MILITARY IN FICTION #5 – The Human Element

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MIF #5 – The Human Element

I’ll preface this with a bit of background about myself.  I have never been in face-to-face combat. It is the nature of my particular specialty that I am not required to do such a thing.  I have, however, had my hand in combat operations in a very real and tangible way. This may be difficult to understand, but you’re going to have to take my words at face value.

The single most difficult component of the military to dissect is the mind of the humans that make up its forces.  It took us thousands of years before we really even started to consider what makes us tick under normal circumstances – never mind the unbelievable stressors that combat brings with it.  Honestly, I’m not confident I can do a good job with it here.  I can only hope to give you some insight into the mind of a military member and through that insight help you create a more realistic environment through more realistic characters.  Beyond that I make no claims.

When soliciting my online writers’ group for topics for this series, the subject of humanity came up the most often.  What surprised me was the way some of the questions were phrased.  One member asked how it was possible to turn an average human being into a “ruthless killing machine” or to “take a life on command.”  In all my years of being involved in three different armed conflicts, I have never known anyone to be or do either of these things.  The nature of these questions, as well as bad examples in mainstream media, told me that I needed to address this.

I’ll jump straight into the three points, since I’ll likely have a lot to say about each of them.

1.) Soldiers are people.  At the root of it all, everyone in the military is still a human being.  They have to eat, they have to breathe, and they have to deal with the repercussions of their actions.  Most of them have families in some capacity or another: a worrying mother, a wife to support, kids that are missing them when they’re off fighting.  Other things are inside their head before, during, and after combat that alter their perception, influence their aptitude, and affect their motivations for doing what they do.  Despite how it may look as though the uniforms and the training make us identical, if you ignore the individuality of the soldiers in your stories you are ignoring what makes them an interesting character.

The first question is, then, why are they in the military?  Some join because they have to (conscription).  Some join because they want to be part of something bigger, or to travel, or to do something interesting and different.  Some join because they can’t find a job anywhere else, and they need to support their family.  Some join because they truly believe in the cause for which they’ve been called; recruitment in the armed forces swelled after the events of 9/11.

All of them join knowing they may have to fight, but all of them join for different reasons.  Those reasons change over time and are likely not the reasons they stay.  Your characters will have some form of one (or a combination of many) of the above reasons.  You’ll have to work that out for yourself, but make sure you DO work it out.  A character without motivations isn’t acceptable for any other occupation, so why should the soldier be any different?

While they’re in the military, they retain their personalities.  Regardless of how boot camp may suppress or alter some parts of a person’s character, they are still going to be the same person.  They will change – never, ever neglect the power of combat and the military to change a character – but the way in which they change and the resulting personality will depend on who they were before entering the military.  If you create a bunch of cookie-cutter soldiers, all of whom spit and curse and laugh as they disembowel the enemy, you’re probably doing it wrong.   The military has as diverse a population as any other profession, even though they might share a lot of common traits. It’s a job!  Look at a group of lawyers or doctors.  They share a common influence on their personalities, but every one of them is different.

When crafting military men and women into your stories, make sure you understand that real life is going on, as well, and that each soldier has his own life as the background to his profession of arms.

2.) There is almost always a conflict between duty and conscience. I’ve never met a “ruthless killing machine”, and I haven’t met anyone who would, without hesitation, kill someone simply at the command of their superior.  Regardless of their training, regardless of how many times the act is repeated, the act of killing will always have an effect on the soldier.  It is a very small (and very pathetic) group of people that have acquired a taste for killing, and you would be hard pressed to find a soldier that would fire on a child because his captain told him to.*

Yet warfare and the condition of the soldier is a topic rife with contradiction.  Soldiers manage to somehow view their own acts as moral while viewing those of the enemy as deplorable, even when the end result is the same.  How does this happen?  The conflict between duty and conscience is a strong one, one that is not easily (yet often) overcome.

