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Military in Fiction 8 - Training

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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!

Happy writing,


Surviving Your First Conference Panel

I have this habit where when I go see something, I want to do it.  Every time I go see a concert, I end up working on that particular skill for the next week (I see Trace Bundy and I start working on my guitar tapping, for example).  When I see movies about ninjas, I spend the next week fighting people on the streets and doing backflips over objects.  It’s just a natural thing for me.

So it should have come as no surprise that after the Life, the Universe, and Everything conference in early 2012, I found myself leading a panel in front of hundreds at the largest science fiction and fantasy convention in America four months later.  Because why the f**k not?

Thank god it wasn’t a panel about writing, because lord knows I’m not equipped to talk to anyone about that.  I actually ended up on four separate panels about writing realistic militaries into fiction environments, not because I’m incredible at doing it but because I have a solid amount of actual, no-kidding military experience.

As we approach WORLDCON 2013, I wanted to take the time and give a few pieces of advice to any n00bs that might be in the same position as I was last year.  I’m not an expert, but I learned a lot in those four panels.  Most of life’s problems can be reduced to bullet statements, so here it goes.   I’ll make another post about what I learned about leading a panel another time – this is really just for survival.

Be an expert.  This, not your personality or your dashing good looks, is the reason you’re on the panel.  Offer good, concise, understandable expertise and advice to the audience.  You might be a big name that they’re just coming to see so they can tell all their friends they saw you, but probably not.  You’ve somehow managed to convince the con planners that you have something to contribute to this program to make it better – utilize that knowledge and give people bits of information that can only come from someone in your position.  I never gave the advice “Here’s a f***ing gem for you:  people die in war.”  I gave advice like “Here’s how the culture of the real military deals with the division between enlisted and officers.”  When someone asked me a question I didn’t know, I didn’t BS – I told them I didn’t know.

One note on the above:  make sure you read the description of the panel you are volunteering for.  I made the mistake of misinterpreting the descriptions of one of the panels and ended up on one talking about the space shuttle because I thought they wanted to talk about military aircraft capability.  (It turns out the alphanumeric codes of the aircraft were mislabeled in the description – there is a huge difference between the C-130 and KC-135 and the NASA C-130 and KC-135). 

Be professional.  Don’t interrupt people and don’t belittle people for not knowing things.  You’re probably on a panel of 3-5 guests, all who have unique experience and knowledge sets.  If you have additional information, offer it.  In fact, if you’re really suave you’ll do some research on the other panelists beforehand – nothing makes you look cooler than saying “Hey, Bill, I read somewhere that you killed JFK.  How does that experience help you answer this question from the audience?”

Be witty and funny and charming, yes, of course.  But don’t make that the focus of your presence on the panel.  If you’re only there for comic relief or don’t know when to throttle back your jokes – and believe me, people in the audience can tell when you’re just trying to bring the attention back to you with a joke because you have nothing else to contribute – then you might be on your last panel.

And, holy shit, don’t plug plug plug plug plug your book, especially if it’s not related to the topic.  If you can’t think of any other example in literature other than your own work where someone does something related to your panel’s topic, you’re not reading enough.

Be yourself.  Because this wouldn’t be an advice post if I didn’t write something incredibly trite and cliché, like “be yourself.”  Really, though, this is important.  The combination of personality and expertise is what got you here in the first place.  This isn’t a proving ground where people will judge you based on your performance; people have already come here believing, for better or worse, that the con planners have hand-picked the speakers.  It’s a great audience to be in front of - rarely hostile and most often a little starry-eyed, since psychologically you are in the position of power/knowledge and they are in the position of student.  You can relax.  Seriously, take a breath and don’t be afraid to offer information .

I’ve been to a couple of panels where there’s that one guy that says absolutely nothing and looks as if he knows something that everyone else doesn’t – like he knows where all the bodies are.  It’s just creepy.  Don’t be that guy…and if being yourself means you’re that guy, then you probably shouldn’t be on a panel.  Unless the panels is about where the bodies are.  In which case I don’t want to be at that conference.

