A comment about Stolen Valor

So this piece of news has been floating through the military ethersphere. Stolen Valor has become a very hot topic over the past 15 years. It is a literal crime for someone to wear medals, tabs, or badges (s)he did not earn, just like it is a literal crime for civilians to impersonate military personnel. But we (in the various branches) read and hear about such cases all the time. And those cases generate a tremendous amount of anger.

As in all things, though, righteous passion can turn to zealotry. And zealotry can make even good men do stupid things.

The world is filled with poseurs. The world is also filled with people itching for an excuse to be assholes to other people, sans guilt.

My take?

Service records have been getting embellished since Alexander the Great. And probably before. Always, the ones who have done the most, tend to talk the least, and the ones who have done the least, tend to talk the most.

I have admired the military, and members of same, since I was a tot. One of the reasons I joined (after 9/11) was because I didn’t want to be sitting on the sidelines. I didn’t want to be one of the people who desires to know what the uniform feels like, but never put his hide on the line to earn one. I didn’t want to be that guy.

I also respond with the same answer any time anyone asks me what I do/did in the Army Reserve: paper pusher! (said with a smile and a laugh) I am fully aware of the fact I am on the dull end of the spear. I go out of my way to claim my cake-eating civilian-most-of-the-time status. Because the truth is, I like being a civilian most of the time.

And I like being able to stand up and do my little part in the giant machine, when called for. In this way, I don’t think I am any different from the original militiamen who left their farms to march with Washington, then went back to those farms when the marching was done. They weren’t soldiers for life. They were simply patriots when it counted.

And that’s all I’ve ever wanted to be: a patriot, when it counted. No more, and no less.

I actually feel sorry for the guys (and it’s almost always men) who are so tied up in knots over their service records (or lack of same) that they have to embellish or lie. That’s a psychic wound that clearly cannot heal, and I believe it must be a miserable thing to stand in front of a mirror every day, chest pushing out medals you did not earn, or telling the world stories that aren’t true, knowing all along that you are a fraud.

Because ultimately, God knows it too. And that’s the man all Stolen Valor perps ultimately have to answer to.

Women and combat, the real vs. the unreal

There’s a mini-debate raging in the comments of a different thread, regarding women in combat, and how this is often portrayed in fiction. Ergo, real vs. unreal. Rather than keep that thread going (because it’s a whole topic unto itself) I wanted to branch things off. And offer a few opinions of my own.

1) I don’t think this is an argument that’s ever going to end, because people are heavily invested in their opinions, there are many different points of view, and each and every one of them is convinced that (s)he is right on the matter. So I won’t pretend that I can “solve” the thing. I merely have my own viewpoint. Take it or leave it.

2) From a real-world perspective, combat capability has (I think) far more to do with politics, than it has to do with anything else. Many say putting women into ground combat roles is foolish and dangerous. That it actually hurts (and does not help) the mission. Which might be true. Then again, the U.S. Department of Defense dumps billions of dollars into jet fighter programs (like the F-35) which may or may not give us airplanes capable of performing to mission spec, thereby proving foolhardy and dangerous too. The drag about being a ‘little person’ at the bottom of the food chain in the military, is you’re given what they decide to give you. And you do the best you can with it. Even if you think the people making the purchasing, strategic, and tactical decisions are full of crap. (Regarding the F-35, I don’t know why we didn’t spend the same money developing a 21st century version of the A-10 or even the A1 Spad. Not resurrecting those precise airframes, per se. I mean, creating a new aircraft with similar flight characteristics, loadout, loiter-on-target potential, and combat damage survivability. Obviously I don’t get to make the call.)

3) World War 2 was not won with 6’2″ 230-pound UFC champions. It was won with 5’7″ 150-pound teenagers. Who had minimal hand-to-hand training. But they did have the M1, and were drilled extensively in its proper use. Being able to shoot means a teenager with a rifle is more deadly than an entire formation of 14th century pikemen. Technology invariably changes the way we fight. Note that a 150-pound woman with steady nerves, good eyes, and good trigger-squeeze, makes her more deadly (on the modern field of battle) than those very same 14th century pikemen.

4) Lowering standards (solely to ensure that x-number of women/people pass a combat arms school) is wrong. But like I said with #2, it might be inevitable. I have been in the military long enough to realize that while the military preaches endlessly about training to singular standards, the military is also adept at inventing rules for itself why it doesn’t have to have a singular standard. In a perfect world, the only people who’d ever enlist would be 6’2″ 230-pound UFC fighting champs, with perfect Chuck Yeager vision and the ability to ruck their own weight 15 miles without breaking a sweat. In the real world we get the enlistees we get. There is no draft. So you either have a very small force capable of meeting a very high standard, or you get a bigger force with variable standards. Sooner or later, raw numbers matter. What kind of Army (or Navy, or Air Force) we decide to have, is a decision (in the United States at least) made by elected civilians. Lots of people hate and loathe this. And for good reason. But hating it won’t change it. Some realities, we’re simply stuck with.

5) Some jobs really do require raw muscle. Can two 120-pound 5’4″ females lug an M107 howitzer shell as effectively as two 175-pound 5’11” males? That’s roughly 100 pounds of high-explosive ordnance. Almost as much as one of the females by herself. Physics matter as much as attitude in this instance. So that even two well-trained, gung-ho female troops might find it a lot more difficult (and time-consuming) to wrestle that M107 to the gun breach, than two male troops who are larger and have more muscle mass. This is the reality most feminist arguments wholly ignore, when discussing the “inevitable” penetration of female troops into all sectors of the military–especially combat arms. I say, by all means, let women apply for entrance. But let them achieve the same results, to the same standards. If it takes a 175-pound 5’11” person to do a given job, then this should be true for females too. It will mean far fewer women get to earn the MOS or the slot. But those who do, will know they didn’t have to have a booster seat to do it. And that’s a good thing. For the women, and for the men who serve with them.

