Writing Your G.I. Joe

by Matt Cates

Last night I was sitting in a bunker in Baghdad watching Tropical Thunder, the Ben Stiller farce about actors who think they're making a war film but whose lives really are endangered.  The movie is spot-on with its intentionally stereotyped military characters:  the ripped and stoic white leader; the earnest, soulful black second-in-command; the world-weary, wise-cracking sarge; the geeky comm kid; the smooth jive-talker. 

How many movies or novels feature versions of the above line-up?  Too many.  I've been in the military fifteen years and haven't met any of these guys.  Never met a Rambo, an Apocalypse Now-style Colonel Kurtz, or Full Metal Jacket Gunnery Sergeant Hartmann (I'd like to, I just haven't)

So where do writers get the ideas for these parody-ripe protagonists?   

If authors stuck to writing what they know, there would be few books featuring commandos.  That doesn't mean you should avoid writing them, though.  It just means the easiest way to inject realism and add dimension to your military characters is:  Don't write them as commandos!   

Consider these tips:

1) Think civilian.  Soldiers have unique experiences but our personalities are the same as everyone else's.  Give your character diversity.  Make them a Muslim or a DJ, a hacker or bull rider, a thief, surfer, or homosexual.  But avoid one-size-fits-all boy scouts or robot killing machines. 

2) Remember Work-a-Day Joe.  Soldiers aren't all sexy Delta Force guys.  Mostly, we fix trucks, push paper, troubleshoot computers.  We run phone cable and cook burritos, too.  If your character is an Airborne Ranger, make them a former postal worker who retrained.  By giving them a humbler background, you'll make them relatable.   

 3) Talk to us.  Soldiers don't chomp soggy cigars or wear grenades.  We drink Starbucks, surf the web for pics of Kim Kardashian, and use soft toilet paper.  Go interview someone in uniform and learn of our puny human flaws. We're approachable and we love to tell funny stories.  

Okay, now let's put this into practice.  You know that shy young woman who puts whip cream on your grande mocha?  Imagine if she enlisted in the Army tomorrow.

Picture her:  She's in basic training, learning combat skills—handling a rifle, maneuvering obstacles.  She's working out, getting fit.  Learning first aid, rules of engagement, laws of armed conflict.  And she's feeling in over her head, wondering why she left her old life and her old job.  She was making good tips! 

Then she learns the core values of her service, she learns about integrity, honor, valor, concepts she possibly has never had to apply in her young life.  She is taught how to lead and how to follow and when she graduates, she is mentally and physically tougher than she was before.  But she's still herself, too.  She still likes to blog, watch Arrested Development, and rollerblade.  She has grown and changed, but she is not brainwashed.

Now:  Deploy this barista-turned G.I. Jane to a combat zone, some hot Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan.  They're under attack, taking direct fire from Taliban AK-47's.  She sees her buddy go down, wounded, in need of life-saving care.  Will she cower or turn into Captain America?  It's up to you. 

It's not the combat training, but her inner strength that will make her act--or not.  Training doesn't make heroes, it just improves reaction capability of those predisposed to acting heroically. 

To explore this theme further, I strongly recommend Anthony Swofford's Jarhead and Evan Wright's Generation Kill.  Swofford's book is either loved or loathed by military members, but regardless of the animosity, Jarhead opens a murky window in the lives of such men and refuses to shut it.  Swofford offers up raw prose about the way things are, alternating scenes between the monotony of hurry-up-and-wait and the devastating consequences of months of physical and mental abuse that grunt flesh is heir to.  There's no posturing; Swoff''s not a hero and doesn't paint himself as one. 

Evan Wright's embedded reportage in General Kill is another model of authenticity.  Definitely not all soldiers are as the book portrays, but many are--addicted to caffeine, nicotine, gaming, porn, and explosives.  Some are also reckless, apathetic, and, at times, morally questionable.  This is not the norm, but Wright doesn't white-wash things.  There's not a Ben Affleck in this bunch. 

A final book recommendation is The Blog of War: Frontline Dispatches from Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, compiled by Matthew Currier.  The title says it all. 

For current information on military demographics, read "Who Serves in the U.S. Military? The Demographics of Enlisted Troops and Officers," by Shanea Watkins and James Sherk, found here.

Also, the following military sources exist to serve you: 

Department of Defense 
Special Assistant for Entertainment Media
Department of Defense 
Pentagon, Room 2E592 
Washington, DC 20301-1400
(703) 695-2936 / FAX (703) 695-1149

Chief, Office of Army Chief of Public Affairs
Los Angeles Branch 
10880 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 1250
Los Angeles, CA 90024 
(310) 235-7621 / FAX (310) 235-6075 

Director, Navy Office of Information West 
10880 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 1220
Los Angeles, CA 90024 
(310) 235-7481 / FAX (310) 235-7856

Air Force 
Director, Secretary of the Air Force
Office of Public Affairs
Office of Public Affairs-Entertainment Liaison
10880 Wilshire Blvd, Suite 1240
Los Angeles, CA 90024 
(310) 235-7511 / FAX (310) 235-7500


Best of luck crafting your characters! 

Matt CatesComment