Tag Archives: Military

Misconceptions about the Military

VFWCoversmA large number of fantasy and sci-fi stories feature military characters.  Sometimes it’s because a knight or space marine seems like a more exciting protagonist than a peasant or waiter at the Star Diner.  Or, sometimes the peasant or waiter finds herself leading a revolt against the Empire of Evil, and now all those uniformed troops are out to get her.

At certain points in history, many people in a country will have had at least one family member or friend who’s served in the armed forces, or will have served themselves.  At others, some people might not have any close associates who’ve served.  This is a ground ripe for misconceptions to creep in.  Sometimes these misconceptions imply that military personnel are capable of incredible feats—and then imply personal fault when reality fails to live up to the mythology.  And sometimes these misconceptions feed ugly falsehoods.

  • “Lone wolves” do not make the ideal soldiers.

Being in the military is, to a large part, about learning to work as a team.  Success or failure—and sometimes, even survival—depends on everyone doing their best and working together.  “Lone wolves” might make dramatic protagonists in video games (in which the player gets to defeat all the enemies her/himself) but in real life, nobody wants to be on a team with the guy who can’t get along with anyone else, or whose tendency to ignore orders and “do his own thing” puts the rest of the team in danger.

  • Militaries do not have unlimited equipment/personnel.

“We needed to evacuate the island.  Why didn’t the army send more helicopters?”

The army didn’t have more helicopters to send.

“Why not??”

Well, some were stationed too far away to get there in time.

“How come?”

In case they were needed in those other places.  We can’t psychically guess where helicopters might be needed at any given time.

“Why don’t we just get more helicopters then??”

Helicopters have to come from somewhere.  It takes time to build them.  It also takes money.

(And the same goes for pilots.  You might have ten helicopters and only five available pilots who can fly them.  No, you cannot swap out for a jet pilot.)

“Then why didn’t we put more people in the helicopters we did have?”

Because aircraft have weight limits, beyond which it is dangerous to fly.

The truth is that most military operations are about learning to do the most with the equipment and people you’ve got.  It is never as much or as many as you would want.

If your main character is a soldier, she will have spent much of her career solving problems, often based around “we’re out of this, we’re short of those, and we can’t get you these, so what can you use instead?”

  • It is not always possible to avoid casualties.  Or to say no to missions that might cause casualties.

“Misconceptions About Combat” is a whole other article, but in brief:  not even the best crack shot in the world can reliably “shoot the gun out of the enemy’s hand,” or otherwise render the enemy unable to harm anyone while refraining from killing them.  Commanders often have difficult decisions to make when going back in search of the missing soldier means putting their entire units at risk:  is it fair to ask ten people to gamble their lives for one?  And what if doing so makes the unit unable to carry out their mission?  If someone gets injured, do you evacuate them first, or do you carry out the mission and hope they can hold on?  Leaders are regularly faced with hard choices:  to presume that these choices are “easy” or imply a “lack of caring” do real-life servicepeople a true disservice.

  • Most people don’t join the military “to kill people.”

I’ve been shocked and disgusted to read scenarios which were summed up, in effect, as “well, only soldiers died, so it’s okay.”  The implication is that anyone who “signed up to kill” deserved to be on the receiving end.  After all, why else would anyone join the military?

Patriotism is a potential reason, certainly, but a more common motiviation is opportunity.  “I couldn’t find a job in my area.”  “I wanted to travel/get an education/experience life and I couldn’t afford to do it on my current wages.”  Or, simply, “there’s no other way to learn to fly a fighter jet.”

The military personnel I know are not looking for a legally sanctioned way to commit murder.  Some of them are people who strongly believe in their country and its principles.  Many of them are people who found service to be the best way (sometimes the only way) to improve their lives.  Writing them as though they were criminals does a disservice to the many fine men and women in uniform across the world.

Even though fiction is make-believe, fictional portrayal of groups of people can reinforce real-world thinking.  The power of fiction is that it can get readers to think about different points of view, including ideas they’d never considered before, and all while having “fun”.  But cheap stereotypes can reinforce ideas borne of misinformation and ignorance.  Do real-life military personnel the courtesy of reflecting their experiences in an honest way.


Why We Need to Write the Military Right: Part One

A guest post by Karen Traviss.

preview_concept_Black Run copyNobody wants to be the guy who said Krakatoa was east of Java. As storytellers, we know we need to get detail right if we tether our stories to the real world.

I had a colleague in my TV days whose early novels, written in time snatched between shoots, involved a trip to a certain building in Europe to settle an argument with his editor about how many steps there were in front of its main doors. It mattered to him; I understand that compulsion. I’ll spend an entire day doing research that ends up as one line in a novel. And even if you set your story on an alien world or in a fantasy universe, there are hard facts – human behaviour, physics, or just a consistent world – that mean you have to do at least a minimal amount of research. It might not involve doing obsessive surveys of public buildings, but it has to be done. Mistakes aren’t just embarrassing; they can also derail your story if a key plot point you’ve relied on turns out to be impossible.

