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I have a (medieval non-fantasy but fictional world) setting in which several kingdoms have royally sponsored duellists that will represent the kingdom in international disputes. As this isn’t a particularly realistic concept, I have devised the following scenario:

We have a few kingdoms on a large peninsula, which is divided from the mainland by a mountain chain (think a larger Iberian peninsula). The mountains are not impassable, but pose a significant obstacle.

Beyond the mountains is a relatively large empire that’s known to have absorbed several smaller nations. The kingdoms behind the mountain chain have remained independent largely by relying on this natural defence making an invasion much more costly and easier to defend than is worth trying for.

During the year of a bad harvest there’s a conflict between the two largest kingdoms, at least one of which borders the mountains. The conflict is important enough to go to war under normal circumstances, but with the food being scarce it’s a really bad idea to take all the grown men away from the fieldwork. Furthermore, the war and famine combined would likely weaken the kingdoms so much that an invasion from beyond the mountains would now have a chance of success, something none of the kingdoms want to risk. We’ll assume that the nature of the conflict doesn’t allow to just wait for 2-3 years before going to war.

In that situation the kings agree to each appoint a representative to duel in their name with the winner receiving a favourable resolution of the conflict and a one-year treaty of nonaggression being signed. They fight, one wins and one loses and both nations keep to their word.

This does not abolish war and field battles in the future, but it leads to the establishment of a tradition in which conflicts that aren’t quite important enough for all-out war are resolved via duels, thus giving monarchs an incentive to find and sponsor the most skilled fencers in their respective nations (and possibly entice those of others to switch sides).

Is this close enough to making sense to trigger suspension of disbelief or is it completely impossible or ridiculous?

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    $\begingroup$ pablodf is spot on. Make it one kingdom and have nobles - vassals of the king, sponsor duelists. It was common for vassals to argue with each other, sometimes sparking internal war, sometimes settling by duel. Alternatively, you can exploit fact that one king can be vassal of another - make regional vassal-sovereign links so complicated that no one really knows who will be on which side in case of war, and so no one wants to start a war, but conflicts still need to be settled. Add "God's judgement" overtones - God helps the righteous, so winner is right and you should be set. $\endgroup$ – M i ech Jul 18 '17 at 12:32
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    $\begingroup$ In Renaissance Italy, many wars were fought entirely by mercenary companies. Since there's no profit in being dead, the leaders of the mercenary companies not infrequently agreed to decide battles by fights between sub-groups. The loser withdrew. And if his employer didn't like it, he could pay more next time. $\endgroup$ – dmm Jul 18 '17 at 18:31
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    $\begingroup$ One should never risk one's whole fortune unless supported by one's entire forces. Medieval Total War 2 loading screen... no wait... Niccoló Machiavelli. Accepting the result of a duel is essentially giving up while you still have very much have the capacity to resist (or win), it's not an intelligent move. Agree with the people saying it would have to be an external authority with the power to dictate results to either side irrespective of whether it was a dual, coin toss, completely unfair process etc $\endgroup$ – Nathan Cooper Jul 19 '17 at 11:38
  • $\begingroup$ @dmm - any links supporting your claims? Best to real-world historic battles? $\endgroup$ – Peter M. Jul 19 '17 at 15:54
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    $\begingroup$ @NathanCooper Remember that authority doesn't need to be singular. Entire peninsula allying against someone who broke custom is an effective deterrent for everyone who needs the system to work. During Revolution, France broke a lot of customs and got nearly entire continent worth of kings allied against itself, it managed to put up such a great fight only because Revolution was also a massive game changer. King, Duke, Baron or other feudal lord doesn't have luxury of being backed by entirely new societal order. $\endgroup$ – M i ech Jul 19 '17 at 20:07

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It was a common trope in Roman and Greek mythology to the point of earning a name: Champion Warfare (and single combat).

If your kingdoms have a caste of professional warriors (like knights, samurai or berserkers), it doesn't break the suspension of disbelief.

