Really plausible space marines
February 7, 2010 1:51 AM   Subscribe

What are some details of military life that authors writing for generic military settings often get wrong? What details, if I got them right, would convince you that I had really done my homework? Note that I'm not looking for punctilio like the particular way somebody carries his hat indoors but rather broader things that would be ring true for servicemen of any tradition (e.g., strict rules about exactly how to carry a hat).

Bonus points for examples, either good or bad. Extra bonus points if you're an author and can explain how to write good space marines.
posted by d. z. wang to Writing & Language (21 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
A few things from the top of my head:

Using personal and place names on comms systems. Call signs and code names are what's used. The reason it's often glossed over in movies is that it's easier for the audience to keep track of. In real life comms talk is tailored to be terse and clear, and of little use to the enemay in case it's intercepted.

Good soldiers have self dicipline is small things. I.e. bags are always packed the same way, so things can be found in the darkness and don't get lost. Soldiers trained in arctic warfare are religious about keeping their gear and persons dry, because wet is dead in sub-zero conditions. Fingers are kept off triggers at all times (except when actually firing, of course). Kerosene and diesel are kept as far away from the provisions as possible. All these small things have major repercussions if ignored. Your hypotetical space marines will probably be real anal about a lot of things, as space is an unforgiving environment.

Soldiers will always bitch and complain, even if times are good. Other units always get better gear, tastier food or easier assignments.
posted by Harald74 at 2:59 AM on February 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Marines are officially part of the Navy, so their terms will not be the same as soldiers. Walls are bulkheads; hats are covers; the latrine is the head.

Speaking of covers, they are never worn inside.

You carry things in your left hand unless you have a broken arm or you need two hands to carry it. This is done so your right hand is free to salute.
posted by ehamiter at 6:49 AM on February 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Trivia from the perspective of a family member...

Way back before cell phones, if my dad was late getting home, my mom would call his office at the navy base and ask if he had 'secured for the day.' I have no idea why there was this code about saying ' left for the day,' gone home,' or whatever.

The Officer's Club was called the 'O' Club.

I was taught that a vehicle pulling up to a checkpoint should always dim its headlights, as a courtesy to the guard.

And I wonder if Acey-Deucy will still be around when marines are in space....
posted by SLC Mom at 8:02 AM on February 7, 2010


People in the military are more diverse than depicted in movies and books. Lots of slang, some of it very clever.
posted by theora55 at 8:03 AM on February 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


If you really want to be faithful the US variety, then Marines has a capital "M". Heinlein's Starship Troopers is a great (though outdated) example of this genre, although he doesn't use Marines.

MOS and unit assignment is a good thing to bring to this discussion. Like year and major in college, a person is generally introduced by MOS and unit in the Marines (i.e., I'm a sophomore English major/ I'm a 1302 with the MWSS). Also, fiction sometimes isn't very faithful to the idea of MOS distinction. That means, if the radios break on the alien planet, there's a dedicated comm guy who should be scrambling to fix it, not really the lieutenant.

Also--to infantry Marines especially, but also for Marines more generally, there is a distinction between the infantry and the rest of the Marine Corps. Essentially, the Marines Corps is built around the infantry, and everyone who in isn't in the infantry supports the infantry. The entire structure of the Marine Corps is built around this concept, whereas units are formed to provide air support, indirect fire support, logistical support, etc that's appropriate to the size of the infantry unit being deployed.

Since it's all about the infantry in the Marine Corps, there is a lot of pride (which can turn into ridiculous ego) associated with being in an infantry unit. But like the cliche "every Marine a rifleman", everyone gets a basic dose of infantry training, even the lawyers and administrative types.

I think the chain of command is my pet peeve in these types of stories. Although cultures in different branches of the armed services vary, if you're talking about the Marines, there is kind of a clear delineation between the ordinary Marine, the NCO, the SNCO, and the officer. This tends to get confused in fiction, or gets used as a device for soap-opera-ish love affairs between characters. I think a couple of Tanya Huff's books were like this. Yes, I actually read that stuff (past tense).
posted by _cave at 8:05 AM on February 7, 2010


PS: a Marine will never, ever call him/herself a soldier.
posted by _cave at 8:18 AM on February 7, 2010


Depends what kind of unit/service you are talking about. The diversity between different branches and countries makes it seem like a whole different ballgame - my experience has basically split the military services' of different countries into two different possibilities - high-discipline, strict structure armies (the Marines are a great example) or more flexible armies which tend to be more lax on discipline (Israel, some Latin American countries).

Both forms are united by the meaningless commands which inevitably trickle down, unit pride and underlying respect for the flag. In the more lax armies, commanders are more like friends, or compatriots, which can lead to more dilemmas, particularly when under stress.

Personally, I see a space-marine unit as likely taking a more relaxed structure. Think about it - you are stuck on a ship, living out of your commanders' ass, your XO's ass...basically, stuck up to your armpits in everyone else's sweat. That encourages "they are just people too" thinking.

