Attack On Titan is a big deal right now, and I decided I’d take a look and see what I thought. There are always lots of things you can address when you’re watching anime – the plot, characters, art and animation, music, etc. I’m not really an anime guy, so I don’t feel qualified to address any of that. But… I used to be in the army, and my studies took me in that direction too. If I’m qualified to give an opinion about anything, it’s probably the military aspects of the show. And as I was watching it, I had a surprising thought:
“I’ll bet there isn’t a single soldier in this entire place.”
That probably sounds pretty weird, given how important the military is in Attack On Titan. There are people with uniforms and weapons, they do a lot of fighting, and they call each other “Recruit” and “Lance Corporal”. Why don’t I rate them as soldiers? Answering that is going to mean indulging in ranting and my tendency to lecture.
What a shame.
I don’t intend to spend much time talking about Attack On Titan as an anime. The art is nice and the animation is fluid, there’s a lot of gore but it’s not (quite) graphic, the opening music is a welcome change from forgettable J-pop, the plot has pacing issues but isn’t remarkably good or bad, the characters are pretty one-dimensional and emotionally distraught, and everyone screams 80% of their lines. ‘Nuff said.
I’m also presuming that everyone has watched the show, but just to make sure that we’re on the same page let’s start with a quick overview of the situation.
Humanity used to live around the world. A little over 100 years ago, titans – large humanoids, fast and powerful, regenerate quickly, between 3 and 15 meters tall, not noticeably intelligent – appeared and started slaughtering everyone. Humanity was incapable of resisting them, and so they first built and then pulled back behind a series of huge walls. These walls kept the titans away for 100 years; the show is set during the period in which the outermost wall gets breached for the first time. The main characters are present during that event and later decide (for reasons relating to it) to join the military. The main action of the show takes place after their initial training is over.
If you said “there isn’t one”, then stay behind after class. There’s a lot of catching up for you, and this is a course in which the phrase “terminal examination” is unpleasantly accurate.
If your response was something like “warrior is a way of life, soldier is just a job” then you get half marks. You’re on the way to the solution, although you’re not there yet.
And if you said “warriors are DPS, while soldiers are tanks and off-healers” then a) I’m not sure that’s true in an era of viable dual-spec classes, and b) MMOs are not a good source of information about military issues, even those with anime based on them. This Sword Art Online review might be more your thing.
The real answer is “organisation”. Warriors fight as individuals, even when there are a bunch of them together. They may be good at it, but their training, their tactics, their equipment, their institutional ethos… everything is based on fighting their opponents independently. This is a style of warfare that went permanently out of fashion around the time the Romans started inflicting massive violence on everyone within reach, and it did so for a good reason: it doesn’t work against soldiers.
Soldiers, by contrast, work and fight together. They can be individually as capable as any warrior but their effectiveness is far greater, because they co-operate and complement each other. They are supported by still more soldiers, who might or might not be taking part in the same specific engagement but who are nonetheless contributing to its success. See, this is why I gave half marks to the people who said “soldier is just a job” – it is a job. It’s something you can do professionally, and as a result the organisations which are professional about it get much better results. Once this point sinks in, it starts to get a lot clearer why the humans in Attack On Titan are having so much trouble.
It’s because they’re complete bloody idiots.
Strategy and Tactics:
Let’s start with the basics. A strategy is a high-level statement of how you are going to win the conflict you are engaged in. It’s the continuation of a sentence that begins “We will defeat our enemy by…” and ideally doesn’t go on much longer. An example from history would be “… destroying their means to fight”. Operations are what you carry out in order to implement your strategy. If your strategy is to starve your enemy of the resources they need in order to continue fighting you might attack their transport networks. And finally, at the lowest level, tactics are how you conduct your operations. Sneaking into enemy territory and wrecking bridges has a long history.
To their credit, the humans in Attack On Titan do have a strategy (which is less common than you might think). They’re conducting operations, and they have tactics they employ when they encounter the enemy. So the good news is that, at every level, they have a plan. The bad news is that, at every level, their plan is pants-on-head retarded.
Their strategy boils down to “sit behind our walls and hope the titans go away”. This is the same sort of thing that a three year old does by sticking their fingers in their ears and pretending they can’t hear you, and it works about as well against titans as it does for three year olds. At best this could result in a stalemate until the titans find some way to get at the humans (spoilers; they do!). It certainly isn’t going to lead to any reduction in the threat the titans pose.
