False Expectations – Matthew Alan Thyer
There’s a lot of SF/F with military elements. You’ve got the space battles of Starship Troopers and Ender’s Game and the Honor Harrington series, the magical wars of Lord of the Rings or Feist’s Riftwar saga, and so much more. But how much does the genre get right? What happens when our stories misrepresent the military experience?
Matthew Alan Thyer talks about the disconnect between the stories he grew up with and the reality of his life in the Army. It’s a somewhat different sort of post than we’ve had so far in this series, but it still comes down to the importance of representation, and the effects when that representation is missing or inaccurate.
It was 1995 and I had just moved from basic training to my first Army technical school. It took the Army several months of bootcamp to disabuse me of pretty much anything my recruiter had shown or said to me, but I clearly recall thinking this was going to be the turning point where they began to programmatically repair those notions and build me up as a person. The point at which I would begin a lifelong pursuit of honor. I’d cross this threshold and “be all I could be.”
Up until my personal introduction to the actual military, the only information I had to go on was the common narrative of military science fiction with a little fantasy thrown in from time to time. Everyone I knew in my parents’ generation had avoided service. My grandfathers were notoriously tightlipped about their time in. My touch point for military life was genre fiction; I loved it and routinely gobbled up that particular narrative of esprit de corps, valor, and duty.
We all know how this story goes. The protagonist signs his name, takes the oath, and learns to trade violence under the watchful yet concerned gaze of a grizzled yet wise mentor. Then, after many tearful good byes, our man goes off to fight the ravaging hordes of giant bugs or merciless otherworldly killers knocking down the gates of civilization. He is the tip of the spear, the edge of the blade, and he is almost always Caucasian, justified and victorious. And that’s what I, in my early adulthood, thought it might be like. I gave my oath believing I was going to fight the “bad guys” — vile torturers, greedy dictators, and ruthless, Cold War Communists — while protecting an idealized America. My recruiters played on my naiveté, showing me compelling, heroic videos of tanks speeding across the desert and guys seated in the military equivalent of gamer nirvana, manipulating drones miles beyond the horizon. I embraced that vision of vigilance and good intent sterilized of consequence. I embraced the only narrative I had to work with.
Little did I know, vets are far more likely to experience divorce, mental illness, domestic violence, addiction, and homelessness than our civilian counterparts. We contemplate and commit suicide much more often than those who did not serve. Let me tell you it can be a challenge to reconcile this statistical reality with the narrative I thought I would be living, and I’ve had to do so on a personal level.
Over the course of the next six years the reason I joined, and did my best, changed. My expectations evolved. Health insurance, a steady pay check, veteran’s preference points — my list got pretty long, but my motivations for doing that job never seemed any better than the people toeing the line on the other side of any conflict. This is not to say that there aren’t bad people out there. I know they’re around. I even served next to a few, and in my experience they tend to be people who feel that the propaganda they cling to is somehow better, more justified, than the pure ideology of the other side. My service taught me that the narrative thread which glorifies duty and service, so popular in the genre fiction I loved to read, is bunk. The people on either side of any conflict are just that. The “bad guys” in North Korea, they just want to eat and have enough left over to visit the dentist.
Knowing full well that it is simply page after page of rubbish, even I’d rather read that Chris Kyle was a super-human hero. The same goes for John Perry, Juan Rico, Captain America or Conan. The best of these stories have power. They can transport us to a place that is infinitely more exciting than the humdrum of our everyday. They may put us amongst comrades in arms whose uncommon loyalty feels somehow closer than that of our own family. Often, as we take on the mantle of the protagonist, we imagine we too will gain super-human ability and rare prodigy.
The problem is that this narrative lacks any bearing to the reality of a martial life, at least as I experienced it. Most kids can’t think that far ahead. I couldn’t. Their bullshit-penetrating radar hasn’t been energized yet. Whether they’re hunkered down, taking cover from indirect fire, or sitting in front of a radio console decoding bad jokes from North Korea, they’re likely living only in the moment — too tired, too lonely, too hungry, and too scared to worry overly much about why they are there. I did the job before me because it’s what I said I would do.
Then one day they leave all that behind and they re-enter a world that already seems convinced of their heroism and valor. They rejoin a society that has set the bar of expectation at the level of its fiction. This is when things get worse.
As a rule I don’t particularly like to talk about the details of my service. With the exception of a few amusing anecdotes that can be shoe horned into the popular narrative, my time-in was mostly a lot of lonely, bored, and tired, punctuated by brief yet profound moments of terror and/or horror. Needless to say, now I know why my grandfathers were both so tight lipped about their service. Hopefully I deal with those moments, all of them, just a little bit better.
