You know how some southern gentlemen kept wearing their Confederate uniforms? not like that.
August 19, 2010 10:06 PM   Subscribe

Help me make my science-fiction story more realistic: what kind of mistakes might give away a bunch of born-and-bred military types trying to go undercover as civilians? Or, if you had military experience, what habits did you have to unlearn/relearn after discharge, that might be confusing or difficult if you hadn't had a civilian life previously and your off-duty time was much more regimented?

The premise is that a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away servicemen socialize and marry exclusively with each other, to the point where the military becomes a parallel society. Think more along the lines of ex-pat enclaves or "the other side of the tracks" than Mr. Weasley collecting ekeltricity plugs: put one in the other's living room, and you won't get hilarious hijinks so much as awkwardness and "...why did you just...never mind".

So if you take a bunch of smart people from the military side, teach them the basics of acting like civilians, and then let them loose, what kind of things are they going to mess up?

These should be small little details, individually easily dismissed but collectively creating a distinct sense of foreignness if you know what to look for. Eventually, I'd like a civilian character to connect the dots and confront the soldiers, but he should have to work for that moment.

A few I thought of (and please tell me if these are plausible) would be,

- very consistently putting a hat on when outside and tucking it under the left elbow the moment he steps inside
- turning the shower off while he soaps up
- cooperating a little too much: e.g., at the baggage claim, forming a human chain from the cart to the luggage carousel instead of each man carrying his own bag
- backing into parking spaces
posted by d. z. wang to Society & Culture (58 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
When outside, not carrying anything in your right hand (to leave it free for saluting).

And, using military jargon. Probably that more than anything.
posted by Wufpak at 10:13 PM on August 19, 2010

I have no military experience whatsoever, but living in a town with more-than-average numbers of military types (and particularly brass hats), some of the giveaways for service people in civvies include:

- calling people sir or ma'am
- very shiny dress shoes (men)
- very short (men) or very tidy (women) hair
- discomfort in conversations that tend towards a disrespect for authority (for example a statement like "I can't believe how heavy the cops came down on those protestors, that's way out of line" makes them uncomfortable)
- being very tidy - for example, cupboards where everythingis labelled and organised, beds made with everything tucked in using hospital corners
posted by girlgenius at 10:15 PM on August 19, 2010

Military people fold their clothes in a very specific way. Particularly, the sock thing is a dead giveaway.
posted by Mizu at 10:18 PM on August 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

Eating very quickly.
Verbally using military time (answering "1700" instead of "5 p.m." when asked the time).
posted by amyms at 10:26 PM on August 19, 2010

Being more visibly upset/annoyed with tardiness (their own or someone else's) than one would expect in a social situation.
posted by griphus at 10:33 PM on August 19, 2010

Don't know if this translates into space (or if it actually still happens), but my grandma used to tell me you could tell which old men she knew fought because they all cupped their cigarettes in their hands.
posted by wayland at 10:37 PM on August 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

I have long had a hunch that one of my neighbors is (ex-?)military -- something about his bearing and manner just says that to me, although I have trouble putting my finger on why. I don't know him well enough to ask him. And then the other day, while I was outside in the front yard gardening, I heard him hustling his two young kids out of their car and into the house, and he used the phrase "hup to!" and I had to smile.
posted by Asparagirl at 10:42 PM on August 19, 2010

My dad's been retired for 20 years and he still can't shake the jargon. All those PDQ's and SNAFU's. Calling meals 'chow' or spelling things out with the phonetic alphabet. A civilian would say "B as in Boy" an Army guy would say "B as in Bravo". Military time is hard to shake too.

Definitely the tidiness. Not just their homes, but their clothes, cars and workspaces. Irritation at other's sloppiness could be there too. Mild irritation if it was a passing thing and severe irritation if it impeded their ability to do their work.

Your hat thing, the showering and the parking thing could be plausible but the human chain would be way to conspicuous. They'd realize it and stop themselves.

There is a certain way of folding shirtsleeves so that no inside part of the sleeve shows, I don't know what it's called but it was the only way that Army guys could fold their sleeves and still be in uniform. Some people do it on civilian shirts, but not many.

