Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Guest Post: Writing Military

By Janine Spendlove

Rob is an old friend of mine, and we’ve both kind of gotten into the whole “writing thing” on our own, around roughly the same time. It’s been really neat to go on this parallel journey with him. One of delights has been a recent project he’s working on where he’s been tapping my knowledge base for one of his characters/story scenarios.

You see, in addition to being a writer, I am first, and foremost a United States Marine. My Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) is that of a KC-130J Aircraft Commander.

Given my background and the back forth Rob and I have been having about his story (basically, me correcting all the things he’s getting “wrong” about Marine aviation – things that only someone in the community, like me, would know), he asked if I would do a guest blog post about the top 5 things people get wrong about the military.

I sat down with my husband (also a US Marine) to brainstorm and we came up with the following “top 5” (trust me, there are a whole lot more than this). Please bear in mind, given that we are both Marines, our knowledge base tends to be deeply steep in that, so what we have to say does not necessarily count for the other branches of service. So what does that mean? If you plan to write about the military, you’d better do some research.

1-Ranks, forms of address

You see this a lot with costumers – everyone is a colonel or a general – you often see this in stories too. This simply not the case. The most common rank (in the USMC) is a private first class (PFC) to a corporal (Cpl) – basically an E-2 through an E-4. The most common aggregate age is 20 years old. Meaning the Marine Corps is young, and you’re not going to have a squad full of sergeants. You’ll have one sergeant and they’ll be the highest rank. Or maybe a very senior corporal depending on the unit’s situation.

My point is, you’re not going to have a sergeant major or a colonel leading a patrol through the jungle looking for insurgents.

Also, make sure to research every branch of service, what their rank structure is and how they abbreviate things. A captain in the Marine Corps and army are equals (O-3s), but a captain in the navy is a Marine/army colonel equivalent (O-6). Abbreviations are service specific too for example, Captain: Capt = USMC, Cpt = army, CAPT = navy.

Enlisted call officers “sir” or “ma’am” (gender dependant), and junior officers call senior officers “sir” or “ma’am.” Multiple officers are referred to as “ladies” or “gentlemen” not “sirs” or “ma’ams.” Generally speaking, senior officers/enlisted refer to junior officers/enlisted by their rank. Of course this is culturally dependant (ie, in the air force first names are used a lot, and in aviation callsigns are used a lot).

Flag officers (generals and admirals) are addressed by their rank the first time, and then by “sir” or “ma’am” later in the conversation. (ie, if a major came a cross a brigadier general, the major would say “Good morning, general.” The general would respond, “Good morning, major. How are you?” The major would respond, “Very good, ma’am. Thank you for asking.”

2- -Weapons/Mech

The biggest problem here stems from cinema and television, I think. Thanks to Rambo, people seem to thinks it’s perfectly normal to shoot a .50 cal from the hip. At 83 lbs (or 127 lbs with the tripod) I can barely lift the Ma Deuce much less fire thing from my hip, while I’m running down a “bad guy.”

So essentially many writers don’t understand the capabilities, limitations (ie, cycle rate), or how a weapon or mech is employed. Even made up “sci-fi” stuff has to have some basis in reality. You must understand how your weapon works whether it’s real or a figment of your imagination.

Another slip up commonly seen is that writers don’t understand what the military member’s duty weapon is, and when they would have it.  Case in point, enlisted Marines’ standard weapon is the M-16 rifle, whereas an officer’s is the M9 Beretta pistol. But this of course can also change depending on the situation. Enlisted aircrew do not fly with rifles, but are instead issued M9s, whereas a grunt platoon commander would get an M4 instead of an M9.

3- -Load carrying capacity/logistics

As Napoleon once said, an army marches on its stomach. Too often we see guns with never ending clips (I want a weapon that never runs out of ammo!), food and other necessities are all magically where they need or food/rest are never addressed at all.

The fact is a patrol can go out with just what it carries, but keep in mind that it will be severely limited by that. Want them to go out for a lot of time with no support? They’ll have to carry heavy packs with everything they need, will be noisy, and not be able to travel as far. Conversely, they can travel very light and go far, but how will they eat? Where will they sleep?  These are things the commander (and you, as the writer) must consider and address.

Wars have often been won by cutting off supply lines (ie, the Inchon landing in the Korean war, the north taking out the forts on the Mississippi and destroying southern railroads in the American civil war, and the British starving the French on the Iberian peninsula during the Napoleonic wars). 

I know it’s not sexy, but war boils down logistic, plain and simple.

4- -Tactics

If I were to discuss tactics, even just small unit tactics, here, this blog post would be far to long and wouldn’t have even scratched the surface. But the fact is if you’re going to write about war, you’d better have some understanding of tactics, realistic tactics. Now tactics evolve based on the conflict, location, and relative strength of the participants.

If you want to study some basics on tactics I suggest reading the Marine Corps Small Wars Manual – it’s short, free copies are online (google it), and it will help point you in the right direction.

But again, it all depends on the situation. Are you writing about a bunch orcs marching on line to attack a field full of elves? Perhaps a study of ancient warfare would better suit you (or Clausewitz). Conversely, if you’re writing about space Marines taking on an alien horde using guerilla tactics, bust out that small wars manual.

5- -Service culture

Not only does every branch of service have a very specific culture, but so do sub-sects in every branch. Meaning, it’s obvious that the Marine Corps and air force are very different, but then so are grunts and aviators within the Marine Corps. Then, within Marine aviation you have further subcultures – helo pilots and fixed wing pilots behave very differently from each other, and to further break it down the C-130 community is very different from the jet jocks. And so on and so on.

Yes, we all have common factors, and ultimately we are all Marines, but behavior that would be common in the aviation community (ie, lieutenants and captains in a Herc squadron all, for the most part, see each other as fellow company grade officers and all call each other by their callsign) would be absolutely taboo in another (a lieutenant in a grunt unit would never think of calling a captain anything BUT sir or ma’am and if they did, they would be very swiftly corrected).

Hopefully the biggest thing you’ve garnered in this blog post is that you need to do RESEARCH. Writing about an army tank driver? Find someone in the army who does that job and ask them to read your manuscript. Trust me, they’ll be more than happy to “fix you.” We’re a prideful bunch, members of the military, and we like to be portrayed accurately in books and film. We’re here to help!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Janine K. Spendlove is a KC-130 pilot in the United States Marine Corps. Her bestselling first novel, War of the Seasons, Book One: The Human, was published in June 2011 and her next novel, War of the Seasons, Book Two: The Half-blood, was released in June 2012. She’s also had several short stories published in various anthologies. A graduate from Brigham Young University in 1999 with a BA in History Teaching, she is an avid runner, enjoys knitting, playing Beatles tunes on her guitar, and spending time with her family. She resides with her husband and daughter in Washington, DC. She is currently at work on her next novel. Find out more at WarOfTheSeasons.com


  1. Oh man, this post brings back so many bad memories. At thirteen, I tried writing a science fiction novel with a lot of emphasis on the military. Needless to say, I got almost EVERYTHING wrong.

    Don't trust Rambo, kids. (or...the sequels to First Blood at least o_e)

  2. Working with modern groups that people know is wicked complicated. I think, as I've been alluding to recently, that a lot of new writers turn to genre fiction as a way to get out of having to research their topics. Why risk getting the real Marines wrong when you can turn around and invent your own space Marines and just make it all up? Which raises its own challenges....