6) Everyone has a libido and this is what fucks (literally) a lot of things up. As long as we put young men and young women into the same space, in uniform, they’re going to be having sex with each other. Everyone knows its a terrible idea, and yet everyone keeps doing it. Peace-time, or war-time. It introduces a range of disciplinary and morale problems. The best way to combat it is to segregate: keep the men and the women apart for much of their operational careers. A co-ed military inevitably results in people fooling around. Even though they know they shouldn’t. Again, item #2: our politics (as a country) probably dictate that we just live with the fallout. Because politics dictate that we share spaces (as genders) everywhere else in the world. The military inevitably reflects this too. Lots of people hate it. I think they have solid reason to hate it. But then again, there are a lot of other strategic, political decisions apart from gender-mixing, being made by DoD and civilian legislators alike, which have detrimental consequences. We just have to learn to live with some things. Mixed-gender military is probably one of them.

7) Many women can shoot and fight. I hate to break it to the macho-man contingent in the debate, but there really are women in the U.S. military who can run circles around them when it comes to basic soldiering skills, like shooting. I can’t shoot worth a damn. Minimal aptitude. Bad eyes, bad reflexes. Things that almost kept me out of the military. I have known women who were deadeyes with the M16/M4, and were far more qualified than myself to fight in a front-line capacity. I don’t think those women should be barred just because they have vaginas. Lots of guys do think they should be barred, just because they have vaginas. Being barred from a role merely because of what’s between your legs, isn’t a very defensible policy. It might satisfy a few folks who think women literally don’t belong in uniform — beyond the capacity of secretaries who fetch the General’s coffee. But I say, let the standard be an objective, measurable standard related to combat effectiveness. Not whether or not a person has boobs. (Speaking of which, I’ve known some Army guys on height-weight who needed a bra!)

8) No matter who decides what, or why, there will always be bitching and moaning, plus finger-pointing any time someone gets killed. Most civilians don’t realize this, but even during complete peacetime, the military lose numerous lives every year, just to accidents alone. Both on and off-duty. It may be true that putting women into combat roles is a questionable risk. But this is the norm already. Carrier flight operations involve daily, extreme risk. We lose planes. We lose people. Without a shot being fired. That risk is deemed acceptable (despite the deaths) because the United States wants a large carrier fleet able to project American power around the globe. Some blood and treasure inevitably gets spent, because the American people say it should be so. I suspect integrating women into combat arms is more of the same. There will always be detractors, and any time a death might be blamed on a woman, the critics will come out in force. But as long as the American people want it that way . . . well, “Cost of doing business.” And it has ever been thus.

9) How this all applies to storytelling and fictional portrayal, depends on the sensibilities of the storyteller, and the sensibilities of the audience. Frankly, I had a tough time believing Black Widow kicked butt the way she kicked butt in The Avengers. A woman capable of dealing that much hand-to-hand damage would look more like an androgynous man, than Scarlett Johansson. Because Black Widow is not Wonder Woman. Black Widow does not have superpowers. And really, unless a female character has superpowers, it’s difficult to explain how or why she can lawn-mow her way through scores of bigger, tougher, more heavily armed and armored male opponents. As noted earlier, physics matters. You can decide to make your female character an indomitable fighter. It’s just that you’re banking on the credulity of your audience in the process. Some people (especially those with actual martial arts or hand-to-hand experience) will be rightfully doubtful. So if you’re going to go there, be ready to take some criticism from informed sources.

10) Of course, a woman capable of lawn-mowering a platoon of stronger, better-armed men, need not be explained with magical or fantastic powers. We can amp her up with a technological solution. Maybe she is “juiced” to be as strong, quick, and durable as her male foes? Maybe she has cybernetic implants for the same reason? Maybe she’s normal, but we put her inside a powered armor suit that gives her the fighting prowess of a main battle tank? World War 2 fighter pilots were often chosen because they could fit into the tiny cockpits, not because they were NFL linebacker material. Robotic augmentation doesn’t seem too far away. They’re already working on this concept, for theoretical combat theater deployment before the middle of the century. When both the men and the women are all wearing exoskeletal machines which boost their capabilities way beyond normal levels, the intrinsic biological differences between male and female troops might be insignificant. If Black Widow puts on Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit . . .

11) Suspension of disbelief varies from person to person. Each and every author will find his or her “sweet spot” in this regard. Stray too far, and the audience will let you know. I have less difficulty believing Black Widow can lawn-mower a platoon of toughs, than I do believing a 21st century feminist will exist (and fight) in a medieval European historical context. Even if it’s fantasy. Feminism (as we know it now) simply did not exist at that time, and in that place. So I get a bit annoyed when the women (portrayed in these periods, be they real or fantastic) act and talk and behave just like a 2015 graduate of a Womens Studies course from the local state college. I understand why authors and movie-makers decide to do this. They want to make the audience happy. It’s something I’ve learned to (mostly) put up with, even if I disagree with it sometimes. Again, suspension of disbelief varies from person to person. I should note that I often find my suspension of disbelief tested with male characters too. The human body can only endure so much punishment. Male heroes (in books and movies) often withstand a colossal amount of damage, and keep fighting like it’s a mere nosebleed. My suspension goes twang while the suspension of others goes bwong.

12) Fictional license probably should not dictate real-world employment of mortal battlefield forces. Consider this very long but very astute analysis of the U.S. Army Rangers, by former Ranger John T. Reed. Especially regarding “off brand” use of the Rangers in situations and under conditions that were ill-advised, at best. Reed’s contention is that the mythos surrounding the Rangers has made them out to be literal supermen who can do anything, under any circumstances. This mythos penetrates at both the civilian and the military leadership level. Rangers are not, in the end, bulletproof. No amount of P.R. can make a real soldier invincible. Even if he believes it. Even if his bosses believe it. This belief is liable to make him a very dead troop. And whatever mission objectives he was to have accomplished, become moot. As a culture, we love action, fighting, and war stories. We are steeped in them. To include larger-than-life heroism that defies the odds. When approaching actual fighting and war, it pays to be conservative. Dial back your expectations. Bank on the vulnerability of your people. This is why raw numbers almost always matter much more than our storytelling might indicate. If Hitler had been sane and sensible, he’d have realized that Russia, Britain, and the United States had far, far more young men to send to the fight, than the Reich did. And restrained his ambition accordingly.

So who gets to be an “Operator”?

I’m wrapping up a five-week stint here at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, so now seems as good a time as any to discuss something I’ve been wanting to discuss for awhile now, but never quite found the handle on.

Preface: This particular blog post has its roots in a comments discussion over at Larry Correia’s web page. And it’s something Mike Kupari and I were discussing on Facebook with some of his readers. And it’s something that’s come up while discussing a similar topic with Michael Z. Williamson and some of his military friends. And it’s a topic that’s come up with one of my best high school friends, who is now a senior officer at the USAF base near where I live in Utah.