Those are just three basic tips.  I know it doesn’t seem like much, but give me a break, I’ve only been to one conference.  It’s stressful, nerve-wracking, but it’s a whole lot of fun once you get into it.

I won’t be at WORLDCON this year, but good luck and have fun to everyone that’s going.  If you’re up for a Hugo award, best of luck…wait – if you’re up for a Hugo, why the hell are you reading my blog?


Military in Fiction Bonus Episode: WORLDCON 2012 Panel

Thanks to Ben Delano over at The Roundtable Podcast, I'm able to bring you a bonus episode of Military in Fiction.  This is a recorded panel from WORLDCON 2012 entitled, "Military Fantasy and Science Fiction."  On the panel are:

Joseph Zieja (ME!) as the moderator

Myke Cole, author of Shadow Ops: Control Point 

John G. Hemry (a.k.a. Jack Campbell), author of the bestselling series, The Lost Fleet

Brad R. Torgersen, Hugo and Campbell award nominee, army reservist, and author of several published pieces of short fiction

David Voderberg, military and fiction enthusiast

Together we talk about subjects ranging from military SF/F as a subgenre to how long a war between Canada and the United States would last.  Join us for this hour-long recording.

Download HERE!

Thanks for listening,



*Get the audio HERE

For more details, as well as a list of resources on military history and culture, check out my resources page.


MIF #7 - Logistics

I alluded to the issue of logistics in my article about organization, but I felt like I needed to go into greater detail to make it worthwhile for those trying to create a realistic military environment in their fiction.

But let’s pause a moment.  I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating.  Creating a realistic environment doesn’t mean you have to describe everything in intricate detail.  It doesn’t even mean that you have to give every part of the military life any attention at all, and it certainly doesn’t mean you can’t bend the rules for the sake of telling a damn good story.  My goal here is to educate, not to direct.  In some places I’ve been giving bits of advice on how to integrate this information into good storytelling, but as we get into more specific detail I think it’s safe to say the reader expects less and less attention paid to it.  Frankly, the only people that want to read a book about logistics are logisticians.

What I’m trying to say is that please don’t write a story about logistics.  Please.

Starting from scratch then.  What is logistics?  Logistics is the art and science of getting your crap from one place to another.  That’s it.  If you remember from my article on military lingo, the general might say “we are having logistical difficulties”, while the grunt would say “where’s my s@$t?!”

It’s an incredibly complicated problem even in the civilian world.   In today’s global economy, businesses and governments are consistently debating over the most efficient way to get things from one place to another, weighing the cost of one mode of transportation over another.  Now take that problem and compound it with a bunch of people running around with guns.  When a shipment of toy ninja swords is late from China, a small stand in Manhattan loses a few dollars.  When a shipment of bullets doesn’t reach a unit in the field, people die.

Well, people are probably going to die either way, but I think you get my point.

Speaking of points, here are three of them.  In each of these I’m also going to show you how to break the principle of logistics.  This will help you if you’ve ever unsure how to set up some strategy, but have no idea where to start.

1.)  When do we eat?  It’s said that society is always three meals away from collapse.  It’s the same with armies.  If you can’t eat, you can’t fight.  That seems obvious, but it’s just as easy to miss.  If your army has been wandering through the desert for a week without a proper supply convoy following them, you’ve just created a race of superhuman soldiers that should by all rights be able to take over the world.  Hey, maybe that’s what you wanted.  I’m not judging.

To feed an army you need to do one of three things.  One – brown bag it.  Bring the food with you. The American military loves to do this because we have sensitive stomachs and shun food that doesn’t have the word “burger” in it.  We’re pretty efficient about it, too.  Next time you can get your hands on one, try a Meal Ready to Eat (MRE) and you’ll find out how to pack 5,000 calories into a small brown box.  I’ll give you a hint: it probably involves potatoes, and it probably doesn’t taste good.

Fun fact:  A World War II favorite was called “shit on a shingle” by troops because of its remarkable likeness in appearance (it was ground beef on a cracker) and less-than-pleasant taste.

