It’s that weekend again. When I suit up and put my boots on. As often happens the Friday before, I spend a little time checking out what servicemembers — current and prior — are saying around the internet. Writer and Marine veteran Dave Klecha had some good thoughts for writers this past Veterans’ Day. It reminded me that for the past two years, the local-to-Utah “Life, The Universe, & Everything” science fiction and fantasy writers’ symposium has done a, “Military on Military SF,” panel — on which I’ve participated — and what Dave writes is what comes up on that panel quite often, too.
I want to riff a bit on what Dave wrote, and on the content of those panels, because I think these points are important for anyone who wants to write about the military and military life, and do it halfway convincingly. Be it contemporarily, or as part of a broader science fiction or fantasy conceit.
Every soldier’s experience is different. This can’t be emphasized enough, IMHO. The military is literally a society unto itself, with almost every possible job and role being occupied by a man or woman specifically trained to be there. And the different branches of the military — Navy, Army, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard — have their own subcultures which overlap somewhat with the others, but retain a degree of uniqueness that I think some writers — who haven’t served — too often overlook. And then of course there’s the Citizen Soldier experience — Guard and Reserve — which again overlaps with that of Active Component, while still retaining uniqueness. And this is just the United States military. Go outside the U.S. and you see the pattern replicated across the militaries of hundreds of nations. Like an insane Venn diagram, with countless thousands of circles that overlap each other, and yet also don’t overlap much at all.
Soldiering is not just about shooting or blowing shit up. Most of the time soldiering is about extraordinarily mundane things. Like sweeping and mopping floors. I’ve been in the Army Reserve almost ten years, and in that time I’ve had the handle of a GI mop or broom in my hands far, far more often than the stock of a rifle. The thing is, when you sign on that dotted line, raise your hand in front of the flag, and put on the uniform, you are basically agreeing to do whatever the nearest NCO (non-commissioned officer) tells you to do. Which means you are bound by law as day labor. And in the pay grades of E-1 through E-4 this usually entails lots and lots and lots of menial, boring, maintenance work. Cleaning the barracks. Cleaning the kitchen — I may have been one of the last cycles to still do KP at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina? Cleaning weapons after going to the range. Cleaning your boots, and your helmet, and your load-bearing vest, and just about everything else. All in preparation for one of an endless number of inspections. Which is what NCOs often spend a lot of their time doing: checking up on the Privates to make sure things are getting done to standard, because much of the time, they’re not.
Basic Combat Training (aka: Boot Camp) is mostly about teamwork. It is also a weed-out. Yes, there is the, “Break ’em down and build ’em up aspect,” but by and large BCT — at least the version I experienced — was primarily about learning to work around and with other people. Usually in less-than-ideal conditions and under less-than-ideal circumstances. And often with guys (or girls) you didn’t particularly like. And they didn’t like you. And somehow you have to figure out a way to lug Ammo Box A across an idiotically-devised obstacle to equally-idiotic Point B. And this is just a dress rehearsal for the real thing where you will again be asked to spend time around people you may not enjoy, and who may not enjoy you, and yet you will all be tasked with performing various jobs and accomplishing various missions with less-than-ideal time constraints, materials, etc. Those who can’t hack this — who cannot find a way to get along and work it out — tend not to make it. The physical training isn’t even the thing, although for a civilian marshmallow man like me, PT in the initial entry phase was hellish. But if you can climb that small mental hill, you’re fine. That’s not necessarily what snags you up. It’s learning to bunk with and shit with and eat chow with and generally live on top of a bunch of other people with whom you are stuck for no reason other than you’ve all been ordered to do it. One of the latest U.S. Army rah-rah TV recruitment campaigns had a very apt line in it. As troops are seen climbing over an obstacle, the words…. THE POWER TO GET YOURSELF OVER — THE POWER TO GET OVER YOURSELF…. reads across the image. Emphasis mine. Thin skins and fragile egos cause problems. BCT doesn’t eliminate all of the unsuited. But it does eliminate many. And contrary to popular belief — you can check out any time you want. Quitting is an option. I saw lots of people do it. Still see people do it. Heck, the Army will even “fire” you if you want. Happens all the time. You just have to not mind getting a Dishonorable Discharge, or a Discharge Under Other Than Honorable Conditions. I myself would sooner cut my nuts off, but that’s just me.