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    $\begingroup$ This even happens all over the world. A good example of it, is the Battle of Hulao Pass (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Hulao_Pass) where, even though soldiers are involved, the entire battle stood or fell with the generals' battles. $\endgroup$ – Raf Jul 18 '17 at 13:56
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    $\begingroup$ It's not limited to Greek or Roman mythology. The David and Goliath story from the Bible (1 Samuel 17) starts out with the philistine officer (possibly general based on other extra-biblical evidence) Goliath inviting someone to resolve the battle with single combat, while the army of israel cowered in their encampment. $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy Jul 18 '17 at 16:41
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    $\begingroup$ "Champion warfare refers to a type of battle, most commonly found in the epic poetry and myth of ancient history" Isn't the OP asking because even though we already have this trope in real life it already does break the suspension of disbelief? $\endgroup$ – Shane Jul 18 '17 at 20:40
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    $\begingroup$ @Raf - Hulao Pass was fictional battle, as wikipedia clearly says. Such battle maybe is romantic but it does not make it real. I am curious how comment can get two upwotes when link it mentions refutes it. Nobody is concerned about truth, only if it feels right? $\endgroup$ – Peter M. Jul 19 '17 at 15:52
  • $\begingroup$ @PeterMasiar It's a fictional battle indeed, written in the 14th century, in a book that's seen as one of China's 4 great literary works. I think that carries a bit more weight than "This one dude who sold 100 copies of his book, back in 1998, from 2 towns over" $\endgroup$ – Raf Jul 19 '17 at 16:07
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I also think you have the problem of War being the last resort of losers.

To counter that, we can make War expensive in a different way: Form (as a given in the story) an Alliance of Kingdoms, not with authority over any individual King, but promising mutual defense against invasion by each other. Part of their alternative to war is to settle disputes between Kingdoms by a contest of champions.

If any King refuses to honor the outcome of a contest of champions; their kingdom is forfeit and ALL the other Kings are honor bound to band together, invade and divide the spoils equally, putting the offending King to death.

All such disputes are presented to the Alliance, and the contest of champions is conducted in their arena, with the two Kings in (very comfortable) custody. The winner is determined by the Alliance, in case of complications (say both duelists end up dead). Once the decision is made, the losing King must give his orders (for withdrawal, payment, etc) and shall remain in (very comfortable) custody until they are carried out.

To be fair, you have the problem of a King with the world's best duelist just invading territories and taking what he pleases, always depending on his Champion to defend his thievery.

To counter that, require Kings to show up to the duel with ten champions each. The Alliance can determine who they believe is the more wronged King: The one wronged gets to pick his own champion from his Ten, and can then exclude any one of his opponent's champions, and the one to fight will be selected by lottery from the remaining nine.

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I think this makes sense, though I don't know of any real-world examples, and it would sound more realistic if instead of "kingdoms" these were better characterized as tribes or clans. Since this is a fictional world, there's no need to refer to political entities using names already laden with real-life historical connotations. What that means: I'm not sure a European medieval king-like ruler would leave territorial disputes with foreigners in the hands of a champion, but I could see this system working where people already see themselves as part of a larger whole, say, a loose federation of tribes or clans with a recognized common ancestry and common customs, rather than kingdoms/nations. Local interests will keep them apart and selfish leaders will emerge but they will have to be more open to such arrangements as you propose.

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  • $\begingroup$ "Princedoms" ? Medieval/Renaissance England, France, and Spain were distinct kingdoms - but Germany and Italy were much more complicated. The Kingdom of Bavaria would have had no problem with the idea that it was "German" (Quote: "The Holy Roman Empire was neither, Holy, Roman, nor an Empire.") $\endgroup$ – Martin Bonner Jul 19 '17 at 7:49
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I would like to point out that if I challenge you to a duel, you as the challenged have the right to choose the venue and the weapons. Abraham Lincoln semi-apocryphally agreed to a duel, with his weapons being broadswords at 2 paces (Abe, unlike his challenger, had long arms).

