Writing about military service, war, and killing

I have a question (or a series of questions) for my readers, particularly those interested in military science fiction and other military fiction, but also to everyone interested in this topic in general.

Recently I wrote about the problems of character development, etc. in a guest post over at Sarah Hoyt’s place.  In that article, I mentioned in passing:

I’ve been annoyed by a great many military SF books that are quite obviously written by people who have no military background themselves (or, if they have some military background, don’t have combat experience). It shows very clearly.

In a comment to that article, reader Smithgift asked:

Speaking as a civilian planning to write a book containing lots of WAR and VIOLENCE, what is the most important thing to do to avoid this? What is the most important thing NOT to do?

I’ve been thinking about this subject ever since, and I think it’s best addressed by writing a few articles dealing with the difference between a military and a civilian mindset.  Much that seems instinctive or axiomatic to a military veteran is strange to a civilian, and needs to be explained in terms of the different way of life that military service involves.  In particular, I find that those who haven’t seen combat – in particular, those who haven’t killed or wounded an enemy ‘up close and personal’ – truly don’t understand the reactions of the human psyche to the act of killing.  I’ve seen altogether too much of it for my peace of mind.  I’m well aware that individual reactions vary, depending on a whole host of factors.  It’s a complex subject, but one that hasn’t been well addressed in the context of writing fiction.

There are several books out there analyzing and embodying the military environment and mind-set, and the issue of killing, from micro- to macro levels.  They include (but are not limited to):

  • On Killing‘ by Lt-Col. David Grossman (which I find interesting, but overrated, and I’m forced to disagree with some of what the author concludes on the basis of my own experience);
  • On Combat‘ by Lt-Col. Grossman and others (a more rounded presentation, IMHO);
  • Two books by Victor Davis Hanson, ‘Carnage And Culture‘ and ‘The Father Of Us All‘, looking at the broader issues of war as a reflection of society and culture (both excellent);
  • Three books by Steven Pressfield:  two novels – ‘Gates Of Fire‘ and ‘The Virtues Of War‘ – and one non-fiction work – ‘The Warrior Ethos‘ (all highly recommended);
  • Martial Virtues‘ by Charles Hackney (oriented more towards the martial arts, but definitely applicable to some aspects of combat – useful background material);
  • Facing Violence: Preparing for the Unexpected‘ by Rory Miller and Barry Eisler – a very good analysis of the experience of violence and how to prepare oneself for it in a defensive situation;
  • Warrior Mindset: Mental Toughness Skills for a Nation’s Peacekeepers‘ by multiple authors – an interesting perspective on preparing to enter a climate of violence.

None of these ten books get it all right, but they all get some of it right – at least, in terms of my experience.  I think they’re all worth reading.  Recommended.

I’d like to avoid duplicating the work done by those authors – there’s no sense in reinventing the wheel.  I think I can provide some useful input in terms of my own background and life experiences, and in terms of the literally hundreds of other servicemen in several different countries and armed forces with whom I’ve spoken about these issues.  I can also bring an ‘up close and personal’ experience of violence and death to bear on the subject.  I really don’t want to go into detail about that, for obvious reasons, but nevertheless, those who’ve ‘been there and done that’ will understand me when I say it’s a bit like sex.  You can read about sex all you like;  you can go through all the theoretical sex education in the world;  but only when you’ve actually experienced it will you truly understand it, grasp it, feel it as part of you.  Killing is very similar in that sense.  It changes you.  Forever.  That’s one reason why those who’ve done so very seldom write about it in any detail.  It feels almost obscene to do so.

What I’d like to ask is this.  Will it serve a useful purpose to try to go into the experience of violence and death – the experience of killing – in greater depth?  I don’t want to go into voyeuristic levels of detail.  I simply want to help aspiring writers to be more realistic in their work, and not to spout reams of pablum about something they don’t fully understand.

Let me give a concrete example.  Readers may recall my review of ‘Act Of Valor’ in 2012, which I watched with my wife.  In it, I commented that one of the scenes of death in combat brought tears to my eyes because it reminded me so powerfully of the death of one of my own comrades in arms, about which I’d written a couple of years earlier.  The fictional film brought that reality back to life for me, far more powerfully and immediately than any ‘ordinary’ Hollywood production could have done.  Some time later I had the opportunity to discuss the movie with some active-duty Navy SEAL team members, who confirmed to me that the incident in question was based on the death in combat of Michael A. Monsoor.  I think all of us had a tear or two in our eyes as we discussed lost comrades in arms . . .  I’d like to be able to make that same level of reality more accessible to prospective writers of military fiction.  That’s why I’m considering writing this series of articles.