The root question is: who gets to be an “Operator?”

Explanation: for those who don’t walk in U.S. military circles, the word “Operator” seems to be one of those internal U.S. military phrases that migrated from a very specific sector of the U.S. military, out into the popular American culture via technothriller fiction and video games, then back into the U.S. military as a whole. Its general usage now connotes “pointy end” experience and/or skillsets. Ergo, the “Operator” goes where the shooting happens, to do some shooting himself.

Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Only, no, because this is not an MOS nor is it a skill badge. It’s a slang title being adopted (both officially and unofficially) by an increasing number of people who are all too eager (to my eyes) for the credibility they believe this word will lend them — even if they may not precisely be a “pointy end” person by trade.

In other words, “Operator” has become one of those familiar U.S. military butt-sniff words used by people to distinguish “real” military personnel from “POGs” — the latter being the post-9/11 variant of REMF, which was a Vietnam-era acronym for rear-echelon mother fucker; someone decidedly not on the “pointy end” of things. General infantry are using the word “Operator” now. As are F-16 pilots, did you know that? MPs and Combat Engineers? Explosives Ordnance Disposal? Armor too? And so on, and so forth.

Now, there’s obviously bragging rights involved in this kind of talk, and if you get any two dozen self-labeled “Operators” from across the U.S. military — of various MOSs — and you put them into a day room with each other, you’re probably going to have a fair amount of disagreement about who gets to “own” the word, and who doesn’t. To include pool cues being used as blunt instruments, and a lot of harsh language.

My thing is, how come the people (whom I have met, with a lot of actual combat experience) don’t necessarily go for this word, and why has this word become so sexy for people who might not necessarily have a lot of combat experience? Maybe, none at all?

Cards on the table: Larry Correia teases himself for being a “cake eating civilian” but really, I am right there on the couch with him, pounding down donuts. And in point of fact, Larry is far, far more of an “Operator” than I will ever be because Larry literally has thousands of hours of practical hands-on small arms experience. With a variety of different weapons and ammunition. Often in professional tournament environments that make the Army’s standard M16 qualification ranges look like child’s play. “Cake eating civilian?” Larry, please, pass me the knife, the fork, a paper plate, and a glass of milk. I am going to help myself to the baked goods.

See, I’m a cake-eating civilian most of my time too, and only serve as a part-timer: U.S. Army Reservist. I’ve been in 12 years, through 3 different units, and no deployments. Yup, you read that right. No deployments. I am also a paper pusher by MOS — Chief Warrant Officer Paper Pusher, to be exact. So I won’t waste anybody’s time trying to put my hand into the “Operator” cookie jar, grabbing at crumbs. I am a civilian at heart, and I know it, and I am glad for it.

Still . . . I didn’t just step off the bus at Reception. I’ve been around. To include a bit of time overseas, albeit not in a war zone. I know a little bit about soldiers and soldiering.

Opinion: being a serviceman isn’t just about “pointy end” tactical ninja strikes on al-Qaeda strongholds in Outer Buttfuckistan. Being a serviceman means standing in front of a flag, raising your hand, and writing your country a blank check that has the words, “. . . up to and including my life,” written on it. At which point they fucking own your ass. You are a commodity. You will go where you are told, when you are told. Whether you, your family, or your civilian boss, like it or not.

Not an arrangement to be entered into lightly. And not something I’d recommend for people averse to environments with lots of crazy rules, crazy bureaucracy, crazy hierarchies, and crazy structure. You make a very specific kind of commitment when you take that oath in front of that flag. A commitment that will invariably take you far away from your home and your spouse and your kids, to places you don’t want to be, where you will be made to do things you don’t want to do, by people you’d rather not wake up to every morning. Whether it’s in training, a stateside posting, out on the boat, or somewhere out in the big wide world. Peacetime, wartime, Guard, Reserve, or Active Component. It doesn’t matter. Past a certain basement level of experience, all of us are cut from the same cloth.

So what’s the value in separating ourselves out? Beyond chest-beating and dick-waving?

Now, to be fair to the actual “Operators” reading this, POG is as POG does, and I definitely agree with the idea that if you have to wear your “Operator” status on your sleeve, you’re probably trying a little too hard. Speaking from my own personal interactions with people who’ve been places and seen some very real fighting, the actual “Operators” kind of ooze their experience on a subliminal level, and don’t have to talk about it much.

One great example was a guy from my Warrant Officer Candidate School days. His name was George. He’d been an enlisted Marine infantryman who went to Iraq, then he’d come back and gone over to be an enlisted infantryman in the National Guard, and been sent to Afghanistan. None of us (in the cycle) really knew much about this until it came time to put our greens on (the old Class A uniform, before the Army brought out the new ASU, or Dress Blues) and George was a veritable Christmas tree: ribbon rack for days, and all kinds of other sparkly goodies — the sort of stuff they make heroic recruiting posters out of. Only George had worked hard to keep that close to his chest during WOCS, eschewing his Combat Infantry Badge and other ornamentation on his ACU — and no, First Sergeants of the universe, there was no rule in 2009 that forced George to wear that stuff. When I asked George why, he said it was both because he didn’t need the TAC officers singling him out any more than they’d already been singling him out, and also because (in his own words) for the purposes of WOCS, he wanted to just like the rest of us. No more, no less.

I re-injured my bad knee in WOCS. Could barely walk on it, much less hump a ruck on it. Hobbled around the final week. Managed to drag my ass back without being disqualified in the field. When we were all flying out after graduation, George came to shake my hand in the airport, and he saw me struggling to get up. He said, “Man, you don’t have to stand on that thing for me,” to which I said, “I am absolutely standing up for you my friend!” At which point we said our goodbyes, and both George and I vanished back to our respective units of assignment, as freshly-minted WO1s.

Why do I think all of that’s important?

Simply this. The lesson I learned from George was: be who you are, not who you think you should be, and not who you think others think you should be.

As I noted before, I’m a paper pusher — and I am damned happy as such, because my tactical abilities are piss poor, and I was never going to be an infantry rock star, even if I had tried. Which I did not. My objective was humble: following 9/11/2001 I merely wanted to participate (however I was able, to the extent of my limited abilities) in the defense of my great nation. That was it. To pass through the initiation crucible of Initial Entry Training, and serve. Thus far, my career has allowed me to enjoy my civilian life and see and do some pretty cool things while in uniform; to include meeting some pretty cool people — like George.