I've also noticed a lot of the retired Military types still like guns and the history of wars. My dad loves learning about WW2, and my grandpa was a big Civil War nut. It seems to be a recurring theme with other Veterans as well. Both my dad and grandpa also had gun collections and enjoyed going out to the gun range.

You could also have your characters have a familiarity with survival skills. Maps, compass reading, knives, bugs that are safe to eat, that kind of thing. It could be a sign of somebody who likes to camp and hike, but it's also something they get trained for in the military.

Nicknames are also something that even the retired guys keep. My dad still knows his old buddies as their nicknames, and if you called out "Hey Cookie!" he'd answer.
posted by TooFewShoes at 10:48 PM on August 19, 2010

Oh yeah, Military types will eat anything. I don't know if it's because they're used to bad food at the Mess hall (Mess for Army, Chow for Marines) or if it's those MREs but they can really eat anything. Especially if you give them hot sauce to put on it.

If you want to do a little research on nicknames I found this great site with pilot call signs and how they got them. The basic rules are pretty much the same for the other branches of military.
posted by TooFewShoes at 10:53 PM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

The clothes folding thing is made up, outside of possibly basic training. As long as my room was clean, my NCOs were happy. That said, I did ridiculous things like have my closet arranged by clothes type and color. So all my red tees were together, green tees, etc. The idea is to just not give your NCO the least possibility to bitch about anything.

Tidy hair (my hair was cut every other week at worst, often every week) makes sense, but I'd assume soldiers going undercover would be smart enough to grow it out.

I'd think they'd also be smart enough to use civilian time.

The cooperation example is only going to happen if a ranking NCO is going "alright, let's get a chain going!"

Putting a hat on to go outside and taking it off inside is a good idea. That said, I always put my PC in a cargo pocket inside. Tucked under an elbow is strictly for dress uniform.

Turning off the shower is just good sense? I do that, but just because otherwise the soap gets rinsed off as I'm trying to lather up.

Thing about free right hand is correct while on post, but you also don't salute ever in a combat zone (good way to get officers shot).

My suggestions:
1. Respect for the chain of command. If you've got a problem - any sort of problem - you bring it to your squad leader. If she or he can't fix it, go to the platoon leader, then to company, but you make every stop along the way. If you try to just go straight to company command, they will kick you back to your squad leader who will smoke the shit out of you and then address your issue.
2. Falling into step when walking as a group. This totally freaked me out the first time I noticed it happening, but if you get a bunch of people used to marching in formation just walking down the street together, they'll fall into step. So disturbing.
3. Have they seen combat? There's always PTSD.
4. To go with the hat, sunglasses are ok outside but never inside.
5. If you're getting yelled at or addressed by a superior officer in a formal manner, stand at ease. I've been out since 2007 and I've come close to standing at ease even if not getting yelled at.
6. Superiors are also possibly more used to yelling at subordinates in the military culture. If someone is two minutes late in the military, they get yelled at for 15 minutes and do a bunch of pushups. If you're two minutes late as a civilian you go "sorry Jen, bad luck with the red lights".
posted by kavasa at 11:05 PM on August 19, 2010 [6 favorites]

In relation to the short hair thing, there are some (possibly mythical) anecdotes out there about British undercover soldiers/agents in Northern Ireland. At first, their hair tended to be too short, and the locals pinged them that way. So they got orders to grow their hair long. But by the end of the large scale conflict, fashions had changed to a point where blokes with long hair stood out, and once again, they got busted.

I suspect the stories are urban myth, but there are claims that the IRA acted on the myth and actually killed a couple of Australians in the Netherlands because they had short hair (end of second post.)

If there's something useful in any of that, maybe it's that military fashions change more slowly than civilian fashions (even under external pressure), and that people with reason to be worried about a military presence will respond in unpredictable ways towards things they perceive to be unfashionable.
posted by Ahab at 11:16 PM on August 19, 2010

The social life of military dependents (spouses, kids) parallels the military rank hierarchy: wives of enlisted rankers socialize with wives of other enlisted rankers, wives of officers with wives of officers. And the wife wife the highest ranking presumptively leads that group of wives. Similar for kids.