I will say that getting the job done almost never requires the heroics we find in genre fiction. I was trained as a cryptanalyst, spent more than a little time working on diesels in the motor pool, and never once drove a 60 ton tank at flank speed into battle shouting my defiance as I independently broke an advancing line of H.I.S.S tanks. So put on your empathy pants and imagine how I feel each and every time someone asks me “what did you do?” I can see the anticipation on your faces, you’re waiting for a tale that will rival Ender’s. I sort through my mental rolodex of memories and know there’s nothing in there that will fulfill the elevated expectations most people have of vets. It sure feels a lot like being told your service has been judged and found wanting. Not a “hero?” You may be worthless.
If the stories we tell ourselves shape our understanding of reality, then the popular myth of military heroism has formed our collective expectations of what constitutes a hero. This person cannot be a Puerto Rican woman who was drafted in World War II to save GIs riddled with shrapnel any more than it can defy the archetype of the stoic brute who fights for God and country. But imagine, what if Hercules were experimenting with Buddhism. Perhaps he is deeply conflicted about the things he is duty bound to do. Maybe he feels as if he has taken a nose dive into a rat hole.
That rat hole is the irreconcilable difference between reality and the popular myth. The void between a false expectation and experience is a reductive purgatory with a dark gravity at its center.
A life dedicated to the swift and efficient exchange of violence, regardless of whether it ever sees combat, is a changed life. It is a life keenly aware of immediate consequence. It assumes it is not in possession of full agency, it seeks authority, and more often than not, it lacks foresight. The internet is littered with accounts of veterans attempting to decompress, to adjust to the demands of a civilian lifestyle. So are the undersides of bridges and busy street corners where homeless vets tend to congregate. Unfortunately even Captain Whitedude McManlypecs is vulnerable to all of this.
As an author I am uninterested in feeding a lie, even a popular one. These days my intention is to be the best writer I can be, and this makes it difficult for me to knowingly cut consequence from my tales. Sure I want to transport my readers, entertain them as much as I can, but I believe I can still bring them into a story without relying on worn out tropes that just aren’t true. As a vet I see this sort of thing as an unintended contribution to the very same propaganda that suckered me in the first place, and it irks me because it is dishonest. As a person, I am war weary. The martial solution seldom solves anything and where I find it in our stories it seems, at best, lazy.
“Why is it important I see my veterans clearly?” you may ask yourself. “Why can’t you just let me enjoy my stories?” The stories we tell ourselves have a shape to them, in turn those stories shape us. I think we lose sight of the fact that the key word in the phrase “military fiction” happens to be fiction. These stories grant a tacit sort of permission to ignore anything unpleasant. When we see vets struggling we tend to assume that they have it coming, that their current situation is of their own making. We assume that they are broken and cannot be fixed and consequently treat them with callous disregard. We forget that there is a price to war.
Matthew Alan Thyer writes science-fiction and speculative cli-fi. Prior to finding his voice as a writer he worked as a signals analyst, operations engineer, wildland firefighter, backcountry ranger, kayak guide, and river rat. His hobbies include trail running, backpacking, kayaking, and paragliding. You can enjoy his first book The Big Red Buckle.
March 11, 2015 @ 11:12 am
Thank you, Jim, for including this essay. And thank you, Matthew, for your honesty about a difficult subject. I knew some of the reality that vets experience, but hadn’t thought of military fiction in relation. I don’t read much of it, but I do enjoy the idealized narrative.
My favorite books and shows are more honest – Agent Carter, the Miles Vorkosigan series, even Patrick O’Brian, to some extent. I’ve considered writing a retired soldier in my next story, so I appreciate your perspective. A character can be the hero without being Captain America.
March 11, 2015 @ 12:16 pm
The military is no more a monoculture than is being black (compare Richard Sherman to Clarence Thomas) or gay (compare Neil Patrick Harris to Matthew Sheppard) or female (compare Sandra Fluke to Elisabeth Hasselbeck). The distinctions don’t all turn on who is cleverest at outwitting bureaucrats back at home, either.