So, what do you think?  Would such a series of articles be useful to current and prospective writers?  Of equal importance, should they be written, or would it be best not to have overly realistic detail – to the point of possible voyeurism – splashed all over the pages of more fiction?

Over to you, readers.  Please let us know your thoughts in Comments.



  1. I can't see anything 'wrong' with that Peter; honestly many authors miss the boat by either going for the 'gore' angle or completely unrealistic portrayals… E.g. the proverbial shot from a .223 that blows the bad guy back 5 feet…

  2. As someone who is beginning to write a novel with strong military themes, I would find such a series invaluable. Please do so, Peter.

  3. I think it would be very helpful to not only writers, but to others so that they can get a better intellectual feel for this type of experience.

  4. I suspect it would be good to write from the perspective of how the death made you feel, without going into the details of the act. That kind of experience is better caught than taught.

  5. Yes, it would be good. I've served in uniform (bridge specialist, a type of combat engineer, trained for river crossings, mines and explosives, etc), but I've never seen combat. I've read most of the books you mentioned, have most on my shelf now in fact. I've taken a number of various self-defense classes, and come rather too close to having to shoot in self-defense than I'd like (both two and four-legged critters).
    But I still get the feeling that I don't "really get it," though I think I understand it about as well as a person can without having been there for real. Everyone is a little different, of course, but more info is always better.
    That was something I tried to put into my story, that it changes people, but don't know how well I did from readers perspectives; review comments have mostly been good, but pretty general.

  6. Don't think we need more blood and gore, but I'd be more interested in the realities of PTSD.

    We hear a lot, and know of the "thousand yard stare".

    How much is real, and-on the PTSD-how much is our "everyone is a victim of something, and has to have a serious problem" mentality?

  7. I have a friend that described some of his experiences in combat. The fear and threat of death were almost overshadowed by constant anxiety, crude conditions and the long periods of time where patrolling only led to periods of rest, without rest.

    He showed me a photograph of his squad, which he described the men as being shiny. I asked what that meant, and he explained they'd been gone for days on patrol, finally made it back to the base camp, and were allowed the luxury of bathing. He went on to explain how it was a relief from getting used to having your butt cheeks stuck together.

    He never described friends he lost. From his expression, I knew it was much too personal and I would never ask.

  8. I think you answered your own question already. FWIW: If you can do this without damaging yourself or your loves, then give it a go. I'll walk along with you, if you don't mind.

  9. Ghost from the past are best left buried. Else, they conjure up new ones that haunt again.

    To write about it is to relive it. Are you prepared for that?

  10. I think Master Guns made a key point, Peter. If you can deal with it then perhaps writing this series could prove cathartic. Otherwise, old ghosts…

    I personally would be interested in such a series. But not at the cost of your peace of mind.

  11. A few points:
    1. Different people experience things differently so you will always risk portraying the character in a way that conflicts with someone else's experience. Don't let that worry you.
    2. The "you weren't there" argument is not very convincing when you are writing about a fictional setting. As long as your characters are consistent with their cultural foundations, you are writing good story. I doubt the Vikings suffered from much PTSD.
    3. What I dislike the most about military portrayals in Sci-Fi is the obvious linkages to current military foundations and institutions as if future people have made no progress in that department. What we have is from the total weight of our institutions and historical baggage. Different times, different places and different alternative universes should reflect different historical baggage.
    4. Everyone believes that their own point of view is more valid than other views, that doesn't make them right. This is especially true of men living in extreme stress, environmental deprivation, hunger, and pain.
    5. Write what you know. Your own experiences are what makes great writing. being able to put your reader "there" because you were there and feeling those feelings is what makes great story-telling. incorporating what other people think about combat experience might yield insight, but is too much thinking for what ultimately should be trying to re-create an adrenaline rush.

  12. I grew up around vets from both world wars and the Korean conflict. Might even have been an elderly vet from the Spanish War around.

    I do not recall any of the men who saw combat ever talking about it. They'd tell funny stories about basic training or life in the rear, but nothing about what it was like to slog through the mud with a M1917 or freeze aloft in a B-24.

  13. Most of the true combat vets I know do not talk about combat. They will discuss other things, and even some stuff that happened on patrols, or in the case of Fallujha, house entering.

    I think it takes practice to show the boredom of military life that is interspersed with moments of sheer terror that you survive, usually through no artifice of your own, followed by the endless boredom.