Wives aree expected to pitch in to "wife activities"; failure to do so can negatuvely affect their husbands' careers.

Military and their families move every three years or so, integrating in their new duty posts with colleagues of the same ranks.
posted by orthogonality at 11:37 PM on August 19, 2010

You know, the thing I had a hardest time getting used to was relaxing what I guess you could call habitual appraisal.

When you're in the military, you've got the whole customs and courtesies thing. Officers get a salute and a greeting, sergeants just get the greeting. So you're never really able to just walk down the sidewalk and not worry about who's around you, because just about everybody is due a salute or a greeting. I was pretty used to everyone making eye contact with everyone else at all times because it's just something you do: You're not allowed to not acknowledge people.

Outside the military, it's just not like that. People fail to acknowledge each other all the time, and some people really do not deal well with firm eye contact and even a pleasant "good afternoon." Curiously, they're better about it here in Portland than they were back in Charlottesville (I'd have thought city people would be less open to engagement than people in a smaller town), but in the last fifteen years I've downgraded from "firm eye contact and a greeting" to "smile and a nod" on all but the very busiest sidewalks, so maybe I'm what's different there.

It was hard to put my hands in my pockets to do anything besides get something out of them. I did the hat thing you mention. I tucked my shoelaces, canoe-rolled my socks, made sure my gig line was correct and folded my towels over the rod such that there wasn't an open edge: folds on both sides. It all faded away pretty quickly except for the compulsive people-greeting.
posted by mph at 11:47 PM on August 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

I also immediately thought of the time thing "17.00 instead of 5pm", but I would be careful about the setting of your story. In some places in Europe we do use 17.00 as a standard and hearing it wouldn't be out of place (although I am assuming that language and setting for your story would be the US, please excuse me if I am mistaken)
posted by alchemist at 11:54 PM on August 19, 2010

Lots of kit and gear and tools - computers or fishing or whatever - the right tool for the job

Anal retentive OCD style organisation (arrgh)

One day at a time attitude
posted by By The Grace of God at 12:34 AM on August 20, 2010

I worked in an organisation with one person who was ex-military, and the things that made her stand out were:
- standard of dress. She was just generally less creased than everyone else!
- posture and bearing
- use of military time in writing (as alchemist says, some of us would use 17:00 for 5pm; but none the rest of us would use 0800 for 8am)

Something that may just be the military people I've met, or may be a British military thing - a truly astounding capacity for alcohol. On base they can get booze at 'mess prices', which are much cheaper than outside (because the mess isn't run for profit), and there are a lot of actions which seem to have a tradition that you must buy everyone a round afterwards.
posted by Coobeastie at 1:21 AM on August 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

what kind of mistakes might give away a bunch of born-and-bred military types trying to go undercover as civilians?

Walk up behind or to the side of an ex-military person and say "ten-hut!" Bet you'll see a reflex you would not see in a civilian. Friend of mine was out of ROTC visiting his old school, and one of his teachers pulled this one on him.

If someone in your story suspects the military guys are indeed military, this might be a way they could confirm their suspicion.
posted by zippy at 1:33 AM on August 20, 2010

Ex-British OTC (roughly equivalent to ROTC in the US) for three years here, lots of friends in the military.

Is your future, segregated military a direct descendent of current US armed forces, or are you looking for thoughts about other countries?

You may want to look out some of the many books about undercover operations in Northern Ireland - as noted above the hair length thing was a major giveaway at first. Soldiers I've spoken to who served in NI have said the special forces and 14 Int (undercover people) soldiers always looked really out of place when they were pulled in from the field, because they'd adopted local accents, had scruffy dress and didn't salute or march in step.

British, Australian and NZ soldiers shame a lot of cultural and decorum markers, including an inimitable brand of black humour commonly called 'squaddie humour', that most civilians who hear it are pretty appalled by. Combined with the British military capacity for alcohol and it becomes pretty easy to spot a group of soldiers on a night out. The 'chat' gets ranker with each drink. Matching slacks, polo shirts and haircuts is a bit of a giveaway too.

