Rank and File

So ….

After an entire day of feeling like ass (stomach pains strong enough to send me to hospital) and a lot of sleeping through the day, I managed to drag myself to my computer later this evening,  At some point, I started reading the recent Tor.com posts about military SF.  They've run a series of posts over the last week or so, which you can see here, which is the tag page for "military" on the blog.  I thought that was interesting, as at least half of the "military" SF I've read is militarily inaccurate.

There are some interesting discussions on the page.  Liz Burke posts about women in military SF, and makes the point that some authors project the gender-role paradigms of the current day, and spawned a pretty spirited discussion in the comment trail.  There is a trailing post about gender in Battlestar Galactica, and another talking up the movie Starship Troopers as an entity separate from the book.  (For the record, I appreciate the movie as action entertainment and try to ignore Verhoeven's clumsy politicking, though I wouldn't go so far as to call it fine cinema.)  There's even a post about an old anime, called Star Blazers, which I remember being the first cartoon I ever saw that featured characters dying.

The posts that really drew my attention were the ones titled, "Why Every Writer Should Join the Military."  It's broken into two parts:  Part I and then Part II.  The basic tenet of the articles is that being in the military teaches one adversity and how to overcome it.  I would agree that it does but I non-concur with the general thought that the military is the only – or even the best place – to learn about such things, since I think the ideal learning environment is different for everyone.  (I do, however, fully sympathize with his discussion of award writing in the second part, as that is a hell I live daily.  Has it helped me be a better writer?  Indeterminate.)  The comments contained the expected amount of snark towards the article thesis and the military in general, with appropriate responses.  Again, spirited.

Having read all that brings me back to where I was when I first started reading the articles.  I feel that a lot of people who write military fiction honestly have no idea how a military functions.  I recently peer-reviewed a story about American soldiers in Iraq, who were dealing with a SF/horror situation beyond their understanding.  They story was written as if someone had absorbed the talking point memos of Code Pink (anyone remember them?  They never get airtime anymore … I wonder why ….)  about the conduct of American soldiers in the middle east.  The soldiers were loud, brutish, not too bright, coarse, and fueled by sex and violence.  Okay, fine, it's an old story.  But what's more, the author's lack of any military knowledge showed through.  Not details about ranks and such – you can look all that up – but the culture itself.  In the story, an officer openly flouts an affair – and by openly, I mean PDA and verbally – with an enlisted woman under his command, in front of their coworkers and superiors.  This just doesn't happen in the American military.  At the very least, it is rare enough to be made worthy of discussion but the other characters scarcely acknowledge it.  Troop tactics consisted of running forward and shooting.  While in garrison, they consistently threatened each other with loaded weapons.  The lingo and slang were all wrong.  And on it went.  And this is just one peer-reviewed story.  I've read others as bad – books published by known authors.

Confession time, for anyone who may not have kept up:  I am in the military.  So was my father, and his father.  I have been in the military culture for my entire life.  I've watched it evolve and have had the chance to examine it.  It is its own unique entity and most people honestly have no idea how it functions on a day-to-day basis.  The more I talk to my purely civilian friends, the more I feel a profound disconnect from them.  It's not that we have nothing to discuss but that most of them can't relate to the idea of their parents being called into (unplanned) work on Christmas Eve for the the next 48 hours.  Or watching their significant other go out the door for six to twelve months, wondering if they will ever return.  Or being held to a standard such that things that mean little in the outside world, such as adultery, drug use, and even not showing up for work on time, can end your career. 

Or even having to move every few years.  I think I am up to the 21st move in my life now, if I count having moved between houses without leaving the city.  That's a lot in forty years.  What did I sacrifice?  Lifelong friends (I have very few) and stability.  What did I gain?   Exposure to a broad range of cultures and ability to adjust rapidly to new social situations (I have to dive right in and meet people, 'cause I never know how long I'll have before they or I go).  I think I benefited from this, as it has made me more open-minded and adaptable (as have the cross-cut of individuals I've worked with over my career) but I sometimes wonder what the other path would have been like.

Does any of this make me a better writer?  Not necessarily.  But I think it does give me the inside track on writing fiction with a military involvement.  I know we all hear the old meme that we should, "Write what we know."  Well, no one knows the military any more.  In the United States, there are about 1.5 million men and women in uniform, of a population of over 300 million.  I see various numbers bandied about but the estimated number of veterans in the country is about 22 million (though that number will thin greatly in the next two decades).  So something less than 8% of the people in the country have ever served in our military.  Triple the number if you want to count family members of those serving/served and you still have less than a quarter of the country who know the subject well.  And I think it is ironic that there is so much SF flavored with military life, from people who really don't know it or understand it.  I may as well write about the SF of raising alpacas.  I might get the facts right … but any breeders out there will call me on everything I do wrong.  Unlike alpaca breeding, the military is something about just about which everyone has an opinion – often a strong opinion; martial conflict is just a fact of human existence and likely will be for a long time, and there will be opinions on that conflict as long as it endures.  It would be cool if those opinions were fact-based.

Where am I going with this?  I dunno.  I guess it's a cautionary tale that you can't grab a few facts from Wikipedia and consider your research complete.  If you want to dive into something complex and have an authentic voice, it wouldn't hurt you to know something about the subject.  And military culture is complex as any out there.

Or if you don't buy any of that, just assume I off my meds again.  In fact, I am off my stomach meds, so I am wrapping this up right now.  Feel free to, err, fire away.

(Edit:  Reference the acronym PDA above.  If you have to look it up from that context, you probably aren't in the service right now – thus abetting my point.)


3 thoughts on “Rank and File

    1. Uhh…

      It’s been a long time since read the first Honor Harrington book but I recall it’s done pretty well there (though the rest of the book is up for debate). David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers series capture it pretty well. William Fortschen’s Lost Regiment series does an excellent job.

      Honestly, they are few and far between. A guy by the name of Larry Bond did it really well but he wrote straight military fiction, not speculative fiction. Same for W.E.B. Griffin’s Brotherhood of war series.


  1. As with any subculture, the writer needs to do a lot more research than wikipedia to get it right. I don’t think that one necessarily needs to be in the military in order to get it right, but one does need to interview several people who are in the military so one doesn’t do anything obviously stupid.

    I love WEB Griffin. I’ve read The Brotherhood of War series several times.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s