In our quest for technical accuracy, though, we can overlook more fundamental authenticity, the stuff that can shape and distort opinion in the real world. While misplacing Krakatoa is annoying, it isn’t going to influence what the audience feels about serious issues. But feeding people a steady diet of stereotypes and errors about a topic can embed an attitude that people carry with them into their real world opinions. That affects a lot of different groups, but it’s especially true of public perception of the armed forces.

Like it or not, fiction does seep into the public consciousness through constant exposure, and once it’s there, it’s hard to filter it from reality. It takes root where people have no personal experience of a topic to tell them that the fiction they’re absorbing is factually wrong, and it creeps up on even the smartest people. I’m not talking about using daft phrases like “Over and out” (which is meaningless, as “over” is the opposite of “out” in radio procedure) or having characters call sergeants “Sir.” I mean the fabric of what it means to serve and to fight – the attitudes and experiences of the soldier.

Should that seepage worry us as writers? I’d say it ought to. If people are forming opinions on defence and foreign policy based on fiction, we should attempt to do no harm, and doing no harm requires some work on our part. The armed forces aren’t the only sector of society that can fall victim to “false memory” opinions, but servicemen and women are unique in that we expect them to be willing to die for us as a fundamental condition of their job. No other workers, not even police or firefighters, have to accept death as a definite possibility in the same way. So we owe those who serve a duty of truth.

A few months ago, I watched a TV discussion that was a perfect example of fiction shaping someone’s perception of what our armed forces should do in the real world. It was a round-up of the day’s news stories, with celebs and other non-experts passing comment. One studio guest was furious that nobody had deployed helicopters to rescue refugees in a war zone. She seemed unaware that in this particular case, the distances and conditions meant it wasn’t physically possible. She thought she knew what helicopters could do, and was no doubt sincere in her outrage, but nevertheless she was utterly wrong. The studio anchor was equally ignorant and the debate continued without any input from someone who could say, “Actually, there’s no way we can do that, because… “

So why did they think they knew the facts? Where did they get their unrealistic ideas on helicopters and logistics of evacuations? I’d bet my pension fund that they’d absorbed some kind of pseudo-reality from TV and movies without even realising it. It wasn’t because they were stupid. It was because they were human and the gap in their knowledge had been filled by the nearest available data, provided by years of watching impossible feats performed in movies.

Few civilians in the UK or North America these days have any direct contact with service personnel, however supportive we think we are of our troops. Our forces have shrunk over the years, and there’s no conscription. Soldiering has become the career of a relatively small number of volunteers. But a couple of generations earlier, things were very different. In World War II, every British family had a direct link with combat and its consequences. Either someone in your family was serving, or your friends and neighbours were, and as a civilian you were subjected to multiple air raids and years of strict rationing. If you compare British war movies from the late 1940s and early 1950s to modern ones, they’re much more technical; producers couldn’t get away with mistakes because their audience knew the subject. They’d served or they knew someone who had.

There’s now a growing disconnection between the military and civilian worlds, and it’s not been entirely discouraged by governments trying to head off objections to foreign wars. These days, with our omniscient Hollywood perspective, we think a soldier has the same perfect awareness of a situation as the camera, and so we think we know that they ought to have done. Civilians make judgements, moral and tactical, without any real awareness of what it’s like to serve, let alone fight, unless they’re prepared to put in time watching documentaries. But even then factual programming can be variable in accuracy. I’ve seen historians locked in bitter arguments over events that were taught to me as established fact. If we can’t even rely on history, then finding a gold standard for military authenticity isn’t easy.

The best we can do as writers is the same as the best I could do as a journalist; we can talk to the primary sources, the men and women who’ve lived through it. Even if they don’t agree on everything – and there’s no such thing as a definitive view of a battle – they’re the nearest to the truth we’re ever likely to find in this world. The detail will vary from country to country and between branches of the services, but there are some things that are common to everyone who’s served. Those are the truths we need to seek and portray.

I was a news journalist for 20 years and spent ten years in PR for government organisations, so I formed a detailed picture of where people got their information and what influenced their thinking. Now that I write fiction instead, I treat it like a hazardous material because I know it has real consequences. It’s sobering to think that I might have imparted more understanding of military life to my civilian readership as a novelist than I ever achieved in my time as a defence correspondent. It’s even more sobering to think that understanding has been based mostly on SF, where the technical detail can as unreal as you want to it to be. The reality lies in honest depiction of the mind-set, sense of comradeship, and basic soldiering skills that would be as familiar to a Roman legionary as they would to a space marine with a laser weapon.


Visit the Fictorians tomorrow for Part Two.

