Writing the Military: 5 Biggest Mistakes

Kingdom of Heaven

This article is by Joseph Zieja.

I’m an officer in the United States Air Force, and I’ve been wearing the uniform for ten years.  I also write.

I’ve had pieces appear in Daily Science Fiction and some other anthologies across the web and in print.  So I have a tiny bit of writing clout to back up my military experience, and you can lean on that when I tell you that there are a lot of mistakes in the way that writers portray the military in their fiction.

I therefore present to you the Top 5 Biggest Military Mistakes in Fiction, According to Joe Zieja.  I’ll try my best to keep it­ to speculative fiction, since I know that’s who my audience is, but these mistakes extend to all genres.

One last warning:  I’m from New Jersey.  Hold on to your self-esteem.

1. Yes, You Should Have Thought of That Before:  Misuse of Technology

No one is as desperately misled as Hollywood when it comes to military technology.  Movies take a lot of poetic license, but they’re expected to sacrifice accuracy for the sake of explosions and entertainment.  But seriously, if you can’t make a cell phone call while driving in the Lincoln Tunnel, you probably can’t fly a satellite-controlled airplane through it.  That’s all I’m saying.

It’s not just about computers.  If you don’t understand the basics of medieval arms and armor, you’re going to look very foolish when your hero saves the day by throwing a broadsword like a ninja star.   What happens when a knight in full plate mail falls off his horse after a failed cavalry charge?   Does he swiftly roll to his feet and rally the troops?  No.  He lays there doing his best impression of a turtle until someone comes by and captures him or puts a sword through his visor, because his armor is just too heavy.

If you have someone inside a pressurized airplane firing full metal jacket penetrators, you’re going to have some depressurization issues and everyone is going to get the bends, including the hijackers.  It’s tough to pull a caper when it feels like the blood is about to boil out of your veins.

Understand what a sword, bow, and spear can and cannot do.  Understand how a gun works, how missiles work, how bombs work.  This information is readily available on the internet, but all too often writers use movies and television as their encyclopedia.  All you’re doing is perpetuating the wrongness.

2. Who Is Running This Army?  Failure to Understand Rank and Organization

I love Battlestar Gallactica.  Love it.  They get a lot of things right when it comes to military protocol, but they failed when it came to establishing a proper rank structure.  You have a “Commander” piloting a ship in the “fleet”, which indicates that they’re using the navy rank structure.  Well, a captain is in charge of a ship, not a commander.  The executive officer of the ship, the commander’s deputy, is a colonel.  First of all, colonels outrank commanders in the US military rank structure.  Second of all, colonels aren’t in the navy – they’re in the marines, air force, and army.  They then mix up the ranks further, using air force ranks for their pilots.  A captain is the head fighter pilot on the Battlestar Gallactica, which, if you stick with navy rank structure, makes him ALSO outrank the commander of the ship.  It’s a total mess.

But wait, you say.  It’s a science fiction show set in a world where Earth never existed.  Can’t they call the ranks anything they want?  Why can’t a commander outrank a colonel?

It’s a speculative world, so you have some liberties, but if you’re going to borrow terms from the modern world, it doesn’t help you at all to mix them up.  In your fantasy world, you could also decide to call small red fruits hanging from trees “oranges” or “bananas.”  But that would be silly and confusing, wouldn’t it?   Borrowing from the real world is great; it helps you establish commonalities that ease the transition from the real world to your world.  Stick with the real world conventions.

3. If the General Shoots, Everyone Else Is Dead:  Misapplication of Military Roles

Generals don’t man machine guns and throw grenades.  Presidents of the United States don’t hop in F-16s and fight off the aliens.   If these things are happening in your book, everyone else is probably (or should be) dead.

We love characters of status.  Kings, generals, leaders.  Important people.  The problem is that writers very often wrongly associate important people with exciting people.  The president of any country in the modern day world is an important person.  He is not an exciting one.  Generals are important people who make decisions so that folks younger than them (the captains, the privates, the sergeants) can go do the real work.  They do not make precise targeting calculations and save the day with the silver-bullet shot.

There are examples in history where the important people were also the exciting ones.  Many warrior societies had their kings go to war, even fight in front lines, but there will be ramifications.  Fantasy writers can get away with this a little bit more than SF writers, but don’t forget that kings have to run their kingdoms.  If you have a king that’s never around, you are going to have problems with administration.  George R. R. Martin handled his absent king very realistically by having his kingdom fall apart.

