I'm thinking about writing a short story in which the protagonist is a member of a tribe that continuously fights with another tribe. Neither tribe has ever come close to winning, because the two have a sort of unspoken agreement that they will only fight over the land on their borders. However, aside from never encroaching on the enemy's "home" territory, the fighting is conducted exactly the same as it would be with a real opponent, with unrestricted slaughter. The purpose of this arrangement is, ultimately, to provide both groups with endless combat training, and make them impervious to any other potential invaders.

Assuming a level of technology somewhat lower then medieval (think early Romans, perhaps, though I'm not fixed on this particular point), would this arrangement be advantageous? Or, more properly, would it be more advantageous than a simple alliance, assuming that fighting with other tribes is very common and the need to continuously have your soldiers be psychologically steeled for real combat is rather great?

I'm looking for a way to deal with the more obvious weaknesses in this scenario, since it obviously is not very intuitive to "help" each other by hosting the occasional mutual skewering on your borders.

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ "a tribe that continuously fights with another tribe" -> those are called feuds, and there's typically a lot of bad blood between said tribes, with each community going to great lengths to damage the other. These either end when they have to face a common enemy, leadership changes, or one of those clans is wiped out. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Jan 21 '16 at 17:06
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ IIRC, Native Americans used to sort of do this. They had war games that were basically "tag". If you were "tagged", you brought shame to your family. I think it was used as a way to keep skills sharp, or improve, but without killing off a portion of sustainable population. $\endgroup$ – coblr Jan 22 '16 at 0:17

The scenario you describe is unsustainable.

The tribes will be killing off their youngest and strongest (but not yet experienced) warriors in pointless and endless skirmishes which bring no net gain to either side.

Furthermore, a lot of bad blood will build up between these clans, as each side has their fathers, brothers, and sons die off.

As a side effect, constant conflict in the area will drive away merchants, reduce the workforce for critical tasks such as farming, and cause political instability as occasionally influential men are killed in combat.

The situation would inevitably reach a boiling point and cause one clan to simply annihilate the other.

Instead, if they want to train their warriors and maintain some healthy competition while not crippling their respective clans they should do as @bowlturner said and organize tournaments, or "mock battles" where groups of warriors can test their skills without the losers paying with their lives (except in accidents, etc.)

Pooling their resources together and raiding the territory of some third clan/kingdom is also a viable alternative.

I would read up on Vikings, as they seem a good fit to what you're trying to accomplish.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The scenario described is exactly how the world is currently organized. $\endgroup$ – emory Jan 21 '16 at 20:58
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @emory - what do you mean? $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Jan 21 '16 at 21:13
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I am a member of the tribe called "The United States of America". It is currently engaged in combat against other tribes. It has been this way for a very long time. $\endgroup$ – emory Jan 21 '16 at 21:56
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ @emory - Yes, but the US does not contact Iraq and say: "Hey, we've got 10 000 marines we just trained, can we send them over to get shot up so that the survivors will become skilled in combat?" Similarly, France and Germany don't set up a live-fire exercise between their newbie troops on a regular basis (or at all). The US, for all its flaws, has a reason when it engages in combat, even if it dishonest about those reasons, and they may not serve the needs of the majority of its population. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Jan 21 '16 at 22:10
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @emory that makes a pretty big difference. Actually, it's the whole freakin' point. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Jan 22 '16 at 1:47

This is pretty close to the concept of flower wars, ie Aztec ritual wars against their enemies.

I think that the key element that makes it viable is that both tribes observe the rules and don't use it as an opportunity to gain a strategic advantage (a similar concept can be encountered in ancient Greek warfare; both side will stop hostilities during the winter). As a result, war is not necessarily continuous, allowing for other activities (including real wars).

Also note that each tribe might think that they benefit more than the other tribe - perhaps one of them focuses on the religious aspect (e.g. getting sacrifices) while the other views it as a training ground.

  • $\begingroup$ seems like great minds think alike ... though I don't know how you posted later and still got more likes lol. $\endgroup$ – sdrawkcabdear Jan 22 '16 at 1:00
  • $\begingroup$ @sdrawkcabdear that's odd, on my end it says that I answered 22h ago while you answered 21h ago - a race condition perhaps? :) +1 anyway, I was surprised that nobody had mentioned something similar $\endgroup$ – falsedot Jan 22 '16 at 15:33

It would be quite useful.

