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MIF #2 - The Vibe

I had a bit of trouble figuring out which topic to start on.  It seemed I could go after a litany of different sub-categories of writing realistic military fiction: technology, tactics, rank, etc.  I will, of course, go into each of these in turn, but I wanted to start with the most nebulous and tricky of them all:  the feel.

I call it the vibe because, first, I consider myself hip enough to use the term, and second, because it’s probably the most difficult for those that haven’t spent any time in the active military.  My position is that you can do it right, if you just pay attention to a few small details.  In reality, you can apply this strategy to almost any profession.  How do you get the vibe of a bunch of professional sports players?  Engineers?  Accountants?

Answer:  You become one.  Jane Goodall lived with apes to figure them out.  You can do the same. Right now, go find your nearest recruiter and join the military.

Okay, so that might not be realistic.  Barring your willingness to brandish weapons at other people, you should find people who are willing to brandish weapons at other people and hang out with them (do us all a favor and stick with people who also wear a uniform, please).  Notice I didn’t say explicitly for you to hang out with military folks.  Do you know anyone who is a cop?  A firefighter?  The military is a profession of service that happens to include combat, not a profession of combat that happens to include service.  You can glean some of the military lifestyle from other professions that emulate a similar vibe.

So, first, assimilate.  Second, associate.  If that’s not possible, artificially immerse.  That’s the key buzz word for this article, and I am going to give you THREE POINTERS on how to do it.

1.) Read.  Read blogs of soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines.  See what sort of issues they’re dealing with, take note of the way they talk, the differences in how the blogs of an officer or an enlisted man sound (also – learn the difference between officers and enlisted, but we’ll get to that later).  We, as a community, have become much more vocal in the last ten years than we ever have been in the past.

Try some books as well.  It used to be that the only people writing books were general staff and head-honchos.  That gives you a great top-down view of how to run a military, but not necessarily how to be in one.  Now you can read books by privates, sergeants, junior lieutenants and captains (for those of you still unfamiliar with rank structure, if any one of these people tells you that they make strategic command decisions, you should laugh at them).  These are the grunts, trying to tell you their story, and they’re also likely the people you want to emulate for many of your characters.

Another thing you might consider is taking a look at some of the online publications written FOR military members, not just BY military members.  We have periodicals, too.  Magazines, newspapers.  Check out the “times” of each service – Army Times, Air Force Times.  Stars and Stripes is another one.  Every base in the country has its own web page with its own news feed on it that you can access anytime.  What are those pages talking about?

2.) Watch.  This caveat may seem obvious, but DON’T RELY ON HOLYWOOD.  Movies like We Were Soldiers and Black Hawk Down are okay because they are very closely tied to real events, but they’re still fictionally enhanced to be spectacular.  Movies like Behind Enemy Lines, Eagle Eye, and most movies derived from Tom Clancy books are just pure fantasy, and are going to lead you astray – unless you want to make spectacular movies that fly free from the bonds of reality.  Try some documentaries, instead.

If you want to see a real movie made by real soldiers, go watch a movie called Ristreppo.  If you don’t come out of that movie with a better understanding of what it feels like to be a man on the ground with a gun, you’re not watching close enough.

3.)  While reading and watching, discern the finer points.  As an example, learn to distinguish between the sub-communities in the military.  This lends enormous credence to your writing when you can show that you know that the air force constantly makes fun of the army for being ground-pounders, or how the marines make fun of the air force for “building the golf course first”, or how navy guys are just really, really weird because they spend six months at a time underwater.

A great book I can recommend for this point in particular is called The Masks of War, a study by RAND corporation.  It was published 30 years ago, but you’ll get a good idea of how services can develop a personality.

Knowing the nuances of these sub communities really shows that you went the extra mile – and when you’re making a military up from scratch, know that these sub communities WILL develop.  If you’re writing a fantasy in middle-age Europe and the cavalrymen treat the pikemen like equals, you’re doing it wrong.   If the Space Fighter Pilots from Nebulon Command don’t have a rivalry with their brethren Space Fighter Pilots from the Skolon Command, you’re probably also doing it wrong.

Those are three points I can give you to achieve artificial immersion.  This will help with all the tenets I will eventually talk about, but especially for the “vibe”, that je ne sais pas. The more you can surround yourself with real stories by real military members, the more realism will show up in your fiction.

Case Study:  Schlock Mercenary, by Howard Tayler

Schlock Mercenary is a space opera in which a band of mercenaries known as Tagon’s Toughs tackle a litany of strange problems from snake lawyers to the Longshoreman of the Apocalypse.  It is first and foremost a comedy, a comic strip in which ridiculous people do ridiculous things, somewhat led by a pile of poop known as Schlock (he’s not really a pile of poop, but he looks like one).

Howard is known for his ability to create a realistic military environment, which is interesting for two reasons.  One, it’s a comedy.  There are battles, but it’s not meant to be realistic.  Two, he’s never done anything with the military at all.

Why did I choose Schlock?  Well, for one, I like Howard and I like his work.  I also, being a military guy, immediately got the impression that he understood the vibe and I wanted to choose something a little unconventional to make my point.  You don’t have to have serious combat to create that environment.

How does Howard do it right?  Well, as Schlock Mercenary is a comic of thousands of strips over the last decade, it’s hard to pick concrete examples.  I’ll try to cite a few.

In his first strip, a mercenary recruiter explains that their job is to “hurt people and break things”.  Howard nailed that one – that’s a phrase we use all the time to explain what we do to other people (except we usually say “kill people and break things”).  It showed me immediately that Howard was in touch with the attitude and a little bit of gallows humor, something that all military members possess.

In a strip on December 9th, 2004, Howard talks about the healthcare system of their military organization.  He cites it as a confusing, bureaucratic mess that doesn’t necessarily fit the needs of the members but always adheres to regulations and conforms to what policy has determined is the right course of action.  I really can’t be more blunt than that – that’s how it goes!  I’m guessing he probably extrapolated from other government bureaucratic institutions, but let me clue you in on something:  The military is a giant government bureaucratic institution.  We just have guns.  This doesn’t really have anything to do with technology, lingo, or tactics – it’s simply a part of our existence.  That’s the vibe.

One last example: In a strip on October 22nd, 2010, the Toughs’ Artificial Intelligence Ennesby is redesigned with a new hacking capability by engineers, directed by someone in the general staff.  He touts his new skills with pride, only to be asked the question:  “Yes, but can you do what we really need?”  His response is, “No, but I can create dummy accounts on the Damico-P’sloyq payroll.”

If I had a dollar for every time a capability requirement got screwed up by the time it went through high command, engineers, and made its way down to the end user (me), I would be a rich man.  I definitely felt like Howard got the military vibe.

In closing this case study, I will give you two examples of where you can go to look at the modern US military (the air force, specifically) in a humorous light.  These jokes are meant for military people, written by military people, and even if you don’t quite get them, they might give you some insight.

www.edodo.org  - a comic written by cadets at the United States Air Force Academy, lampooning the absurdity of their daily lives.  These cadets are active duty, and there’s nobody outside of a deployed environment that lives the military quite like a cadet at a military academy.

www.afblues.com – a comic written by an air force member lampooning…well, everything in the air force.

I leave you with that, dear reader, and declare that the first article in my series on Military in Fiction is concluded.  I hope this helped in some way, and I invite you to follow my blog and comment.  The real good stuff is going to come from discussion, and we can’t have that without you.

Thanks for reading,


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