Warfare and Genocide in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

[Eclipse] Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood - 30 (1280x720 h264) [98046559].mkv_snapshot_09.52_[2010.08.25_06.20.28]

One thing that really got my attention in FMA: BRO is the graphic and unflinching depiction of death in warfare. It reminded me of Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion, Berserk, and Legend of the Galactic Heroes (among others) in a good way. Shows like Sengoku BasaraGundam 00 and Macross Frontier while having a LOT more destructive potential, does not depict, or is not able to depict warfare so grimly.

Berserk aside, I think all the shows I mentioned have broad fan bases which include female viewers. Also, FMA: BRO is shonen so younger viewers are accounted for. When I was a kid, I already preferred shows that didn’t condescend to me. When people get shot, I’d rather see the poor folk get riddled with holes than the absurdity that was G. I. Joe which had massive combined arms engagements with a net casualty rate of zero.

I’ve only seen 31 episodes of FMA: BRO as of this writing, so let’s be careful with the spoilers in the discussion. In return, I will not mention any spoilers at all here. My concern in this post is how the depiction of warfare reflects some world-building considerations I find interesting.

fullmetal alchemist 01 edward alphonse elric close combat

The combat in this show is mostly close-quarters. After all it’s the most visually captivating kind – it is rather remarkable how the Macross franchise has successfully provided superb combat scenes without resorting to close quarters grappling. Legend of the Galactic Heroes had the conceit that armored infantry swinging battle axes can easily overrun a rifle formation. The Gundam franchise is in love with swordsmanship in space (to pro-wrestling in space in the case of Mobile Suit Z Gundam and reportedly Mobile Suit Gundam SeeD). Close quarters combat allows for martial arts which is almost always fun to watch – and guarantees that the combatants are within shouting distance at each other.

This proximity is perfect for portraying debates, character motivations in direct conflict, and emotions expressed dramatically through attacks. It’s partly because of this, that I think we don’t see the following in FMA: BRO:

  • Prevalence of machine guns (full automatic gun fire)
  • Cavalry
  • Armored Cavalry (e.g. tanks… though I saw a tank in the third OP)
  • Aircraft
  • Infantry Formations

The combat in this show are examples of one vs. one, small groups vs. one, one vs. small group, and one vs. many. Very seldom, if at all do we see a many vs. many engagement. So while the aesthetic of the Amestris army is very much WWI to WW2 Europe, the combat is pretty much pre-Sengoku era Japanese (I declare my opponent among the many opponents and duel with him).

[Eclipse] Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood - 30 (1280x720 h264) [98046559].mkv_snapshot_08.13_[2010.08.25_06.15.20] [Eclipse] Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood - 30 (1280x720 h264) [98046559].mkv_snapshot_08.19_[2010.08.25_06.17.23]

I never get a good feel of the size of the armies, they don’t seem to be any more than a few hundred soldiers per army. This is funny in that the conflict with the Ishbal supposedly spread out in a full civil war, but there were no army vs. army engagements depicted or accounted for. Everything shown is mostly urban skirmishes, or urban massacres – but even so it’s just either a small squad gunning down small groups (of noncombatants), or state alchemists using “area effect” powers to small groups (of noncombatants).

[Eclipse] Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood - 30 (1280x720 h264) [98046559].mkv_snapshot_09.02_[2010.08.25_06.18.53] [Eclipse] Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood - 30 (1280x720 h264) [98046559].mkv_snapshot_09.35_[2010.08.25_06.19.32] [Eclipse] Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood - 30 (1280x720 h264) [98046559].mkv_snapshot_09.55_[2010.08.25_06.20.39]

It was an extermination indeed, as narrated, BUT the show skipped the depiction of the war itself that led to that extermination. Here are some questions I don’t have an answer for:

  • Why aren’t there any horses?
  • Why don’t I see many soldiers? Where is the army? (when there are supposedly armies)
  • Why do cars exist but not guns mounted on cars? (again, I saw a tank in the third OP)
  • How is it a civil war when I don’t get to see armies in pitched battle?

Nitpicking? Maybe. But I think it’s worth asking these questions and discussing this about Fullmetal Alchemist precisely because I think it is a great show. I’m having a blast, and worth all the mental and emotional effort I can spend related to this hobby.