Counter tactic for option one:  Interdict the supply train.  I’ll talk about that in the next point.

The second thing you can do is go nomad.  Live off the land.  This works great in forest environments, but not so well when you’re talking about navies or if your story takes place in the deep reaches of space.  It also only works proportionally to how large your army is.  The larger the army, the quicker they’re going to run out of deer to kill.

Counter tactic: If you’re retreating, raze the land as you leave so that the enemy has nothing to use as they go farther and farther into your territory.  Poison the water supply.  Dispatch Occupy Wall Street protestors.

The last way has two versions.  You can either a.) rape and pillage or b.) shop.  As your army conquers areas, they can take the food and supplies of the people they conquer because they have the weapons.  Many warrior societies in the past have used pillaging as a selling point for recruiting new soldiers, because it was an easy way to make a buck.  On the other hand, if you look at the German conquest of France in World War II, it was a more civilized sort of endeavor (comparatively).  German soldiers visited French cafes, grabbed a quiche on the promenade, and in general simply acted like tourists who, upon being requested to show their passport, showed the Panzer tank instead.

Counter tactic:  Torch your own villages before the enemy can get there or, as in the case of the French, start an underground resistance movement that uses the German economics to its advantage where it can.

2.)  The Concept of a “Supply Chain”.  Expanding on the idea of brown-bagging your army’s supplies, a supply chain is the act of positioning your supplies so that they flow easily from the home front to the front line.  This is how empires are built.  Think about it this way: If you can make one storage dump between your army and your garrison, you’ve just cut your resupply time in half.  You can get a new batch of goods in six months rather than a year, or one week instead of two.  That’s a pretty significant advantage.  Now take that and place a supply dump in every village you conquer on your way to the enemy’s border – you have fresh supplies coming in all the time.  It’s like you live on the battlefield.

When thinking about countering this, think of it like your enemy is hanging from a rope, trying to climb down the side of a mountain.  Each safety clip he has in the rock is like a supply point, a point from which he has support so that he doesn’t turn into soup at the bottom of the rocky gulf.  If you cut the rope all the way at the top, he still has 90% of his rope to work with.  You’ve hurt him, and you’ve probably inconvenienced him, but he can hang on to the side of that mountain with the rest of that rope. For a while. If you cut the rope close to him, he’s got nowhere to go but down.  He either has to turn back, accept defeat, or find a way to tie those loose ends back together.

3.)   Wear and Tear.  Nothing lasts forever.  Your consumables, like food, fresh water, and medical supplies, aren’t the only things that disappear over time.  You also have to look at the condition of your vehicles, your weapons, and your people. People get tired after long periods of time in the field, swords and armor get chipped and dented, powder builds up in rifles.  You need to have the flexibility, the materials, and the skills to take care of them, or you’re as good as dead.  What good is a sword that can’t cut anything or a tent that can’t keep out the rain?

This isn’t so much something you can counter as it is something you can take advantage of.  It’s the very basis of siege warfare.  If you can outlast the enemy, or at least make it impossible for him to resupply, repair, or refit, you can force him to capitulate.  What if you killed all the blacksmiths or broke all the forges?  There wouldn’t be much weapon manufacturing getting done.

What if, for example, you constantly needed new ball bearings to replace ones that were getting used up due to the high activity volumes of your machines – like tanks and airplanes?  The enemy, if they knew you relied heavily on ball bearings in order to maintain your mechanized force, would choose your ball bearings as a center of gravity, a point of weakness.  You would be Nazi Germany, and your center of gravity would be Schweinfurt.  This is exactly what happened during World War II.  The execution (and the intelligence) was poor on the part of the United States, but the principle is the same.*

Case Study:   History

I can’t really have a case study for all aspects of the military in all genres of fiction, and I can’t say I’ve ever read a book and said “Wow, the logistics in this novel are so real, I can almost feel the enemy starving!”  As I get into more and more specific details when it comes to the military, I’m probably going to need to start referring to actual historical events rather than works of fiction.  After all, history is the greatest story of them all.