The two hard parts to teach warriors are intent to kill people you have never even seen before and keeping focussed while somebody is trying to kill you. Probably in that order. The second issue is fixed by simple experience, while there are apparently people who spent years at war firing in the general direction of the enemy without once trying to hit. I'd assume that many new soldiers with your technology level would concentrate in defense to the point where they would be no danger to their enemies.

In your scenario you send the fresh young warriors to the field to prove their manhood and make sure they all "show the right spirit". So your actual fighting force would be entirely composed of people who have already proven they have overcome those two big issues. And they'd all know it too. So the morale would be on par with veteran troops I think. You'd still need proper equipment, tactics, and weapons training, but unless you are inferior in those or just plain old numbers, you'd probably win any fights. Unless you run into to professional troops, such as Roman legionnaires, or your opponents are real combat veterans. And even the Romans usually had issues with high morale opponents.

I probably should explain a bit here. The battle was not usually decided by killing opponents, it was decided by the morale of one side breaking, at which point their formation broke. After which the real killing started. So the big differentiator is ability to keep discipline in combat and veteran or professional forces have a huge advantage here. In many colonial wars (or wars Romans had millennia before) the opponents had superior numbers, much better motivation, similar equipment and were just as brave. And still were soundly defeated simply because European (Roman) forces could keep formation longer.

So your "kill or be killed" play wars could give a big advantage. If...

Do not waste already proven warriors. Seriously. Make it an initiation for becoming a warrior. Expected of all males once they reach certain age. But not compulsory, a boy who doesn't want to be a warrior and is willing to take the reduction social status or has another calling such as a blacksmith, a priest, or shaman should be allowed to. Similarly there is no real reason why a girl who demonstrates skill with weapons would be prevented from proving herself.

It is a religious ritual. It should start with a solemn ritual by the leaders and priests of both tribes. The warriors should be blessed and clearly marked with something like body paint or ritual dress. And given the specific weapons used for the initiation. So no armor or ranged weapons, even if such are usually used. Instead short spears or swords that require getting up close and personal. Should be nicely decorated though. And once it is over both the survivors and the casualties should be blessed in shared ritual by the two tribes.

Older, already proven warriors would participate and go along to give advice, instructions, leadership and so on. Basically act as NCOs to make sure inexperience does not result in an embarrassing failure of the ritual. But they would not fight and attacking them would be forbidden.

Realistically, while male mortality is much more tolerable than female mortality since it has much less effect on fertility, it would be unsustainable to do this for the whole male population. So instead this would something for the elite warriors. Instead of initiation to become warrior and full adult, it would be for membership to elite warrior society that in war becomes officers, leaders, and elite troops. During peace they would be the personal guard of the king or similar privileged position. So there would be enough incentive to risk your life.

Alternately you could take steps to reduce mortality. There was recently a question on serrated weapons and in my answer I noted that such a blade can be made so it makes messy but shallow wounds and be coated with a substance that acts as both disinfectant and makes the wounds hurt like hell and scar. Such weapons could be scary enough to fill the purpose while having low enough mortality for the initiation to be near universal.

Not sure which suits your vision better.

  • $\begingroup$ Only one issue - what do those "elite warriors" do once they pass the trial? People trained to kill who have gone through such an ordeal have a hard time reintegrating back into society. Just look at how common psychological disorders are in troops returning from tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. From the sounds of it there aren't other enemies regularly available that they can go and actually fight. Are they going to take up another trade, or just be a drain on society? $\endgroup$ – Ieuan Stanley Jan 21 '16 at 16:26
  • $\begingroup$ @IStanley A very good point. I didn't consider it since the question presumes they want such warriors, but it certainly should be considered when thinking about the broader context beyond this specific question. And yes, the issue is real. I remember reading about some famous warrior in what is now Indonesia who became so scary and bloodthirsty his own people had to murder him. So the degree of warrior lethality definitely should be matched to the actual need. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Jan 21 '16 at 16:31
  • $\begingroup$ @VilleNiemi - Ritualized fighting between the clans (aka tournaments) however allowing deadly weapons (aka gladiatorial combat), while at the same time "minimizing" casualties. That is a massive contradiction. You train "inexperienced" troops by running drills, and exercises. Once they can function as a unit, and if you want "real world experience", you take them on a raid (mission), not have them pointlessly fight their neighbors within a controlled ritual in which they are not exposed to the full range of tactics, weapons, and savagery which real combat would entail. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Jan 21 '16 at 17:02
  • $\begingroup$ @AndreiROM I am sorry, but I have no idea how that relates to my answer. It seems to have some of the same words, but that is about it. Could you explain? $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Jan 21 '16 at 17:28
  • $\begingroup$ @VilleNiemi - I disagree with one of your basic assumptions, and that is that it's possible to run these ritualized battles without needlessly wasting lives. My "complaint" is that each of these mock battles would only half-simulate a real engagement, while resulting in real casualties. In a real battle a much wider range of weapons, tactics and emotions would come into play. Your "veteran warriors" would be survivors of mock battles, not real engagements, and thus not as well prepared as you might think. At the same time, those who die do so for no real purpose. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Jan 21 '16 at 17:55