A lot of this pays off for me with my fiction because I can write military science fiction (Mil SF) from the “inside” to a degree I never could have done, when I was writing stories before 2002. But I am not chained at the ankle to an endless series of PCS relocations (nor my family chained with me) nor do I have to deal with the brain-dissolving idiocies of military life on a full-time basis. By choice.

So I don’t make anything more of myself than what I am. And I don’t think any less of myself for not being an “Operator.” I will even go so far as to self-deprecate with the self-labels of POG, or even REMF. (Though if you call me either of those things, we’re liable to get sideways in a hurry. And if I have to explain how that works then you’re not nearly as military as either one of us thinks you are. Copy?)

But back to the main question — who gets to be an “Operator” and who doesn’t?

To me, a special designation only has real military value if it connotes actual practicing competence in a given specific expertise. Something I wish the Army would remember, and at which I think the Marines get it right, because too many times the Army’s various badges, patches, and tabs, have little or nothing to do with whether or not the person wearing them is present-tense proficient in the manner the badge or the patch or the tab ought to signify present-tense proficiency. More often than not these tend to be trophies: you went to a place and you did a difficult thing and you got the Boy Scout award for it.

But when everybody starts having these things on their uniform, just as when everybody starts identifying with and using the word “Operator”, the word (and the badge, and the patch, and the tab) sort of loses its meaning. Because when everybody is an “Operator” basically nobody is an “Operator.” Copy? And as much as I think people who have been down-range and seen fighting have a right to feel set apart from the rest of us POGs in that regard, I also think a big thing driving the urge to stick hands into the “Operator” cookie jar, is that lots of people are tired of being looked down upon and/or treated like second-class troops just because they aren’t “Operators.”

I am probably hoping in vain when I hope that “Operator” quietly goes back to the Special Forces community (or wherever it truly originated from) and that we (as a whole military) can spend a little more time focused on actually being good at our various jobs, and respecting one another in our various roles, without feeling the need to drop our zippers and hang our military cred out for comparison. Yeah, okay, so maybe this kind of shit is inevitable when you get a bunch of jock-minded people together. So what? No matter how awesome you think your cred is, someone down the line is going to have bigger, more impressive cred. And that guy you were laughing at because his cred’s maybe smaller than yours . . . in a few years (often through little choice of his own) he’s going to have way more cred than you, or more rank, or both — and won’t you feel stupid if/when you see that guy again?

My personal policy is much the same for military as it is for writing: the big tent. It takes lots of different people to make the military world go round, and it’s far easier to admire my military brothers and sisters for what I think they do well, than to trash-talk them or become engaged in cred comparisons. Maybe that stuff had a degree of attraction for me when I was still a new enlisted man and hadn’t seen or done much myself. But after I passed the decade mark and had spent I don’t know how many cumulative months away from home — that whole one weekend a month two weeks a year thing is bullshit — I concluded that posturing and dick-waving was for people who had something to prove. Which, after making CW2, honestly didn’t matter to me anymore. Not giving. And definitely not receiving.

“Operators?” My hat is off to the men and women charged with doing dangerous jobs under dangerous circumstances, period. My job? My job is a comfy job. It’s awesome because I basically get to smile and help people, and everybody loves Chief, no matter what branch or rank. The folks doing dangerous stuff, even if it doesn’t involve direct combat, I think they’re doing something special. And I can respect anyone from those MOSs and those roles who does that work, and doesn’t let it go to his or her head, and can be under the big tent with me at the end of the day.

Ruminations on firearms, rights, training, and culture

There’s been another highly-publicized and highly-political bit of firearms violence in the news this week. As always when this happens, I find myself approaching the issue from a couple of different angles at once.

I partially agree with my friend Larry Correia, in that I think a lot of anti-gun legislation is a feelings-based exercise. Not a rational thing, per se. We seek to restrict firearms because of how we feel about them and because of how it makes us feel to know they’re out there and because we feel better if we think someone is “doing something about the problem,” even if what’s being done is neither necessary nor effective from a statistical standpoint.

But, is the alternative to do nothing? Take no action? Simply accept that gun violence is part of the cost of “doing business” as Americans?

I grew up around guns, so guns never bothered me. But a lot of people didn’t and don’t grow up around guns. And there a lot of people who believe guns are simply too dangerous for civilian ownership and use. The natural instinct of the gun-fearer is to restrict or ban — where and when and how we as private citizens are allowed to purchase, carry, and use guns. Because guns are “scary” and people simply won’t tolerate scary.

I am not a “banner,” and I never have been.

I look at guns the way I look at a circular saw. Useful. But also potentially very harmful or even lethal if handled stupidly. Otherwise, no more or less dangerous than any other power tool.

And of course nobody makes you take or pass state exams to use a circular saw — though I betcha maiming from circular saws is 100 to 1 more frequent than maiming or killing from gun accidents.

I think the big difference is that guns are symbolic. They are written into the blood of the American people at a cultural level.

On the one end of the spectrum, firearms represent liberty: the power to defy with force any form of oppression. On the other end they represent random terror: the unconscionable thought that some stranger could “cap” us at any moment (ergo, highly-publicized spree shootings) and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Spree killers don’t use circular saws. They don’t even use chainsaws, despite what the movies might have us think. They use firearms. In nearly every case. Any spree killer you’ve heard or read about in the last 40 years has used pistols, shotguns, rifles, etc.

And because we can’t read minds and identify the spree killers before they kill, we (collectively) tell ourselves that spree killers won’t be as dangerous to us if we take away their tools of choice.

Now, I personally don’t think that makes any logical sense, historically. Banning firearms won’t prevent their import, manufacture, or sale any more than banning booze in the 1920s prevented its import, manufacture, or sale. We’ll merely criminalize law-abiders while doing little or nothing to hamper the law-breakers. And we’ll turn gun manufacture and black market sales into a booming criminal enterprise. Just like the current ban has done to marijuana.

But the emotional argument is that since guns are scary and used in spree killings, if we get rid of guns we’ll be safe from scary spree killings.

