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What makes a battle scene tense and visceral is the immediate danger and the fast-paced action and reaction. For that, the human soldier needs to be on the battlefield, in the action.

Here's the problem though: as technology advances, we move soldiers away from the battlefield, if we can. As an example, once we had ace pilots. Now, instead of aircraft vs. aircraft dogfights, there's anti-aircraft missiles, and anti-missile missiles, and drones so the pilot needn't be in the cockpit at all. (I am well aware that soldiers are still present on the modern battleground. I'm looking at the direction we're going - not saying we've reached it yet.)

Once, we'd write stories about aliens landing on earth (or us landing on an alien planet), and then there would be fighting on the ground. Now, why wouldn't the planet shoot the unwanted spaceship before it ever entered atmosphere? (Again, an example of a problem, not necessarily the particular problem I'm trying to solve.)

Many horror stories start with some contrived something making it so the phones (including mobile phones) don't work, because if they did, there would be no story. How to contrive a similar excuse for why boots are needed on the ground is a question better suited for Worldbuilding. SE. But here's a question for this SE: should we even contrive this excuse for soldiers' presence on the battlefield, or should this situation be abandoned? Are we stuck telling yesterday's stories, beating a dead horse? Does the contrived excuse stick out, boring the reader, however it is executed? Or is the horse not dead yet?

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I don't think the soldier's presence on the battlefield should be contrived, but there is still reason for soldiers to be out there and in danger.

The situation is kind of split. Primarily because the situation of war is, and will likely always be, actually ending human lives. It will not remain just a competition of who can destroy the most capital equipment; nobody surrenders to the rule of another over how much money they've lost.

So the tactics will change and evolve on all sides (as they already have to include terroristic tactics like killing civilians). I would say in the current climate (early 2019) Russia is already adapting its tactics to sabotage support for its enemies so it can kill more of them. They, along with Saudi Arabia, are also already heavily engaged in covert assassination of their critics, both internal and external (and not so covert).

The machines of war will continue to evolve, and to some extent we will see an evolution of machine-vs-machine warfare, but the drones and everything else we see (and I presume the classified stuff we don't see) is still all about killing human beings, more so than just smashing up machines. Part of that evolution is actually making the machines (like drones) cheaper and even disposable, much like the military treated battlefield weapons in WW II (guns, bullets, knives, grenades, shoulder-braced grenade launchers, land-mines, etc). It makes a big difference if the enemy disables an Abrams tank; it makes zero difference if the enemy gets lucky and shoots down a kamikaze drone; that thing was expensed as a missile the moment it took off.

Soldiers likely won't be completely out of danger, ever, the enemy will find a way to kill enemy civilians, and preferentially to kill soldiers that are necessary for the enemy's war operation, because that is what war is all about; damaging and crippling the enemy until their will is broken, they can't take the human death toll anymore.

In the near future (a few decades, within most lifetimes) I don't think there will be the kind of battlefield with "front lines" and soldiers holding guns and shooting at each other across a field. But I do think soldiers will be in harm's way and getting killed, and civilians will be getting slaughtered, by other ways and means. The battlefield will be pretty much everywhere, and the business of war will always be the ending of human lives.

As for war itself, Malthus gets the last laugh. Life resources (food, potable water, land, livable climate, arable land) are declining, statically limited, or at best linearly increasing, while the population grows exponentially (7% to 14% per year). No population is going to lay down and die for the good of the rest, so as they run out of resources or their resources are depleted or become overcrowded, the desperate go to war to fight for their survival. Either in their own country, or with other countries, but it is war and the objective is to kill the human consumers of resources so the winners have enough to live on.

War will never be just a contest of destroying machines, because that doesn't solve the resource problem! It will always find a way to be about killing humans.

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  • "nobody surrenders to the rule of another over how much money they've lost" I'm not sure that is entirely true. Trade tarrifs and embargoes are exactly that, financial warfare. Many it isn't the direct cause but eventually they will run out of money to fund the war efforts. – linksassin Mar 26 '19 at 2:18
  • @linksassin In context, they don't surrender over how much equipment they lost. People only surrender over how many people they lost. The same for financial warfare; as long as people aren't dying wholesale, the country will continue. Even in "volunteer" armies, soldiers can't quit over lack of pay, they will continue to fight and die or be shot as traitors. In a Malthusian war over survival resources, the aggressors aren't getting paid or they would be able to buy what they need -- thus they fight until enough have died (both sides) that the resources can support the still living. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Mar 26 '19 at 11:08
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The horse is not dead yet.

Consider tanks. They are a century old technology, so they've been around for a while. Yet they did not kick foot soldiers from the battlefields. There are tasks that tanks are incapable of doing, there are requirements that make the use of tanks unfeasible in certain situations, and of course an army can't be made of armored vehicles only (I'm aware tanks need to be manned, but let's assume it's not relevant to the discussion here).

As warfare elvolves with even more sophisticated and automatized tools, it's perfectly fine to assume that infantry forces will become less relevant. With battles moving up in space and ships being equipped with the oh-so-typical planet destroyer death ray it's perfectly fine to ask if human soldiers still have a place on the battlefield.

Yet, there are things that a death-ray can't do. You can destroy a planet, sure; and if you have space-superiority you can effectively enforce an embargo on that same planet. Through orbital bombardments, it's safe to assume that a superior fleet could take control of the place without ever landing a single guy on the surface.

But what about guerrilla fighting? If the populace on the surface start revolting, you'll eventually have to land some infantry forces on the ground (unless you are some kind of evilish and ineffective empire, and you decide to just bomb everything in retaliation, including factories and resources, to a fine dust).

Of course, the infantry forces in question could be robotic, if your technology can make an effective use of drones and androids. Yet, if people are still in command, someone will land. If people are in charge (rather than AI's) even a small percentage of the infantry team will be human staff.

To wrap this up, it does depend a lot on your setting. It's up to the worldbuilding to explain why the presence of something apparently antiquate is still a thing in a science fiction enviroment.

But the horse is not dead. it can be mechanized, remote-controlled, or restrained to a secondary role; but it's not dead yet, at least not in the general case.

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