About ghostlightning

I entered the anime blogging sphere as a lurker around Spring 2008. We Remember Love is my first anime blog. Click here if this is your first time to visit WRL.
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24 Responses to Warfare and Genocide in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

  1. jomz says:

    There are no horses? Hmmm… I don’t think I’ve remembered seeing one indeed.

    One possibility is that the technology for these weapons of war were not invented yet. This is a world (or a nation in the case of Amestris), where they have focused their researches on making use of alchemy as a weapon.

    Who needs developing other weapons of mass destruction when you got national alchemists who can do it? Human weapons of mass destruction is what they are.

    I don’t think I can comment much on the Ishbal War without revealing much spoilers, but it was more of a massacre than an army vs. army kind of war.

    • As soon as I publish the episode I start seeing not only horses, but tanks in the Briggs Fort. This doesn’t make for a better explanation for me — though let me be clear that I’m not holding this against the show.

      I get that it’s a massacre, but the rhetoric of the people recounting it vs. the portrayed scenes do not match. I’m interested if this is intentional, how the rhetoric of the survivors and victors is some residue of propaganda. Thanks for the restraint re spoilers.

      • jomz says:

        Ah, you’re in those parts.

        General Armstrong wants to develop any means to give their fort an advantage – and that includes tanks.

        From that, I can say that tanks, or armored cavalry is just under research and development.

        • I’ve reached the final stretch, and I realize that it’s really foolish to ask for a stronger military/combat sensibility from this show. I’ll just enrage myself and keep myself from enjoying the really great parts of the show.

  2. >>Cavalry
    Armored Cavalry (e.g. tanks… though I saw a tank in the third OP)<<

    There will be plenty of this later. Also, the show's very lengthy climax provides some of what you want, including machine guns used extensively and one mounted on a vehicle, and large army vs. army combat. So… yeah.

    • I look forward to this final arc/climax that you speak of, though I admit I am enjoying every episode of this show. It is indeed so very well made… also because of Winry Rockbell’s um, “development” in the third cour ~_^

  3. It is damn near impossible to answer your question without spoilers. But as stated before you WILL get what you’re looking for. As for why the scale seems so small currently, I have two answers. The first is that in the past it was (by the point it was conveyed) a “modern” military versus a group of people who shunned the advances it’s enemies used to be superior. Not to mention that when things resort to urban combat against an opponent that isn’t normally stupid enough to run out and attack, then things like tanks and artillery can be cumbersome ways to deal with the situation. I suppose this was also a plot conceit that justified the state alchemists being brought in as the be all answer to the problem. They applied the force of a tank from house to house. And while a tank is definitely scary, I can imagine seeing a man that could light you ablaze or blow off your face to be utterly terrifying.

    Though during it’s telling in the manga, you did see large scale trench to trench combat. The military was even being pushed back, this was before the alchemists were called in though.

    In the present it is just being called an insurgency (which is bullish*t on the military dictatorship’s part). Only Scar or another skilled alchemist could even be a blip on the military’s radar at this point. You won’t see the full brunt of what this very capable military can do until later.

    One of the aspects that I’ve loved in general about this series, animes & manga alike, is the unflinching view at violence and war. I’m glad to see you have an appreciation for this as well.

    • Acceptable explanations.

      Though during it’s telling in the manga, you did see large scale trench to trench combat. The military was even being pushed back, this was before the alchemists were called in though.

      I would’ve loved to see this. Indeed I have a fetish for well-portrayed violence and war. Does this make me a bad person? I don’t know, but I am certainly a fan of this form of entertainment.

      • Actually there’s one moment in the anime where you see Havoc in the trenches and the dude next to him gets like blown up. That’s in the war going on right now that’s almost never shown in the series lol.

  4. twilightshiva says:

    The horses question is quite interesting. I don’t think I ever thought of that. I feel like there might have been a horse-drawn carriage in Risembool but maybe that was the first adaptation or I’m just making stuff up.
    I think one of the reasons we don’t see much of the main army is because the show is focused on the alchemists. You don’t need a platoon when you have an alchemist who is basically a weapon/person of mass destruction. And it’s a lot more interesting that way (at least for me).
    Similarly, we mainly see flashbacks of Ishbal through alchemists, or those close to them, so we avoid any group vs. group combat.
    But yeah… keep watching 🙂

    • As I mentioned to Jomz, I started seeing both horses and tanks in the Briggs Fort. I’m not getting a clear picture of the agricultural and industrial capacity of Amestris — which is a completely landlocked country. Where is it getting its irrigation? What does it import? Export? It seems that there is at least conflict with the state north of Briggs, so how does this impact trade — which should inform the food, the metals, the technology, and many other things in Amestris.