As a veteran — and, in particular, a commissioned veteran — myself, I am much less fond of the nonsense put forth in military science fiction than most (or than Mr Thyer). I find the absence of fragging in military science fiction (especially of the most-aristocratically-self-entitled “bad actors” found in many space-navy series), or even effective obstructionism, so ridiculous that my walls have been seriously undermined by book impact. Conversely, there really is a burden of command that gets reinforced the first time one has to give a noncombat death notification (which, in the US military, is done by the CO for nondeployed units), and it’s a burden that never seems to weigh on anyone. Crocodile tears and verbal expressions of remorse notwithstanding, incidents that would have been deemed unacceptable by Ernest Medina and William Calley are both disturbingly common and disturbingly accepted — by the authors, by the characters, most of all by the readers.
March 11, 2015 @ 12:26 pm
Thank you for this. My dad is a Vietnam Vet, and while he’ll share some tales of basic training, never talks about his service either. I understand a little better now.
I don’t tend to read Sci-Fi (much less Military fiction), but in my preferred genre, fantasy, there are still plenty of depections about war. One of my favorites, Dennis McKiernan, makes it a point in his novels to show the ramifications of war, how it is far from ‘glorious battle,’ and just how much like us the ‘other side’ is. It’s a perspective we don’t often get, and I appreciate it.
March 11, 2015 @ 12:33 pm
Luckily, the German army was not doing any foreign deployments during my time. It was by several orders of magnitude the most boring time I ever spent.
Interesting things only happened in terms of social relationships and “interesting” mostly meant disgusting.
The only moment where I approached anything heroic was calling a NCO to order who was verbally abusing recruits while drunk. It was a tiny bit heroic because I nearly ended up in the brig.
If I ever write a story about the military, I will need to avoid any kind of realism (as I experienced it) at any costs ;-). Otherwise my readers will use heavy artillery on me….
False Expectations: Guest Post | FeetForBrains
March 11, 2015 @ 12:44 pm
March 11, 2015 @ 1:11 pm
Thanks for writing this, Matthew. I’ve watched loved ones adjust to life after military service, to varying degrees of success and struggle. People talk a lot about the stories that shape/distort the thinking of the young men and women who enter the armed forces (if I hear the ‘video games make it easier to kill’ trope one more time…). But no one ever talks about the stories that shape how civilians think about soldiers. Vets aren’t writing the Glorious War and Honorable Deat narratives or pushing the lone hero image on impressionable minds. We have to take responsibility for that as readers and authors. We have to own our bullsh*t and stop perpetuating it.
March 11, 2015 @ 1:38 pm
That which we shape shapes us. As true in fiction as anything else. Matthew, I won’t say the phrase I dread hearing so much: “Thank you for your service.” Acknowledging that statement feels dishonest to me. I didn’t serve, I just did a job that I got paid for, like anyone else. Instead:
Matthew, thank you for your post and thank you for a peek inside you.
March 11, 2015 @ 1:47 pm
First, I should say thanks to everyone who has commented. I’m glad to see that there is room for discussion on this topic and as a vet I’m also glad to know that I’m not alone.
So sitting here thinking about how I want to respond. My wife and I are in the middle of negotiating a deal on a house so I think it will be best if I sort of respond in summary while I wait on the phone for someone to talk to me at the VA.
On to cherry picking: yeah I think that there are plenty of people making use of this myth. Both vets and those that did not serve, make common usage of these tropes every day. John McCain and John Kerry come to mind, both of these guys have had to construct a platform to support a career in politics and both of these guys have encouraged a ‘heroic’ military narrative within the context of their public images. But it goes way deeper than that, the bulshytt (specifically used with reference to Neal Stephenson’s Anathem) is just part of the American experience. You wouldn’t be reaching very far if you added Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly to that list of public figures and neither of them served.
Let me try and contextualize, I think Jaws is on to something. The military isn’t a monoculture. Many different people will join up for many different reasons. Those reasons may change quickly. My feeling is that almost none of the patriotic, military-man mythology luggage that comes along with this is even remotely true. Nor does it make these people any better in civilian life later on in life.
Yet this myth is a huge current in our day-to-day lives that influences our decision making as we all float on. Think about this for a moment: regardless of if it’s true or not, does Bill O’Reilly’s purported involvement in “combat” make his opinions any more or less true? The rational answer to this is a resounding “no!” Yet he has used this anecdote to increase credence of those opinions, and at least from this vantage point, it seems critical to his self-worth and credibility that we all buy this concoction.
March 11, 2015 @ 1:49 pm
Ha! Thanks Nick. I dread hearing that phrase too.
Diana M. Pho
March 11, 2015 @ 2:00 pm
I also thank you for your honesty and Jim, for including it in this series.