If you want real examples about the successes and failures of logistics, you only need to put one word in Google:  Empire.  Empires start from a central location (Rome, Great Britain, Berlin, Istanbul) and extend giant tendrils of power over thousands of miles.  Each of the Muslim Caliphates covered territory from halfway into Russia to the southern coasts of Spain.  Napoleon made it into freaking Russia.  I’m not going to go into the details here because I couldn’t do them justice, but I will tell you that if you want to learn how to do logistics, go read some history.  Some particular campaigns to pay attention to:  World War II’s Pacific campaign, Napoleon’s conquest of Europe, and the Roman Empire.  Pay close attention to the different ways supply chains were established; the Romans were masters of assimilating and creating supply points as they went, and America is pretty good at bringing the whole country with us wherever we go.

While I don’t expect any writer to give us a detailed explanation of their army’s supply chain, I hope this gave you some ideas on how to maintain a realistic environment AND keep things interesting.  If you’re writing a book about an empire, how might it alter the course of events if a major supply city suddenly rebelled?  How about someone poisoning a major water source?  Don’t forget that there are always unintended consequences of these types of actions, too.  Everyone, including citizens, drink that water you just befouled.

I’ve been getting some good feedback on these articles and some good suggestions on where to go from here. Do you have any requests, any questions that you want answered?  Leave a comment, and don’t forget to attend some of my panels during WORLDCON this year.  Check the link at the top of my webpage for the schedule.

Thanks for reading,


*If you look at the link in the “belligerents” section, and notice the echelons, about which I spoke in MIF #6.  The large echelon is an “Air Force” (Eighth Air Force) and is composed of several “Bomber Groups” (BGs).

MILITARY IN FICTION #6 - Rank and Organization

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For more details, as well as a list of resources on military history and culture, check out my resources page.


MIF #6 - Rank and Organization

The greatest difference between a military and a bunch of roving bandits is organization.  We are, really, institutionalized anal retentiveness.  We have specific rules by which we do just about everything, from the way we iron our shirts to the way we shoot weapons to the way we have to stand when the national anthem is playing.  If there isn’t a form or publication that details how I’m supposed to do something, I’m probably not supposed to do it.  That’s the military – at least the United States military – and that’s the world I live in.

Of course I’m using hyperbole here to highlight my point.  Not every facet of our lives is regulated by complicated codes, ranks, and bureaucracy, but a significant portion of it is.  Certainly far more than a civilian’s life.

But why do we do it that way?  Organization and discipline transform us from a militia into a military, and even though the purposes behind our structure may not be readily apparent, there really is a method to our madness.  Often we are slaves to tradition as well as practicality and discipline; the salute, for example, stems from the raising of the visor during the times of knighthood.  By doing so, one knight allowed the other to see his face, and since most knights were right-handed, it removed their sword hand from the vicinity of his weapon.  Now we use the salute as an exchange of respect between officers and enlisted (or for the flag, the president, or the Secretary of Defense).  That way, when I pass an enlisted troop, I can be fairly certain he is not about to shoot me.

When you’re creating or imitating the military, you’re going to need to have some structure to it.  This can be as loose or as tight as you want it to be; the US military looks a lot different from the German military on the drill pad (and I’m not sure French military knows where the drill pad is).  But you’re going to need some sort of structure; otherwise all you have is an armed mob.  Who knows – maybe that’s what you were aiming for.

Here are your three points for understanding and utilizing organizational structure in your writing.

1.) Rank structure – have one.  Rank may be one of the most important aspects of the organization of a military, but it is not the only important thing.  Too many writers focus entirely on rank when it comes to making decisions and crafting characters, over-emphasizing or misapplying its importance.  I don’t blame them; it’s tough to really understand rank and its application when you’re not in the military environment.  It’s very easy just to look at a rank chart like this one and view it too linearly.  I’m going to be referencing this chart as we go, so pay attention.

