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.
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.