Part of it is dehumanization of the enemy.  It is a natural and historically ubiquitous phenomenon that warring parties view the opposition as less human than themselves.  I alluded to this above, a bit.  Take a look at some propaganda posters.

Can you imagine how much easier it is to fight an enemy when you think of him in this way?  Imagine, instead, if the poster was of a Japanese farmer holding a child in each hand, with his wife standing behind him, yet held the same title:  “This is the enemy”.  That would be a bit harder to swallow.  Dehumanization is one way to close the gap between duty and conscience.

You see examples of this in fiction all the time. In alien based fiction, this process is easy and instantaneous, since humans cannot relate to a species that is not even human.  But it always makes for some interesting character development when they DO start to relate to one another.  Look what happens to Ender in Ender’s Game.

In what I like to call Black and White Fantasy, where evil is evil and good is good, the authors very often create new races of dark creatures on which the warriors apply their battle training – orcs in Lord of the Rings, Trollocs in the Wheel of Time, koloss in Mistborn.  These creatures provide an opportunity for glory without guilt – nobody is concerned with the family of a troll.  If you, as a writer, don’t necessarily want to deal with the dehumanization of actual humans, I would suggest this route.

The second, and probably the most powerful way to overcome this gap, is the survival instinct.  A pacifist may find him or herself very quickly throwing grenades when confronted by batteries of enemy machine guns turning everyone around them into jelly.  Kill or be killed is undoubtedly a cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason: it’s true.

This ties into what I’ll call a subset of the survival instinct, and that is the desire to protect those around you.  Ask any soldier who has been in combat why they kept on fighting, and invariably many of them will say “because of the person next to me”.  Camaraderie is a powerfully motivating factor in combat.  When those around you are in danger, there is a natural instinct to protect them that overrides the survival instinct and, therefore, the duty/conscience gap.

While I’ve never been shot at, I’ve lost friends in this war.  Did I go to work next day with a fire in me?  You bet your ass I did.

An incident was televised a few years ago where someone took a video of an American soldier clearing a building.  He approached a man lying on the ground, apparently dead, and started shouting at him.  He kept saying “He’s pretending.  He’s pretending he’s dead.”  He then proceeded to shoot the man (who was in fact pretending).  This was a clear violation of the law of armed conflict and a huge leap over the duty/conscience gap.  But why did he do it?

Because, the day before, someone faked death while that soldier was on patrol with his friend. When they were close enough, the enemy soldier threw a grenade, killing the American’s friend.  The duty/conscience gap vanished for him, just like it does for many soldiers.  Every time that sniper pulls the trigger, he might be thinking of one less airplane flying into the World Trade Center.  Just like I said in the first point, everyone has their own motivations for doing what they do.  Including the other side.  Insurgents in the Middle East have their reasons for doing what they do, whether they are religious, personal, or political.   As you add depth to your protagonist soldiers, so you must add depth to your protagonists’ enemies as well.  Everyone is the hero of their own story.

I understand we’re basically talking about revenge here. I’m not trying to argue that vengeance justifies killing.  Violence that begets more violence doesn’t solve anything at all.  I’m just saying that it’s one of the ways a “normal human” can overcome the revulsion we feel when we think of killing another human being.

3.)  If you want an army of robots, you’re going to have to build one.  This point is short and sweet, but it relates directly to the previous two.  There are numerous psychological experiments in the ability and willingness of people to obey the commands of other people.  If you’re unfamiliar with the Milgram experiment, I suggest you look it up and give it a read.  The bottom line is this:  65 percent of people will kill you if ordered to.

Alright, I’m being a little facetious, here.  There are numerous things wrong with the way that particular experiment was conducted, and the results don’t necessarily apply to the military.  What I’m trying to say is that yes, people often succumb to peer pressure or the demands of their superiors, but not always.  Everyone has a limit.  Those limits differ; the Mongols under Ghengis Khan had slightly different moral compasses than a samurai, for example.  They are defined by your culture, by your personal upbringing, by the worldview of your society and the societies surrounding it.

