Anyone who has served or is currently serving in the military will tell you that the media in all of its forms often gets military life embarrassingly wrong. As someone who has served in the United States Army for almost ten years, I am often the one scoffing or rolling my eyes at the character saluting from the position of parade rest instead of the position of attention. This statement in and of itself likely went over many people’s heads, and that’s alright. It’s easy for me to forget how foreign the military culture was before I was initiated into it, and therefore how easy it is for anyone on the outside to simply overlook these details. After all, some of my closest loved ones still have very little understanding of what I do from day to day; despite the fact that I talk to them about it regularly, it’s practically a different language to them.
From the nitpicky discrepancies with wear and appearance of the uniform, to glaring mistakes in customs and courtesies, to unrealistic tactical decisions, to tired character clichés, many of the errors in military portrayal could be mitigated with research and communication. Below are some tips in crafting characters and events that are realistic to military experience, along with a few examples of fiction that get the military surprisingly right. These tips apply to both contemporary Soldiers and military portrayals, as well as portrayals from different eras and settings, to include futuristic portrayals.
1. Rank structure and unit dynamics: As I said before, my family doesn’t always have a firm grasp of the way the military works. When I was being promoted to Staff Sergeant, my mom once endearingly asked if the next rank for me would be Colonel. Even when I patiently explained the way rank structures work, she admitted that it still didn’t make any sense to her. For writing purposes, it’s very helpful to understand rank structure and unit dynamics.
In all United States branches of the military, there are three rank structures: enlisted, officer and warrant officer. Warrant officers are usually the subject matter experts in their field. They can be pilots, mechanics, welders and any number of specialties in between. The inside joke in the Army is that warrant officers are beholden to no one; they’re pretty much their own bosses and their own species. Enlisted service members range from junior enlisted to non-commissioned officers. Junior enlisted will be service members who either are the newest to the military, or who don’t meet the criteria to be promoted to non-commissioned officers. Non-commissioned officers are “where the rubber meets the road”: they take the orders of officers and the intent of their commanders, formulate a plan for completion and utilize their junior enlisted to execute, offering leadership and training all the while. Officers are the official leaders of any organization; they assume responsibility and accountability for everything that goes right or wrong within their unit.
The dynamics between these rank structures are practically universal in the military. If you really want to understand the inside jokes about privates marrying strippers, “butter-bar Lieutenants” and “salty Command Sergeants Major,” look no further than military blogs like Task and Purpose, Duffel Blog and U.S. Army WTF Moments. The memes and comments therein can perhaps shed more light than I could with a one-hour Powerpoint presentation.
This also applies to unit dynamics. When creating a narrative that includes a military unit, you will need to determine what kind of unit: a medical platoon in an armor battalion will have drastically different dynamics and personnel make-up than a medical company in a support battalion. Again, this may all sound like a foreign language, but Google and Wikipedia are your friends when it comes to quickly learning the basics of how a unit is formulated, who its superior and subordinate units are, and what its mission would be.
2. Military occupational specialty: Another important distinction to consider is the job your character, characters or unit performs. There is a tremendous array, any of whom could see combat depending on the situation. From cooks to military intelligence, medics to infantry, cavalry to field artillery, veterinarians to military police, everyone has a specific and unique military occupational specialty, but everyone also has the overarching expectation to understand basic, common warrior tasks and drills.
For example, my military occupational specialty (MOS) is 68W40. This is the code that designates me as a Combat Medic (68W) and as a Sergeant First Class (a “40 level” enlisted Soldier). I have training requirements to fulfill as a combat medic such as maintaining CPR and EMT certifications, and I also have basic Soldiering requirements that I have to fulfill such as qualifying on my assigned weapon annually. Depending on what kind of unit I’m in and what kind of position I am assigned to, I may have various other responsibilities and expectations to fulfill. If I’m a medical platoon sergeant in an infantry battalion, I’ll be expected to understand the battalion’s tactical movements and locations on the battle field, to allocate medics to each company, to maintain a fleet of ambulances and train my Soldiers on their medical skillsets, along with dozens of other spinning plates. If I’m in charge of a medical department in a base hospital, my mission will be drastically different.
Considering your character’s or characters’ field of specialty is crucial in understanding their unique military culture and their mission. Medics, for example, are known for having the darkest senses of humor imaginable. Keep in mind also that the examples listed are specific to the Army. The Marines, Navy and Air Force have different occupational specialty codes, designations and rank structures than the Army, which brings me to my next point.
3. Unique aspects of each branch: Every branch of the military also has their own specific and tailored mission, their own culture, their own uniforms, differing standards, their own rank structures, jobs and unit specifications. For example, there are no medics in the Marine Corps; instead, the Marine Corps attaches Navy Corpsmen to units. This may seem like a small distinction, but when it comes to creating a sense of authenticity to your world and your characters, those kinds of details can be crucial. Again, much of this information can be picked up be falling down the Wikipedia rabbit-hole. If you already know what branch, unit and occupational specialty you want for your character, you can also take a trip to the library and research, or reach out on one of those aforementioned military blogs to see if anyone would be willing to answer your questions (don’t be offended if initial responses are sarcastic or snarky, our senses of humor can appear pretty harsh from the outside).
4. Individualism vs. unity: One of the things that will drive me the most crazy about fiction featuring the military are the often clichéd portrayals of characters. Often you can find that these clichés result in using war movies as research, instead of committing genuine research. The nicknames always seem forced (and far too common; most nicknames in the military are shortened versions of a person’s last name, not some meaningful character-summarizing trait), the back stories are pulled from a hat of common back stories, and each character fulfills a preordained role: the joker, the book-smart guy, the gritty leader, the wide-eyed rookie, the man of faith, the thief, etc. In limiting characters to these roles, they never feel human, and therefore the reader doesn’t really care what happens to them, which renders every combat scene devoid of tension. Creating full backstories for your characters—to include what their lives were like before the military—helps to flesh them out, give them personalities beyond stereotypes, and make them relatable to your readers.
It’s also important to note perhaps one of the greatest attributes of military culture: diversity, and how that leads to unity. In my time in the military I have served beside Soldiers whose entire families still lived in Nigeria, Soldiers who joined the military unable to speak full sentences in English, and Soldiers born and raised in Hawaii whose parents were millionaires. I’ve known Soldiers who were single parents, widows and widowers, Soldiers who had been cheated on and stolen from, Soldiers in same-sex marriages and Soldiers who stayed single until they were 40. I’ve met people from every state, every possible socioeconomic or cultural background, every religion from Mormons to Buddhists to Sikhs. I’ve known Soldiers who immigrated from Scotland, Russia, England, Honduras, China, Romania and dozens of other countries. I’ve known Soldiers who planned to pursue a career in politics once they got out, Soldiers whose biological families died when they were young, Soldiers who had already been married and divorced three times by the time they were 30 years old and Soldiers who had juvenile records. I’ve known Soldiers who were nurses in South Korea before moving to the United States to pursue their Master’s degrees, Soldiers who already had their masters degrees in journalism but couldn’t find work in Chicago, Soldiers who had to drop out of high school to help their families make ends meet with full-time jobs.
The diversity within our ranks is our greatest strength; it’s what gives us unique perspectives, ideas and problem-solving methods, and it’s what allows us to recognize that our differences pale in comparison to the things we have in common. Our personal cultures often take a backseat to the shared experience of the military culture and the military life. Creating that sort of unity in your narrative can be one of the most realistic contributions you can make to your portrayal of the military: that even when the Soldiers fight, dislike each other or even flat out hate each other, they still typically feel a sense of duty and responsibility for one another’s safety and wellbeing.
5. Getting it right: There are a few examples when military portrayal rang particularly true, to me; ironically, I have found this more in the sci-fi genre than in war movies, though there are a few war movies where the research and advice taken was thorough. Saving Private Ryan, Platoon and Black Hawk Down were all fairly accurate portrayals for their particular military conflicts. Even Jarhead had some realism to it (particularly the long stretches of boredom and madness that come with a lack of action and activity during a deployment).
But for me, the most accurate representations I have seen are in the 2004 Battlestar Galactica television series and in James Cameron’s Aliens. Both of these futuristic takes on military life benefited from escaping the nitpicky details—they made up their own uniform standards, vehicles and weaponry, meaning I never got pulled out of the scene by an inaccuracy because everything was hypothetical to me anyhow. What these works of fiction did so well was in creating a unique and detailed dynamic between characters that perfectly mirrored military culture.
In Battlestar Galactica, the mechanics and crew chiefs were on a different social caste than the pilots, the chain of command was an established aspect of the narrative conflict, and characters’ racial and cultural backgrounds played a role in how they perceived problems.
In Aliens, a film which benefited tremendously from military advisor Al Mathews (who played Sergeant Apone in the film, and in real life was the first black Marine to be promoted to the rank of Sergeant in Vietnam), the raunchy humor, overblown machismo, one-upmanship, the posturing they might be guilty of while in the presence of outsiders, and the general ball-busting between the Marines felt very true-to-life for a very close-knit unit, as did their disdain and distrust of their brand-new (and incompetent) Lieutenant. I’ll also give an honorable mention to Starship Troopers, especially to the recruiting and training scenes (more so in the book than in the movie).
Again, the best thing you can do when creating characters who are in or used to be in the military, or when writing battle sequences, is to do thorough research. This goes beyond text books and encyclopedias. To get the full picture, the best way to understand military culture is by communicating with people who have served or are serving.