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First contact is made on a new planet. The natives attack with spears. Rules of engagement are proportional response. Natives invent arrows, guns, cannons, tanks, missiles; the response is always just enough to subdue the natives.

Eventually the decision is made to set off a nuke, at which time the natives agree to peace talks for the first time. Their message is, “How could you have been so cruel? You always let us think that you were only a half a step ahead of us, so if we tried just a little harder we could beat you. If we had known that you could annihilate us at any time we wouldn't have kept fighting all these years. All these senseless deaths could have been avoided!”

  • How old is the story? Did you read it on-line, in a magazine, a paperback anthology, a hardcover anthology? – user14111 Jan 21 '17 at 8:16
  • I read it maybe 15-20 years ago. It was probably in an anthology, but now that I think about it, it could have been in Analog. – Andrea Jan 21 '17 at 15:11
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    there's a very similar story - It's "The Scapegoat" C J Cherryh, from the Alliance-Union series.Wiki article here - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Scapegoat_(Cherryh_novel). That quote is almost word for word from it- the aliens have evolved with a tropism that their response to hostile action is to fight unless in an inferior position, so they cannot surrender or even negotiate because humans have not shown how overwhelmingly superior their weapons and numbers are. – Covertwalrus Jul 5 '17 at 23:56
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    Note that the comment about cruelty is about the only similarity with "The Scapegoat." In that story the aliens start out already as a space-faring civilization, and they don't think of the deaths as 'senseless' because that's not how they think. Oh, and no nuke. – DavidW May 10 at 17:39
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Could this be The Scapegoat, a novella by C.J. Cherryh?

Humans invade a planet and seek negotiations with the locals who commit to total warfare, even down to suiciding to prevent capture.

“There was nothing more to be done,” says the elf. “That was why. We knew that you were coming closer, and that our time was limited.” His long white fingers touch the table-surface, the white, plastic table in the ordinary little bedroom. “We died in great numbers, deFranco, and it was cruel that you showed us only slowly what you could do.”

“We could have taken you out from the first. You knew that.” DeFranco’s voice holds an edge of frustration. Of anguish. “Elf, couldn’t you ever understand that?”

“You always gave us hope we could win. And so we fought, and so we still fight. Until the peace. My friend.”

The humans don't end the war with a nuke, but they do demonstrate overwhelming force initially, then de-escalate. The aliens start out space-faring and end up fighting guerrilla warfare with occasional biological and chemical attacks against their seemingly implacable foes.

  • Hmm... I don't think that's it. The comment about cruelty is about the only point of similarity. As I noted above, the elves don't advance, if anything they slightly regress; there's no nuke, it's the elves themselves who undertake to end the war. And they never express that the war, or the deaths, are senseless; that's the only way they know to respond to what they perceive as an attack. – DavidW May 10 at 18:08
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    @DavidW - there are multiple instances where the 'elves' bemoan the cruelty of their attackers; “We weren’t yet willing. Now things are different.” “For God’s sake—why did you let so many die?” “You never gave us defeat enough. You were cruel, deFranco. Not to let us know we couldn’t win—that was very cruel. It was very subtle. Even now I’m afraid of your cruelty.” – Valorum May 10 at 18:11
  • @DavidW - It's also close enough that OP may have conflated it with another story. At the very least if they say it's not this, we can exclude it. – Valorum May 10 at 18:12
  • I have a file open on my desktop containing all the same quotes about cruelty copied from the story. :) That's when I decided to just comment on the question and see if someone else had a better idea... – DavidW May 10 at 18:14
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    @DavidW - No sense posting it as a comment when it's a potential answer. Post and be damned. – Valorum May 10 at 18:18

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