    I think even those veteran who have witnessed the after of combat are changed. There is something about the frozen face of a corpse left on the field of battle. Not to mention the smells.

    I think you do a pretty good job of describing the events around combat.

    But what do I know.

  14. As the original commenter who asked the question, I can't say I'm not biased in the matter, but here's my take.

    I've never had a limb cut off in an accident, gone to prison, or fought off cancer. All these things must be life-altering beyond the use of words. But, nevertheless, should I never try to write fiction about dismemberment, incarceration, or surviving cancer?

    Writers commonly write in fiction what they themselves have never experienced, and SF/F writers even more so. No one knows what it is like to kill a dragon, or be aboard a space battleship in combat. Yet we have some writers who we say write "realistically" on these imaginary subjects. What does that mean, but that if these things were real, they would be accurately depicted?

    And depictions, pictures, they are. All art is on some level unrealistic. All art, at some point, is a stylized recreation of Creation. No one looks at a manga drawing and thinks that real humans have enormous eyes.

    At the same time, we look at an image of a boy in tears, and we feel sorry for him. The false thing can stand in place for the real thing, even when we know it is false. The Eastern Orthodox understand this with their icons.

    So, in short, even if I can never succeed in conveying what combat is like, having never experienced it myself, I think it is worth the attempt. If you are willing to talk, I am willing to listen.

  15. I'm interested. Not just for using it in writing. I grew up surrounded by vets, my father operated a machine gun in the Continuation War, my mother served as a cook in Lotta Svärd, for a time right behind the front lines, all my uncles served in combat, as had most of their friends.

    None of them talked about war much when they were sober, but sometimes they did when they got drunk. Father would sometimes mention the one Russian he had killed face to face, somebody about his own age (around twenty, I know he was 18 when he went) who had sneaked to the Finnish side one night, and they ran into each other in a trench. That memory seemed to start to bother him more as he got older. Once when he talked about that I asked him about killing, and he said the men he had killed from a distance and who had been just shapes falling down had never haunted him much, but that one kid whose face he remembered did.

    I have always wanted to understand them, and how what they went through had influenced them, or had shaped our whole society. I suppose I can't, not really, but I still try.

  16. I have to concur with smithgift. Many of us -are- going to write about things we haven't experienced. If we're writing SF or Fantasy, we have no choice. Still, I would like that writing to be 'realistic' from a human perspective.

    In my personal experience, combat vets seldom talk about the immediate experience of combat, but if you're willing to ask correctly and explain that it's not just for some voyeuristic thrill, they will. I've been blessed with that sharing a few times.

    It is useful. Not the details, who hit who, who shot who, etc. Mechanics we have plenty of, but the internal feelings those mechanics produced in you, that's useful.

    Of course, as others have said, there's a range of responses. Never forget the marine sniper's response to "what did you feel when you pulled the trigger?":


  17. I think it would valuable for people.
    The problem of should you write about what you haven't experienced is a sticky one. However, if people didn't do that, we'd have an awful lot of navel-gazing and very little good literature.
    I'm firmly in the camp of, 'yes you can, just be a curious soul and go find out as much as you can from other people first.' Most really good authors tend to be even more voracious readers.
    Most of us probably have something that we either have expertise in or experience with. We probably also all get annoyed when it is completely wrong in fiction.

    nunc cognosco ex parte

  18. For further research I suggest considering David Drake's distinction between military SF and space opera. If necessary digging through David Drake's miscellaneous writings for his extended but scattered thoughts. Notice that in context space opera can be as harsh as any mil sf. Colonel Kratman on the other hand, I believe, takes a broader view of mil sf as much more inclusive and may well be right. There is a sense that everything is politics and human nature. Ginny served longer than Mr. Heinlein.

    I haven't seen it repeated lately but it's been mentioned in connection with a near future alt history cold war goes hot collaboration between a field grade officer and a Vietnam draftee that each of them knew things the other might well get wrong – the draftee thought jarringly impossibly wrong in an enlisted service context.

    My advice if any is write space opera or write out of personal experience but I do agree with the distinction as made by Mr. Drake YMMV.

  19. Stephen Crane had never been in combat, yet RED BADGE OF COURAGE is one of the best war novels ever written. I think you can write a military SF novel, or even a contemporary military novel, without having "been there." I won't say it's easy, but I think it is possible. Reading memoirs of those who have been there can help. So can talking to those who have been there. However, many of those won't say anything. My wife's late husband had walked from Normandy to the Rhine in WW II, fighting almost all the way, yet she says he never wanted to talk about it. I spent 25 years in the military (Navy and Air Force), but was never in combat. However, I have written military SF, so I say it can be done.