A similar emotional argument can be made against cars. I was in a serious car wreck last week. I didn’t get hurt, thankfully. But if we banned cars, thousands upon thousands of Americans’ lives would be saved every year.

But cars aren’t scary. Cars are awesome. Everybody has them. They make life possible for most of us who don’t live in urban metro areas. Hence we tolerate random car-on-car mayhem more easily, because we look at the car and we see immediate practical benefit. Not so for firearms. At least not so for those with little or no experience with firearms.

Like I said earlier, I grew up around guns, so guns don’t frighten me. Nor do gun owners. Out here in Utah everyone has guns, and most everyone can trace his or her knowledge about firearms usage and safety to family: uncles, brothers, fathers, cousins, even moms and sisters. Virtually everyone learns (or has learned) from an early age how to shoot, and how to handle a gun.

I remember very clearly when I was in Webelos (scouting) they took us to a thing in the Uinta mountains called Camp Tracy, where (in the mid-1980s) there was a former USMC drill instructor running the .22 rifle range. He put the fear of God into us boys about proper firearms handling and discipline. I remember very clearly how the DI nearly made some kid piss himself when that dummy cracked off a round by monkeying with his rifle in the middle of the DI’s intro PMI routine.

That particular individual was stupid with a gun once, and it didn’t hurt anyone — thankfully. I would bet money on his never, ever having been that stupid with a gun again. Because the DI looked and sounded like he was gonna eat the kid for lunch. It was R. Lee Ermey time.

If everyone who wanted to own or operate a pistol or rifle got that kind of basic-level-very-young-fear-of-God training and discipline, I’d not bat an eyelash at the no-training-required-to-buy-guns mentality. But because not everyone gets this kind of from-the-roots training and instruction, I can see where some of the worry (by people who fear gun accidents and random gun violence) comes from.

Not agree with it at all levels — I just think I get where it comes from.

And just because I was raised in a culture that understands, respects, and owns guns, not everybody has that same luxury.

Would it be the end of freedom and the American civilization for us to require that people who have never handled a rifle nor pistol before, be required to get the kind of rudimentary training and indoctrination that many of us who did grow up with guns, take for granted?

I think that’s what I am putting on the table.

But . . . I also see how the language ” — shall not be infringed — ” can be taken quite literally, and how a government capable of denying its citizens their right of firearms ownership (for any reason) is also potentially the same government capable of denying its citizens all their other rights too.

In many places like New York City we’ve already seen the (more or less) suspension of the 2nd Amendment. Which is one reason I am glad I live in a state where such restrictions have not come to pass. I don’t see that New York’s policies have done much more than punish the law-abiding, while doing little or nothing to curb crime or gun violence. Just like in the UK, where similar restrictions have seen a corresponding rise in home burglaries and crime.

Of course, New York City’s culture is about as different from Utah’s culture as one can get in the United States. Especially if we’re discussing urbanized up-scale New Yorkers vs. rural, farming-community Utahn’s. Might as well be Venusians vs. Plutonians.

So maybe my real beef is: how do you infuse a culture which is ignorant of or averse to gun knowledge, with gun knowledge? Or do you even try? Is it worth it to allow a certain percentage of gun accidents and gun crimes, because the alternative — restrictions, licenses, permits, bans — is too antithetical to the United States Constitution, and our founding liberties as a free people?

If I must pick, I side with liberty. Firearms ownership.

But then I look at my driver’s license, and I think about how few people complain that we have to go through that particular rigamaroll. And if we did require similar licensure and training to obtain and operate a firearm, after an initial period of moaning and groaning from staunch 2nd Amendment activists, wouldn’t things just settle out — and life would go on more or less without significant problems for current or would-be gun owners? I can think of all kinds of things the state makes me prove I am qualified to do. Like a food handlers permit. I had to go get one of those before I could work at McDonalds when I was 16. Why would shooting guns be any different?

Yes, I am a science fiction writer. You might say I get paid to think about this stuff. I am not trying to piss people off. I am trying to consider the angles and ramifications. Looking at it both ways. Seeing it from both the POV of the firearms activists and the firearms restrictionists.

Again, if forced to pick a side, I have to pick unrestricted. I believe the U.S. Founders were far smarter and more wise than many modern Americans realize. I think they were canny and inspired and if they say firearms ownership and operation shall not be infringed, I want to trust their judgment.

All the same, I am not sure the Founders ever imagined spree shootings in movie theaters or high schools.

Plus, I can’t own “military grade” weaponry despite the fact that I am in the military and have had experience and training operating weapons like the M249, the M240B, and even the M2 heavy machine gun. None of these are available in the local sporting goods store. I can get a 21st-century version of the M1 or M14, but not a civilianized SAW. Why? Is the SAW not covered under the Founders’ desire that firearms ownership not be infringed? We seem to be rubbing up against some arbitrariness, in terms of what we’re willing to allow, and what we’re not willing to allow — and why.

I think where I have the most trouble is that I am not all on one side or all on the other. But many people are. For many people you’re either a 100% 2nd Amendment absolutist, or you’re a government stooge who wants to throw the Constitution into the ash heap and bring forth tyranny onto the American public. For many other people you’re either a gun ban absolutist, or you’re cruel and heartless and you enjoy seeing dead bodies on the news from the latest school shooting or spree killing. Shame on you. Shame, shame shame!

I’m kind of in the middle — albeit over towards the firearms defenders. I think law-abiding citizens should have the right to own and operate firearms, as the Founders intended. Up to and including something like the M240B. Provided they are trained and licensed to operate these things. I cannot, with my regular drivers license, climb into a tractor trailer and drive it. Assuming I could even get the thing out on the road, I’d be a menace to myself and everyone else around me. So too (I believe) are untrained firearms owners with no experience and, perhaps especially, no cultural underpinning for that ownership. I think it’s reasonable and perfectly within the Constitutional framework to have people properly trained on equipment which can be very hazardous in untrained hands. And I don’t think this spells the end of the Republic, nor presages the end of firearms rights.
Though I understand fully the fears of those who believe that allowing government restrictions, even a little bit, merely allows the government to take a mile where an inch was initially given.

It’s a tough, nutty subject. And every time we have a highly publicized event involving firearms and innocent deaths, we (as a nation and as a culture) launch into a brief period of recrimination and reevaluation — with predictable calls for restrictions and bans, countered by predictable calls for no restrictions or bans, otherwise it’s tyranny.

