Q&A: Character Age, Military Rank, and Command

First of all, I’d like to say that your blog is very helpful and contains a lot of resources which I can take my time and throughly read them. I do, though have several questions : 1) I’m writing a fiction novel, which have wars and battles in it. Consider it being a fiction, will people let the fact that my MC (a woman in her 20s) is a colonel and lead troops and hence, enter the army in a young age? 2) Is it possible to have both guns and swords in battlefields? thank you sm ?

So, taking the questions in reverse order, yes.

Firearms and melee weapons coexisted on the battlefield for over half a millennia. It was only with development of accurate, long-range firearms (particularly the development of rifling), and rapid reload firearms (such as trap door rifles and breach loaders) which ended the use of swords on the battlefield.

Technically, the sword persisted as a badge of office into the early 20th century.

As for making Colonel in her 20s, let’s put that down with some serious question marks. It’s not completely impossible, but it is highly improbable.

In normal infantry ranks, Colonel is the highest non-flag officer rank. This is fairly high up the chain of command, and they wouldn’t answer to anyone short of a General.

There’s a significant military divide between commissioned officers, and enlisted soldiers, with completely separate ranks. Historically, this had its roots in the social split between the nobility and peasantry. Enlisted are the soldiers while the officers command. Elements of that still persist today, and commissioned officers are still expected to be much better educated.

This is the problem, underage enlistment is depressingly common historically. However, underage commissions are much rarer. The only examples I’m aware of off hand are naval warrant officers, where an enlisted crewman took over the duties of one of the ship’s officers, and was granted a temporary commission. At the end of the ship’s tour, the admiralty could decide to permanently commission the warrant officer. It’s not impossible for something like this to happen as a battlefield promotion, but it is extraordinarily rare.

Additionally, promotion to Colonel within that timeframe would be (to put it mildly) a meteoric rise. It’s extremely rare to encounter a Colonel under the age of 40. During wartime, it would be possible to shave a few years off that due to battlefield promotions, but, trying to condense 20 years of commissioned military service into your 20s is a bit much. A character in their 20s would probably a Lieutenant or Captain. They might make it to Major by the time they hit 30, and could reasonably reach that rank if they’d been getting promotions to replace lost superiors, and performing well enough. Getting all the way to Colonel (assuming a modern military rank structure, is seriously pushing it.)

It’s also worth remembering that as you climb through the ranks in the military, the less likely you are to see direct combat. And, as a commanding officer, your colonel is unlikely to see any actual fighting. Their job is to command, not to fight.

So that’s the modern system, it’s worth looking at the history of the term. Originally, a Colonel was the commanding officer for a column. This only dates back to the 1500s, which is solidly in the timeframe of gunpowder and blades. At that point it would also have been plausible for someone in their late 20s or early 30s, with a prominent enough war record to become a Colonel in their own right. Probably by becoming the Lieutenant Colonel (which originally simply meant the Colonel’s Lieutenant), and then ascending to command mid battle if their Colonel was killed. Again, not likely, especially for a younger officer, but it is theoretically possible.

When it comes to reader expectations, it’s a little more complicated, because, it’s historically possible, given what the rank originally meant, however, most readers (if they’re familiar with military ranks) will assume that it’s far less plausible. They’re likely to understand (as I said earlier) that Colonel is a fairly senior rank, and that getting to O6 before you hit 30 is, effectively impossible.

The other major consideration here is that, as I mentioned, the higher rank your character is, the more it shifts their focus. This isn’t a problem, so long as you’re aware of it. If your protagonist is a Colonel your war story is going to skew away from front line combat, and be more focused on the strategic planning, logistical limits, battle plans, and adapting when battles don’t go to plan. I really mean, this isn’t a bad thing, but is different.

Similarly, when you’re putting younger characters into positions of authority, the younger they are, the more attention it will draw to their age. When you’re talking about a senior military officer who is unusually young, that will draw a lot of attention, and audience disbelief. If that’s the intent, then, okay. As mentioned, there are ways to justify that. However, it is something you need to be aware of. If you don’t want the focus on her age, then you’ll probably either want her to be older (in her 30s or early 40s), or lower ranked (such a Lieutenant or Captain.) This is even more true if you’re wanting to straddle between the actual front line combat, and strategy, where a lower ranked officer would have a foot in both worlds.

-Starke

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One thought on “Q&A: Character Age, Military Rank, and Command”

  1. Or she could be a colonel in something like revolutionary France. Because of the social upheavals it witnessed a meteor shower of young ambitious soldiers becoming colonels, generals and even marshals.

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