Most soldiers have never shot at, much less killed, another human being. I was in a college class about 6 years ago when a remarkable thing happened. A young woman, upon learning I was in the Reserve, got a sour look on her face and remarked, “Well, it’s a shame that your job is to kill people.” That took me by complete surprise. My job — my military occupational specialty, or MOS — was to shuffle papers. More specifically, I was the Army’s equivalent of Human Resources. A clerk. Rear Echelon Mother Fucker — REMF. Yet because this young woman’s conception of soldiering had been formed (doubtless) by movies and television, she thought that I — indeed, all of us — were half a step away from being serial murderers. Even my daughter got me a few years later when, holding one of my ACU patrol caps in her hands, she asked, “Daddy, do you kill people?” In both instances I had to offer the same answer: no, honey, Daddy does not kill people, and hopefully Daddy won’t ever have to kill people. Even among front-line infantry units, the numbers of men who have significant fighting and/or killing under their belts, is just not that large. If the average soldier really had to go to work and kill people on a regular basis, it’s probable we’d all be put out of the service as PTSD cases. Because killing — especially the close up and personal kind — is jarring. It leaves marks on its perpetrators as well as its victims. And unless a man is a psychopath or sociopath, that kind of event — events? — will stick with him for the rest of his life. In bad ways, often. And thank goodness most of us are blessed to be able to avoid it for most of our careers. Even in a war zone. Because most of us aren’t infantry. Most of us have other jobs — which may or may not involve weapons, patrols, or other potentially bloody duties.
Not everyone is gung-ho, or bleeding heart, as a result of serving. Dave hit on this a little bit when he said that the politics of servicemembers are all over the map. And it’s true. I would say that, in the aggregate, the U.S. military probably has a minor imbalance towards what we in the U.S. might call, “conservativism,” but this is not a guarantee. In my time in uniform I have met other people in uniform who are terrifically liberal in their views — socially, economically, and as relates to foreign policy — so I think it’s safe to say that just because someone serves, or has served, it doesn’t guarantee that they’re going to be an R. Lee Ermey clone — to exemplify one of the better-known and more outspoken veterans who may be recognizable to a civilian populace. Also, service and combat does not “make” people any certain way. People may or may not have a change-of-heart based on their experiences in the service. People may or may not have a change-of-heart based on experiencing combat. From what I’ve seen, people often walk out of the service with many of the same views they took into the service, and those views range across a very, very wide spectrum. Likewise, you have a great many patriots who do it for their country, but you also have a great many people who simply do it for the money, or because they literally had nowhere else to go. I myself had never, ever considered a military career, until 9/11 that is. But then, as I have noted before on this blog, 9/11 began a whole-sale paradigm shift for me, so I may not be the best example. Just be careful that you don’t make sweeping assumptions — to one side, or the other. If every one of your military vet characters is a war-hating hippy protestor or a cigar-chomping kill-’em-all John Wayne, you’re probably doing it wrong.
Militaries — all militaries — are bureaucracies. As such they are prone to follow what famed writer and veteran Jerry Pournelle has deemed his Iron Law: the goals of the organization will often become secondary to the perpetuation of the organization itself. This creates a thousand and one ways in which the letter of the proverbial law trumps the spirit of the proverbial law. Asinine and seemingly nonsensical regulations abound. Forms required to fill out forms required to fill out forms, in order to fill out yet more forms. Labyrinthine chain-of-command and approval channels that make it hellish to requisition equipment, manpower, ammunition, anything and everything that may be crucial to accomplishing training or a mission. In nearly every case, the military is almost guaranteed to have erected a way to make it harder for the person — the soldier, the NCO, the officer — to get his or her job done. And because the rules are so often dense, contradictory, or just a massive fucking hassle, this invites all kinds of creative thinking . About how to work around, under, above, or through the regs. Such that the military then becomes a quasi secret society, complete with special handshakes and code words and winking and nodding, as people invent a “black market” system to aid them in their struggle to follow orders and get their assigned tasks completed — while lumbering under the weight of a bureaucratized structure that is contra to quick, efficient, plain-spoken or otherwise common-sense approaches.
I could write more, but I think that covers it for now. I would just recommend to everyone interested in writing anything about the military, this beloved novel that first came to me in 1988. Long before I’d joined. It was as eye-opening and illuminating as any Tom Clancy or Stephen Coonts techno-thriller. It’s called, A RECKONING FOR KINGS, and it’s by my friend and mentor Allan Cole, and his (late) writing buddy, Chris Bunch. Chris was an Army Ranger in Vietnam, among many other and sundry things, and Allan’s been around the world, was raised in a CIA family, and together they so thoroughly managed to display and replicate — authentically — the military, in this book, that I am not sure I’ve seen a volume before or since which can match it. It’s not that easy to find. It’s been out of mass market circulation for a long time. But it can still be had at Amazon and around the internet. Absolutely and completely worth your time. Even if you’re not into “war novels” this one is absolutely about more than just war. It’s a marvelous (if fictitious) drama that shows the battlefield of Vietnam from both sides, and manages to be entertaining, hilarious, tragic, and deeply moving, all in one volume. Most importantly, it does not preach. It merely tells. And it tells so well I cannot recommend it enough, even 23 years after having first read it. (click the image above for Kindle version, or click here for the trade paperback.)