You can, of course, cite a dozen examples of entire populations that performed terrible acts under the guise of following orders, such as the Nazis.  I’m not equipped (nor do I want to spend the time) to talk about the power of mass movements or how a crowd can become a mob.  Do some research on it if you really want to know how a group of normally civil people can turn into a group that murders six million Jews.  What I can tell you is that I guarantee they weren’t all 100% committed to the cause.  Just like they all had different motivations for joining the military, they all had different motivations for following orders.

My point is that it doesn’t always happen with everyone.  I’ve seen plenty of troops suggest anatomical impossibilities to leaders when ordered to do something stupid or unjust.  Soldiers aren’t lemmings, and you shouldn’t treat them like it in your writing.  If you’re going to plot something as dramatic and insane as the Holocaust, you had better spend the time researching and setting it up.

Case Study:  A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

A lot of people say that A Game of Thrones is dark because of the way George R. R. Martin (GRRM – stick with the military vibe, here) kills off characters.  I realized when I got to the end of it (I won’t spoil it for you) that, in truth, not many people died.  It was a little violent, but not over the top. Yet I still felt that the novel was “dark.”  Why?

Because war sucks, that’s why.  In A Game of Thrones, you get a very good look at the people involved in the conflict and what they’re thinking, and you get to run the gamut of outlooks.  King Robert is a bit more of a warmonger, but still understands the price of spilling blood.  Ned is a sort of pacifist that begrudgingly employs combat forces because he understands the effect on the human element.  Yet everyone, in their own way, takes steps to dehumanize the other side of the conflict.  Robert often refers to his enemies in vulgar, disparaging ways in front of his soldiers.  Anyone who hears that sort of talk often enough will eventually start to agree with it.

There’s no Black and White Fantasy in this book, either.  You get an excellent view of both sides of the conflict because GRRM writes POV chapters from both the Lannister and Stark sides of the conflict.  It comes together beautifully in Tyrion the halfman, who is a brilliant character study in and of himself.  Tyrion is a bit of a coward at heart with some serious complexes to deal with mentally, and the few times he’s involved in battle you get to see a perspective that’s not often written.

Even the characters with smaller roles have their perceptions of war colored by their upbringing and environment.  The best example is the duel between Ser Vardis Egen the knight and Bronn the brigand.  Duty and conscience don’t have much of a conflict for Bronn; he jumps in grinning, knowing that he’s going to be making some money at the end of this fight.  The knight, on the other hand, enters battle almost reluctantly, not wanting to kill for sport but understanding that he must do so in order to protect his mistress.  Notice, if you’ve read the book, how ritualized Vardis’ preparations are for battle, and how casual Bronn’s are.  We’ll talk about that in a later article.

I hope through this I’ve given you my two cents in a billion dollar issue.  There’s nothing easy about applying the human element to your fiction, regardless of the setting.  Humans are complex, multi-dimensional creatures when we’re deciding what we want to eat at a restaurant or what kind of car we want to buy.  That complexity, colored by the core of each individual, can do some interesting things to people when they’re in combat.  If you’re writing about a military organization, don’t neglect the power of the individual to influence the story.

Thanks for reading,


*This is not to say that it doesn’t happen.  If you want an example of how combat stressors and the commands of poor officers can cause immoral actions, research the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.


Leave a Comment

  1. It’s also worth noting the culture of a military at war is different from one at peace and when transferring from one state to the other there will be an element of culture shock.

  2. Nice article. The things you are saying really make sense and address many of the things I’ve wondered about and thought about as a reader and writer of speculative fiction.

  3. During my first fire fight, I was enraged and screamed obscenities and cursed the terrorists entire lineage. After that fire fight, when back on base, I cried in the porta-john like a baby. Point is, don’t ignore what happens when the gunfire/sword swinging ends. When that adrenaline, fight-flight-freeze response is over and you feel like you’ve aged a hundred years, that moment has plot value as well.

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