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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Armies in Worldbuilding with author Myke Cole - a Google+ hangout report

I would like to start by thanking Myke Cole for coming to the hangout and being such a fountain of good information! Thanks also to our other guests, Brian Dolton, Erin Peterson, Jaleh Dragich, Alex Von der Linden, Glenda Pfeiffer, and Janet Harriett. You can go here to see the video, or just read the report!

To open the hangout, I asked Myke to tell us briefly about his military experience. He explained that he had gotten into warfighting support after 9/11 as a PMC, or private military contractor. These people develop skills and experience at special boot camps and are paid by companies rather than the government, but Myke told us he felt bad doing the same work for ten times the pay, so he decided to go into the armed forces. He had his eye on the Navy and ended up getting into the Coast Guard, which is the smallest division of the armed services and most difficult to get into. After the Iraq war, he found the diversity of the Coast Guard's mission appealing.

When asked how his fantasy and military experience were linked, he explained that as a child he was "small," "skinny," and "maladjusted" and was concerned about his own inability to protect himself from bullying. Fantasy, and specifically Dungeons and Dragons, gave him the ability to imagine himself as a fighter and start working to become one. He feels the connection between the two is strong, and he remains dedicated to science fiction and fantasy.

I asked Myke what he thought about how different authors portray the military in science fiction and fantasy books. He feels that there's a "Baen school" of military fantasy dominated by John Ringo's kind of vision, but that there are other authors out there including John Hemry who treat things differently. Myke said that there's a tendency for people who aren't in uniform to "fetishize" soldiers as being powerful and mission-driven, as though they never had off days, or days when they were scared, or had trouble making decisions. Thus, in writing Control Point, he deliberately used a protagonist who faced impossible choices and often made bad decisions. Apparently he has received some backlash from this, but he wants to show the military as he sees it.

The institutional level of army organization is often nodded at but seldom explored. Everyone knows that the army involves bureaucracy, policy, acronyms, and paperwork, but they don't often mention how bureaucracy can hurt or kill people. Myke recognizes that when you're dealing with millions of people, all involved with the power of deadly force, the organization of those people is critical, and strong policy is a necessity. However, rigid policies can leave people in the cracks. His forthcoming third book gets more political, examining the repercussions of strict magic-based policies through a character who deals directly with magic policy in his fictional world.

Because we had discussed the importance of Logistics in our last discussion of fighting and battles, I asked Myke about it. He said that it's not only critically important for portraying an army scenario, but it's actually a key piece of his second book, Fortress Frontier. He has a character who is a "J1" at the dividion level, who works with paperwork, manpower and personnel.

I then asked Myke to comment on the idea of "military culture." He stopped in here for a blog post on the subject (here) when Control Point was first coming out, and had some interesting things to say about how the army brings together people from all different cultures. In our hangout discussion, he commented on how less than 1% of people in the armed forces are serving in uniform these days, whereas years ago, members of the armed forces used to wear their uniforms all the time, on any occasion when they might ordinarily wear a suit. Myke feels that this leads to a loss of connection between the armed forces and the general population, and that this is an unhealthy schism that can lead to serious problems. When you don't know something, ignorance breeds myths and misunderstanding. Myke believes strongly in the integration of the public and the armed forces, and a group of warfighters drawn from the general citizenry of the country.

At that point we turned to the question of language in the military. The armed forces of the United States have a very particular type of language that they use in order to operate, and being able to use it properly marks you as an insider. Myke compared it to the use of the word "sending" among rock climbers to describe reaching the top of a climb (apparently this was derived from the word "ascending"). We recognize military phrases like "Roger that," or "inbound," and the use of the different words like "Mike" "Yankee" or "Silo" to indicate single letters in spelling. Many of these phrases began to be used because it was so important to retain language clarity over the radio. Clarity is pretty important when mistakes can lead to such serious disasters! Of course, over time, many of these phrases have filtered into the vernacular, and movies have played a key role in making that happen. Some might be upset by the way that Hollywood writers portray the military, but movies do give the public access to military language, which helps military and non-military folk to understand each other in certain contexts.

During our earlier discussion of policy questions, the question of whether men could wear makeup came up by chance, and Myke said that he didn't know of any policy forbidding it.... so I promised that we'd return to the issue because of one of the interesting features of military culture it raised. Apparently there is an expression, "Anything not expressly forbidden is authorized." In an arena where there are so many rules for everything, people can become highly aware of loopholes. Myke told us that when he was trying to get back from his last tour of duty, the air boss had a way that he wanted Myke to fly out, but there was another flight going out that left earlier. Myke checked the rules and nothing said he couldn't be on the earlier flight, so he took it. People were surprised to see him arriving earlier by the different flight, but he explained his reasoning and it worked out. Obviously, the exploitation of loopholes often leads to the creation of more rules. People often ask "Where's the reg (regulation)?"

Myke urges authors to take on military topics. "Don't think that only people in the military can talk about the military." He thinks that empathetic people can understand another's experience and render it in writing. As an example of how this can be done well, he cited George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, in which every chapter has a different point of view - and these are people totally unlike the author himself - yet he manages to be totally convincing. He also mentioned John Kegan, one of the most respected military historians int he UK, who was never able to serve but wrote brilliantly about goings-on in the military.