About Karen Traviss: KT
New York Times best-selling author Karen Traviss is a former defence correspondent and has also spent way too much of her life around politicians and police. Going Grey, the first in her new techno-thriller series, is out now and the sequel, Black Run, will be published this summer. Website and newsletter sign-up: www.karentraviss.com Twitter: @karentraviss

Myke Cole: Capturing that Military Feeling

Matthew Jones: At the last World Fantasy Conference, I had the privilege to meet a new author named Myke Cole. Just out of the blue, he showed up and asked if I wanted to play some first-person shooter (FPS) game with him and some friends. I’m pretty crappy at console FPS games, but I decided, sure, why not. Later, I saw him in his full Coast Guard uniform, and we started talking about our time in the military. I spent six years in the Air Force, one of those in Iraq. Thus, when I found out he had written a military fantasy novel, I was pretty excited to read the novel.

Since the convention, I’ve both read the novel and quite enjoyed it. His writing expertly blended the military life and culture I remembered with the fantasy I’ve enjoyed for so long. The foreign settings, combined with the quickness of the battle and the uncertainty that was always riding on your shoulders definitely reminded me of my time overseas. Add to that the emotions of a man who just had everything he has ever known taken away from him, surrounded by people who had the ability, and often the duty, to kill, adds to the tension.

As I read, I wondered about the Military feel and how he was able to achieve that forward operating base (FOB) feel. He agreed to do a guest post for us and answer this question. He does use a lot of military lingo in his response, so I tried to go through and add definitions to many of the terms. You can hover over the abbreviations for the full term, and I added a quick glossary after his post. Feel free to comment if you have any other questions.

Myke Cole: I think it’s true that there’s a certain “FOB Feel” that exists in military culture these days. There are jokes and catch words (remember calling someone who’d never been outside the wire a “Fobbit?” Heck, “outside the wire” is a term that evolved from our use of FOBs and COPs, right?). Inside jokes are always the first signs of an emerging culture, and there’s definitely a shift from cold war garrison life to the new reality of COIN ops on a FOB or COP where you have a PX that’s as big and well-stocked as any Walmart, but you’re also at risk of getting killed by indirect or a rogue contractor who was hired to take out the trash or serve your chow.

That FOB Feel was something I definitely tried hard to evoke in CONTROL POINT. I did this for a few reasons, the first was that it is the most authentic indicator of modern combat experience I can think of these days, and one that sets our generation of war-fighters apart from our fathers. Our dads (if they served) could probably draw parallels to Vietnam, but it lacks certain reference points. For me, many of these were visual. The concrete T-Wall and the enduring mud were two important ones. The T-Walls were always in my peripheral vision, providing eerie analogies to my current life in New York City (that same feeling of the sky being cut off, of walking the rainforest floor), and serving as a constant reminder that indirect was coming, and with it, the shrapnel those T-Walls had been built to stave off.

I also wanted to evoke the FOB Feel because, when I sat down and thought about it, it made the most sense for a US military presence in a magical universe. The US military does many things well, but self-sustaining logistics in a forward AOR is perhaps what we do best, and one of the reasons we’ve been so successful in our military history. The FOB/COP model was the logical one for an American unit unsure of resupply and confronted by an uncertain landscape populated by hostile unknowns. Like the Romans, we turtle up, trying to buy ourselves the time for intel to catch up to the environment and give us a good look at what we’re dealing with. There really wasn’t a lot of difference between goblin clans and the Jaysh al-Mehdi in this case. Both were totally alien to us. Both were potentially deadly.

I was also really impressed by the tight integration between uniformed personnel and military contractors (Mercenaries. My first two tours were as an employee of these firms). This is, of course, nothing new (The East India Company, the Hessians, heck, Balearic slingers), but the resurgence of the mercenary and the public’s willingness to accept them in the cloud of fear immediately post 9/11 was a phenomenon I wanted to capture. The resurgence of magic in the SHADOW OPS universe is every bit as frightening to the public as the towers coming down, and their reaction had to extrapolate realistically. Mercenaries were a logical piece of that, and so, Britton’s ultimate fate (and Marty’s as well) resulted.

It’s funny. I never really thought of writing CONTROL POINT as all that . . . cathartic, but I am realizing in writing this guest post that it was a way to at least consider what I had experienced, if not to reconcile it in some way. If vets like you see their own experience reflected in the story, then I am enormously gratified.


Forward Operating Base. A secure military base that is within a hostile territory.
Combat Outpost. A well prepared, armored outpost designed to confront enemy forces.
Post Exchange. Think of this as the Walmart of military bases.
Area of Responsibility. The area that a command has authority to operate in.
Guest Writer Bio:As a secu­rity con­tractor, gov­ern­ment civilian and mil­i­tary officer, Myke Cole’s career has run the gamut from Coun­tert­er­rorism to Cyber War­fare to Fed­eral Law Enforce­ment. He’s done three tours in Iraq and was recalled to serve during the Deep­water Horizon oil spill.All that con­flict can wear a guy out. Thank good­ness for fan­tasy novels, comic books, late night games of Dun­geons and Dragons and lots of angst fueled writing.Myke is the author of Shadow Ops #1: Control Point.

You can find Myke online at www.mykecole.com, or on Facebook, or Twitter.