Here is where this gets fun. Typically the champion is some Achillesesque ace warrior and the duel is a battle. But not necessarily. My country accuses yours to a duel. You say yes, and the ensuing duel could be with any weapon, or maybe not even a weapon - a wrestling match, or a game of billiards, or any other sort of contest. Then I must scramble to find a champion who can represent my side in the contest. I especially like this as an ad hoc Olympics, with the events days in advance and the contestants given even less notice.

"Madam, it has come to the attention of the King that you have great skill in making pies. And your country needs you."

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  • $\begingroup$ That is how duels worked in the 18th and 19th century in Europe. There are other ways of organizing duels. $\endgroup$ – Martin Bonner Jul 19 '17 at 7:53
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    $\begingroup$ The OP says ..thus giving monarchs an incentive to find and sponsor the most skilled fencers..., so clearly he has chosen the weapon; and the venue must clearly be secure for both Kings, lest assassination ensue. Also, in the single-combat story of David v. Goliath; Neither weapons or venue were chosen; soldiers from each side were sent Armed however they pleased. David with a sling, Goliath presumably with armor and sword. I agree you have a fun idea, but it is not an answer to this question. $\endgroup$ – Amadeus Jul 19 '17 at 9:48
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I'd say that's quite a sensible system:

  • Even without the famine, this would prevent the deaths of thousands of soldiers on both sides, ensuring that both kingdoms remain at full fighting strength in case the Empire Beyond the Mountains ever comes a-calling.
  • Wars can drag on for years. The Hundred Years' War wasn't exactly 100 years long, but it did go on for decades. A duel could be organized within weeks and fought in a matter of minutes.
  • Related to the above, wars are really, really expensive in financial terms. Medieval rulers often had to pay for them by increasing taxes, which was never a very popular move among their subjects. Duels are much cheaper, and would therefore be a much more attractive option, especially for smaller-scale conflicts where it's really not worth bankrupting the country.
  • A fair one-on-one duel creates a level playing field. No large-scale tactical trickery, no taking advantage of the terrain, no overwhelming the enemy with superior numbers. It all comes down to the respective training, equipment, and fighting skills of just two people. There would be far less scope for excuses if you lost. You'd just have to suck it up and accept the outcome.
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    $\begingroup$ All true, however if the nations aren't equal in power there's no incentive for the stronger one to downgrade to a 50-50 chance of victory. Furthermore, something needs to prevent the loser of the duel to just go into battle anyway. $\endgroup$ – Pahlavan Jul 18 '17 at 12:25
  • $\begingroup$ That first point is a very good one, I'll have to think about how to address that. As for the second one, the drawbacks of war that I already mentioned should be enough of a deterrent against escalation. $\endgroup$ – F1Krazy Jul 18 '17 at 12:28
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    $\begingroup$ @Pahlavan : if there are several kingdoms of similar strength, and these duels are deeply ingrained into culture or religion, then doing so could break alliances and risk retaliation (or at least a casus belli) from other kingdoms. $\endgroup$ – vsz Jul 18 '17 at 19:07
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While champion warfare was mentioned, it never was the method to determine a victor, merely a way to gain morale advantage before upcoming battle. As it stands, I don't find it quite plausible that no ruler will abuse reluctance of others to go to war. Politics were always a messy business, not a matter of chivalry. And if you are going to backstab a neighbour instead of honouring duel results, you are going do it in a way that puts you at advantage, without any lengthy wars.

However, you have what would make it much more believable with some adjustment: the Empire. If mountains aren't quite high enough to prevent it dealing with any one kingdom, then all kingdoms could've entered a loose defensive confederation of sorts. Something like the Holy Roman Empire of their own, but without the Emperor. With a Diet for passing confederation-wide edicts and laws.

Of course, still resolving conflicts with a duel wouldn't occur right from the start, there wouldn't be enough trust between participants yet. But it can be passed by the Diet later on as a way of resolving conflicts without being too detrimental to the overall defensive capability. And since now this is the will of all the kingdoms, not honouring the result of a conflict resolution would put make a lot of people angry with you, not just your victim.

