing the warriors of other countries more similar to them than their fellow countrymen. They could make up strange rules for war and end creating something similar to a sports competition where people "with honor" fight for the good of their country (but actually for their own glory).

Combine this with a very preaching religious order, always praising the warriors that compete in the Games "Oh, yes, they give up everything for you to be safe at your homes. Let's cheer them up!" and maybe it could be sustainable for a time.

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This is somewhat dealt with in the Star Trek episode "A Taste of Armageddon". Two nations (planets) had a long-standing deal to carry on a war by non-bloody means. When Kirk upsets the arrangement, they're faced with the prospect of going back to conventional weapons, and instead decide on a cease-fire.

What's relevant to the world you're building is, if you can get this scheme going for a few centuries at least, your nations will soon lose the stomach for going back to a "real war". No one would choose to fight an all-out war as long as this option is open. Hence the system will become self-perpetuating after it has been established for a while.

What would break your system is if there were some group for which the ritual system was not an option. IE if it's only open to existing kingdoms and no rebellious province or oppressed tribe can enter, then those groups will be faced with conventional war being their only option for relief.

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Let's say that the states in your world are organized in a feudal way, so they are ruled by a king/emperor and divided into dozens of counties or duchies. There is a kind of religious law that is the foundation of the legitimacy of power. The power in a county usually can be inherited only from father to son, but the same ancient law that establishes the heritability of power also says that the land of an earl can be also be transmitted if the earl is killed in duel, in favor of his rival. If the rival is vassal of another emperor, the law doesn't require him to switch his loyalty to the emperor of the former earl: this allows to easily transfer land from a state to the other.

Following this law, in the centuries these duels evolved into a ritual game, where the earls fight each other for the glory (and - more important - the power) of their emperors. The games themsleves evolved in even more spectacular and elaborate. Since the switch of power doesn't require the same strong and costy logistic, but just the vistory in a duel, there is no need to start a war, since it will be possible to fight another duel after a few years to regain the lost lands. Think of the transfer of power in the democracies: the loser doesn't need to start a revolution, but has just to wait for the next elections to try again to gain the power.

Since a lot of earls would die in every game, in order to avoid a "shortage" of earls, every earl must adopt more sons and give them a county. This wold allow also to easily co-opt in the nobility the bourgeoises and the commoners, which would in turn allow to perpetuate the feudal rules, quenching possible claims against the established law from the more powerful commoners.

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