If we must take steps, let them be both objective and effective. But can we do that in America? Or are gun rights simply too highly charged for anyone to look at them without having a bias one way or another?

Military science fiction, and the subject of women in combat

Preface: these comments originally appeared in this very interesting discussion over at the TOR.COM web site. Baen author and US Army infantry veteran Lieutenant Colonel Tom Kratman figures prominently in the back-and-forth. I chipped in with my own thoughts, being the cake-eating semi-civilian Reserve Warrant Officer that I am.

It should be noted at the start that discussions of women in the US military are a lot like discussions revolving around gun laws, abortion, taxes, and other eternally-debated and politicized subjects. I entered the thread being keenly aware of the fact that I had points to make — pro and con — and that I was risking being seen as a “con” when I am, in fact, a “pro.” Albeit a “pro” with (what I consider to be) some sensible caveats. Which I explain below.

For many science fiction (and sometimes fantasy) writers, the question of women in combat is ever-present. This string of commentary is my particular take on the challenges faced when we as a modern 21st century liberal society demand integration of our armed forces. LTC Kratman’s ultimate question — do women in the military detract from capability and readiness to such an extent that their presence is dangerous or futile? — is not a matter I think I can resolve with any surety. There’s still a lot we don’t know about fully-integrated women troops, especially if the United States (or its allies) were to ever go to war with a matched opponent — which hasn’t happened since World War II.

I am merely trying to flesh out the positives and the not-so-positives, as I have seen and experienced them to date, combined with speculations on how future technologies and sensibilities may (or may not) mitigate the (often real) concerns over integration, female soldiering, and females on the front lines.


…LTC Kratman’s experience is from the [United States] infantry, and it should be noted that the infantry is almost a world unto itself, especially as one ascends through the hierarchies of the skill badges and tabs: Airborne, Air Assault, Pathfinder, Ranger, Special Forces, et cetera. These designations — and the schools that produce them, and the units that keep them employed — breed an attitude of exclusivity that is hard to separate from combat arms. Ergo, it’s not just women who are on the outside. It’s anyone, male or female, who isn’t sufficiently badged, tabbed, or blooded.

Having said this, there is more to the military than just the infantry. My two mentors were both tough, professional, highly-competent female CW3s who helped boost me out of the NCO ranks by challenging me to reach for something more — because the Warrant Officer’s job is usually a technical job, and for technical jobs you don’t always need brawn, but you do need brains. And this is why the modern US military could ill afford to lose its women due to the number of technical positions they fill — and, often, excel at. I have witnessed this with my own eyes and would go to the mat stating that the competent woman technician has earned her place.

Moreover, future warfare is liable to become ever-more technical, thus women will become still more enmeshed with combat equipment, weapons, and systems.

The challenge then becomes: how do we keep these women and the men around them from doing what men and women usually do when they’re bored, horny, afraid, stressed out, or all of the above? Sex won’t ever go away in this scenario, and neither will the power games that often come with it. Thus LTC Kratman may seem pessimistic in his appraisal, but he’s also being a realist. Gender integration at the company, platoon, and squad level hasn’t been foolproof. Indeed, it probably never will be. And to simply assume that a couple of extra centuries will ‘grow up’ the human race such that sexuality ceases to exist in a military context, is very much a fantastical notion to my mind.

Segregation, as unpalatable as it sounds to the 21st century American, is one way to go. (Note: read LTC Kratman’s book Amazon Legion to view his extrapolative take on a future, segregated woman infantry force; or you can always take a look at his somewhat controversial article at the Baen.com web site.

The other way is probably to just keep on doing what we’ve been doing: living with a certain percentage of fooling around that erodes morale, undercuts chain-of-command, creates distractions, and consumes time and resources in the form of complaints, investigations, and prosecution, to say nothing of pregnancies and the entanglements of child care, divorces, custody battles, etc.

In 2011 I personally watched a poorly-handled sexual harassment complaint obliterate a deploying unit’s morale, command structure, etc. Before that unit ever left the States. People take sides in those kinds of fights, grudges then develop, and this often manifests as passive aggression… it can get very ugly very fast.

As long as we’re going to put young men and women together the way we put them together in the modern US military, these problems will persist.

Whether or not they pose a dire threat to the readiness and effectiveness of the military as a whole is a matter of some debate, not only with the infantry stalwarts, but across other specialties and occupations as well. The “solutions” to this issue, if it’s decided the problem is too damaging to be permitted, may not be to our liking in our era. But here again science fiction — speculation about the possible — is not obliged to adhere to 21st century liberal American sensibilities.

Civilians can easily miss all of this, or assume it’s simply “Boys’ Club” scaremongering.

But I’m a booster of women in the military and even I am sometimes concerned by what goes on, at my decidedly small and limited level. And it’s not always the males who are perpetrating. Plenty of females have been getting caught with their hands in the cookie jar. And it’s not an issue that can be wished — or legislated — away. It’s affecting the real world right at this moment.


Having read a lot of the back and forth between LTC Kratman and others, I think it may be worth it to point out that even though a thing might be possible, this doesn’t automatically make the thing probable. I think because gender integration is now accepted — indeed, mandated — in almost all walks of civilian life, that civilians tend to regard the military as just another male-dominated echelon of the civilian sector: overdue for wide-spectrum integration, and infested with too many stodgy old chauvinists who don’t want to let the girlies play the game with them.

Before I joined in 2002, I certainly believed this. It was conventional wisdom — the military was an Old Boys club and women were going to break down those barriers and “win” just as they’d done in various other jobs and roles across the civilian work force.

Let me quickly tell an interesting story: my wife (the über-feminist) had a retired US Navy CPO (Chief Petty Officer) for an instructor in one of her college classes. Since they were both PoC (People of Color) they could talk about discrimination in ways even my wife and I sometimes can’t — because they shared an overlap of experience, on the receiving end. Anyway, one day they got to talking about women in the military, and my wife and her college instructor went 180 degrees opposite. He was firmly of the belief that full gender integration was both dangerous and futile. My wife, then a bit hot with her tongue, demanded to know why he — who had faced discrimination as much as she, for his ethnicity — would be willing to see it done to women for their gender.

His answer? “If I am laying unconscious on the deck and the boat’s burning around me and the only person who can attempt to pick me up and fireman-carry me to safety is a woman half my size, half my weight, and half my strength, I am as good as dead.”