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No, it isn't.

By assumption, your kingdoms are souvereign states with no higher authority above them (like the Holy Roman Empire or in modern times some International Courts all parties accept). So why should a kingdom accept concessions that it has to make after a lost war just because of a lost duel? The looser of the duel just will not accept this fact and war will break out anyway. Remember the story of the three Roman brethren fighting three enemies of Rome? The losers waged war (and lost it, too).

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  • $\begingroup$ My attempt to rationalise was that with this first case a war just wasn't feasible for both parties and after that the duels were mostly about smaller conflicts and prestige rather than actual grounds for war. $\endgroup$ – Pahlavan Jul 18 '17 at 13:15
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    $\begingroup$ @Pahlavan, I think what jknappen is getting at is: if the looser would rather suffer the loss than go to war, then the conflict was not really worth going to war over. Your duel just becomes a colorful way of arriving at a diplomatic resolution. $\endgroup$ – Luke Jul 18 '17 at 17:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Luke and I agree, my confusion stems from the fact that I have addressed this myself, both in the OP ("conflicts that aren’t quite important enough for all-out war") and my comment ("mostly about smaller conflicts and prestige rather than actual grounds for war"), so there's no actual argument being made here. Besides the very first time when war just wasn't possible for external reasons, the duels are precisely for conflicts not worth going to war over. So where's the problem exactly? It is, indeed, just a tradition of colourful diplomatic resolution. That's intended. $\endgroup$ – Pahlavan Jul 19 '17 at 4:48
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I think that the dispute shouldn't have any materialistic value. The winner and the loser of the duel should only gain or lose honor and prestige.

Due to the fact that they are both vulnerable nations and know that if one of them attacks then the "Empire beyond the mountain" will see that as an opportunity to expand. Both of the nations know that even if they lose, they have no reason to comply with the winner's demands, because the winner cannot do anything to enforce them. (The loser is in a more favorable position, because it is always easier to defend than to attack).

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  • $\begingroup$ This is a good point. Maybe it can be resolved by making the inciting incident largely a matter of honour between the monarchs to begin with, I'll have to think about that. $\endgroup$ – Pahlavan Jul 18 '17 at 13:17
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Think of it as a regional association of states which have all surrendered some of their sovereign powers to a supranational court. Except that this court uses trial by combat.

  • An agreement to take all quarrels to a court (and to abide by the decisions even when they go against your nation) is quite common these days. Getting out of the agreement might be an option, but the costs of leaving probably outweigh the costs of accepting any one unfavorable decision. As long as there are benefits in the long run, most nations stay in. Think EU, NAFTA, etc.
  • Trial by combat is nothing a modern nation would accept, but that's your fantasy angle.

So what you need is an agreement, by the rulers and those citizens who matter, that (a) cooperation on the peninsula is worth something and (b) those wars are just business, no hard feelings. Win some, loose some. Maybe in five years your champion will be more lucky.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comparing to modern international court is a good reason as to why this would not work. Israel was ordered not to be in palestine anymore. The US was ordered not to put softwood lumber tariffs. Syria isn't supposed to be allowed to use chemical weapons. N. Korea isn't allowed to be developing nukes. etc. It is all ignored without war to back up the rulings. $\endgroup$ – Shane Jul 18 '17 at 20:46
  • $\begingroup$ @Shane, Israel sees it vital for her national interests to occupy the West Bank and Gaza. So they ignore courts which have to unquestioned, global jurisdiction, anyway. The nations which set up the UN and ICC saw to that. This is different from EU members going with ECJ decisions on the trade of dairy products, because they voluntarily entered the EU and they see EU procedures as generally working, even if they disagree with the milk quota system. $\endgroup$ – o.m. Jul 19 '17 at 4:18
  • $\begingroup$ The thing is, it isn't very likely 2 countries are going to go to war over milk in the first place. It can happen, wars have been started for dumber things. But if an EU country cared enough about milk to go to war over it if there had been no EU, you can be pretty sure they'd ignore any ECJ rulings about it. $\endgroup$ – Shane Jul 19 '17 at 14:01
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I'd say it strains credulity.