      The country does look every bit an industrial age kind of place, but I do want to get a stronger sense of the industry and economics. Why? It’s because I’m retarded for this level of world building, that’s all.

  5. vendredi says:

    The classical answer in terms of questions of scale is of course that the animation budget simply doesn’t allow for it. That’s not really a satisfying answer so I’ll take another stab at it (that being said, I follow FMA mostly through the manga, so I imagine some thematic elements don’t carry over quite as well).

    FMA is a curious amalgamation of several different eras and technologies; at times the militarized state they live in seems similar to 19th century Prussia, and at other times it has more the feel of perhaps Britain or France during the Second World War. Rifled, magazine-fed hand weapons are common – the exact sort of conditions that lead to a decline in the use of traditional horse cavalry in favour of armoured cavalry – this could account for the lack of horses. Not many machine guns, but like the other posters pointed out, when you can deploy specialists like Roy Mustang, who knows how warfare will evolve?

    As jomz pointed out, one of the recurrent themes in FMA is the idea of militarized societies and the inherent tension in the improvement of military technology – on the one hand, Amestris is a powerful and advanced nation, and it’s residents enjoy security, safety, and a fairly high standard of living because of Amestris’ (somewhat unconventional) usage and regulation of alchemy completely as a tool of the state. For the political science/international relations people out there, it’s essentially a deconstruction of the state monopoly on violence: to advance in any sort of meaningful career, alchemists in Amestris *must* register and work for the military, essentially becoming human weapons. The Ishbalan civil war also raises disturbing implications about how the Amestrian government puts all that energy to work, as well.

    • I am actually peeved when people use the term “as usual” but…

      As usual you provide an excellent distillation and presentation of the ideas that concern me in the blog posts. I honestly think that WRL… the discussions in it, or at least my own satisfaction from them is significantly impacted by your participation. Thank you.

      I was just thinking of the last cavalry charge in military history, which if I’m not mistaken, a joint Filipino and American cavalry action against the Japanese invasion forces in the Philippines in WW2. Maybe I want to see this kind of massacre — because I think it’s awesome, in that there is a combination of many failures: technological obsolescence, tactical obsolescense, and alchemic power disparity.

      This is perhaps what I wanted to see in the accounts of the Ishbal conflict, not just the massacres on the street level.

  6. BigFire says:

    Since you’re at episode 31, and well pass the scene where Edward explained to the visitor from the East about Amistra, which for lack of eastern enemy (Xing is all the way beyond the desert that buffered the 2 country), the rest of their border is highly militarized and almost in continuing skirmish. And unlike Ishbal those other nation have almost equal level of military technology. So you can see how bloody those conflict are. Plus Amistra has their trump card, the State Alchemists.

    • Yes, all correct. As I mentioned to twilightshiva, I want to have a better sense of the economics of this setting. How does Amestris pay for its army? How does it feed its military? The border wars… all the conflicts, these are not only expensive (not to mention the fat research budgets for state alchemists, let alone the secret programs.

      The traditional (and perhaps mistakenly attributed) goal of alchemy is to turn lead into gold. The Fullmetal Alchemist cannot accomplish this (the gold bullion he used to purchase the mine was fake) — if he could then there should be no problem — though within the local market gold will be devalued immediately and devastatingly… like “Mickey Mouse Money” the Japanese circulated here in the Philippines during their occupation in WW2.

      • Salinea says:

        I don’t think the anime makes it clear but IIRC alchemists can transform lead (or anything really) into gold; however that is forbidden by law because of the obvious effect it would have on the economy (and I supposed it’s well enforced enough that the issue doesn’t show up much).

        I believe that FMA address most of the traditionnal goals of Western alchemy, actually. Gold, Immortality, Gold-as-a-metaphor-for-perfection.

