Q&A: Be Careful of “Everyone”

Do soldiers or people who want to join the military usually look down on civilians in general as weak, or look down on disabled civilians who couldn’t join? I have encountered this from a few family members, unfortunately, and wanted to incorporate that experience into my novel, but I don’t know if this is common for former soldiers or if it’s more about age or some of my family members just being mean. What are your thoughts on this?

I think the best way to view the different branches of the Armed Services regarding their attitudes is that they all have their own cultures. The culture of each branch is based on their shared experiences, and those shared experiences do differentiate them from civilians who lack their background. Sometimes, this can result in an “us versus them mentality” among specific individuals but looking down on civilians as weak isn’t part of that culture. Regarding civilians as being unable to relate or understand their experiences is more on point. This is true to an extent, but it’s also true for every subculture from EMTs to police, to surgeons, and even Hollywood insiders.

I don’t know about you, but I certainly have difficulty relating to the story one of Starke’s friends told him about two Marines taking turns drinking from a bottle of liquor, zapping themselves with a light socket, and running headlong into a wall before switching places and repeating. I’m also just as sure after hearing that story a Marine would find nothing strange about it, and also cackle.

There are generational differences between the cultures. There’s a different culture among those who served in the past and are now civilians themselves versus those still serving. There’s a different sub-cultures among the officers and special forces than the general enlisted. Everyone agrees the Marines are weird, especially the Marines.

Now, the above doesn’t apply to the people who want to join the military. People who want to join the military and look down on people who don’t share their passion are fans. They’re not any different from any other fan out there. They aren’t part of the military culture or its rivalries yet. They want to be. They behave the way they imagine they should. They co-opt their beliefs about the military into their identity or use the identity to justify their own biases. Remember, though, it’s not just them. They’re not really any different or more special than the katana fans, the Krav Maga fans, Star Wars fans, or Naruto fans.

Personally, if you plan to write about anything to do with the military, I always recommend the more information on hand the better. Read web comics like Terminal Lance about daily life in the US Marine Corps, most of the US training manuals are actually available online which will give you insight into the thought processes of the people who wrote them. You may not enjoy or agree with the humor, but experiencing it can be instructive.

In my experience, I have several family members who served in the US Army. Neither my brother nor I were ever pressured by them about serving, or regarded as weak because we didn’t. My grandfather, who guarded General MacArthur’s family during WWII, celebrated when my father got out of the Vietnam draft due to a medical condition. Neither he nor my grandmother wanted my father to go to ‘Nam. My co-worker appreciates his time in the Navy, and he’d have liked to recommend his son join up. However, the Armed Services of today are very different from when he served. His son didn’t want the risk and he respects that.

The short answer is there are veterans who are assholes and veterans who aren’t. There are people who make their service too much a part of their identity, and feel they’re owed more than what they got. There are people who understand their service was their choice, who don’t resent others for choosing differently.

There’s never anything wrong with using your own life experiences for your novel. They’re yours, you should use them. All I’d caution you about is making the jump from “these people” otherwise known as your family members to a general perspective shared by everyone who ever served. Your family members aren’t alone in their attitudes, but theirs isn’t the only attitude that exists.

When following the everyone route, you run the risk of alienating readers who don’t share your experiences, even those who are willing to accept the perspective from a single character or in a story about a specific group of people. They stop short when you switch over into that perspective as ideological fact uniformly followed by everyone everywhere. Everyone everywhere is being intellectually lazy and that can impact the reader’s suspension of disbelief. While you don’t have to show those other perspectives, you want to practice leaving room in your narrative for a variety to exist.

-Michi

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