First, let's go over why champion warfare doesn't work in general:

There is a conflict between two nations severe enough that they would want to go to war against each other. You have two options for the scenario:

  1. One aggressor nation against someone unwilling to give concessions.

  2. There is bad blood between the two nations and they want to hurt each other.

If it is the second option, would single combat be satisfying to the belligerents? Doubtful.

If it is the first option, why would either side agree to champion warfare? If I am the aggressor, I desperately want something from you. That's why I want to go to war to get it in the first place. If I am strong enough to take it, why would I risk not getting it by going mano a mano? If I am not strong enough to take it, why would the other side risk losing it?

Now let's look at the wrinkle you've created:

During the year of a bad harvest there’s a conflict between the two largest kingdoms, at least one of which borders the mountains. The conflict is important enough to go to war under normal circumstances, but with the food being scarce it’s a really bad idea to take all the grown men away from the fieldwork. Furthermore, the war and famine combined would likely weaken the kingdoms so much that an invasion from beyond the mountains would now have a chance of success, something none of the kingdoms want to risk. We’ll assume that the nature of the conflict doesn’t allow to just wait for 2-3 years before going to war.

I'd say that this doesn't alleviate that problem. A famine makes the stronger side stronger and the weaker side weaker. If the aggressor is stronger, as you kill their guys and land, you steal all the food. If the defender is stronger, then the attack is weakened and sieges are unlikely.

As for the aspect of the third superpower over the mountain, there's an old saying that the best place to defend your country is in someone elses. Every other smaller nation on the peninsula is going to want the mountain facing one to be strong militarily. If they say "We are not doing single combat, we are going to war. You other nations can either join us and quickly and easily crush our opponents, or we will bleed ourselves dry and you can can all be crushed by the barbarians over the hills."

Can one superpower one your peninsula stand up to the other one + all the smaller nations? If not, then the aggressor can get what they want this way without risking war or single combat.


Instead, maybe make war easier, but still costly. IMO, you want it to be very expensive for the ruling class but not be an existential threat. Existential threat means that everyone will band together either to make sure both sides don't fight or that one side ends it quickly without much loss.

You could go to war, but, your nobles will have a better life if you don't. The area between the two nations simply has the best vineyards. They'd be decimated by any military action that wasn't a beatdown.

Now there is pro and cons to the single combat. I can risk losing what I want with the single combat, or I can guarantee to lose something else I want with the war.

Both leaders have to be saying to themselves "If I lose the combat, I'll lose something small. If I win the war, I'll lose something bigger. Either way, no one else will care, so there's no way for me to manipulate the odds."

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This seems similar enough to the origin/purpose of the Olympic games.

You have several small societies that need cohesion, cooperation and military resource conservation due to external threats/pressure. The smaller states won't federalise or submit to rule under another that they consider equal/superior to, so to avoid conflict and escalation they use games. Over time the tournaments could get ritualised by the dominant religious body and superstition will ensure the games still continue when regular diplomacy breaks down (see Peloponnesian wars).

This is only one step from actually accepting demands or reparations as the result, though fines and rewards were given for victory and rules violations in the Olympics, so it doesn't seem unfeasible. Additionally, states would probably regulate their demands of the result of a victory acknowledging that it wasn't equivalent of a total military victory.

Edit: Also consider in the Olympics: US wins, pretty much every time. Population and GDP (spare money for sports) plays a massive factor. This would be even more extreme factoring in buying sportspeople.

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It fits when the primary goal of the nobility is not tangible gains, but status. If you have a society of nobles, and the big thing they actually care about is what everyone thinks of them (with things like money and lands being mostly useful in acquiring and maintaining status) then it's entirely possible for warfare to go from army vs army to champion vs champion to just duels (possibly with small military units standing around for backup martial demonstrations, to make sure that the forms are followed properly, and to serve as audience).