Metamail me if I can help - I have more experience than I care to count in the more relaxed type of military service.
posted by eytanb at 9:11 AM on February 7, 2010


Acronyms fill military speech. Entire conversations are carried out with a few verbs, some articles and loads of acronyms. Throw in a bit of the jargon and you've got communication. "Comstat read you 5X5, sitrep negative."

As said above cover isn't worn indoors nor on the flightline. Cover is also not turned upside down when placed on a table or desk, its placed right side up.
posted by X4ster at 9:38 AM on February 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


You don't salute non-coms. You don't call non-coms "sir".
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:50 AM on February 7, 2010


Hmm, I'm starting to see why people like to make the narrator a journalist tagging along getting everything explained to him. "Comstat read you 5x5, sitrep negative"? I've read enough to know the "read you 5x5" is giving the transmission full points for clarity and strength, and I'm guessing "sitrep negative" means "nothing to report", but even Google can't tell me what "Comstat" means.

Anyway, great answers, thank you. Keep them coming!
posted by d. z. wang at 11:55 AM on February 7, 2010


Speaking of covers, they are never worn inside.

Unless one is under arms, naturally.
posted by madajb at 12:38 PM on February 7, 2010


That means, if the radios break on the alien planet, there's a dedicated comm guy who should be scrambling to fix it, not really the lieutenant.

This this this. They want to minimize the number of characters in movies, but good lord, there's not one dude who's Mr. FixIt.
posted by desuetude at 1:09 PM on February 7, 2010


The Air Force is a little more relaxed. You can generally get away with calling everyone "sir" regardless of rank, officer or enlisted.

I only made the mistake of calling a Marine "sir" instead of his rank once.
posted by NeonBlueDecember at 1:10 PM on February 7, 2010


Really plausible Space Marines would be ferried in ships run by the Space Navy, who went unmentioned in both "Aliens" and "Avatar" where the deep-space ships seemed to be robot-controlled, deserted and unmanned while the marines were in hibernation.
posted by Rash at 1:46 PM on February 7, 2010


In BDU's (the camoflage gear) the Air Force does this little fold thing so that they can pull their sleeves down with just one pull. It shows the "right side" of the fabric even when they're up - no more or less than an inch above the bend of the elbow, if I recall correctly. The Marines just roll theirs up. I don't remember what the Army does. Lots of little uniform quirks. The old timers in the Army can take offense if you call them sir. "Don't call me sir, my parents were MARRIED, thank you very much!" If you're in a place that requires a security badge and forget yours and get a guest badge, we called them turkey badges, and you had to bring doughnuts for the crew the next day. The other branches think (not completely inaccurately) that the Air Force people are soft; but a lot of it's envy over how easy they have it. There's a lot of mostly good-natured rivalry, especially as more posts become joint service and you end up working side by side with members of all the branches.
posted by lemniskate at 4:24 PM on February 7, 2010


Really plausible Space Marines would be ferried in ships run by the Space Navy, who went unmentioned in both "Aliens" and "Avatar" where the deep-space ships seemed to be robot-controlled, deserted and unmanned while the marines were in hibernation.


The soldiers in Avatar were mercenaries, not Marines, therefore it's unlikely a 'Space Navy' would be involved.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 5:41 PM on February 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


"squared away" is not just an adjective describing some inanimate object as neat and orderly, it is also an all-purpose compliment to a Marine's character. also, candy is informally (and offensively) known as "pogey bait".
posted by toodleydoodley at 5:50 PM on February 7, 2010


trying to remember Joe Haldeman's name I found this article on military sci fi on wikipedia.
posted by garlic at 10:40 AM on February 8, 2010


Interesting discussion of this topic at

http://munchkinwrangler.wordpress.com/2009/05/04/a-question-about-military-novels/

Shorter but probably unhelpful advice at

http://munchkinwrangler.wordpress.com/2010/01/25/monday-search-term-safari-lxxxiii/

Marko served in the Bundeswehr.
posted by Bruce H. at 11:38 AM on February 8, 2010


The other branches think (not completely inaccurately) that the Air Force people are soft; but a lot of it's envy over how easy they have it.

An old joke: What does "Secure the building" mean?

– Navy: “Turn off the lights and lock the doors.”
– Army: “Surround the building, occupy, and control entry.”
– Marines: “Call in close air support, assault with small team, neutralize occupants, fortify and hold at all costs until properly relieved. SEMPER FI!”
– Air Force: “Take out a three-year lease with option to buy.”

That's what I found online. When I heard it originally the Coast Guard was also included, and their answer was to board up the windows to protect the building against gale force winds.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:32 PM on February 9, 2010


The Marine lexicon.

I don't know how useful that would be for you, but it is certainly fun.
posted by Sallyfur at 11:49 AM on February 11, 2010


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