Pretty much what it says on the can.

I'm trying to imagine a world where one small nation of about 20 million people is facing impossible odds against a much larger foe, and 99% of its people (over the age of 6, say) choose to fight to the death over surrender. It is perhaps relevant to explain that they are not fighting an enemy bent on exterminating them war or peace (i.e. they would likely survive if they surrendered).

I'm trying to determine if the concept passes the smell test. Is it too ridiculous, or are there realistic cases where (more than one small ancient town) would fight to the last man, woman and child?

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Very ridiculous. Ok, that's not very constructive so I'll elaborate. The human desire to live is very strong. It is very rare, even in military situations, for a group of people to decide that they would rather fight to the death than surrender. Their reasons have to be incredibly deeply rooted, and typically the consequences of surrendering must seem horrific by comparrison - and even then some will throw down their weapons. But young kids? Teenagers? People of all religious backgrounds, who may abhor violence, never have held a gun in their lives? No chance. $\endgroup$
    – AndreiROM
    Jun 10, 2016 at 18:56
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Does bees, ants, termites or wasps protecting their queen with their lifes against an intruder count? $\endgroup$ Jun 10, 2016 at 22:15
  • $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trojan_War $\endgroup$ Jun 10, 2016 at 22:25
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Not to the last men, but one of the closest examples I can think is the Triple Alliance War against Paraguay en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paraguayan_War $\endgroup$
    – ggf31416
    Jun 11, 2016 at 2:26
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @VictorStafusa: No, that doesn't count, as those are not humans, and more importantly, only the queen can reproduce, therefore evolutionary pressure would lead the (non-queen) individuals to first and foremost fight for the life of the queen (which saves the future of the colony, and therefore of the individual's own genes). This is in difference to humans (and actually all non-colony animals) where the individuals themselves reproduce, and therefore have an evolutionary pressure to develop a strong sense of self-protection. $\endgroup$
    – celtschk
    Jun 11, 2016 at 7:26

8 Answers 8


This would require certain cultural preferences on the side of the defenders. The example of the Japanese fighting to the last man on Okinawa is certainly one historical example, and going farther into the past we see the example of the Jewish Zelots committing suicide rather than allowing the besieging Roman army to capture and enslave them.

So the defenders must believe that being captured by the enemy is an existential threat (either through their own propaganda, or by virtue of their belief system) and that death is a far better alternative than to be captured and defiled.

OF course even then , it takes a very highly indoctrinated and motivated population in order to achieve the results of fighting to the death. The various peoples being genocidally exterminated by ISIS are not fighting to the death (even though the result of capture is almost certain death), for example, although some groups are responding differently. The Yazadi women freed from sex slavery are collectively forming a fighting group called [roughly translated] "The Sun Women" to seek vengeance on their attackers.

We also see cultural differences between Europe and America; Americans will indeed tend towards fighting even at very long odds (look at the American civilians who tried to take back the fourth aircraft during 9/11; or the Americans who attacked down a single lane (the aisle of a train) to defeat the attempted massacre on a French train not too long ago (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/23/world/europe/americans-recount-gunmans-attack-on-train-to-france.html?_r=0), while in Europe people often wait passively for the gunmen to execute them (November 2015). This isn't 100% certain; on 13 June 2016 another ISIS attacker killed 50 people in an Orlando Fl nightclub and did not encounter resistance from the 300+ people within...

So culture and indoctrination makes a huge difference. IF the defenders are taught that the attackers are an existential threat, that there is no other alternative and if they are already culturally set to fight heroically to achieve their aims, then they will be much more willing and able to fight to the death.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ "while in Europe people often wait passively for the gunmen to execute them" Really? Because Americans are the only people in the world who can be brave or show initiative? I have two words for that sentiment, and you can probably guess what they are. In the vast majority of cases of mass murder and terrorism people get killed or hide or flee. I doubt the differences between Americans and Europeans, or indeed between any two groups, is significant enough that we can make generalisations like that; especially if they may be self aggrandising. $\endgroup$
    – user20787
    Jun 14, 2016 at 13:46
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This is an observation based on real life events. It is telling that the only examples of people moving against the attackers are Americans, the only reason "why" things should be different seems to be cultural. I noted that even there it seems to be situational, the 300+ people in the Orlando nightclub "could have" rushed the gunman but did not do so, so this isn't a universal American trait either. $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Jun 14, 2016 at 16:14
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ "It is telling that the only examples of people moving against the attackers are Americans" Again, really? All that's telling is your sample size and willingness to accept either the first conclusions you arrived at, or your own prejudice. Terrorism was common in Europe during the cold war, and before that there were plenty examples of terrorist attacks in mandate Palestine and earlier still before Irish independence. Add to that terrorism in Israel, Sri Lanka, Russia, etc. Not to mention the enormous amount of mass shootings in the USA. I doubt you've taken any of that into account. $\endgroup$
    – user20787
    Jun 14, 2016 at 16:33