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The two kingdoms are equally matched, with equivalent technology levels, weaponry, and tactics. A total war between them would be very costly, and would likely cause both kingdoms to be weakened to the point that the kingdom over the mountains could easily sweep in and destroy them. If the conflict is over something like a resource (a town, river, mine, etc.), it makes sense to solve it in a way that preserves the power of the kingdoms.

Can we suspend disbelief? Well, yes. This isn't a new idea. Single Combat was a very common feature in ancient combat among many diverse peoples such as the Greek, Egyptian, Hindus, Romans, Irish, and Jews just to name a few. The reason is as stated above. War is destructive and costly. If the cost of war is too high, one looks for a cheaper alterative.

The key is equally matched opponents. The grim logic determines that if one side feels like they have the advantage in numbers, weapons or tactics, they would not submit to single combat. Why chance on losing a fair fight when you can win the unfair fight? Rome would not do a single combat with a much weaker state. They'd just sweep in and destroy them.

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Not in a "You have offended my honor glove smack sense, but the cold war was rife with Wars by Proxy (Vietnam, Soviet-Afgan War (Afgan combatants were funded by the US), Gulf War (Iraq fieled Soviet Union equipment against NATO forces... despite the Soviet Union having fallen, many saw it as a test of what ground combat would have looked like in an actual open war)).

These are ideal as neither sponsor nation was keen on open war due to the fact that it was a no win scenrario, so they engaged in patronage of smaller countries in conflicts to bolster their favored side... when the other country got wind, they would supply the opposing side to stop the side that got the initial funding... sometimes this was a deal with the devil as the opposing side had little ideoligcally in common with their patron beyond a common enemy (The United States is slowly going away from that because it's boiling down to arming people who we don't agree with to kill other people who don't agree with us). The advantage to this is that these wars initially cost less and provide a great proving ground for weapons they intend to field in actual combat. The country and conflict offer no territorial game and thus, losing while showing off your equipment allows you to better compensate for a real war and didn't devestate your own nation. Considering the nature of Nuclear War fare, neither the Soviet Union nor the United States were willing to break out the nukes for nothing less than a direct war.

On an even more peaceful front, you can have an X-Race where X is any number of national achievements (Space-Race, Naval-Race, Arms-Race) ect. Fun fact, the Space Race was less about landing a man on the moon, and more about singing "My Missle is better yours is. My Missle can fly twice as far as yours does." For a more serious explination, it was "How do you show your nuclear missel is a threat without a nuclear explosion and a classified test?" Simple, claim it's a rocket ship and you're sending men to the moon, then take one of your nuclear missles, take off the warhead, put on a tin can that a man can breathe in while it is in space, and shoot the thing into the sky and land it. It tests all the functions of the nuclear missle without the big boom. In fact, it wasn't until the nearly a decade into the Space Race that the first purpose built space rocket (designed to carry people into space first and for most), the Saturn V, was introduced to the world. If done properly (think the Star Wars defense system of the 1980s) a prolonged arms race could actually financially ruin a nation in their attempt to keep up (The threat of Star Wars was such that the Soviets spent themselves out of existance trying to keep up with the United States... unaware that the United States was just as far behind in Star Wars as the USSR was... they just lied... prior to that, the Russians got the United States to invest heavily into building more nukes by stratigically making the bomber and later missle gap seem like a reality, when in fact, it's hard to say the USSR ever had more nuclear delivery systems than the United States... But those constant May Day parade fly overs in Moscow freaked out the DoD, who were unaware that the Soviets were just turning the planes around off camera and flying back over the parade route for multiple passes.). Even something like Modern Day Olympic games were ways for nations that hate each other to fight without war. Again, Soviets and The United States... basically, any time the Soviets and the United States met in national capacity, they pretty much shouted "It's on like Donkey Kong!" Anything to avoid calling bluffs on Mutually Assured Destruction policies.

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Point of war is NOT to win (or die) if fair competition, defending your country.

Point of war to gain any unfair advantage you can get, and make the other guys die defending theirs.

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