There's also the phrase 'military bearing', which is nebulous, but spot on. When I'm at a party or something with military and non-military friends, you can literally go around the room and pick out the currently serving people by the way they stand. It's not the stereotypical 'ramrod straight' drill sergeant thing, it's more that they look very controlled and economical with their movements.

Also, reacting to loud noises by turning their heads very sharply and immediately scanning for threats. Oh, and walking down a street silently looking around (which one of my mates told me is a completely habitual scanning for potential sniper cover and in-depth enemy positions that he picked up in Iraq). Also, giving items of random debris by the side of the road a wide berth (although I think that's very current-conflict-specific).
posted by Happy Dave at 2:20 AM on August 20, 2010

sorry, that's share, not shame.

Also, one thing to note about the British armed forces in particular - they have been extremely segregated from the general populace for upwards of forty years due to the terrorist threat from Northern Ireland (very few parades, no wearing of uniform while travelling etc) and this deeply affected how they were regarded by the public at large. This has been very visibly changing over the past ten years of two active conflicts. But you might want to look into the effects of having an 'invisible' segregated military on morale and support for the military at large.
posted by Happy Dave at 2:23 AM on August 20, 2010

Would they all, for the most part, be in good physical shape? I know this varies somewhat...but overall I bet they're in better shape, on the whole, than the general public.
posted by vitabellosi at 3:10 AM on August 20, 2010

I agree, and am throwing in that a lot of these things just aren't really going to happen. Just for reference, my dad was in the US Air Force.

Take military time for instance. Military people don't always use the 24 hour clock. Even when my dad would have squadron people over and the Air Force guys were talking about something amongst themselves they'd use civilian time. Having them understand it when someone else uses it might be a give away though, although I'm just trusting that scientists would use it as stated above. One other things to consider here is that when you schedule a post in WordPress it uses a 24 hour clock so that method of keeping time is leaking into the civilian world.

Yelling "Ten hut" at someone is just stupid. If I read your thing and see you use that I'd probably stop right there.

Anything having to do with appearance would most likely be taken care of in a briefing before they're put out into the real world. The point is that the military wants them to blend in, right? I heard a good amount of stories from my dad about things they were told not to wear and ways they were told not to act in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, and other places he went to. It didn't seem to be a problem for the people there to follow orders that generally went against their training.

Are these people spying or otherwise still connected to the military society? Because if they are there will be check ins and stuff like that. Also, do they know who each other are out in civilian society? Because they can get feedback from each other.

If you want this to be believable (which I'm assuming since you're asking here) then I have two tips.

1 - Appearance/other stupid things are OK only from military people who are new to the civilian world. Especially if they're part of a group of military people.

2 - Long term stuff will have to be subconscious things. Walking in step, always doing some things the same way, getting into a routine that isn't broken (because it's a learned routine and not because military people are OCD), stuff like that.

Eating quickly isn't a bad move. But anyone who doesn't have much time to eat does that. Teachers come to mind for me, especially ones in lower elementary schools.
posted by theichibun at 3:43 AM on August 20, 2010


There were (and still are to some extent) families in England who served as officers for generation after generation, often in the same regiment of the same service. You might want to look into the attitudes that they developed. Particularly the disdain for commercial enterprise, this no longer exists but it was certainly very real in the officer class as late as the 1950s.
posted by atrazine at 4:54 AM on August 20, 2010

"Ten hut"...are you kidding me?

"Capacity for alcohol"...jeez.

Maybe you missed the part where I served in the TA for three years and am good friends with about half a dozen serving soldiers?
posted by Happy Dave at 5:32 AM on August 20, 2010

Clean shoes.
posted by gjc at 5:33 AM on August 20, 2010

Many of these will be military- or conflict-specific; witness the disagreements above from people with different types of military experience. Fortunately, since you're going for SF, you can afford to invent new ones that can still ring true to the reader.

