A Million Ways To Die.

by Daniel Russ on September 30, 2013

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In the movie 2001 A Space Odyssey, there is a scene where early proto human hominids are fighting over a water source in Olduvai Gorge in east Africa. One of the apes picks up a dried animal bone and whacks another over the head and kills him. This would be called tool usage, which is a marker for intelligence. Those who study the history of warfare believe that bludgeoning another person was probably one of the main ways people were killed in early warfare. It makes sense. The physics of it is easy. The force expressed by an object in motion is equal to the mass of the object multiplied by its acceleration. You pick up a heavy stick, and now you have a weapon that can do whatever you can manage to make it do. Plus, there is torque on a swinging stick. So torque is expressed as the length of the stick multiplied by the force. So a small person with a big stick or a fast swing can overcome a smaller opponent, en equal opponent, or a larger opponent. Theodore Roosevelt said, “Walk softly and carry a big stick.”


A blow to the head can crack a skull. The resulting trauma can knock a person unconscious, disrupt the neural function of the brain and cause organ failure, comatose, or recurring neurological problems for life. Those problems might be loss of memory or speech, seizures, numbness in the limbs, hallucinations, blindness, deafness, cognitive dysfunction, meaning the inability to read or count or recognize faces or distinguish music and sound the same way.  A blow to the head can first knock you out. Your body will just simply shut down the brain when this happens. Like your computer, the brain then begins a process where it tries to reboot.


Whilst boxing, I met a man in my youth who was knocked out in the ring. The blow actually changed his personality. He went from being gregarious and talkative to sullen and pensive. In the movies a man is hit on the head with a truncheon and ends up with a bruise and a bandage and a headache. In real life a hard blow to the head can change everything in your life, including taking it from you.


Blunt abdominal injuries usually result in damage to the organs, which can create sickness later. Liver damage can kill you because the liver cleans your blood and regulates many processes in your body. A damaged spleen can hinder your ability to fight bacterial infections. Tears in the lining of the alimentary canal can inhibit proper digestion and result in infections and bleeding. Blunt abdominal trauma injuries can cause internal bleeding and thusly shock.




A stab wound is a deep cut into the body. While a single or multiple stab wounds are not necessarily fatal, stab wounds can cut tendons, severe arteries, cut muscle, and if it’s deep enough it can cause organ failure. Stab victims can die because too much blood has drained out of the body. Stab victims suffer from shock, which is a catastrophic drop in the blood pressure level in your body. A stab wound that severs a main nerve conduit will render a limb or other body part controlled by the nerve limp and useless. Even today, nerve cuts are very difficult to repair. The damage done to a muscle by a blade might be permanent. It’s also, as you might assume, extremely painful.




Being trampled is a series of blunt force trauma injuries inflicted wherever the feet of retreating soldiers or citizens or pack animals make contact with the victim. Trample deaths occur in combat when troops in front or panicked citizens run over whomever in the way of egress.




An arrow causes a deep stab wound but removing the arrow can actually inflict more damage on the way out. The arrow itself can paralyze limbs, tear muscle, inject infectious materials inside the body, and of course cause organ damage. The death from a single arrow or a single stab wound can be the same.




A spear or and arrow wound is very similar to the wound of a stabbing attack. A spear is an especially bad weapon to be hit with because of its weight. The business end of a spear can cause devastating internal injuries that may be made worse by the weight of the spear. After impact, the shaft moves to the ground and the blade moves up. In the case that the spear is still in the hands of a soldier who is wielding it rather than throwing it, that means he can withdraw it and lunge at you again.


Small Slow Moving Projectiles.


In early history, some warriors used slingshots and slings to propel rocks and darts. These were the earliest ballistic traumas. It was hard to kill with a rock, which explains why modern man developed a brain, stereoscopic vision and bipedal motion- it allowed him to shoot arrows and throw spears.





Artillery can inflict a number of different wounds and fatal wounds. First of all there is hydrostatic shock. The shock wave produced by the explosion will run through everything around it, including your body. If the shock is big enough, it will stop your heart, wreak devastating physical hurt to organs, or cause your body to come apart from the force. The force of the explosion can throw you far enough to kill you, or knock you out, or cause a severe cerebral concussion.  Artillery can throw shrapnel that can quite literally cut you in half, sever a leg or arm, or simply blow open a hole in you. You could be knocked unconscious by the blast and then bleed to death while you are unconscious. An artillery shell can burst into massive superhot flames and burn you to death. Worse, it can burn you so quickly that you have just enough flesh left to live on for a few more days, or perhaps for the rest of your life, but with extremely painful, lengthy and high technology medicine.


Bombs that detonate close enough to a person can literally vapor rise him. One of the reasons why land warfare with artillery and heavy bombing lists so many combatants and civilians as missing is because there isn’t enough left of them to know their identity post mortem. Many times military mortician service members report that they do the best they can when collecting the human remains of attacks, but sometimes a casket might have more than one person’s remains in the same place.




Horribly debilitating and extremely painful, burns can kill you by simply causing the thermal decomposition of internal organs, by inducing shock or exsanguination, heatstroke, or carbon monoxide asphyxiation.




Now this could easily be the longest chapter in the book. But it won’t be because if you get off on torture porn: SAW I through VI, I suggest you go rent it. But it makes no sense to outline the innumerable ways one can make another’s life miserable. We will talk about a few of them here.




