Thursday, January 26, 2012

Guest Post: Myke Cole on "Military Culture"

 When people talk about "military culture," it evokes a lot of tired stereotypes. It's rigid, it's conservative, it's macho. I'll never forget when I first became enamored with the military as a kid. My parents laughed off the idea of my ever joining. I was too creative, too free-thinking, too aesthetic. I had a problem with authority. I was too smart. I asked too many questions. I'd never last.

What could I do? I was a kid. They were grownups. I believed them.

And that's a shame. Because they didn't know what the hell they were talking about.

The US military is perhaps one of the most misunderstood institutions in the world. This is owed partially to a relentless portrayal of it in Hollywood and the gaming industry (who have a storyteller's interest in polarity and stereotype) and partially to the growing divide between the civilian and military populations in this country, now arguably worse than it has ever been in our history. I did a guest post on this topic at the Qwillery. You can see it here -

Here's the truth. The military is (and arguably always has been) a *gigantic* organization. It draws liberally from all sections of society. Rich and poor of all races and creeds join up for reasons ranging from ideology to hope-for-advancement to sheer love of the work. The military isn't, and never has been a monoculture. It has proclivities and does draw more heavily from certain segments of society, but that doesn't change my overwhelming experience, which is this: I have met every different type of person in the military. There are artists and free-thinkers. There are anti-authoritarians and anarchists. There are mavericks and dreamers. Many countries have military castes that are kept socially distinct from the rest of society. In America, we have citizen-soldiers, who take off their uniforms at the end of the working day and integrate back into their civilian communities. We have reserve forces (like the one I serve in) that only soldier part-time. When they're off work, they're right alongside everyone else in the malls and parks and churches, recognizable only by accidental use of jargon or a distinct haircut.

It is our military's greatest strength. It is the thing that keeps the military from ever dictating policy (instead, it is an instrument of it). We are CITIZENS as much as warriors, and we are deeply connected to the fabric of the country around us.

When people ask me "what is the military's culture?" I respond "what's your culture?" We are you, and you are us.

And that's why I never look for, or seek to write "military" characters in science-fiction and fantasy. I honestly don't believe they exist. There are only characters, each reacting to and being shaped by their military experiences in their own unique way. PEOPLE remain the heart of great stories, and the military is a broad section of all the people in the society it serves.

Which is one of the biggest reasons I love it so very much.

Myke Cole
SHADOW OPS #1: CONTROL POINT coming from Ace (Penguin) in February, 2012!


  1. Great and unusual post!

    Although my preferred genre (Young Adult) doesn't really let me explore the military that much, I'll keep this in mind if I decide to create a few military chara...I mean, characters in the military.

  2. It's so true. I used to think my more warrior-like fantasy nation would be very rigid and strict, but in the end my characters showed me that they actually weren't. That the nation was actually very diverse and people didn't always get along like a bunch of army ants.

  3. I was in the army, and Desert Storm, so I always have a military character in one of my stories. Get two military people together, and there's an instant bond, even if the soldiers served in different wars across many years, or in a different service.

  4. Well said. On the other hand, while service members are nearly as diverse as the American population, neither are the services a mirror of American society. Career service members are much more likely to be conservative politically & belong to conservative branches of Christianity than the rest of the population. Secondly, a case can be made that the disconnect between service members & the rest of the population is a return to a historic norm. That's because the armed services were small during peacetime prior to 1953.

  5. Thanks for such an informative post!

  6. I think I'd agree with this post as a good example of reservists, but ime active duty works a bit differently, especially among the young enlisted. There does develop a sub-culture because after work they may take their uniform off but they still hang out with other military and talk about military stuff. There is a larger acceptance of race and sub-culture, but there is also an undercurrent of a culture all its own that integrates poor cultures across the country.

  7. Myke, I'm going to add my thanks again for this article, and extend thanks as well to all the commenters! From my anthropological and linguistic viewpoint, I'd say that I don't doubt there are lots of varying subcultures in the military, but I believe one of the functions of such a large body is to create a unified language, social structure and culture unto itself in order to bring together its highly varied members. The point that the military is not as culturally uniform as stereotyping suggests remains entirely valid and very important. I'm very happy to be the host for this discussion!