Doing an army or military scenario well requires lots of research - even for Myke himself! In one of his books, much of the action takes place in a special ship called a buoy tender. A ship like that has its own culture, so he had to research buoy tenders because he's never worked on one.

Myke says, "A lot of writing is having the guts to give it a shot."

He told us an interesting story about his second tour as a private military contractor, when he was able to grow his hair and beard but was supplied with great gear (including weaponry etc.). He met some other soldiers who became convinced he was a member of the Delta group (something like the Navy seals), and though he protested, he was unable to convince them that he was not a Delta - because denying it was the kind of behavior they expected from a Delta.

Similarly, he finds it impossible to defeat the expectation that he's a kind of "superninja." He speaks quite eloquently and passionately about the use of force (please do see his longer article on the subject here). Essentially, he says that the government has paid a lot of money to train and arm him, and if he turns that against someone, it amounts to treason. If he's in danger of being killed, he would of course defend himself, but if it's just a matter of getting a black eye, he'll just endure it without fighting back.

Myke greatly admires the professionalism of the modern military. He cites Aristotle saying that law is "reason without passion" and sees the armed forces as trying to achieve something similar.

It's useful, when writing about a military, to ask the question, "What is a military?" Very often we think of the modern, ordered, Western-style military, but a military force can vary widely not just over time but across the world and across different cultures. War bands in Mogadishu, he says, are still a kind of military. When I noted that in fantasy we see a lot of medieval armies, but many fewer more modern armies, he said he doesn't know anyone else doing what he's doing, but that he can't imagine that nobody would do it but him. We don't see a lot of Renaissance military technology either, or early gunpowder scenarios. He cited Naomi Novik's Temeraire as a notable exception. She takes the Napoleonic period and gives it a special force of aviators mounted on sentient dragons.

Myke himself was inspired by the same question as Novik, "How does the reemergence of magic change the military?" In Novik's work, the dragons actually change world culture because in the era of Queen Victoria, longwing dragons only accept female riders, which changes the social order dramatically. He also mentioned Chris Evans' Iron Elves series, and Brian McClelland's Powder Mage series.

At that point we discussed the class distinction in military forces between officers and enlisted soldiers. This distinction has been around for hundreds (if not thousands) of years. Myke described it as being a division based on socioeconomic status, because people who could afford to pay for college would end up on the officer's side of the divide. Officers can be portrayed in movies as cruel and demanding, but the US army as a concept of "servant leadership" where the officer's job is to take care of the soldiers under their command. Apparently if you throw your weight around you will tend to get "fed to the hog." Not such a good thing. The class distinction is starting to fade as more people receive college degrees, and as more disparate people encounter financial difficulty.

Apparently, some military forces don't maintain this divide, and people can get promoted from enlisted positions to officer positions. By contrast, there are also military groups where the divide is enormous. Myke encountered Iraqi officers who would stand their teams up as windbreaks for them, and he said Saudi officers are royalty. One Saudi officer was shocked when an enlisted American wouldn't carry his rucksack for him.

Our guest Alex described how his commanding officer's job was to make the job of all the enlisted guys easier. In one case, Alex and another soldier were interested in being sent to the airborne units (which is hard when you start out on a submarine) and the officer helped arrange for the other soldier to work hard enough and be transferred.

Myke said that the personal concerns of the enlisted soldiers are included in the job of the commanding officer. This can mean getting people help in various ways. Sometimes the commanding officer is expected to intervene like a parent. This includes chasing down guys to get them to medical appointments! Myke says that being an officer is nice, but also lonely because you are always supporting and not usually being supported yourself. There are, of course, rules about privacy. Balancing protection and intervention can be tough, and as an officer you have to make sure you're following the policy manual, especially in cases of alcohol situations. If you go against policy, you can put your superiors at risk. Myke says the public puts trust in him, so when the policy says to do something, he does it unless he's convinced that irreparable harm will result. If he decides not to go with the policy he is careful not to do it secretly, but to share his reasoning with people around him.

Our last major topic was Secrecy. Myke explained that secrecy is bad when it comes to decision-making processes or disciplinary issues. It's good, however, when it means protecting people's privacy, such as giving light duty to a member of your unit who becomes pregnant, but not revealing that to others. Of course, there are also cases when it's vitally important to maintain secrecy, such as when you're dealing with operation security, troop movements, etc. In those cases, not maintaining secrecy can cost lives. There are also stranger borderline cases. Myke mentioned that if he sends an email on a classified system to arrange lunch with a friend, then strictly speaking, anyone who reveals that information could be punished with 10 years in prison. So clearly the "state secret" category can be overused. It's important to have an ongoing conversation about issues like what kinds of secrets are appropriate, and the Wikileaks revelations were interesting in that regard.

Wow, what a great talk it was! Extra thanks to everyone who attended, and especially to Myke Cole for sharing so much of his expertise.

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