For example, in Chasm City, the military are referred to as "white eyes" because they are unusually tanned in general, but have white patches over one eye where they do NOT tan because they're always wearing targeting gear on that eye. Note: there's an ongoing conflict in the book, so those military are frontline active-duty, not covert ops guys. They're not trying to hide.

Another one would be unusual technological implants (odd bulge near major muscle groups, silvery patch of skin behind one ear, whatever).

If you allow implants but assume they're better-hidden, then maybe things like freakish reaction time. If someone drops a glass, let the military guy reflexively grab it in a way that a normal person couldn't.

Many of the objections above also, however, skip the fact that you're talking about a hereditary military. Some behaviors which are only marginally ingrained in modern human militaries (chain of command, style of dress, etc.) and which thus fade after a few years, would be much more likely to permanently stick. It's a LOT harder to drop a habit when you've been doing it since you could walk -- it wouldn't even necessarily occur to you that it's a habit, since that'd be the way everyone has done it in your life, it's just the way things are!

For example, consider the "personal space" differences between the US and certain parts of the world. Read Erving Goffman for more on this; I suspect you'll gather at least a half-dozen ideas from him.
posted by aramaic at 5:44 AM on August 20, 2010 [7 favorites]

Many of these will be military- or conflict-specific; witness the disagreements above from people with different types of military experience. Fortunately, since you're going for SF, you can afford to invent new ones that can still ring true to the reader.

Very true - the stories I heard to illustrate the differences in culture and attitude between US and UK troops are, I think, the tip of the iceberg in this regard.

You might also want to take a look at some of the literature about 'warrior societies' like the Spartans, if your military society is a herditary one - how are your people trained, and what kinds of behaviour might that create (the Spartan's started 'em young)? What about people who dissent and don't want to fight, what happens to them? How do gender roles differ, if at all, and how might that affect their undercover work - for example, if the military society sees all people as interchangeable 'warriors' and the civilian society has more defined gender roles, how will the women (or the men!) blend in?

Gonna have to check out Chasm City, sounds fascinating.
posted by Happy Dave at 5:49 AM on August 20, 2010

I can't speak for much of what has been said so far, as a lot of it sounds to me very much like what you see in movies featuring the American military. However, Happy Dave has it spot on regards things like military bearing. Someone in the military (British only I can speak for) just stands out... little things like (summarising and stealing from some others in the thread, but these are the ones I found myself thinking "Oh God, yes, I do that!")

Walking in step/exaggerated arm movement when walking. Walking faster/in a more direct manner than most (a British military conditioned response for being advised at unpleasant volumes against "bimbling".)

Squaddie humour/Gallows humour.

Stoicism/Indifference to increasingly difficult circumstances. For example, if two groups of people had been told to walk 20 miles to where they would be picked up and driven the remaining 20 back to camp, only to be told at the halfway point the vehicle was not able to pick them up, the civilian group would probably be on their phones complaining and looking to speak to someone about this unacceptable set of circumstances. The military group would still gripe, but mostly under their breath before standing up, getting their kit on and "cracking on".

Happy Dave said this:
Also, reacting to loud noises by turning their heads very sharply and immediately scanning for threats. Oh, and walking down a street silently looking around (which one of my mates told me is a completely habitual scanning for potential sniper cover and in-depth enemy positions that he picked up in Iraq). Also, giving items of random debris by the side of the road a wide berth (although I think that's very current-conflict-specific).
I can definitely relate to that. Especially the scanning thing. I do it all the time. I'll be getting off a train or a tube and as I'm walking to the exit, I'm sizing up who's around me, looking for reflective surfaces, checking exits. This just as a matter of habit. I find that when I'm at home with "civvy" mates, they find it weird when I mention "Did you see that bloke on the left sat on his own as we came into the bar?" and when I'm able to describe him in some detail, even though I'm not looking at him, they see this as odd. I see it as nothing more than being aware of one's surroundings should something "kick off".
posted by Biru at 5:57 AM on August 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Only a casual contact with military people (so I don't know any true Scotsmen), but one 'personality' thing I'd like to add is akin to Kavasa's comment #6 -- the military's attitude towards mentoring and mistakes is very, very assertive compared to what civilians are comfortable with. Military people, even when giving positive feedback, can sound very angry by polite social standards, and even rather hostile-sounding dressing-downs are, in fact, positive 'character-building' and 'relationship-building' things among military people.
posted by AzraelBrown at 6:36 AM on August 20, 2010