When the German 6th Army was captured outside of Stalingrad, 95,000 men were taken into Soviet prison camps. Five thousand made it out. The vast majority were starved slowly. This is an excruciating torture because it affects all of your body, and it affects your emotional well-being. The terror or starvation is constant in prisoners who have inadequate diets. The pain is deep and the effects are hard to stop. See Starvation under Ways To Die.


Psychological Stress.


Few people realize how hard it is to withstand just being held against your will. Your life as you know it ends that moment. You must stay where you are put, you eat what is given to you and you lose contact with your family, friends, bosses, etcetera. Just being held in detention with no further harm added is itself extremely hard. But torturers know that to double the stress, or triple it, all you have to do is add one or two other ingredients. One, you can be left alone in a small cell constantly. No contact, no conversation, no distractions, or mental stimulations. No reading material, no TV, no exposure to the outdoors. Nothing. This is not a natural state and can cause extreme depression, extreme stress, heart and other problems due to stress, and it can cause hallucinations. The other ingredient is lack of sleep. This can be accomplished by simply keep lights on. It can be accomplished by chaining a person in a position that requires they stand, and therefore cannot sleep.


People who don’t sleep for a long enough period of time can have a psychotic withdrawal from reality and cause hallucinations. Loss of sleep can cause extreme depression, loss of memory,




Paratroopers falling at 32 feet per second squared have died on impact into the ground when their chutes failed to deploy. Airmen have fallen to their deaths out of their own combat aircraft breaking up at above 20,000 feet. Soldiers have died from scaling high walls and cliffs and even a wrong step off a remote mountain road.




Drowning amazingly is a fairly big part of why soldiers die. When a large ship goes down sailors in the water nearby can be dragged under by the ship. Often battles are fought on river banks as a river is either a natural border, or a natural defense from those on the other side. In 217 BC, the Carthaginian general Hannibal set a trap for Roman troops who were pursuing him along a defile on Lake Trasimene. When he sprung his trap, 15,000 Romans were pushed backwards into the lake. Many with heavy body armor just sank.


Drowning is often thought to be one of the least painful ways of dying in battle, as the lack of oxygen to the brain will cause unconsciousness. When enough time goes by cardiac arrest follows hypoxia.




An amazingly high number of soldiers throughout history have died simply because they ran out of food and were in no condition or location to find it. In ancient war military leaders or kings and queens would often opt to stay behind castle walls rather than fight out in the open. The counter strategy to that was often starvation. The attacking force simply surrounded the castle and waited until the occupants ran out of food. It worked quite often. In World War II, millions of Russians died of starvation in Leningrad and Stalingrad just because the presence of an army made procuring food impossible. A large number of Germans soldiers died from starvation on the eastern front as well. It takes about two weeks to die from starvation when it begins. If there is no water, dehydration can kill you in less than a week. If there is anything at all to drink, simply having no food will cause the body to use all fat deposits and glycogens first to keep organs running. Afterwards, extreme fatigue, lethargy, hunger, pellagra (skin lesions) beriberi (fever and lethargy) anemia, loss of hair teeth and eyesight.


Armies often feed themselves on the move. That means taking what they can find. Cattles, pack animals, crops, groceries, food off the table, food out of stores and food out of food storage centers. In Russia on the eastern front, it wasn’t long before Germans around Stalingrad killed and ate their horses. Then they killed and ate dogs and other animals around the homes or farms or ranches. In the American Revolutionary War and during the American Civil War, people ate whatever they could to survive. They fished, they hunted, they trapped, and they ate everything they came upon. That means birds, rats, bats, cats, bovines, canines, snakes, donkeys, mules, horses, mountain cats, buffalo, deer, beaver, possum, armadillos, bird eggs, frogs, toads, lizards, prairie dogs, crabs, turtles, rabbits, chipmunks, squirrel and bear. And yes, armies have historically resorted to cannibalism many times to save lives. That means eating the remains of your dead friends, or visa versa.




In Medieval Europe, poisoning was such an art, that the toast itself grew of safety concerns. Originally a toast was made by pouring some of your drink into the next person’s glass and they then to the same until everyone at the table has imbibed the from the same beverage batch. But that kind of poisoning was rarely done on a mass scale. In the Mideast and across the American Plains as well, it was customary to despoil enemy water supplies by dumping a dead animal into a well. In World War I, mustard gas and other blistering agents were used to suffocate soldiers or blind them or otherwise give them festering sores with these caustic chemicals. Today, armies across the world still use white phosphorus, which will burn all the way through your body when exposed to oxygen.


Ballistic Trauma – Being Shot.


Gunpowder first appeared in China in the 12th century when General Han Shizhong used cannons to capture Fujan. A century later, cannons were used in Iberia when the Moorish cannon defended against the Christians at Seville. Within two centuries, people were being shot by handheld gunpowder weapons.


Gunshot is horrible, and the scant and insubstantial medical technology available was completely unequipped to handle the wounds. Oddly, it was the nostrum for bullet wounds that killed the patient. An unsterilized finger or instrument was used to find the bullet and that caused an infection.


There are too many ways to die just from  bullet, like artillery and arrows, it all depends on where the shot lands. Most death after disease in warfare is probably bullet related.




Historically disease has been the number one killer of soldiers. Most soldiers who died serving in an armed force died because of typhus, malaria, bacterial infection, viral infection, scurvy, beriberi, rare jungle parasites, skin diseases, and pneumonia.






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