The closest modern historical analogy would be the Battle of Okinawa in which nearly 95% of the defending force was killed (roughly 100,000), and only about 5% were captured. This included teenage boys. About a third of the island's civilian population of roughly 300,000 died in the battle either as civilians, or as militia. As in your scenario, the invaders, the US, were not out to exterminate the Japanese and treated prisoners well.

Here's where it diverges from your scenario. The population was told the US invaders were barbarians who would torture and murder anyone they captured. While some fought out of nationalism, or to defend their homes, many fought out of fear. They did not know the US soldiers would show mercy.

Then there's the idea of the Japanese population fanatically fighting to the last. Many did, but many of the civilians were pressed into service by the military. I can think of no time when the entire population of even a major city, let alone a nation of 20 million, voluntarily fought to the death against a merciful foe.

To make your scenario work, I believe you need a population which...

  1. Cannot escape.
  2. Has to choose between fighting or being shot by their own army.
  3. Believes their entire civilization is in danger.
  4. Believes the enemy will brutalize them if they surrender.
  5. And cannot easily find out otherwise.

That last one is very important. If the US and Japanese could talk on the Internet, neither side would have gotten away with the depths of propaganda and dehumanization that they did. To a certain extend this happened in Germany. Once the German population had contact with the American invaders, their shared cultural heritage (there are a lot of people of German descent in the US) allowed communication and often lead to surrender rather than fanatical resistance.

In your scenario it could be...

  1. WWII era technology. (ie. no internet)
  2. Nigh insurmountable language and cultural barriers.
  3. Tight government control on outside communications.

Even then, I believe it implausible the entire civilian population would wipe themselves out in defense. Most would hide, surrender, or be bypassed by a merciful army intent on winning control of the island, not wiping out the population.

What could happen is their infrastructure is completely trashed. The defenders might use every building and structure as a strong point, or load them with traps. Rather than risking casualties by infantry assault, a lavishly equipped invader would rely more and more on artillery and heavy weapons to reduce every point of resistance.

Ignoring the moral implications, using all your 6 year olds as soldiers is impractical. They can barely lift a serious weapon. They won't be able to march miles and miles a day. They cannot comprehend complex orders. And I'd think fighting alongside their own children would freak out their own soldiers. If they must be put in harms way, they might be doing light labor and administrative tasks within the combat zone, or (if we've already sunk to these depths) simple suicide missions.

  • $\begingroup$ Solid answer, I concur. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Jun 10, 2016 at 20:13
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I would like to point out that the OP doesn't state that the opposing army is "merciful". It just states that their goal isn't to exterminate them. There could be other ways that the opposing army could be brutal such as, placing captured soldiers in labour camps with harsh conditions. $\endgroup$
    – Arun Kumar
    Jun 11, 2016 at 11:36

It probably doesn't make sense. An act so unanimous would have to come with a reason. You wont randomly just find everyone in a nation decided to die instead of live peacefully. Natural selection works that out of the gene pool pretty quickly. They need to believe they are accomplishing a goal. More specifically, they need to accomplish a goal which is better served by them all dying than by them doing nothing at all.

An extreme theocracy might fit the bill. Think about the best religious nutjobs you know. Think of Heaven's Gate. They all committed suicide over a passing comet! An equally nutty nation, 20 million strong, might be able to be convinced to fight to the last person. You chose to draw the line at age 6... I would expect part of the religious quackery to include the ritualistic homicide of all those who are too young or weak to fight.