  20. I have an old friend who was a machine gunner in WW II. He has seldom talked about what happened to him. I've asked a few times and he usually answers in generalities. Over the course of many years of questions I've learned he has a bronze star, he was involved in the liberation of a concentration camp (and he's Jewish), at one point he had to carry the machine gun, it's tripod, and ammunition (about 200 pounds total) because his tripod carrier had died. Yet in all those years I've known him has he ever said anything about what it was really like, except for having to cut his boots off because they'd frozen to his feet. Yesterday, he was crying when he came outside with his coffee. I asked him why. His answer, "The server's hat." Then he explained that was what the concentration camp survivors wore, and he cries every time he see's one of those hats.

    I was in the U.S. Navy and have never been in combat. So, to me the answer to the question is: There is no way to adequately describe what it's like unless you've had the experience. And based on what I've heard and read, most combat veterans don't talk about it much. Including my son-in-law who served in Afghanistan.

  21. Few people have a gift to relate life experiences with the written word. You have that gift, and the use is more than important.

    Writing articles about war experiences helps those that haven't been there to understand the effect it has on those that have.

    War is one of the most profound endeavors of society and it's always the people that would never consider such a thing that persevere, find their basic beliefs and endure what most people can never imagine. Some even go beyond what anyone would consider courageous and become unknown heroes.

    So, I think you should write some articles. Your life is a culmination of all your experiences and your knowledge shouldn't be forever lost in the annals of history.

    As a person, it validates what you've experienced. As a writer, it helps those that wish to be accurate in their endeavors.

  22. Peter
    If you can talk about it, then it would be useful. I spent 28 years in the AF and never fired a shot in anger. I have personally built bombs that killed people but that is far from the same thing and for a while I was bothered that doing that didn't bother me (if that makes sense). If things get really bad in the next several years, having as much knowledge as possible for what it is like to be in combat and do violence to someone could help people get through that experience themselves. Write if you can.

  23. You are over thinking this.

    Just do it!

    Your characters do what needs to be done, or your characters are dead.

    Unless you want your characters paralyzed by the agony, the guilt, the anguish, oh the humanity!.

  24. Peter,

    I'm a cop and combat vet, and write military fiction. I don't think you "need" to educate people on the reality of combat; all the information a writer can get without experiencing combat himself is already out there. The books you listed, plus Blackhawk Down, We Were Soldiers Once…And Young, My War Gone By (I Miss It So), and many others can show the unexperienced the technical aspects of battle (and maybe some of the emotion, but I think it's impossible to really relay that). If you wrote more about it, and your many fans read it, it would definitely help. But the information is out there already.

    As others have pointed out, someone with no military background can write military fiction. However, in my experience many nonveterans simply screw it up. As an example, one story I read had the SF hero sprinting and combat rolling through the desert with his Barrett .50 on his back, while wearing a vest with SAPI plates and carrying a carbine and pistol, for over a kilometer, just so he could drop his carbine and sniper rifle and kill the enemy at contact distance with a pistol. For the right audience, sure, it's entertaining. But if the writer has any interest at all in getting combat "right", it's ridiculous. Even before I joined the military or went to war, I wouldn't have read it.

    Following this same principle, I don't write about practicing medicine, or flying planes, or ballet dancing. Even if I could learn the technical aspects of those subjects through research, I wouldn't get the ground-level realities and therefore couldn't get those realities across to the reader.

    One exception might be writers of historical combat. If the war they're writing about is long enough in the past, no veterans will be alive to point out inaccuracies. I've enjoyed Pressfield's books, but I also accept that he may have the combat totally wrong.

    I think your post generates two questions: "should you write these articles?", and "does it matter if a military fiction author has no military or combat background?" For the first question, Id say it's not necessary but would be a great thing. For the second question, I'd say it's possible but unlikely. Harkening back to the sex analogy, I'd be as interested in a novel of modern war written by a nonveteran as much as I'd be interested in a sex manual written by a virgin. That might be harsh, but it's my honest feeling, and probably the feeling of many others.

  25. I've heard the "obviously never saw combat" complaint about folks who saw more combat than the complainer– the problem is they either saw it differently, or saw more.

    The big problem is to avoid factual errors, and then to have someone from whatever you modeled your military on– or who is otherwise experienced in it– read over your stuff.
    There's a flipping REASON Chief O'Brien is beloved by many Enlisted Navy geeks, while the officers find him strange and unrealistic.