[caption id="attachment_404" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Officer Structure - O1 is the first officer rank, and so on[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_403" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Partial Enlisted Structure - E1 means First Enlisted Rank, and so forth[/caption]

Rank is primarily a determinant of responsibility and expectations.  Look at the bottom enlisted rank of each of the services and notice its title – private, seaman, and airman.  The word “private” is a shortened term for “private soldier”, so you might as well look at them as soldier, seaman, and airman instead.  These low ranks describe the (ostensibly) most basic skillset of the service.  As a low ranking member, you are expected to espouse the basic values of your service and become competent in its most basic skills.

This brings me to the division between officer and enlisted.   This gap differs widely between militaries, and it is up to you to determine how to use it.  First, you must understand that it is not a linear flow; in most militaries, one does not start as the lowest ranking enlisted man and end up as the General of the Army (the highest ranking officer in the US Army).  They are two different tiers of ranks, with different qualifications, responsibilities, pay, and expectations.  Let me go into the US military rank structure as an example, and by explaining these responsibilities I should be able to help you understand what rank is and how it’s used.

In the US, officers are managers and leaders.  Their job is to understand and utilize the skills of the other officers and enlisted underneath them to achieve victory, and not necessarily to possess technical expertise.  Low ranking officers are called “action officers” or “company grade officers” because they make the low-level, tactical decisions that have direct, visible outcomes.   Then you have “field grade officers”, those whose purview should be wider (about as wide as a field, for example).  They should have a better idea of the big picture, and they are not expected to execute basic tasks as often as their lower ranking counterparts.  General officers are expected to understand military policy, manage civilian-military relations, and form strategic objectives.  Generals and admirals do not (usually) man the machine guns and spray fire at the enemy.  If they do, it probably means everyone else is dead.

In the US military, enlisted are the followers, but they also lead in their own right.  Lower-ranking enlisted are the “do-ers” the accomplishers of tasks, the people that are working hard to become technically proficient in their assigned skill set.  As they grow in rank, they become subject-matter experts and mentors to the lower enlisted, advising the officers on enlisted affairs and contributing to problem solving.  They are not, as many writers attempt to portray them, peons and drones that can’t walk without an officer telling them which foot to put forward (that only happens in boot camp).  They are required to obey orders and can be punished for insubordination, but the order has to be valid.  I can’t order an airman to go get me a cup of coffee because I’m feeling lazy.

That being said, I’ve worked with the militaries of other countries where the enlisted served the officers lunch.  Literally.  That’s how far the gap was between the two rank tiers.  You have a wide range of options to choose from when building your military.  You can have a weak officer corps, mired in politics and completely distant from the fighting enlisted men (see the British high-ranking officers in World War I for an example of that), or you can have a military where rank has very little influence.  It’s up to you, but once you establish your structure, make sure you stick to it.  If it’s improper for an enlisted man to disagree with an officer in public, yet you have a character who consistently does it without repercussion, you’ve violated the principle of rank structure.

2.) Militaries are a bureaucracy.  While rank structure may be one of the most important, the bureaucratic nature of the military is easily the most frustrating.  But who can blame it for developing that way?  It’s an organization of millions of people with access to the means by which to make warfare.  It has to be regulated if it is to be effective. Records must be kept.  Rules must be written. Dilbert must have material for his dry, cynical humor.  I say this tongue and cheek, but much of what Dilbert talks about can be applied to the US military (and likely many other militaries).  I have a friend who makes a hobby of slightly altering text in Dilbert cartoons to make fun of real-life military situations he’s been in, then hanging them on the walls for the amusement of his compatriots.  Many times he doesn’t have to alter them at all.

Not all militaries are equally bureaucratic.  I’m nearly positive that the Zimbabwean army doesn’t keep dental records on all of its troops, and I’m equally as positive that they don’t have to fill out three forms when they go on vacation.  I have to fill out three forms as a minimum, and I can find out how many cavities I had ten years ago if I wanted to.

Applying this to your writing may seem tricky, but it’s as easy as understanding that your military is a living, breathing organism that has many moving parts, many different agendas, and, perhaps, many different masters.  The bigger the military, the longer it’s going to take to get things done, especially when it comes to mobilizing for war.  The only reason the US is able to move so quickly is because we have established bases all throughout the world.  That alone took us almost a century and two World Wars to achieve.  Campaigns in ancient times often took years just to start.

You have some wiggle room in your fiction, since it’s much easier to pull the wool over your readers eyes when it comes to logistics, something with which the average reader isn’t familiar.  The level of realism you want to include is up to you, but understanding the bureaucratic monster is a key to making it work for you instead of creating plot holes.

3.) Echelons.    When I use the term echelons, I am partially referring to the “chain of command” and partially referring to how an effective fighting force is organized.  As with all characteristics of militaries, yours might vary anywhere between having no echelons and having hundreds.

Let me pause to explain the chain of command, which will also help you understand echelons.  The chain of command is the line you can draw from one person in the military all the way up to the highest ranking member.  I, for example, am a member of a squadron, the second lowest echelon in the air force.  The next person in my chain is the commander of my squadron, who is in charge of a unit (the squadron) of about 300 people.  His boss is the commander of a group, comprised of several squadrons and totaling, perhaps, a few thousand people.  The group commander’s boss is the wingcommander (no, not the PC game).  The wing commander’s boss is the numbered air force commander, followed by the major command commander, followed by the chief of staff of the air force, and the president of the United States.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="640"] US Army Echelons[/caption]



I have a lot of bosses, but I never talk to any of them except the one directly above me.  That’s how we filter orders down from the president, who gives us strategic guidance, to the squadron level, which accomplishes tactical objectives such as destroying individual targets.  Each of these echelons is commanded by officers of increasing rank, and each of the echelons is expected to achieve different objectives.  An entire major command and the assets allocated to it would not be dispatched to fight an army of ten men.

What this means for your military in your writing is that there is more at work than a single soldier or even a single field commander.  The divisions that come between echelons (and ranks) will have their own implications.

Humorous interlude:  If you want to see a real-life violation of the principles of the chain of command and echelons, check out this letter from an Airman, First Class (one of the lowest ranks in the air force) to the Chief of Staff (the highest ranking person in the air force).

My point in showing you this?  A pikeman isn’t going to go running to the commander of your military and complain about food shortages; he’s going to tell his boss, who is probably a low ranking officer of some sort.

Hopefully I’ve given you a good look into the structure of the military.  Take these principles and apply them to your writing – with some additional research – and I guarantee you’ll have a more realistic military setting.

Case Study:  Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

I’ve only read book one of this series, but if you want a great example of how to organize a military in a fantasy setting you need to check it out.  In fact, I almost didn’t like this book because it felt too military to me.  I tend to not want to read things that correspond too closely with my daily activities – the last Clancy novel I read was fifteen years ago -  and the regimental military structure in this book hit a bit too close to home.  But I still recommend it as a good book with a great story and a fantastic example of my point in this article.

Erikson obviously did some research.  As far as I know, he’s had no personal military experience, but you can’t tell at all in the novel.  Just a look at the glossary shows that he knows how to organize – he defines the “Bridgeburners” – a nickname that works wonderfully with the article on lingo – as a “division” underneath the “2nd Army”.  Using words that correspond with modern militaries – division, regiment, company – lends immediate credence to your military environment.  It’s okay to steal from the real world – you don’t have to have a random combination of consonants and vowels for everything in a fantasy novel.

Erikson blends some of the conventional with the fantastical.  He subordinates echelons like “divisions” to a “Fist”, a fictitious but realistic body of military combat power.  Ranks like Lieutenant and Captain are intermingled with Adjunct and High Fist.   More importantly, he interweaves them properly.  A captain is in charge of a lieutenant, who is in turn in charge of a sergeant.  Armies are broken out into divisions, which are then broken out into companies.  You could mix them up – it’s your world after all – but it would be exceedingly confusing for anyone who has any knowledge of military rank.

Coming up with a structure for your military can be fun or mundane, depending on how OCD you are.  You don’t necessarily have to have one as clear-cut and defined as Erikson’s, but if you’re going to be talking about the military you are going to have to have some semblance of a chain of command.  Otherwise, all you have is a band of brigands in uniform.

Thanks for reading,




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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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