Another scenario where it might be reasonable is if they are, themselves, their own worst enemy. Perhaps it is better to die than to live without doing an action. Pulling from the world of far fetched ideas, maybe they are a nation that found something. Something sinister. Something that they knew could not possibly ever be unleashed on the world. A C'thulu would work, or perhaps some really exotic nanomachine based virus. They must do a certain action, their entire life or unleash this plague upon the rest of the world. In such a circumstance, it may be valiant to fight against the greater nation, to the last man, for their own good. Failure to fight might mean they all get infected! Realistic? Well... I won't hold my breath. Bioterorism isn't that powerful yet, but it's the kind of situation where one might choose to die valiantly to stop an enemy from within.


It could be plausible, under the right conditions. Some factors that could produce such an outcome:

  • Extreme isolation and domestic homogeneity versus a culturally repugnant invader
  • Extreme (and tragic) misinterpretations of overt signaling (For example, smiling at a wild gorilla)
  • A strong honor/shame culture that values aggression physical/moral dominance
  • The belief in death as a positive (consider the natives in Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card)
  • Widespread limited intellectual capacity, or a cultural norm that tends toward hive-mind or deification of authority
  • The belief that those too young to fight WILL be killed along with everyone else, thus creating a mindset for self-sacrifice for the ultimate preservation of society
    • As a corollary, the opportunity for self-sacrifice now is a diversion to ensure the escape and survival of the young, with a select group of caretakers

It's very unlikely.

Somebody has to take out the trash, farm the lands, teach the children, cook the food, heal the sick, manufacture the bullets and weaponry, etc. Even if you exalted the military to the highest degree where everyone wanted to fight and die, ultimately only a relatively small percentage would actively be fighting. Most would, at best, be doing ancillary toward the war effort.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site, mshiltonj. I am not sure you are familiar with the concept of Stack Exchange, but you don't really answer the question. I think the OP understands that it is not necessarily easy, a good idea, or whatever. But they are asking how they could enforce it. I encourage you to have a look at the tour. $\endgroup$ Jun 13, 2016 at 20:00
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I don't see what's wrong with the answer, only that it could use a better introduction. He makes a good case for "no". $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Jun 13, 2016 at 23:44
  • $\begingroup$ This answer does seem pretty valid to me as well. $\endgroup$
    – fi12
    Jun 14, 2016 at 0:17
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks @bilbo_pingouin & JDługosz. I edited my answer to be more explicit with an introductory sentence. $\endgroup$
    – mshiltonj
    Jun 14, 2016 at 20:20

Here's a possibility. If there were a certain percentage of the population who belonged to a fanatical resistance group and were willing to assassinate anyone who DIDN'T fight to the finish, they might be able to induce the population to fight to the end. I think the SS in Germany are an example (along with much of the military establishment) who prevented towns from surrendering even when the outcome of the war was inevitable, by assassinating "deserters" and surrendering authorities, for example.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I think you should give references. In the reality, the SS was not so bad (especially compared to the "customs" of the WW2). $\endgroup$
    – Gray Sheep
    Jun 11, 2016 at 18:28


Give the nation an environment of suffering, and a culture of fighting. The people barely have hope, scraping together a living. Then give them an inspiring prophet that proclaims the paradise of Valhalla, to all those brave enough to die in combat.

The end result is similar to that in Mad Max: Fury Road, where to die is not a bad thing, but a glorious honor.


As others pointed out Religion is always a good way. There were incidents of mass suicides in religion and cults. But maybe it is hard to think that will work on a scale of an nation. Two other solutions could be:

Non fighting genocide

If the people mustn't die by fighting to the last man (woman an children) it could be enough if the religions fanatical people are in the right positions. So after the nation is going to lose, the higher ups could think it would be better for every one to die instead being ruled by alien forces. After that decision releasing gas or radiation that kills almost everyone. It wouldn't require all the population to be fanatic, just the leaders.

Actually fighting to the death

If normal indoctrination is not enough for all people to fight to the death, depending on the setting you could use advanced technology or magic to brainwash or control the masses. Some form of hypnosis since early age could lead the population to do anything they are ordered if needed, until there death. The same goes for cybernetic implants that turns everyone regardless of age in a mindless killer, if activated.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .