The following is a guest post written by David Bruns and JR Olson, co-authors of the new thriller, Rules of Engagement, available in bookstores on June 24th, 2019. For more information, visit their official website.
6 Things We Love to Hate About Military Fiction
By David Bruns and JR Olson
As long as there’s been a military, there have been artists creating stories about the military. It’s a natural fit. The military provides the perfect combination of conflict and character, adversary and attitude. Some novels, like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, seek to satirize war and the military, while others, such as Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War, highlight the very real dangers of war.
Whether the goal of a book or movie is to honor or skewer the armed forces, nothing bothers us more than when these creative endeavors don’t get the details about simple military customs, traditions, or technical issues right. All of which could be avoided by simply consulting a veteran.
Here are a few common mistakes we see in military stories:
The Wrong Uniform: Military people don’t wake up and decide which uniform to wear—they are told what to wear. Each branch of the military (Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, and Air Force) has distinct uniforms that change with the climate and the working conditions, as well as strict regulations about how and when they are worn.
For example, when David was stationed aboard a submarine, the underway uniform was a blue coverall with a belt to hold a radiation-monitoring device, but we never wore those uniforms in port, and at the time they were not worn on U.S. Navy surface ships. Today, the blue coverall is a standard working uniform when underway aboard surface ships, but so are khakis for officers and chiefs and dungarees with blue shirts emblazoned with rank and rate insignia for enlisted Sailors. On an aircraft carrier, the flight deck crew supplement their uniforms with different colored jerseys indicating what their duties are during flight operations. And naval aviators wear flight suits all the time aboard ship—because they are cool and can get away with things like that.
Use of First Names: Spielberg got this one right in Saving Private Ryan. In every exchange of dialogue Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) calls Sergeant Horvath (Tom Sizemore) by his rank: “Sergeant Horvath.” But be aware, each service has their own idiosyncrasies in how to address senior enlisted personnel. An E-7 in the U.S. Navy is called “Chief,” whereas an E-8 is always called “Senior Chief.” And no one in their right mind calls an E-9 anything other than “Master Chief.”
Use of first names among military personnel is generally a one-way street: downhill. When David served aboard a submarine, his CO might address him by “Dave” in a non-official setting, but his response was always “sir.” Always. Spielberg got this one right, too. When Miller and Horvath have a conversation on a first-name basis, it is done privately, out of earshot of the other men in the squad, as they discuss their mission to find Private Ryan. In our view, this was an accurate depiction of the bond between military professionals of officer and senior enlisted rank once they have known each other for a long time.
In our discussions with officers of equal, junior, or near-equal senior rank, we often used first names. But generally speaking, once an officer makes the rank of O-4, that individual is always addressed by junior officers using their rank and usually their last name as well. Like, “Commander Olson, good morning, sir.”
Salutes: There is no military honor more iconic than a salute and nothing more galling to a veteran than when you get it wrong. But the rules can seem puzzling to outsiders. Here are some guidelines to get you started:
Salutes are rendered to more senior officers of any service by junior officers and enlisted personnel. Enlisted men and women do not salute each other. There is nothing more idiotic than when a senior person salutes someone junior to her. You might feel it’s a touching gesture, but you’ve just lost your military readers.
Saluting customs vary by service. In the Navy, we don’t wear a “cover” or hat indoors, and we don’t salute uncovered. The Army and the Air Force can salute uncovered, but normally do not salute indoors unless reporting to a superior officer.
Now that we’ve covered when and whom to salute, let’s talk about form. It matters and there is no quicker way to lose us than to see an actor render a truly terrible salute. The forearm and hand should be absolutely straight and rigid, like the blade of a sword, and tilted slightly forward as the fingertips reach just shy of the top of the right eye. The elbow should be jutting out to the side, not down toward the ground, and the upper arm should be parallel to the ground. Watch this video on YouTube if you want to see it done well: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9m8iM3Blrnc.
Know Your Hardware: Military readers like us love our hardware—and get pretty annoyed by silly inaccuracies. Not sure if the Glock has an external safety? A simple Google search will tell you the answer is no.
It’s not just safeties, ammo sizes, or using the proper names for jet fighters. Readers expect the weapons to be used correctly as well. No one is going to fire an M72 LAWS rocket from inside a helo without the exhaust blast cooking all his squadmates sitting behind him (sorry, Rambo). Here’s a real-life example: https://www.marinecorpstimes.com/news/your-marine-corps/2019/01/16/m72-law-rocket-firing-incident-at-infantry-officer-course-sends-two-marines-to-the-hospital/?utm_source=clavis
Military Operations: Bunching troops together in a combat zone is a great way to make sure your characters can have witty banter, but the reality is that massed troops are easier to kill. Troops in the field, especially in a combat zone, will spread out—a lot!
Lone Survivor was a great example of proper movement in enemy terrain. Through the use of hand gestures, throat microphones, and military tactics, Director Peter Berg took great pains to ensure the technical accuracy in the operational behavior of his four protagonists.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: PTSD is a real issue for some veterans. These men and women deserve every bit of support they can get. On the plus side, one of the ways this condition has been raised in the public consciousness is through good storytelling.
But PTSD is also an overused trope in novels, TV shows, and movies, leading many civilians to think every veteran is a potential PTSD case ready to explode into violence at the drop of a hat. The facts are that most veterans never see combat, including David and JR. We did some stuff, some of which was pretty dangerous, but no one ever shot at us in anger.
The “tooth to tail” ratio for military personnel engaged in actual combat to those in support of the front line is about 1:12, meaning for every soldier directly fighting the enemy, there are about a dozen people behind the lines doing logistics, intelligence, medical support, etc.
Combat is not the only potential cause of PTSD. A corpsman in a medical hospital receiving combat wounded or a police officer in a major US city might experience more trauma than a soldier serving in a combat zone.
The main point here is that the story trope of a veteran with PTSD is both powerful and overused in today’s culture. The reality is that veterans are individuals who deal with life stressors the same way the rest of us do: based on our age and experience, our support network, and the help of professionals. Turning veterans into a cliché of mental illness is a disservice to your audience and to the men and women who have served.
Whether you are a creator or a consumer of military stories, the takeaway from all this is simple: ask the question. You’ll find the men and women of any service more than willing to share their experiences. But they won’t tell you anything classified—we all signed on to keep secrets, and we’re pretty good at it when we need to be.
J.R. Olson and David Bruns, aka The Two Navy Guys writing team, are both graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy and U.S. Navy veterans. Together, they pen national security thrillers about the men and women who keep our country safe from the risks of the 21st century. Their previous titles include Weapons of Mass Deception and Jihadi Apprentice. Their next novel, Rules of Engagement, about North Korean cyberwarfare, is being released through St Martin’s Press in June 2019. Find out more at www.davidbruns.com.