Tournaments. Host tournaments between the tribes. It tests both sides without the serious worry of losing trained fighters. If they are really more allies against others, then killing off each others troops IS counter-productive. You will just make each other weaker for others to pick over.

  • $\begingroup$ Actually, the idea is more like, "keep each other in the state of mind required to survive a sudden attack" by being real adversaries, just ones that won't go beyond a certain point. I might need to clarify that in the question... $\endgroup$ – Peter Zach Jan 21 '16 at 15:15

It already happened in Mexico The Mexica people(Aztecs to their enemies) had a long ongoing war with the Tlaxcalan people nearby. Neither would conquer the other because both had a religious system that demanded a continuous supply of war captives for sacrifice.

One of the main reason that the Mexica fell was that the Tlaxclans fought alongside Spanish as a way to gain a leg up in the multi-decade series of wars.

It raises an important question if your two nations fight each other, even if it is just for training, what keeps them from seeing each other as the main enemy after many years of killing each other? What makes it so when the real foe comes they will ally together?


One problem with that plan is that warriors and soldiers need experience in combat to become better. But after a certain point further combat experience makes them less effective soldiers. So there is a big problem with scheduling the training wars so that the maximum number of your men are at the peak of military effectiveness instead of being under trained or burned out and suffering PTSD at the time a real war turns up and you need the best militar you can get.

It may also be better from a military point of view to have a lot of living half trained warriors than a few living highly trained warriors. It would certainly be better for the warriors and their families.

And if the societies are tribes they are likely to be small societies with small numbers of warriors using relatively old fashioned weapons. What happens when enemies belonging to more advanced nations or even empires show up with many times more fighters and/or many times more effective fighters?

What happens when you have to use your small number of spear or arrow using warriors against invasions by your world's version of the Assyrians, or the Roman legions, or the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan, or the US cavalry, or extraterrestrials with flying saucers, death rays, atomic bombs, and force shields?

You better learn how to say "We surrender!" really fast.


As far as I know, the pre-columbian mesoamerican cultures implemented a similar ritualized concept of warfare. Being dependend on prisoners of war for human sacrifice to suite the gods, they waged ritualized wars but could not aford to defeat the neighbouring tribe/state lest they loose their supply of offerings. As both taking prisoners to gain social status and becoming a casualty or prisoner-to-be-sacrificed to gain religious status were quite attractive while loosing social status by cowardice, this system turned out to be quite stable for several centuries.

Having read this several times in different articles and having watched a movie based on this concept recently I might be mistaken with pre-columbian Mesoamerican cultures implementing this concept as I don't know my sources nor their quality, yet the concept would work perfectly in a world sprung off fantasy's realm.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site Ruthard. Your point is relevant and interesting but if you could elaborate on the posters question at the end, it would do a better job of answering the question that was asked. $\endgroup$ – James Jan 21 '16 at 18:22

Sounds like better part of history of Europe. With everyone fighting and backstabbing everyone, it's no wonder only the post powerful and best adapted countries prevailed and subjugated rest of the world for several hundred years (a bit like natural selection, just on societal level). Until certain war in first quarter of XX century turned out to be just too big, weakening all the behemoths so much that they fractured and collapsed, re-creating a bunch of countries that lost the game at some prior point (compare 1913 and 1922 map).

I'm not entirely sure if it works on a scale of tribe, though. You need periods of safety, and no matter what, some people need to live relatively ordinary lives, if this state is supposed to be sustainable. And definitely won't work with just two. You need at least three, so that unstable alliances preserving status quo can be forged. As soon as one side becomes too powerful, the other two will back-stab it, but as soon as one of those backstabbers becomes to powerful, there will be another shift, just like it was in Europe until very recently.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.