I touch on rape and PTSD in this post, so if those topics are likely to upset you, I would suggest treading carefully.

I’ve recently been making my first pass through A Song of Ice and Fire, which is exactly my sort of fantasy series and (with the exception of the increased emphasis on prophetic elements) becomes more my sort of series as it goes. While some of my friends have been disappointed that George R.R. Martin spent less time on character arcs they’d spent the past four books caring about, preferring to focus on worldbuilding and playing around with archetypes and metafiction … that’s what I like to read, so A Dance with Dragons has thus far been my favorite book of the lot. As I’ve been reading, though, I keep returning to the theme of brutality and cruelty in war with fresh eyes.

Martin is writing a world that rewards pragmatism over nobility of sentiment; his protagonists get into more trouble than they overcome when they tend toward righteousness. The best a righteous character can hope for is to be used up in the practice of goodness, and to survive long enough to see his or her ideals turn to dust — or to keep moving long enough to leave the consequences of failure behind. In this particular ethical framework, it’s no wonder he writes brutal wars. This is not the story of good triumphing over evil, but rather, of the cruelties people inflict on one another in the name of power and mercy both. In these books, there is a powerful and compelling echo of Machiavelli, of Nietzsche, of Camus when he writes of what the rebel refuses. There is a streak of pragmatic nihilism running through every plot; You cannot get attached, the story seems to say, because all will die, and there is no such thing as a good death — only a useful death, or a late death. In the moral framework of these books, of course people are cruel to one another; they see one another primarily in terms of use rather than of attachment.

I write from a somewhat different ethical framework. The people in my stories tend to privilege attachment over use, often to their sorrow. For this reason, they are seldom cruel as Martin’s characters are cruel, and they are more capable of earnest forgiveness. I do not regard this as either a superior or an inferior ethical position for a writer of fantasy to adopt — but it gives me pause, as a writer of war.

War is the ultimate expression of the belief that other men are things, of value only insofar as they are useful. In some ways, citing moments of outrageous kindness and attachment (like the Christmas truce, or other acts of surprising kindness at Christmas time) only seems to prove the rule; in war, attachment and affection and forgiveness are possible, but they are not privileged, and they are not permitted to survive long. Men would, I think, be inclined to kindness rather than cruelty if they had the choice — witness again the Christmas truce, and the reluctance of soldiers on both sides to return to war against the men with whom they had so recently shared their holidays. The function of war, though, is to create the illusion that no choice exists. It makes killing other men possible by making their deaths useful, even necessary to the sustained life of the soldier and the soldier’s country. It makes cruelty, torture, and rape possible — because if one’s enemies must be seen primarily in terms of their usefulness, rather than their common humanity, then of course their bodies are fully available for the use of their conquerors.

Writing war requires writing people who are capable of seeing one another as mere objects. This does not mean writing people who can only see one another as objects, and this does not mean that a war story has no room for mercy or friendship between enemies. This does not invalidate attachment or make it impossible. It does, however, mean that characters inclined toward an ethics of attachment must somehow make their peace with an ethics of use — and with their ability to refuse attachment long enough to be cruel.

I like to think that, given a congenial set of circumstances, most people wouldn’t kill or torture or rape. That’s a basic tenet of my worldview: that, given the choice to behave according to a personal code of ethics, most people will do so. Whether we are always given that choice, and whether our codes of ethics align with one another, makes for an infinitely less rosy picture. As several studies on attitudes toward rape suggest, we can make congenial circumstances for cruelty and objectification by making excuses for them. We say, far more than we should, “But the circumstances mitigate this cruel act.” That’s another hazard, in trying to write an ethical story about coping with guilt — the temptation to absolve the protagonist. “She killed that man, but it was in self-defense.” “He killed that woman, but she was plotting his death.” “She tortured that man, but she needed to know the information he was concealing.” “He raped that woman, but she was a whore anyway.” These justifications may serve a narrative purpose, in that they permit the readers to continue sympathizing with a character who has done a brutal thing, but they also sidestep the ethical question of what brutality means and why it matters. Increasingly, I’m coming to believe that our tendency to self-justify and excuse is why it matters. When I see that, in 1991, 56% of high school girls and 76% of boys surveyed “believed forced sex was acceptable under some circumstances” (and here’s that link again), I worry about providing “some circumstances” that my readers can use as an excuse to be cruel. I worry that, if I treat brutality as a cloak that my characters can shrug on and off, I’ll create an ethical framework in which my readers can do the same.

It’s almost trite, by now, for writers of war fantasy to include a moment in which the protagonist acknowledges his or her first kill; I think it’s trite in part because that realization seldom manifests as more than a moment. Taking responsibility for having made another person an object is a long-term project — a harder project than the one faced by characters habitually inclined toward objectification. Today, we have vocabulary terms and therapeutic methods for coping with trauma and guilt, but this intellectual and emotional support may not be available to everyone. Some people can’t afford therapy, or live prohibitively far away from those who practice it; some historical eras don’t have a good model for guilt as trauma; some historical eras criminalize post-traumatic stress as another malady of madness; some worlds and eras have never dreamed of psychology. In worlds such as these, with characters such as these, coming to grips with the capacity for objectification is a lonely and difficult project. It can be lonely and difficult for people with every advantage in the world.

In all worlds, it’s an ethical project, too. Writing a war means writing brutality, but it doesn’t have to mean making brutality normative.

When I think of the place of suffering in the world, I think of Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov, with his two parables of suffering. In one, the Grand Inquisitor shackles Jesus and insists that he will put him to death. The Inquisitor takes him to task for refusing to give men bread, miracles, and just rule; men suffer, he says, because on the earthly plane they require these things to give them faith, and the want of them makes them cruel and hard. The Grand Inquisitor will give them what Jesus failed to provide, and ease what suffering he can even if it means taking Satan’s part. In the end, though, the Inquisitor releases Jesus, who forgives him with a kiss. Although nothing changes, grace is possible even in a fallen world. This is the world as Ivan tells it: Dark, full of suffering, morally indefensible, and yet suffused with a capacity for love and forgiveness that is almost enough to light that darkness.

In the other, Ivan shares newspaper clippings of the deaths of children, in all their lurid brutality. This is the world as Ivan observes it: There is no grace; there is no forgiveness; there is no justice. There is only the cruelty of the world, the fact of undeserved suffering, and the record he keeps of it.

These stories are not attempts to explain or to justify suffering; they are only attempts to come to grips with the reality of it, and to question its source and its necessity. They are designed — as my fiction is, and as Martin’s is — to explore a world in which people can become objects without their knowledge or their leave. In one view, love matters, even if it doesn’t help; in the other, Ivan’s attachment to children he has never met and can never meet seems neither to matter nor to help.

Ivan Karamazov can tell us little about war, but he can tell us a great deal about writing. Where writers invent their wars from whole cloth, we must imagine a whole cycling scope of suffering — objectification, brutality, guilt, love. In this, we have only stories to go on: Myths, history, newspaper clippings, Russian novels about nihilists telling their brothers stories. We read, and from our reading we conclude how the world works and then decide how to tell it.

It’s our choice, when we write about suffering, whether to tell a story where love matters — and that’s a different choice from deciding whether to tell a story where love prevents suffering, which is different again from telling one where the ethical cosmology of the story is grounded in love.