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Full Metal Jacket is probably the defining piece of media for how military training is supposed to run. You have an old man who seems to have made grumpiness into a superpower and has been given a large hat, and he spends most of his time screaming at young men, insulting their mothers, and in general making everyone feel pretty bad about life.
Unfortunately, I feel like that's where most writers get their thoughts for how training works in the military. While there are absolutely elements of truth to that, it’s not all screaming. And it’s certainly not all montages, though that would sure as hell have saved me a lot of time. I wanted to break this down and offer a bit more of a realistic perspective on training in the military and how you might integrate those principles into realistic fiction.
So here are three points on how to deal with training in your military:
1. No one man in the military can win the war. This ties in with some other MIF articles I’ve written in the past, but everyone has their own specialty and everyone needs to train for it. Once you start training to be an infantryman, for example, you’re not going to end up as James Bond the secret agent unless you train for it. An effective fighting force is generated by having different specialties working together, and having the broadly-experienced officers who know how to get them to do it with maximum efficiency.
So, if you’re writing a novel about a bunch of warrior mages, maybe it makes sense to split them into elemental effectiveness. Have one guy who is a master water magician, and another who is really good at magically knitting sweaters. Hey, the battlefield gets cold, right? But, most importantly, you need to make sure that your military structure allows for that kind of cross-training. There’s nothing more irritating to me as a reader (well, someone poking me in the eyes with a fishhook might rank higher) than to have that “suddenly experienced in all things” individual. Just because someone can play the piano doesn’t mean they can conduct an orchestra.
2. Military training is not like a drivers' license. What I mean by this is that you don’t go through months of boot camp, get issued your military badge, and then told that you’re ready for anything. This does, in fact, happen – it happened an awful lot during the Vietnam War – but boot camp’s only job is to change you from a civilian to a soldier. After that, you have to learn the skills and techniques necessary to do your job. Otherwise you’re just a dude with a gun and a uniform that knows when to say “yes, sir” and “no, sir.”
In fact, you’ll find that some military careers are 90% training, 10% utilization. The next time you run into a military pilot, ask them how many hours they spend in simulators versus how many hours they spend shooting down MiGs over Moscow. Think of it like a firefighter; what the hell do they do when they’re not fighting fires? They don’t go and START fires, or anything, so they’re left with working out, taking shirtless pictures for calendars, cooking steak, and training for the next fire.
In your novel, do you have someone go from civilian to demigod in two months? Eh, I’m not so sure about that. Are they spending all the time between wars carousing in bars? That’s totally fine – as long as you acknowledge that their army will suffer as a result.
3. Training is not all screaming and yelling and throwing yourself off buildings. There’s some of that, yes. I had a guy across the hall from me throw himself off the wrong side of the building – the side that was only 12 feet off the ground rather than 40 due to a raised walking area and land in the branches of a tree rather than the ground, anyway. So that stuff does happen. But the purpose of boot camp is not just about weeding out the weak.
I had the incredible privilege to serve for two short periods of time as a drill sergeant for a group of civilians making that transition to airmen, so I’ve seen this situation from both sides. While we had our fun – and screamed some absolutely hilarious things at 18-year-olds – the goal wasn’t to get them to leave or cry or feel bad about themselves. It was conditioning them to be able to respond to stress, to be able to summon information quickly and effectively, to think on their feet. It was about showing them the limits of their body and mind – and then showing them that they could go far past what they thought possible. To this date, those were some of the most rewarding times of my military career – I’ll write about them another time, though.
The point here is that your training needs to have a purpose. Hazing is not training. It’s a power complex. Now, can you have characters in positions of power in a training situation who have power complexes? Hell yes you can. I’ve seen them myself, and they make interesting characters. But remember that all actions have consequences. What kind of army are you going to breed if ALL your drill instructors are like that?
Case Study: Starship Troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein
I'll have to admit that I am a latecomer to the Starship Troopers world. To be honest, I saw the movie when I was younger and thought, "This is awful. Really, really awful. Why would I ever want to read the book?" But when Joshua Bilmes of JABberwocky Literary Agency recommended it to me as we were browsing books at a convention, I picked it up and filed it away in my To Read pile. I still didn't get to it for about a year, but when I did, I found it to be one of the best military books I'd ever written. I could use Starship Troopers as the case study for almost every single MIF article I've written, but I'm choosing to use it as the study for training because the vast majority of the book talks about going from civilian to soldier.
The great part about the book is that, like I said above, it reflects 90% training and 10% utilization. That might not seem to make for an interesting storyline, but in this case it definitely works. You get to experience the lead character’s transition from civilian to soldier, read about how it changes his perspectives, read about how his training forms bonds with those who trained him and those who he trained with. It wasn’t until after I got done with the book that I realized that nothing warlike had really happened. And that, surprisingly, I didn’t care.
So that’s it for training. Remember, the goal of these articles isn’t to prescribe, but to make aware that there are elements of military fiction that you might not have thought of. Your goal as a writer isn’t to make it accurate - it’s to make it believable!