Tue
Jan 28 2014 10:00am

Military Fantasy: What is “Military”?

Myke Cole Special Ops Breach Zone Diversity in speculative fiction is a hot topic lately. We want our stories to reflect the world around us, in all its unfathomable variety. Authors and fans alike are drawing attention to underrepresented cultures in genre fiction, and the result is a broadening of the market in response. It’s a great time to be a writer and a reader. We’re making great strides.

And we’ve still got a long way to go.

I get accused of being a writer of “military fantasy” with alarming frequency these days. I'm not a big fan of genre designations. They're designed to help booksellers shelve stuff, and lack real utility in helping readers dial in on books they might enjoy. But hey, life is competitive for blades of grass and bunny rabbits. If you’ve got a chance to stand out, you take it.

I believe it was Sew-Crates (that is deliberately misspelled. Because I am very funny) who said “the unexamined life is not worth living,” which I think is Ancient Greek for “nerds are maddening pedants who pick apart every damn thing you say in a desperate effort to find something to disagree with.”

I wear that mantle proudly. And it was in this spirit of relentless and irritating contrariness that I considered the meaning of the word “military.”

Consider the lilies of the field. No, wait. Don't. I mean, you can if you want to, but do it later. Instead, consider the Battle of Mogadishu, which gave us the Black Hawk Down tale to which my own work is so often compared.

Two sides in that fight, right? On the one side, you had the US—3rd Battalion of the 75th Ranger Regiment, 1st SOF-D (what folks like to call “Delta Force”), and 160th SOAR, conveniently providing helicopters for the enemy to shoot down. On the other side, you have a Somali warband. A really big warband. Like, 6,000 warriors big. And pissed off. And without a whole lot to lose.

The US force fits the “military” bill that genre fans are conjuring when they label my work. They've got the latest and greatest in combat technology (for all the good it did them). The warfighters wear uniforms, adhere to grooming standards, receive regular pay. A sprawling bureaucracy sees to their administration. A logistics infrastructure feeds, waters and houses them. Individual heroism is frowned upon. Unit cohesion and cold professionalism are the standard. Lives matter. Self-sacrifice is softly uplifted. The Rangers' motto is “Leave No Man Behind.” The Air Force Pararescuemen attached to the operation silently repeat their mantra, “So Others Might Live.”

No question it's military. Just look at those haircuts.

The Somali warband is a hodgepodge of full time militiamen and armed civilians sick and tired of foreign intervention in their backyard. What little organization can be found among their number is a trickle down from clan relationships. They are personally loyal to individual toughs, who in turn swear allegiance to the Warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. They wield an array of Kalashnikov variants in various states of functionality. Some have RPGs and pistols, a few have no firearms at all. Some have shaved heads, others sport dreadlocks and beards. Individual heroism is the order of the day. The bravest among them may win honor for their clans and themselves. Battlefield looting can turn a warrior's fortunes in an instant. Lives are cheap. Suicide that kills the enemy, even when it saves no one else, is a path to heaven.

I've turned this over with friends and colleagues over many a beer. Lots of folks would tell me that the warband is a mob, a rabble. And they'd be wrong.

They are an army. They are a military every bit as locked on and effective as the pride of American arms sent against them.

The proof? They won.

“But they took just under 3,000 casualties! We took just under 20.” True, but you have to remember that not everyone values life the way we do in the information-age West. A Somali commander of the time would see that as acceptable losses. And there can be no question of the strategic impact of that battle. More than one enemy of the US would tell you that it would have been well worth 30,000, or 300,000.

They won. Their strategy, their army. Their military.

And it is a military, and it’s important to me that readers understand this.

Because it takes me back to my original point: That we talk a lot about diversity in fiction these days, but the truth is that we have a long way to go in achieving it. True diversity is the opposite of ethnocentrism. It is the effort to step into other cultures, to understand their goal-making, to learn how they love and how they think and how they aspire.

And how they make war.

The serried and organized ranks of the US armed services is but one military experience in a vast galaxy. Wherever two or more professional killers band together to visit violence on an enemy, you have a military. A Lakota raiding party is a military, so is a Mongol Tumen. So is a Theban Sacred Band. So is the network of financiers and safe-house operators that facilitate a Shahid of the al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade.

So, do me this one small favor: don’t look for military fiction. Look, instead, for the military experience in the fiction you already enjoy. The axe-wielding rabble of Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes gives you one kind of military. The star-cruising dreadnaughts of Jack Campbell’s The Lost Fleet gives you another. My direct action teams are a third.

None of us have a monopoly on what the military experience means. And it is in that bloody, cordite-encrusted variety that it we can see our fiction truly reflect the real world.

That reflection provides the sense of transportation that lovers of speculative fiction crave. Don’t miss out on what’s right under your nose.


