War and the Military in Fantasy

A very merry (un)birthday to me! Yesterday, that is.
I was in the Marine Corps for five years and Marines take their collective birthday (10 November) very seriously. If you’re in active service, there’s a slight spike in pride amidst the drudgery of everyday military life. If you’re no longer active, you feel warm fuzzy nostalgia.
I have this ridiculous memory of one time (in boot camp, naturally, where all the ridiculous things happen) we were told that if ANYONE asks us where we’re from or how old we are, we are to say that we are from Parris Island (boot camp location) and we were born on 10 November 1775. I played along, and had this weapons instructor laugh and get irritated because I kept saying I was from Parris Island over and over and over again, whereas he was genuinely curious as to where I was actually from.
Anyhow, because of the birthday, and now Veteran’s day, I thought it might be fun to talk about the military and warfare in fantasy in general, as well as in my books in particular.
Most authors focus on different aspects of military/warfare, and leave the rest to the imagination. I think this rather wise much of the time, because it can get tedious if you try to depict every last bit. Also, it depends very much on what kind of story you want to tell. Some people just don’t care about the nuances of battle or military life. To others, it’s vital.
One of the most popular things to depict is:
  1. Training
USMC training
It’s cool, it’s tough, it’s intense. You show your characters’ mettle. Most people skip the boring parts. There’s a reason the ‘training montage’ exists.
usmc training 2
Honestly half the reason I was interested in the military when I was a mere 14 years old was because I watched Sgt. Bilko and thought I would be doing nothing but obstacle courses all day long amid hilarious camaraderie.
mulan training
Plus your character comes out the other end all awesome and what-not.
But the real meat of most training is not particularly cool to depict, and despite my obvious susceptibility to images of people climbing ropes and jumping over logs, I’m not really into the training montage style (except Mulan’s. Hers is the best.)
Another popular style is:
2. The Grim and Grit
gritty
The thing here is to talk a lot about blood and mud and guts and viscera. This may or may not be accompanied by battle details or strategy…meaning it can be a mere whirl of carnage, or carnage in context. This can be a good way to depict war (and the horrors of war) provided it’s done in moderation and contrasted with other, more mundane, realities of war (like sitting around in the desert in winter and being cold…so, so cold).
Done to excess the reader begins to yawn at each successive severed limb, plus you can lose sight of the broad scale of things.
Another method, that is less popular these days, is:
3. The Grand Battle
Battle_of_Helms_Deep
This is the one where the author avoids too much detail, but shows the broad sweep of the battle. Usually there’s less tactical/strategic information and they may occasionally focus on an individual, and then go back to how the battle is going as a whole (“The heroes are hard pressed! The enemy is gaining ground!”)
This is a more classical fantasy style, where it’s more a matter of the atmosphere of the battle than the exact way the pieces are moving on the chessboard, so to speak.
Sometimes these ones are too vague for me, but they avoid being bogged down the way the following one can be…
4. The Strategist
strategy
This is the guy with the map out, plotting every piece of terrain, every physical movement (whether you’re doing one-on-one combat, or grand scale battles, or whatever), every broad strategy, and every minute tactical decision.
This can be truly awesome, or truly tedious. More on that in a second.
5. Day-to-day, AKA “Bored Marines”
bored Marines
Are they pretending to clear that barracks room with brooms? Why, yes. Yes they are.
One time, in Kuwait, a bunch of us stood around in a circle and kicked a big rock at each other. For about 15 or 30 minutes. It was idiotic. But we had nothing better to do, and there are far more ridiculous (and usually pretty crude) things that people come up with to do when they are living the military ‘hurry-up-and-wait’ life.
I actually really like a measured depiction of this in a book or film. It shows camaraderie, it shows the truth, and it creates a nice juxtaposition for the more intense, bloody, dangerous moments and it gives you a chance to see how people act under normal, mundane circumstances.
Now this is going to sound obvious, but my ideal depiction is a careful combination of each, although day-to-day+strategy is my favorite! Like I said at the beginning, this isn’t always going to work, and it can get tedious if it isn’t done thoughtfully and purposefully. But if you can, show the day-to-day, know the master strategy AND the lower-level tactics (just be moderate and savvy in how much you actually communicate on paper), give room for realistic training and learning, show the blood and grit in a meaningful way, and–sometimes–step back and show the whole thing at a wide angle so the reader can get a real sense of what’s going on.
I think it’s hard to get right, but I try. In the second and third books of my story, I have some pretty large scale battles. For most of them, the terrain is VERY important, almost a character unto itself. So I mapped out the details, thought about where each character was and what they were supposed to be doing, thought about the numbers on both sides, played devil’s advocate, and then my husband (former infantry) and I (former linguist) sat down together an war-gamed the whole thing. Not everything we planned is actually described in those scenes, but the scenes rest on the foundation of all that preparation and planning.
I know this doesn’t nearly cover everything (still haven’t talked about aftermath, PTSD, just cause or lack thereof, leadership, or a zillion other things), but that’s my two cents on some of the basics.
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