My novelette, Weapons in the Earth, is coming out in John Joseph Adams’ military fantasy anthology, OPERATION: ARCANA. It’s a Prisoner of War (POW) tale, told from the point of view of non-combatants. I was really proud to write it, if only because I hope it’ll shift the conversation on what constitutes a “military” story. After being asked how I considered it to be a “military” story in multiple interviews, I thought I’d talk about the issue here. It’s one that’s near and dear to my heart.
Most “military” fiction addresses the warrior’s point of view, whether it be a dissection of tragedy like THE FOREVER WAR, a Ringoesque piece complete with blazing guns and waving flags, or the more balanced treatment in a Campbell or Buettner novel. Some highlight heroism and make forays into “gear porn,” others focus on the challenges of reintegration and the return home, but ALL share this – the warfighter is the center of the narrative.
But here’s the truth: military engagements effect warriors least of all. For every combatant or support-personnel, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of non-combatants with no real interest in the conflict, whose lives are forever changed. Wars have greater impacts than any natural disaster, altering the course of cultures, industries and the physical environment for generations. I cheered when 11-Bit Studios put out This War of Mine, a video game played exclusively from the point-of-view of the refugees that exist in far greater numbers than the soldiers in the armies they flee. We need more stories like this. Because, for too many, the consequences of military action are the last thing considered. Because our stories are a reflection of our cultural values, not only what stories we tell, but the things we deem worthy to tell stories about.
The military experience belongs to *everyone.* No one who lives in any society is untouched by a military. An 80 year old woman who has never served, but has lived through the American interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan has just as much “ownership” over the experience as a 25 year old Marine who has fought in both of them. One experience is no more valid than the other. Both of their stories are “military” stories. Both deserve to be told.
Did you ever see the film Jarhead? I didn’t like it overall, but there was one scene that brought me to tears: When Jake Gyllenhaal is on the phone from Iraq to his girlfriend in the states. The connection is spotty, and it’s clear that another man is in the background. You can feel Gyllenhaal’s love pouring out over the phone line, the sick pit in his stomach as he realizes that he’s losing her, the rage and frustration that he can’t even communicate it to her, can’t fix it, can’t do anything but sit and stew and WAIT.
Watching that scene knocked the stuffing out of me. That was my military experience. The slow realization that human relationships are built mostly on shared experience. That staticky, unclear satphone calls were enough to exchange words, but not the thousands of tiny touches, expressions and inside jokes that build connections between people and sustain them over years. That my friends and family, even the ones who loved me the most, were moving on unintentionally. They could say they were keeping the home fires burning, but that couldn’t change the hard reality that I was missing out on the essential things that made us all love one another: sharing a knowing glance when Dad starts going on one of his rants again, hugging one another on New Year’s Eve, saying “oooohhh, awesoommmeee,” at the same time (without planning it) during the 4th of July Fireworks. War is a limiter, and the people outside the conflict exist in a wider world, exposed to new people and food and art and news that I couldn’t experience. At the same time, I was having experiences they could scarcely imagine. There was this sense that, despite our best efforts, we were spinning away from each other. And there was nothing I could do but call and email and wait and wait and eventually come home.
And sure enough, when I did come home, some of those people didn’t know me anymore. Some of those people looked at the person I’d become, and shrugged, and spun out of my orbit, forever. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. We’d both changed. We’d missed some crucial shift in the other’s life, something invisible and silent and tectonic. Something that couldn’t be rebuilt. I lost cousins. I lost men I’d called “brother.” I lost the woman I’d planned to marry, who’d told me she’d love me forever.
This was my “military experience,” and it had nothing to do with fighting, nothing to do with war at all. It is the same thing that travelling businesspeople experience, or people working for Doctor’s Without Borders or sea captains or anyone whose work takes them far away, and keeps them away for a long time.
It was common, and it was ordinary, and it was devastating. Thinking of it today, of the sense of helplessness, of creeping loss, still makes me toe the edge of composure.
Military stories are about everyone and belong to everyone. Weapons in the Earth is about herders, not warriors. It contains little fighting, less ruminations about war-gear and nothing of strategy, tactics or military hierarchy. And it is a military story in its bones.
It may not be a good story, but it’s my hope that it’ll be an important one. You’ll be the judge of that.