A civilian would say "B as in Boy" an Army guy would say "B as in Bravo"
I thought they would just say "Bravo", not the "B as in"

Also - what about language? Lots of folks have mentioned "chow" or "mess". I will suggest "vehicle" and "weapon" instead of "car" and "gun". This is one of those things that wouldn't necessarily give it away, but along with other clues it would add up. Maybe this is more police-oriented than military, but maybe other folks have some similar suggestions.
posted by CathyG at 6:38 AM on August 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Good call on gun/weapon. I'll always use rifle or pistol, never gun. If I must be nonspecific I'd use weapon.
posted by Biru at 6:42 AM on August 20, 2010

Just an FYI I am government but civilian at a civilian agency and many of us use Alpha Bravo Charlie as well as other terms often associated with the armed services. I know some civilian personnel (both in civilian agencies and military) who use a lot of "military" language like 24 hour time. If in your universe there are civilians who work with your military that could be a factor.
posted by pointystick at 7:19 AM on August 20, 2010

Sea Cadets and Army ROTC got me forgetting whether I could leave on my hat or not when entering a building, what to call a wall, and whether the worst thing that can happen when your sentry slacks off is a) fire or b) an ambush. No one is in "the military," at least in the US - this stuff varies and is an excellent area of conflict you can explore.

Having said that, the thing I retained the longest is walking with scary looking purpose, in a straight line. I used to wonder if getting out of a training mindset (which is all we did in both organizations) would have re-taught me how to walk casually. When I'm stressed, I'm much more likely to hustle and take sharp corners.

I really think you should figure out your non-military society first, by the way. It will be tough for us to say what stands out without really knowing either one of these cultures.
posted by SMPA at 7:38 AM on August 20, 2010

SMPA: "What to call a wall?" Can you explain that?
posted by RobotHero at 7:53 AM on August 20, 2010

SMPA: "What to call a wall?" Can you explain that?"

Navy types call 'em bulkheads. Similarly, the floor is 'the deck' and toilets are 'heads'.
posted by Happy Dave at 8:29 AM on August 20, 2010

I've never been in the military, or even close to it, but here are three clues that would seem plausible to me as a reader:

1. Above-average fitness. Imagine a group of active-duty soldiers next to a group of average citizens. There won't be any chubby, slouchy guys in the military group. They'll be muscular, or lean and wiry.

2. Definitely the jargon. Don't overdo it, though. Maybe one of the soldiers is caught off guard, or overheard, or has a drink or two in him (perhaps imbibed to fit into the undercover situation), and accidentally slips with a single bit of jargon, or even a slang term that's only heard in the military.

It could be even subtler than that—maybe they just show an unusual familiarity with military technology and culture. (And by "familiarity", I mean both "knowledge of" and "comfort with".) A guy picks up a military weapon and his hands automatically go to the proper grip and position. Or he knows just a bit too much about the names, locations, and activities of various military bases. Or he seems to readily understand military jargon when other people use it (unlike the average citizen, who will hear it as half-gibberish). Confronted with a sudden crisis or threat (could be something simple, like a mugging or a bar fight), his soldier instincts takes over, and he asserts control over the situation with surprising ability.

3. Deference to the leader of the group. Again, keep it subtle. Perhaps an unsuspecting character asks a question, or extends an invitation to a lower ranking soldier, in front of a higher-ranking one. A split-second hesitation, a brief questioning glance from the lower-ranking soldier to the higher-ranking one—that's enough to tickle ye olde spider sense.

None of these are dead giveaways in and of themselves, but after observing two or three of them, a character is going to suspect that something's up.

The "gun" and "vehicle" thing, and an uncomplaining tolerance for shitty food, are also great ideas.
posted by ixohoxi at 8:39 AM on August 20, 2010

I think a lot of these answers are overly simplistic / stereotypical.