My father is a vet too — he served in the South Vietnamese forces. He’s never talked openly to me about his military experiences, which are also fraught with other implications too, mostly the ignorance by the US public about foreign-born vets fighting in American wars. But I also grew up knowing the shadow of his experience and those of my father’s Vietnamese friends who also served.
Interestingly enough, it is also my father who introduced me to SFF via television. He didn’t read many books in English, but I grew up watching Star Trek and X-Files at his knee.
March 11, 2015 @ 4:23 pm
Thank you so much for writing this.
March 11, 2015 @ 6:55 pm
When I was in the Navy, way back in 1972-1974, most of the 25 guys (and they were all guys until the last six months or so) I shared a shift with were there mostly because they wanted to avoid getting drafted into the Army. There were maybe three guys who’d made E-5 and were thinking of a career, but the rest of us couldn’t wait to get out. I doubt any of us would have fallen on a grenade to save our “buddies” if it landed inside the heavily-constructed, pretty-secure telecomm center where we worked. Most of us didn’t even socialize much with each other after work (two days, two mids and two swings in five days didn’t leave much time for partying anyway).
Every vet’s time is different, as far as I can tell. Certainly my two years as an enlisted teletype op was different from my father’s 32 years as a commissioned officer.
March 12, 2015 @ 4:53 pm
Talking honestly about this is probably braver than 99% of the stuff you did in the Army. And your wildfire fighting was probably, overall, more dangerous.
My dad was in the infantry in WWII and Korea and he had absolutely zero to say on the heroism and glory of war, despite his chest full of medals. He talked a lot about mud and cold.
So thanks for your honesty and truth-telling. And can you tell us any bad North Korean jokes?
March 13, 2015 @ 1:11 pm
Hey Wow! Can I just say thank you to everyone. Seriously, before publishing this I had a case of creeping dread consuming me. Maybe less dread and more Sehnsucht. Coping with this imperfect reality we all inhabit, wanting to make things somehow better and knowing that the tools in my hands are inadequate to the task, was a challenging prospect. I did my best, I tried to anyway, when I formulated this opinion. And all along the way I was aware that what I had to say might not be welcome.
But wow! Thank you for all the positive feedback.
As far as jokes from the People’s Republic of North Korea are concerned something would necessarily be lost in translation. I think it might be important to note that much of the time they’re playing the radio version of straight man to our wise guy and it will likely come across as funny, especially on the graveyard shift. Regardless of what PRNK soldiers might think of their leader or their government, they love their country and they’re proud of their heritage. This despite the threat of the Kim regime. In many ways, their fanatical approach to being ‘turly’ Korean seems to me a belief system which very much mirrors our own mythical representation of military heroics here in the States.
March 13, 2015 @ 8:35 pm
I’m late to reading this, but want to add my thanks as well.
May I ask, is there any military fiction that you think does a good or better job of portraying the reality of military life? I can remember reading the first book in Tanya Huff’s Valor series, for example, and thinking, more or less, Holy Sh*t, that does NOT sound like fun. (Hint – pretty much everyone dies) Or possibly early John Ringo.
I think one challenge may be with the military fiction genre overall. How does the author balance the mundane aspects of military life, and the need to build an arc and tell an interesting story? I think it can be done, but clearly it’s a tricky dance. Too much reality makes for a less fun read. We’ve all been trained to read military fiction for the adrenaline, for the glory, for the fun.
I think another challenge that may be more unique to the US is the glorification of the military that is woven in our culture. Some of it dating back through a long history of Western Imperialism. Some of it in reaction to our own guilt at the way we treated our soldiers as recently as Vietnam.
I think, at a core, primal level, we, as humans, want it war to be meaningful. We want our fiction to reflect that. Otherwise, we see war for what it is – something that has become too easy, and too distant.
So thank you, again, for your post. I had never considered things from this angle.
March 16, 2015 @ 10:42 am
Wow, this was just brilliant. I’m not one for military fiction, but what I’ve read of battlefields and wars in the fantasy genre definitely focuses mostly on the heroic. In fantasy, the only writer I can currently think of who (possibly) writes about the reality of war without glorifying it is George R. R. Martin. I think
.I would like to ask the same thing as DawnD has asked above: do you know of any military fiction that does portray reality, to a certain extent? If so, I’d love to add it to my list along with The Big Red Buckle.