Even my wife (the über-feminist) had to stop and think about that one for a second. Because he was right. Integration doesn’t just bring sexual problems to the force, it also brings practical problems. In our modern military there are still many, many jobs and situations for which there is no replacement for raw, brute strength.

How many women can lone-carry an M2 .50 caliber machine gun up a hill? That’s an infantry task that’s tough for even the biggest, toughest men. A 5′-2″ 105 pound female? Even if she’s not already burdened with tens of pounds in load vest, SAPI plate, ACH, personal weapon, ammo, etc, she’s going to find the M2 practically impossible to lug for any reasonable distance because the weapon weighs almost as much as she does.

LTC Kratman pointed out artillery in his own example. Howitzer shells are heavy! Most 21st century civilian men (who work a desk job) would find them near-impossible to lift. Anyone here ever lay cement? I have. How easily can you lug 60 or 80 pound bags of concrete? Now add 20 to 40 more pounds. Even if you’re in very, very good physical shape and lift weights and are conditioned to lug 100-lb loads on a bar at Gold’s Gym, it’s physically taxing. Perhaps a large and extremely fit woman could do it as well as a similarly large and fit male. But these kinds and types of women are vanishingly hard to find, and thrusting women without the size and strength to fill the role, into the role — for the sole sake of gender integration — is not only unfair and dangerous to the female soldiers, it’s unfair and dangerous to the men around them who will (as LTC Kratman noted) be forced to lug the burdens their female counterpart(s) cannot.

In our future hypotheticals we will, of course, conjure power armor or other exoskelatal assistors — like the now-famous loader from the movie ALIENS. Such mechanized strength multipliers will offset the brute strength requirements of the infantry and artillery and numerous other jobs. But one thing a modern mechanized military must always assume is that the equipment can and will break down at the worst of times, thus it’s up to human muscle power to get the job done. You have to be able to trust that when the machines aren’t working, human brawn will make it happen anyway.

So, what other possible solutions are there?

More exotic even than power armor would be “juiced” female troops — shot through with hormones and drugs to force their bodies to “amp up” to or beyond male levels. Or perhaps endoskeletal solutions in the form of cyborg-like implants? How many women would desire or even permit their bodies to be altered in these ways, so as to eliminate the natural physical limiters that might prevent them from “manning up” to the level of the men?

Science fiction allows us to run away with these hypotheticals, because they are — in our time — conceivable.

But as I said at the start, this would not necessarily make them inevitable. Nor desirable.

Currently, our social and political climate demands that we think of men and women as interchangeable in all situations and under all conditions. It’s a requirement of polite society: one must never under any circumstances question the capacity or ability of any woman to do anything a man is doing, or might do.

Nominally, that’s a good thing, because in most respects, it’s true. And I would never suggest that women who have come into their own and proven themselves in a multi-faceted work force be removed from it or prevented from expanding their horizons or taking on new challenges. I welcome this.

But I also welcome some realism, where a few, very specific kinds of roles are concerned.

Infantry? If we’re going to integrate, can we please require that women entrants meet all the same strength, endurance, and durability requirements as men? Because infantry is something even most men in the Army don’t do, or won’t do. That’s why many of us are not infantry. (g) Infantry is a tough, hard, often brutal job that requires tough, hard, often brutal people. For those females brutish enough to cut the mustard, fine. Maybe we can try it out and see if the doubters are wrong.

But I think there are so few women like this — truly physically imposing, and with the heart and attitude to match — that it’s almost a self-defeating question.

Which is probably just my much-too-wordy way of saying what I said before: there are jobs and roles in which women can do wonderfully, and these are often technical, require brains, and are not necessarily in the rear or outside the possibility of combat.

I am just not sure pretending that all jobs in the military are equal — and that all women in the military are equally suited to tackle them — is realistic. Now, or for the future.

Drill weekend tips for practitioners of Military Fiction

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.)

Writing SF&F military: rank and rank systems

Over at the Writing Excuses web site (see the link on my right-hand side bar!) they have the Q&A session with L.E. Modesitt, Jr., wherein I asked Lee to talk about some of the things he thinks are often done wrong, when writers write about the military or do military stuff in their fiction. Lee had some very insightful commentary regarding discipline and insubordination. Go listen. If you’re writing military and need to get a veteran’s eye view on the subject, Lee is an excellent resource. I wish we’d had the entire episode — or more — to have Lee talk about it.

One thing Lee’s comments bring to mind, for me, is rank. Many, many people tend to get rank all mixed up. Not surprising, given how steeped in military folklore our Western fiction tradition has been for at least the last couple of hundred years. So I want to try and demystify the issue a bit, for those writers who don’t have any first-hand military experience. (FYI, for those who don’t know my own experience, I’m a Warrant Officer, United States Army Reserve.)

Don’t get Naval officer rank confused with the officer ranks employed by the Air Force or the Army or the Marines. Here are two web sites and do a very good job showing how the different rank systems compare, one for U.S. officers, and one for U.S. enlisted personnel, to include Non-Commissioned Officers. Notice that a Captain in the Army is not the same level as a Captain in the Navy. Nor is a Lieutenant in the Army equivalent to a Lieutenant in the Navy. Notice also that there is no such thing as a Commander in any other branch besides the Navy, and that a Commander is equivalent to Lieutenant Colonel in the other branches — while the Navy Captain is the equivalent of what the Army calls a ‘full bird’ Colonel.

Don’t get the ‘E’ confused with rank, either. In modern U.S. military lingo, we too often tend to use E-this and E-that to substitute for Private or Sergeant, but the ‘E’ merely stands for enlisted and it refers to a person’s pay grade. Thus a person’s rank could be Staff Sergeant in the Army or Marines, but their pay grade would be E-6 for either service. Notice again that the Staff Sergeant for Army and Marines is not the same pay grade as it is for Air Force, and an E-6 in the Navy is a Petty Officer First Class, while the E-7 pay grade — arguably one of the most respected and feared Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) positions across all branches — has a distinctly different rank titled for each of the four branches: Sergeant First Class for Army, Gunnery Sergeant for the Marines, Master Sergeant for the Air Force, and Chief Petty Officer for the Navy.