        It doesn’t have much on what make Amnestri’s economy and industry successful though 😦 I expect we’re just supposed to assume it worked the way it did for Germany.

        • Wow, the fact that any alchemist can transmute valuable materials will automatically devalue those materials and wreck the global economy. I can’t imagine it not happening — or perhaps it has happened in their history that led to the ordinance against it. Still, how can the commoners tell? FWIW non-alchemists would be greedy enough to attempt to exploit this. I mean, the mining shuckster was completely conned by THE Fullmetal Alchemist! I don’t think of the character to be stupid that way… but even in amazing works like this one there are places where the writing is weaker.

  7. kadian1364 says:

    The Ishbalan “civil war” is less an armed conflict than it is ethnic cleansing. Think of Amestris’ military more along the lines of despotic powers in real world regions like the Balkans, Middle East, and Africa and how they used their overwhelming military arms to massacre those who are ethnically different.

    You’ll see the presence of actual standing armies, tanks, and formations later since Amestris is surrounded by proper nation-states on all sides, but the mere presence of alchemy renders a lot of that stuff moot.

    • A very good analogy you make here.

      For your second paragraph, let me try my own: The state alchemist as military weapon is similar to the mechanized soldier/robot with pilot. Usually the introduction of such, in the case of Gundam and Code Geass, changed the face of organized warfare.

      I do think that standing armies still have a place, especially in the FMA: BRO setting given how State Alchemists still get killed when shot. The [SPOILER] Homunculi, on the other hand — with their fake GN Drives philosopher’s stones, are another matter altogether (also the chimera).[/SPOILER].

  8. Dez691 says:

    I believe the lack of horses can be explained by the fact they wouldn’t provide a significant advantage over the Ishbalans considering this is guerrilla warfare(war in the city). The primary advantage of horses would be an increased speed, but that comes at the cost of mobility and maneuverability, two elements essential to guerilla warfare. I believe guerrilla warfare is also the reason you don’t see tanks or guns mounted on cars: it provides many strategies for smaller groups of people to fight off a more traditional and slow army. And if a tank fell in the hands of the ishbalans they’d have a way to defend themselves too.

    Regarding the Ishbal army, and this might be wrong, I think Ishbalans were against militarizing their nation, and so they didn’t have a proper army, instead they had this group of elite martial artists. Once again, I’m not very sure regarding this one so don’t take my word for it.

    • This is the thing: I imagine the Ishbalans wouldn’t want the fighting to be done where they actually live. Their lack of militarization is the thing that makes me object to the rhetoric of “civil war.” How could such a war have spread all over Amestris? The burning map had the flames rage from the Southeast (where Ishbal is) to everywhere except North of Central.

      This creates a strong impression of an intense war, and perhaps involving more than just the Ishbal. Why? The spreading across the country suggests that either the Ishbal were able to make aggressive, organized resistance in every city they had a population in (remarkable, but unlikely); and/or they were actually able to mount an offensive — which would require some measure of militarization, mobilization, logistics, and some means of cavalry maybe. This is something I cannot take for granted, so yeah, this post.

  9. Myssa says:

    I admit having a chuckle when you shortened the series name to FMA: BRO (before ‘hos?)

    I think the other commentators have already pointed out the salient points, at least regarding the mobilization of elements of the army against the Ishbalans. Although it is DESCRIBED as a war, it’s more of the stamping out of a regional insurgency (and the frequency such bloody conflicts occurring and their location within Amnestris is a MAJOR plot point), with a dash of ethnic cleansing to flavor. Hence we do not see many of the traditional things one would expect out of a large-scale conflict.

    THAT we will see later, when we’re exposed to the fact that Amnestris is apparently surrounded on all sides by AT LEAST three hostile powers.

    • Sup BRO

      As I mentioned to Dez691, for the war to spread to “civil war” levels as described by the rhetoric AND the burning map visual aid (which is something like a 4th wall break, or something that only exists for the viewer)… the Ishbalans must have been able to strike first and spread fast — which suggests organization and logistics ergo some level of militarization.

      Unless, other factions were sympathetic to the Ishbalans within the military and sided with them against Central etc. This would have made for a proper civil war. But there is no indication of this at all. So, I feel that the writing regarding this matter is kind of weak.

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