Thank you for writing this! 🙂
March 16, 2015 @ 1:34 pm
DawnD and Kanika,
There are good stories out there, which just happen to be set in war torn settings. Start with Lois McMaster Bujold’s “Shards of Honor.” It’s not about major meeting battles, but the story starts with a skirmish which provides consequence sufficient enough to propel the story a couple of hundred pages into the future. The core of the story isn’t the guns, the technology or even the space ships; it’s about humans that just happen to be in conflict in a distant place and time. There are more stories in the Vorkosigan saga that do a great job, but this one in particular stands out in my mind.
Anything in Ian M. Bank’s Culture series might qualify. Life and consequently warfare in these stories is so far away that pretty much anything he imagined could be possible, or so I’d like to think. Anyway, I’ve started re-reading culture novels and I really enjoy them because they transport me across space and time without trying to shock me by being brutal or audacious. All the aliens are people, even when they’re not. Banks understood recognition of the other in his stories.
Finally, not that it qualifies as science fiction other than by the mere fact that it’s written in the future, but James Kunstler’s “World Made by Hand” seems to me a good example. Kunstler tends to write about limits and he imposes them strictly on his characters. Everything is written in human scale and there are no prodigies running amuck, no demigod heroes solving everyone’s problems like Santa Clause. Good writing, in my mind, even if it’s spec-fic.
There’s some fiction out there that reads like an Army manual. You read it and you’d probably be accurate in thinking that the author reviewed a tactical guide before he or she sat down to write their tale. Last night I caught up on my Walking Dead. In the episode — “What Happened and What’s Going On” the screen writers kill off Tyreese (unnecessarily in my mind, but that’s another bit of commentary) — Rick, Michonne, and Glenn are standing around a deserted house in a crumbling housing development discussing if they can make the housing development secure. Michonne wants to rebuild the fenced place, Rick doesn’t like it because the trees come right up to the fence, Glenn is feeling very cynical about everything. Briefly Rick talks about the lack of sight lines and he sounds like an E-5 reading a passage on pickets from a Core of Engineers manual.
Watching this scene I couldn’t help but snort. Episode nine in season five, and NOW you’re going to go by the book Rick? I’m almost sad that they didn’t plant a bunch of army paraphernalia around that driveway instead of baseball junk, because then he could have picked up FM-21-76 and read from it like it was a holy text.
March 16, 2015 @ 2:27 pm
A word about “Good” Fiction:
Since this essay was published I’ve been thinking a lot about my personal preferences and also what some of you might or might not be reading into my opinion. I wanted to point out that I still enjoy military fiction, regardless of the fact that I spend a lot of time poking holes in it. Fiction doesn’t have to be “true” to be good. It is even possible that it’s better when it lacks veracity.
What I am trying to call out here is that fiction doesn’t make a very useful yardstick. Opinions and judgements that are based on a made-up measure of heroism are the problem in my opinion. Heroism is a funny beast, because what we’re usually doing is taking someone’s concrete actions and transforming those acts by calling them legendary. Heroes get preferential treatment because of this inferred status.
The reverse happens all the time too. When we use that factious bar to evaluate and judge others we tend to downgrade their contributions and sacrifice because there isn’t the aspect of legend associated to simply doing a job. Essentially, we’re using a false measure to denigrate someone else’s actual contribution.
Ultimately, the point I’m trying to get across is not that readers shouldn’t read military science fiction. I’m not trying to suggest that writers shouldn’t write military science fiction either. I do think it’s important to understand that what we’re writing and reading **is** fiction. That it’s not necessarily representative of military life, accomplishment or sacrifice. That sometimes, because the myth is so effective at manipulating our expectations, this mythology is employed to alter our judgements for real world stuff.
In my mind “good” fiction is a lot like a transporter in Star Trek. It allows me to easily transcend the real world, all I need do is open the front cover and energize. So you can still enjoy your favorite tales; “Captain Whitedude McManlypecs” can be a fun read, but he’s not real.
The weekly web ramble (3/20)
March 20, 2015 @ 4:49 pm
[…] – Matthew Alan Thyer on false expectations […]
April 15, 2015 @ 6:02 am
Thank you so much for your honesty and courage in writing this. It is a difficult topic, and it takes courage to be candid about it. So, thank you for your thoughts. And thank you to Jim for hosting this
April 15, 2015 @ 6:11 am
Hello Matthew, That’s a good point you make on how fiction is enjoyable but not always a reflection of reality. 🙂 I’m amazed and disheartened when some people believe fiction without questioning it.
Also, the phrase “Captain White dude McManlypecs” made me chortle. 🙂