By David Flin
Write about what you know is a piece of general advice that is given to many authors. There’s a good reason for this. As soon as you start writing about specialised areas, if you don’t know what it’s like, there’s no way that you can convey it to your readers.
Sometimes, this is not important. As a general rule, there’s usually no need to go into the details of how things are done, unless it is relevant to the plot. Ian Fleming rarely went into the details of how the eggs benedict that Bond had for breakfast was made. As a general rule, if it’s not important to the story, it shouldn’t be included.
This is especially true when authors try to write a soldier’s view of combat, in an attempt to create a feeling of what war is like. It’s usually at around this point that the wall facing where armchair where I do most of my reading receives another dent, as a book gets thrown with the traditional accompanying cry of: “For God’s sake, what idiot could write that?”
Here are a number of the more common things that result in peril to the structural integrity of my house.
Remember, boys, we’re fighting for our nation’s glory. There can be many reasons why people join: something to do; patriotism and answering the call of the nation; being forced to; as a source of income and employment; to avoid complications with the law.
However, when you’re in a fight, none of these are important. You’re fighting for one reason, and one reason only, and that’s your mates in your Section (or Troop or Squad or whatever the basic group you’re with is called). They’re the people you live with, spend your time with in close proximity with, and are depending on to help you survive this.
When you’re moving through the dark towards a known enemy position, hoping that the enemy can’t see you, knowing that they’re in concealed bunkers, and your job is to winkle them out, and that they could have you in their sights right now, the thing that keeps you going is the knowledge that the other members of your Section are depending on you. Nothing else.
He felt hatred flow through him as he got the enemy in his sights. What you see when you get something lined up in your sights is a target. No more, no less. Let emotions get involved, and you’ll miss. Settle on the target, make sure you’ve identified it correctly, exhale, get rid of the breath in your lungs so you’re steady, gently squeeze, not pull, the trigger, hold the aim for a second, and move on. Not a trace of hatred.
He saw movement out of the corner of his eye. Really? Tunnel vision is inevitable for people in combat. You focus utterly on what’s going on in front of you, That’s where the immediate danger lies. That’s what needs to be dealt with now. You depend on your mates to deal with other stuff. That is why officers generally stand back from the thick of things, so that they can keep an eye out for peripheral stuff.
He stood in line, watching the enemy column approach. This was going to be easy. It may be easy. If the line stands. I have a friend who took part in the re-enactment of the 125th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. He was in the Union line, under cover behind the stone wall, awaiting Pickett’s Charge. The officer came along and told him that in a moment, they’d stand, turn and fire into the approaching Rebs. The order duly came, and he stood, and turned. To left and right, he could see just the tiny little bit of the line he was in. Those further down the line were hidden by the people next to him. As far as he could see, there were maybe a dozen people he could see in the line, and the rest he just had to take on trust. Then he looked down the hill, and he had a perfect view of the massed ranks of Rebs coming up towards him. “Millions and millions, all marching straight at me.”
He went on to explain that his first impulse was to turn and run. Discipline usually prevails, although not always, as Johnny Cope discovered at Prestonpans.
It was pitch dark and he couldn’t see a thing. He didn’t know what was out there, hidden in the dark. He was scared. It’s the wrong way round. They’re scared of you, not you of them. Darkness is your friend. You’ve trained for it, and they can’t see you. As a Royal Marine saying from the early 1980s has it:
“Yea though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I shall fear no evil, “For I am the toughest mother’s son in the Valley, and Evil is scared of me.”
One’s watchful, cautious, but for well-trained troops, darkness is a friend.
The Crispin Day speech Shakespeare was able to make it work. Shakespeare was quite a good writer, and probably a bit better then you are. In reality, such speeches do nothing for the morale of the troops. Things that affect morale is fairly basic stuff. Have they been paid? Do they have food? Are they cold and wet and far from home with no chance of getting back any time soon? Do the people back home treat them with contempt? You’d be surprised how damaging it is to morale that whenever you go home, ordinary civilians spit at you and refuse you entry to a pub. “We don’t serve your sort in here.”
But the most important element to morale is your immediate officer. If you see him as a competent, reliable sort who had your best interests at heart and would look after you while you did whatever the job happened to be, then fine. If he wasn’t, then there was a problem.
Generals being good for morale? Not in my experience, although I’ve heard people talk about some who were well-regarded, and some who weren’t.
And finally I could go on and on (and on and on and on) about things that people who haven’t been there just aren’t able to understand, such as: When is complaining a sign of good morale or low morale; what are soldiers likely to think about women in combat; why do officers encourage troops to play rugby and football and similar, but don’t much care for troops playing sports like tennis? (The answer to the last is that team sports are more highly regarded, as a general rule, for the men, than individual sports.
I guess that the conclusion to all this is that if an author is really keen to try and write realistically about grunt-level combat, the most effective way of getting it right is to join the Armed Forces, get sent to some far-off corner of the world, spend months and years of having unfriendly people there trying to cut short your life, then come back, possibly wounded and probably having episodes of severe PTSD for the rest of your life. That will make your writing convincing. Some people might regard this as a high price to pay for such detail.
An alternative is to ask someone who has done these things.