Their operational concept involves sending groups out into territory controlled by the titans to establish supply depots. Where, unsurprisingly, they get slaughtered wholesale for no appreciable gain. The disconnection between their strategy and the operations they are carrying out is massive; personally I think they have mistaken activity for operations.
And tactically, their method of dealing with titans is so far from effective that I don’t even know what to say. Their equipment, weapons, training… everything is predicated around getting someone with a sword up to the titan’s neck so they can slice it open. Words fail to express how indescribably fucking stupid this is. What makes this even more infuriating is that humanity has millennia of experience of how to deal with similar tactical problems. If you’re going to send out people in ones and twos against titans, with weapons that require them to be actually touching the titan to use, of course you’re going to take horrendous casualties. You are giving away every possible advantage you could have, and transferring them to your enemy. This is the sort of insane idea that could only be come up with by someone who is fixated on individual prowess and achievement at the expense of all else.
In other words their strategy, operations, and tactics all look like they were created by warriors. And that’s one of the main reasons why I don’t think they have a single soldier in the entire place.
The other main reason is the lack of thought that has been put into what you do if you’re not swinging a sword at a titan. There are three arms of service – the Survey Corps, which does reconnaissance and light-infantry tasks; the Garrison Corps, which maintains and defends the walls; and the Military Police, who act as a sort of police force and praetorian guard. There don’t appear to be any organisational levels between that and the squad that you’re assigned to, which must make assigning tasks an absolute nightmare for commanders. Perhaps because of this their supporting arms are basically non-existent. Squads are assigned on an ad-hoc basis to carrying supplies, maintaining and using the cannons mounted on the walls, or anything else that someone thinks needs to be done. It’s hard to tell whether this is the cause or result of no-one being able to approach this as a profession, but effect is the same – there are some truly bizarre oversights being made.
Here’s an example: the walls in Attack On Titan are what humanity is hiding behind. They’re three concentric circles with a combined length of nearly 7000km, which encompass an area bigger than most of Western Europe. They are an engineering achievement that makes the Great Wall of China look like a sandcastle, made all the more impressive by the fact that they were started after the titans appeared and completed in time to be useful. It took huge amounts of time and resources to build castle walls which are nowhere near as big as these ones. So their builders were geniuses who were capable of efficiency and speed that stagger the imagination. While their designers, on the other hand, were gibbering idiots who would be out of their depth in a puddle.
See, the walls are built as fortifications. Their entire job is to prevent titans getting in. But that point does not seem to have occurred to the people who designed these walls. Cannons at the top of a wall can’t hit anything at the base, but the designers didn’t care. They didn’t try to channel the titans into areas where the weapons could bear on them. They didn’t provide any close-in weapons for defending the walls. They didn’t design the walls with bastions for enfilading fire. They didn’t design a series of obstacles to slow attackers and give defenders time to respond, they didn’t have secondary fortifications in case a breach was made in the wall, they didn’t put in additional walls as spokes to limit the amount of territory lost in the event of a breach… The list goes on and on. They just put up a wall 50 metres high, stuck a few cannons on the top, and called it a day. How anyone could look at it and say “Yes, this is a suitable defence for the last of mankind!” is completely beyond me.
And the same stunning lack of thought keeps on coming up time and again. The 3-d manoeuvre device that everyone uses requires incredible athleticism and conveniently placed trees or buildings to swing from, but that isn’t viewed as a drawback. The Survey Corps goes riding at full speed through territory controlled by titans and firing off smoke signals, but this is an improvement on previous methods. No-one appears to have even thought of using different weapons or gear, co-operative tactics, reconnaissance, communications, terrain features, engineering or artillery or in fact anything other than swinging up to a titan’s neck and slicing it with a sword. This is amateurish at best, and it really drives home the fact that they don’t have anyone who can think about this professionally. It’s as if someone looked through a series of military images and picked those that looked cool to base everything on (which is probably close to what happened, but let’s not distract ourselves).
So I am in no way surprised that humanity is on the brink of extinction. They don’t appear to have any military professionals at all, and it’s crippling their ability to fight the titans.
Now, it would be unfair of me to say all this and not offer any ideas about how they could do better. But that’s the subject of the next article…
Question of the Post: What do you think of the military in Attack On Titan? How would you assess their capabilities and performance? What do you think they should be doing?