As a security contractor, government civilian, and military officer, Myke Cole's career has run the gamut from counterterrorism to cyber warfare to federal law enforcement. He's done three tours in Iraq and was recalled to serve during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. All that conflict can wear a guy out. Thank goodness for fantasy novels, comic books, late-night games of Dungeons & Dragons, and lots of angst-fueled writing. He is the author of Shadow Ops: Control Point and Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier; the final book in the trilogy, Shadow Ops: Breach Zone is out on January 28, 2014.

12 comments
John Skotnik
1. ShooneSprings
Never thought about it like that. Thanks for providing another point of view (and for your new novel Breach Zone).
Paul Weimer
2. PrinceJvstin
Hi Myke>

Wherever two or more professional killers band together to visit violence on an enemy, you have a military. A Lakota raiding party is a military, so is a Mongol Tumen. So is a Theban Sacred Band. So is the network of financiers and safe-house operators that facilitate a Shahid of the al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade.

Indeed, and seeing both sides of asymmetric military conflicts, where two kinds of military meet, and recognizing the military nature of both sides, and their own goals is important. We don't do it enough.

Action teams versus Scylla's army. Both are militaries, although vastly different. The goblin army is a very different beast than Harlequin and company.
miminnehaha
3. miminnehaha
When I think of military fantasy, I think of the first and best I ever read: Lloyd Alexander's "The High King." In one sense a culmination of the five-volume story of Taran, The High King is also a tale of conflict escalating into war. Disparate peoples coming together to take up arms against a common foe, diverse people serving according to their strengths, individuals rising to the needs of the whole. Recognizing that war is a horror, but a sometimes necessary horror.

Not to blow sunshine, but I see parallels between Lloyd Alexander & Myke's books: the complexities of war, told through the complexities of character. It's one reason I am really looking forward to his YA efforts.
miminnehaha
4. tWB
ou have to remember that not everyone values life the way we do in the information-age West.

A better way to consider this might be that "casualty expectations are asymmetric." Warsaw Pact commanders assumed higher initial casualty rates than NATO in the event of a European conflict, while Saddam (conditioned, ironically, by viewings of BHD) expected US forces to take a heavy beating in MOUT operations inside Baghdad.

From the standpoint of our adversaries, their willingness to go into combat against our forces is no less noble and inspiring to them than a Washington, Greene or Wayne is to us; a Ben-Gurion, Allon or Dayan is to an Israeli; or a Lee or Jackson is to an unreconstructed Confederate type. Lost causes are no less appealing to the properly motivated, but failing to assess the risks involved would be military malpractice.

Aidid was no simple thug; he was a highly-educated, highly-experienced military man who attended officer school in Italy and qualified for CGSC at the Frunze Academy. He had flag-level command in the 1977 Ogaden war, and led Somalia's notorious National Security Service during America's close Cold War alliance with the Barre regime.

While Aidid certainly had no compunctions about throwing his men into a meat grinder, it's also true that any force that goes up against the US has to expect a massive imbalance in casualties -- an order of magnitude for even advanced forces, while two orders of magnitude for historically reasonably effective developing-world armies (e.g., Iraq in Desert Storm). By the numbers, the Somalians -- poorly-equipped and lacking meaningful C3I capabilities -- significantly overperformed expectations.
miminnehaha
5. Jack Murphy
It is 1st SFOD, not SOF-D. The Ranger motto is actually "Sua Sponte" meaning "of their own accord" which reflects the fact that all Rangers are volunteers. "I will never leave a fallen comrade..." appears in the Ranger Creed however.
Constance Sublette
6. Zorra
" ... Because I am very funny)"

Mileage varies.
miminnehaha
7. Herb9234
The U.S. and other modern first-world militaries are really very anomalous. They're the exception, not the rule in military history.
miminnehaha
8. ad
Wherever two or more professional killers band together to visit violence on an enemy, you have a military. A Lakota raiding party is a military, so is a Mongol Tumen. So is a Theban Sacred Band.

I'm pretty sure that neither the Lakotas or the Thebans would be "professional" killers. It would not be something they were paid to do or prepare for.

For that matter, are the characters in The Cruel Sea or Saving Private Ryan "professional" killers?

I think you are saying "professional" when you mean "organised".
miminnehaha
9. Tenesmus
Being one of the "maddening pedants who pick apart every damn thing you say in a desperate effort to find something to disagree with" I regret to inform you of a grammatical error in your post. (which I enjoyed very much by the way) The "if" in "I get accused if being a writer" should be "of." You're welcome, and I'll take being a test reader for your next book as a Thank you.
Alan Brown
11. AlanBrown
I am glad to see someone championing a broader definition of the term "military." Perhaps it will help me finally convince my Navy friends that my service in the Coast Guard was, indeed, military service... ;-)
miminnehaha
12. theotherwill
Good post! I've read more "military sci-fi" than I care to admit, and quite a bit about the realities of warfare as well. It's striking how often writers imagine the future, even the far future, to be so similar to the present. There often seems to be little appreciation for how current armed forces are products of the past & of institutional conservatism. As societies as well as technologies change, armies, navies, etc. will change as well. Other writers need to hear that even the present is not as uniform as they assume.

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