  26. Will it serve a useful purpose to try to go into the experience of violence and death – the experience of killing – in greater depth?

    On reflection my answer to the specific question as phrased and in context is not only no but hell no. No useful purpose for the aspiring writer without experience as the intended market.

    An affirmative answer IMHO assumes a more general even universal experience. That is not my experience in life or in literature.

    I'd expect that it might (or might not) serve a useful purpose for you personally. Might be therapeutic might be lucrative.

    Folks have had great success with books that include what some readers find to be throw it against the wall moments – I had one such with John Scalzi who obviously didn't know what he didn't know – but overall the Old Man's War series merits some its esteem.

    I'd vary the suggested reading list to include memoirs. In a very real sense the memoirs are specific to times and places but IMHO also an accurate depiction of the specific times and places. Maybe start with Good-bye to All That (Graves) followed by David Hackworth which might lead to reading the much discredited S.L.A. Marshall.

    I'd add much of John Masters who had some thankfully rare (be a better world if they were unique) experiences – both memoirs and fiction. For the law enforcement experience anything by Jim Cerillo. Worth noticing that both Jim Cerillo and say No Second Place Winner by Bill Jordan are very slim books.

  27. Way of thinking of it came to mind– it's like scifi.

    If you're writing hard military stuff, Clark Myer's suggestions are a minimum– you want to be that author who got visited by the FBI because he extrapolated so well, not Dan Brown, failing basic landscapes; if you're writing the equivalent of how Japanese anime mangles Catholicism (nuns are often the priest's daughter, for example– they're just using Catholic shinies on the temples they're familiar with) then just make sure it's clear to the reader and go for it!
    You might manage to come up with something as awesome as the Holy Pie Servers from Hellsing….

  28. Anonymous JimP said…
    People that have not served in combat, can not understand combat any more than those who have never sworn an oath to serve can understand "duty". It is beyond their ken ….. Chris Hernandez had a good post about this this week…..

    Just read it– was expecting something longer, so I put it off.

    He's wrong.

    Example: read some of Vathara's fanfiction; she's a college girl, not a cop or soldier, but she also understands and repeatedly uses the theme of one's duty, because having some sort of justification to duck responsibility is always an easy sell.

    A bit less starkly, he's over-generalizing or misidentifying the problem– it's not that nobody who doesn't know a military oath or about being a cop understands duty, it's that there's been widespread attempt to deny that it exists. For example, any good mother knows it, as does any good father. Some folks may not extrapolate very well, though!

  29. I spent 26 years in the Air Force, retiring as an E-7. Most of that service was done as an Imagery Analyst, including a year in Vietnam. I've "been involved in" more than a dozen wars, usually from 500 feet or higher above the carnage — including a number of things I STILL can't talk about 30 or more years after the fact. (Some people sneer and think that's fighting a "clean" war. It's not. You still see bodies, broken equipment, and fairly frequently, the survivors – on both sides.) Even from where I experienced it, war affects you — changes you, usually for the better, but not always. As for the "sense of duty" one commenter discussed, I find it in those closest to the conflict, even when it's just the mechanics and weapons specialists that service the aircraft. Those more removed have it less, some not at all.

    As for writing about war, I enjoy some writing, not others. Sometimes it gets a bit too close, and I have to put the book down for a bit, then go back to it. I'm an anomaly in the "old" Air Force: I've been shot at, and had the occasion to shoot back, at a distance. I have great sympathy for those that have served multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Write what you wish. I know it will be worth reading.

  30. Book suggestion: With the Old Breed (at Peleliu and Okinawa), by Eugene Sledge. Written by a highly literate guy who quit college to be a grunt Marine in the Pacific. Wrote and published his memoirs in his last decade of life.

  31. I spent 3 1/2 years running a snowplow in winter, and working on the highway, in 70-73. I saw death/extreme danger more times than most non combat/EMS/police ever do. Like combat, there are things that we just don't want to remember. I also trained as an EMT-A, and saw death there. So, there are some things that just can't be described, or taught.
    I can try to describe the terror of riding down an exit ramp, at about 30 MPH, in a 30 ton truck sliding sideways, but outside of combat there is no equivalent.
    Until you experience real terror, you can't describe it.

  32. Peter:
    Absolutely yes! For those of us who do not have the honor of serving our country in combat, the experiences and skills you warriors have are extremely valuable to us as we approach what many believe to be a total collapse of our society.

    Mike Travis

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *