Tag Archives: writing soldiers

Q&A: An Amateur Professional

Hi guys! I have a character who’s a dangerous criminal, highly proficient in hand-to-hand combat and using weapons (from knives to sniper rifles) just how realistic is it for him to win in a fight against a marine (who served for well over 5 years) and what points should I cover in their physical conflicts? Since one was professionally trained and the other (criminal) self-taught? With the criminal using underhanded tactics opposed to the marine who prefers “clean” fights?

It’s been awhile since I’ve come down on someone, but there’s a lot here:

Marines aren’t paladins. For all the jokes about Marines being idiots, they’re smart enough to treat combat seriously. This is their job, and they’ll (almost) always maintain a degree of professionalism about killing some John Wick wannabe.

Self-taught fighters suck. Combat is a skillset, like any other. You can learn on your own, but you’ll never be good enough to compete against someone with formal training. Combat’s a little different from most skills because, if you screw up and fail, you die. In case there’s some confusion here, death is not a particularly useful learning experience.

Someone without formal hand-to-hand training isn’t going to win in a fight with a Marine. No matter how “dangerous” they see themselves. It’s not about fighting dirty, it’s simply that your character doesn’t know what they’re doing.

As for what would happen? Your character would attack, the Marine would interrupt the strike and end them. That fast.

Remember, Marines are trained to kill people. That’s their job. Their hand-to-hand training is focused on this. In fact, instructors overseeing sparring are specifically cautioned to look for recruits that are devolving into, “sport fighting.” Every action the Marine takes needs to either be creating an opening or finishing their opponent.

You can learn to shoot with enough ammunition. In fact, once you do know how to shoot, you need to spend some time with your gun and ammunition to get a feel for exactly how it will handle. No, “I’ve got this cheap ammo, but I use special stuff in the field,” won’t cut it. You need to practice with you’re carrying.

You cannot learn to win a gunfight on a shooting range, no matter how much ammunition you bring. Putting a bullet where you want it when you’re on a range is no problem. However, it won’t teach you what you need to know in order to deal with a live fire situation.

I’m reminded of a story from a soldier who wrote an article for Cracked, back when that site was still good. The guys they were fighting had learned to shoot from video games and TV. He described the rookie mistakes he saw, such as the enemy fighters dropping behind couches to take cover. Thing is even a handgun round will go through that. So, someone ducks behind the furniture, you just shoot through it.

When it comes to vehicles, the engine block will stop a bullet, and that’s pretty much it. The rest of the car can conceal where you are, but it doesn’t protect you from incoming fire. If your hitman watched Taken and tries to take cover behind a car door, the Marine will simply shoot through that.

There’s a phrase I’ve used before, which will be immediately familiar to your Marine, “the only unfair fight is the one you lose.” Combat isn’t about having a “good, clean, brawl.” Dirty fighting isn’t some forbidden collection of highly effective fighting techniques, it’s just stuff you were told not to as a kid, because the risk of injury was too high. As an adult who is trying to kill their foe, the concept is not relevant. So-called dirty fighting is throwing sand in someone’s eyes. It’s a sucker punch before the bell rings or someone yells, “go!” It’s shooting the medic first. You want to hammer into your head that dirty fighting is just about going outside a formalized socially constructed structure which tells you what fighting should be i.e. duels and everyone does it. Everyone wants to go home alive and therefore no one fights fair. Remember, marines are trained to shoot through the hostage.

A Marine is not a policeman. Police are required to uphold specific standards, are governed by rules and laws regarding “use of force” that are more limited because they’re supposed to be dealing with civilians who break the law. Marines are soldiers first.

What you’re presenting, right now, is an amateur going up against professionals. That’s not going to end well.

Flip this around for a second, though, and there’s nothing wrong with writing some ex-special forces operator who’s transitioned over into criminal activity. I’d like to say there’s not precedence, but that would be a lie. Unsurprisingly, being trained to kill people for a living meshes remarkably well with killing people for a living as an independent contractor. Government pay is not that great, and someone with that skill set could, potentially, make a lot of money killing people for unscrupulous individuals.

The doesn’t mean your assassin would go around explaining their full backstory, that would be a liability, but they wouldn’t be self-taught. It also doesn’t mean they’re American, they could just as easily be ex-SAS, ex-Spetsnaz, or from any number of other special forces or militarized intelligence agencies.

When writing an assassin, or anyone else who kills professionally, you want to avoid, “fights.” If they’re going to kill someone, they want to engineer the situation so that their foes cannot react in time. In the case of that Marine, it probably means shooting them in the back of the head, rather than letting it turn into a melee.

If there’s no upside to fighting someone, your character shouldn’t do it. They’re not here to prove how much of a badass they are; they know they can kill everyone in the room. They’re here to get the job done, get paid, and get out safely. Starting an unnecessary fight works against those goals.


This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you, and come join us on Discord.

Q&A: The Nature of Dehumanization

This may sound a little confusing but hear me out. In my story, I have a character who’s going through a more or less boot camp for a dystopian empire. The ultimate goal of this “camp” is to make killing the enemy less of a regrettable necessity and more like a game, or a challenge- basically twist the morals of the soldiers so they no longer care about who they kill, they just care about the kill. Would this be feasible, or does it go too far into the “hurr durr Spartans are tough” trap.

So, you don’t actually have to teach soldiers how to do this. Dehumanize an enemy enough and they’ll do it all on their own. In fact, they’ll dehumanize enemies all on their own. All you need is the enemy killing people they care about in the abstract. It doesn’t have to be people they know, family, or friends. They don’t need a personal stake. After all, dehumanization of the enemy is part of how we stave off that pesky mental limit which leads to psychotic breaks.