The word ‘Chief’ gets thrown around in all the branches, which itself can get confusing because a ‘Chief’ in the Navy is very different from a ‘Chief’ in the Army, and different again from a ‘Chief’ in the Air Force, etc. In the Army, a ‘Chief” is a Warrant Officer — me — and the actual word Chief is used as shorthand for Chief Warrant Officer. Army and Marines ‘Chiefs’ are actual commissioned officers at CW2 and higher, who have a commission from the President of the United States but are technical specialists in a given field. Such as electronics, computers, piloting, personnel strength management, etc. A ‘Chief’ in the Navy or Air Force is most often a senior Non-Commissioned Officer, or NCO, which may have the same general technical expertise and experience as other senior-level NCO ranks in other branches, but does not have an actual Presidential commission like the Army or Marine Warrant Officer.

Don’t confuse Warrant Officers with either NCOs or Lieutenants. Most Army, Marine, and Navy Warrant Officers were prior-service enlisted personnel — most often NCOs — who opted to attend one of several Warrant Officer accessions schools — sort of like going back to ‘boot camp’ all over again. The Warrant Officer must also pass through the bowels of a graduated series of technical schools, as (s)he progresses through his/her career, ensuring that the Warrant Officer is the subject matter technical expert in a given field of military-applicable technology. The Warrant Officer outranks all enlisted personnel, to include all NCOs but does not outrank even the Second Lieutenant or the Ensign. Still, in practical application, the Warrant Officer — especially CW3 and higher — is given remarkable deference by both NCOs and higher officers, due to the senior Warrant’s usually great experience with technology and systems in his/her given specialty.

Speaking of which, virtually all ranks — beyond the pay grade of E-4 — must go through a series of professional development courses in order to be promotable. Thus getting promoted is not simply about having the time in service or doing something heroic on the battlefield. Once you try to become an NCO, or a Warrant Officer, or an Officer, you have to go back to school in order to earn and keep rank. At each new level of rank, Sergeant to Staff Sergeant to Sergeant First Class — or Petty Officer 2nd Class through Chief Petty Officer and above — there is a school waiting for you. This means that in your fictional setting, even a character promoted on the battlefield, for heroism or other acts, cannot simply skip this step. In order to keep that new rank, he or she must go back and complete the requisite level of professional development coursework, or (s)he might lose the rank.

Nobody automatically jumps from being Enlisted to Officer unless they’ve got an education. Remember in the new Star Trek movie how they made Cadet Kirk into a Captain at the movie’s end? It was fun for the purposes of that movie, but the reality is that nobody makes a jump like that. Nobody. Not unless they already have a significant body of education under their belt. Which is why it was odd that McCoy had to go to Starfleet Academy at all. As a fully-licensed and schooled physician, McCoy should have processed through an officer accessions school — academies are college equivalent, and McCoy didn’t need college — thus entering Starfleet as a Lieutenant Commander. Anyway, too many people often write their Privates “earning” Lieutenant rank — or higher — without understanding that such jumps can only occur under very special circumstances, and only if the person making the jump has some kind of university education. Privates become Specialists or Corporals first, and might eventually become Warrant Officers or Officers — but not at the drop of a hat or due to a single act of heroism or bravery.

In additional to professional development schooling and time in service — TIS being the total length of a time a person has spent in the military — gaining rank is dependent on a point system. This system can be complex, depending on the needs of a given branch, suffice to say that when a troop wants to get promoted, he or she can’t even be on the list for promotion unless he or she has accrued the necessary points. For your fictional or future military, this can pose a number of interesting problems because your protagonist (or antagonist?) might find themselves ‘stuck’ at a certain rank or in a certain occupation, because the points system tends to favor or disfavor certain jobs over others. Your character(s) thus might have to re-classify — go back to school to learn a new job — to get additional rank. This happens a lot in the modern U.S. enlisted scene, and it’s not uncommon for many senior enlisted NCOs to have re-classed several times in their careers. Future militaries might be the same.

Ancient or archaic militaries weren’t necessarily as structured or regimented as the modern military. Officers especially were officers, not because of skill or schooling, but because they were rich or because they were born into a noble family. Even as recently as the U.S. Civil War, a rich man could “buy” a commission, thus posing leadership problems which are still with us today. Ergo, how can a young man with money or family connections, thrust into war, be expected to ‘lead’ a group of typically older, typically tougher and more experienced enlisted personnel? The stereotype of the green Lieutenant is not unearned. Thus the green Lieutenant can and should pose potential problems in any fictional military scenario.

Officers who attain a certain rank are unlikely to see direct combat or be permitted — in their daily duties — to participate in ‘line’ operations. Typically, the infantry Captain or Major is the lowest officer rank that is likely to hold a weapon and fire it at an enemy in ordinary ground operations, while Colonels and Generals are almost exclusively administrative and organizational people — they run the fight without actually participating in the fight.

The relationship between Officer and Enlisted is not always a harmonious one. In the modern U.S. military, the NCO — the Non-Commissioned Officer — operates with tremendous autonomy compared to the NCOs of many other world militaries. In fact, the U.S. NCO is often at or above — experientially, professionally, operationally — the officers of many smaller nations’ militaries. An Officer — especially a junior officer — who fails to properly respect the experience and ability of the NCO senior leadership — is liable to expend whatever leadership capital (s)he might have, thus becoming an Officer in ‘figurehead’ position only. Yes, the enlisted personnel still answer to that junior Officer, but if the senior NCO leadership has lost faith, that junior Officer will find him or herself hamstrung in all kinds of ways.

Fictional, archaic & futuristic militaries don’t necessarily have to look like modern or historical militaries, but if you’re going to intentionally deviate from modern or historical tradition, you owe it to your readers to do so with great care. This is especially true with rank. As noted at the beginning, don’t mix your Naval and non-Naval rank willy nilly. Have some coherent structure. You might not have rank titles as recognized today, but you will still need leadership and chain-of-command. How will people be promoted? What does it take? Who will answer to whom, and why? The fastest way to lose credibility with readers — especially military-experienced readers like me — will be to treat rank as a trifling detail in any fictional war or military scenario. Instead, do your research, apply some forethought, and use rank in ways that will enhance the travails and adventures of the characters you write. It’s okay to bend or even break a few rules — if you know what you’re doing — but if it becomes plain you don’t know what you’re doing, the readers’ suspension of disbelief is liable to pop like a bubble.