One more quick point about officers and enlisted.  Officers are leaders and managers.  Younger officers absolutely “do” things.  They lead men into combat, shoot, fly, kill people and break things, but their primary job is not to “do.”  It is to lead.  Enlisted are the worker bees, for lack of a better expression.  They are expected to be extraordinarily competent in one specific skill set, and the officer’s job is to take many enlisted people and make their effectiveness greater than the sum of their parts.

Officers don’t turn wrenches; they tell enlisted to turn wrenches, because an officer would turn the damn thing the wrong way.

4. FORWARD, DEMARCHE!  Misuse of Military Communication

We talk funny.  REALLY funny.  I mean so funny that there have been times when I have been talking with another military member in a room full of civilians, and at the end of the conversation the civilians have had absolutely no idea what any of us said.  It’s a way of life.

I find that a lot of writing gets the lingo wrong.  It’s particularly bad in fiction where the military isn’t the focus.  Generally people who are writing military-centric fiction do their research; it’s the folks that are just putting a scene or two in their writing that jack it all up.  People repeatedly using the long form of ranks and terminology – we shorten everything at every opportunity – people confusing rank abbreviations and acronyms, people mixing up technological terms.  Sending a B-52 to dogfight, for example (it’s a huge bomber aircraft) or asking for another clip to put in their revolver (revolvers don’t take clips for ammo).

There also tends to be an over-reliance on correct terms.  Writers will get so excited that they’ve learned a new word that they’ll put it into the text over and over again, particularly when characters are speaking.  Repeatedly calling a gun “the Springfield 1911” or a character “Private First Class John Smith” starts to sound really tacky.  Just call it a gun.  Just call him Smith, or the PFC.  We do.

5. First We Go There, Then We Kill Them, Then We Win: Ignoring the Complexity of War

The only thing more complicated than war is marriage.

Writers often forget to account for the many moving parts that make up the military, politics, and logistics of war.  Look at the two World Wars, for example.  They were both several years in the making before a shot was fired, and both were large enough in scale to completely change the way the world worked forever.   It is not an insignificant thing that can be solved by simply going there, killing the enemy, and declaring victory.

Now, I understand that nobody wants to write a book called “The Continuing Adventures of the Guy Who Keeps Track of Supply Counts.”  In fact, I encourage writers not to write about the mechanics of war that aren’t as exciting.  But you can’t simply ignore them.  It’s a foul when a massive, million-man army is ready for war in under a week.  It’s a foul when armies move more than, say, ten miles in a day.  Even the technologically advanced armies of World War II had a difficult time covering ground, since nature tended to get in the way.

When do your armies eat?  How do they get resupplied?  Foraging and hunting isn’t enough; a 20,000-man army roving through the forests would quickly deplete the natural resources around it.  The European landmass has a very difficult time supporting large amounts of horses for cavalry.  The desert of the Middle East necessitates long supply chains.  The high mountains of Tibet require oxygen masks.

My point is that you have to consider the larger effects of war, because they extend beyond simply killing people.  There are psychological, economic, social, and political effects that come with it and influence the outcome.   Dealing with them judiciously and accurately helps your writing become more real.  Ignoring them makes your writing seem like a cartoon.

Final Thoughts

Having gone through the Top 5, I want to make it clear that what I’m advocating isn’t strict adherence to the principles of the possible.  Writing fiction is all about achieving the balance between fiction and fact; you have to lure the audience into a false sense of security by showing them what they know is true.  People don’t seem to ignore this tenet as much when discussing other things: sailing, horseback riding, geography.  Why forget it with the military?  Establish a little bit of credibility by avoiding some of the mistakes I’ve talked about here, and you can dance all over the place.

And then you can blow some stuff up.

Do you feel that it’s necessary to be “accurate” in fantasy or science fiction?  If so, to what level?

About the Author:

Joseph Zieja is a veteran of the US Armed Forces and a budding author of speculative fiction with over a dozen works published in magazines across the web and in print, including two pieces in Daily Science Fiction.  He was asked to speak on creating realistic military fiction at WORLDCON 2012 alongside Jack Campbell and Myke Cole. 

You can learn more about Joseph at josephzieja.com

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