What many writers don’t realize is that in this case we honestly don’t have work that hard to justify the behavior. The behavior already exists, and happened in ways far worse than you or I can imagine.

If you have the stomach for it, I recommend looking at the Pacific Theater for WWII (though the Nazis are good too.) Specifically stuff like the “Contest To Kill 100 People Using A Sword” series run by a pair of Japanese newspapers covering a contest between Japanese officers Toshiaki Mukai and Tsuyoshi Noda during the Nanking Massacre.  The quest to see who could kill 100 people with their sword fastest, this included Chinese civilians and POWs.

And, yes, it happened. That’s not dystopian. That’s history.

Japan’s war crimes during World War II are built on the specific variety of nationalism the country practiced during the period and their outlook on the concept of surrender.  Look no further than the extensive list of Japanese war crimes in the Pacific Theater, from The Comfort Women, Unit 731, and I would not look at the POW camps unless you have a strong stomach. However, I will say they did ship POWs back to Japan and vivisected them while still alive. I include this as its probably one of the less disturbing actions toward the treating of POWs during the war. When the men were recovered, they looked like what we’d expect from a Nazi concentration camp.

Japan is not the only example, there are countless others throughout history, and they’re not unique but they are relatively recent. Also, often, overlooked. The revenge Allied troops took on Germany, specifically those from territories occupied by German soldiers like the French is also there. In the words of a German professor from college whose family survived Allied occupation of Berlin, “no woman between seven and seventy was safe” in those quarters held by the French. At the time, her mother was a little girl and she told the story about how German citizens went running for those areas under American control. (The reason, of course, being that the Americans suffered less during the war with their civilians being an ocean away.) In the Pacific Theater, Allied soldiers would cut out the teeth of dead Japanese soldiers for their gold fillings. They called it “Jap gold”.

Kill counts, war trophies, every game you can imagine, and plenty you can’t have all happened during periods of wartime. War is an ugly business, and some wars are uglier than others.

The problem is assuming you need some sort of special training to get people there. The sad truth is such training isn’t necessary, and that’s what makes this topic dystopic. Dystopia is based in human nature, it what could happen in the future when the world is on course. The events and outlooks which led the Japanese to behave the way they did when they went to war are just as present and relevant now in countries all over the world. That includes the US.

Rid yourself now of the idea there’s ever such a thing as a “clean” war. All war is dark, all war is dirty, and all wars involve people doing terrible things to one another.

If you really want to write this story then you need to be learning everything you can about the mindset of soldiers and what they go through while on the battlefield. This means watching documentaries, shows based on anecdotes and biographical experiences like  The Pacific and Band of Brothers. You should be reading Starship Troopers as a primer if you haven’t already. Do so while understanding Heinlein is a fascist and that is what he endorses in the novel. You should be going over Vietnam. I’d even watch M.A.S.H., the show, the movie, and read the book. Growing Up Black In Nazi Germany is a stunningly eye-opening read if you’ve ever wondered how the German people were swept away by Hitler and what that looked like within their culture. Read the short story, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch to get a look inside the camps run in Soviet Russia. Then tackle All Quiet on the Western Front. You want as much pro-war and anti-war media as you can get your hands on with history to fill in the gaps. Also, George Orwell’s 1984. Here’s the trick to understanding the best of the dypstopian genre: 1984 may be fictional, but similar events happened in the Soviet Union. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is entirely possible as a future for the United States, and it is plausible. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is dystopic and fictionalized, but the research behind it isn’t. The Jungle is part of why we have the FDA. There’s also Richard Wright’s Native Son.

You want to look at the cultures specifically that produced some of history’s most horrific war crimes and study up on the mindsets which led them there. That is how this happens, and that is what you need to write dystopias: an understanding of human nature.

Look beyond The Hunger Games to Rome. Consider the Spartan children whipped in stadiums to provide entertainment for the masses in simulation of ancient Spartan training, and that is only one small anecdote to the greater horrors of the Arena. See the horror in an entire culture reduced to a themepark attraction.

Remember, all dystopia is political and it is all based as a reaction to the real world. The best dystopias are talking about events that have happened in a fictional context with the warning they might happen again. We may all get upset at Animal Farm but that is a breakdown of how Soviet Russia came to be and it will teach you how the political system took hold.

All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others. – Animal Farm

Some people are more equal than others, some people are better than others, some people are more deserving than others. Be that their nation of origin, the color of their skin, their ethnic background, their accent, their education level, their economic background, or the part of a country they come from (much less the world). Dehumanization is all you need to justify great cruelty, and human beings do it to each other all the time.

After all, take any military shooter from the genre and do a hard contrast to Spec Ops: the Line. Take your experiences and what you feel while playing a military shooter, then imagine feeling those same emotions while killing real people.

You will. They’re not people to you anymore. After all, when was the last time you thought of the Stormtroopers from Star Wars IV: A New Hope as human beings?

When American soldiers called the members of the VietCong Charlies, what they were doing was taking letters of the alphabet VictorCharlie and translating their targets into anonymous individuals. They are no longer people. They’re all Charlies.

This is the key to understanding the horrors of warfare. Once you figure out how to write your characters from the perspective where they don’t see the people they kill as people, you’re off to the races. The only place you’re off is the idea they need to be trained to not care or turn it into a game.

Give them training.

They’ll make games out of killing their enemies all on their own.


This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.