My boyfriend was in the military for eight years. It's been about a year since he got out, and, while he's still in good shape, there's nothing that says "military" about him at all. He's grown his hair out to a very standard length that he doesn't take particularly pains to maintain- no more biweekly haircuts. He has an incredible propensity to get mustard on his clothing, and many of his tee shirts and jeans have developed rips and holes from mucking around in the woods. His shoes are unremarkable. He doesn't use jargon or military time. He's not stiff or terribly economical in his movements. He doesn't wear apparel related to his service; his dog tags and medals and badges are tucked away in a box on the top shelf of a closet.

And yet... everywhere we go, he gets pinged as a vet. He gets offered military discounts, other veterans ask him where he served, people will just ask, "are you military?"

The only giveaway I've ever noticed is when we ran into a superior officer and his family on a hike. They had been in Iraq together, and both were now out. They caught up for a bit, and when we continued on, he stiffened up and said "nice to see you, sir." It was a weird little moment that was, I think, a little painful for both.
posted by charmcityblues at 9:02 AM on August 20, 2010

Nthing that you might want to figure out your dominant non-military culture first.

A good resource might be CJ Cherryh's Rimrunners, which is all about a marine trying to pass as a civilian.

On another monolithic are you imagining your military to be? There seems to be a very common mental short circuit that military = infantry, which is pretty inaccurate even in the Army.

As SMPA and others mentioned above, the Marines are very different from the Navy or Air Force or Army just within the U.S. Forces. Once you get to more specialized situations like the Gurkhas, or military bands, or elite forces like the Navy Seals or SAS, or more civilian-style specialties like radar trackers, mechanics, quartermaster, medics, etc., you are dealing with many, many different subcultures.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 9:46 AM on August 20, 2010

Something I'm guilty of is both across the room communication using just eye motions, small nods of the head, and when saying hello to someone/acknowledging someone at a distance who I will not actually be talking to in the next few moments (example, I'm taking to someone else and spot them across the room) I'll often just make a very loose gesture of salute, whether that person be military or civilian, officer or non-commissioned.
posted by Biru at 9:49 AM on August 20, 2010

Friend of mine has to be awakened by a toe touch. He was in Viet Nam and his wife learned the hard way, touch a toe and get away. Or she risked an injury. This is not an exaggeration or stereotype. He had a very explosive way of coming awake. He says it's from sleeping in the bush.
posted by Splunge at 10:06 AM on August 20, 2010

I had a very hyper friend in college who was prone to doing things like sneaking up behind someone and tickling them. She was given a Very Stern Talking-To by an ex-military man she'd done that to, who'd almost clobbered her but caught himself at the last minute, and explained that his reflexes were from hand-to-hand combat training and he tended to hit first and ask questions later.

She didn't learn, and got the same sort of lecture from a martial-arts specialist a while later. (I do note that they did manage to catch themselves before hurting her.)

And while he wasn't military, I dated a hapkido instructor for a while, and I could always tell him from across a crowded room in silhouette, because he had a tendency to unconsciously assume ready position when standing. He also had the upright bearing and low-level constant scanning of his surroundings happening that many people mention above as military characteristics (Generic combat readiness, I assume!).
posted by telophase at 10:44 AM on August 20, 2010

Lots of good stuff here and lots of crap.

Somethings apply to one branch of the service (Army never put their hands in their pockets; that's known as "Air Force gloves").

Cupping courgettes? I did that as a kid, long before I went into the Army. On the other hand, soldiers tended to field strip their cigarettes instead of tossing them on the ground.

Thirty years out and I still get a twitch in my right hand when I walk past a uniformed officer. I don't salute but it's there in my brain, somewhere.

The gig line is a good one. I still tend to mine before I leave the house or the mens room. (Buttons lined up with my belt buckle lined up with my zipper.)

Sometimes joking, or harassing, others branches of the armed forces (that's Army and Marines. Navy and Air Force don't really count ).

Stand when their service's song/hymn is played - without shame.

Let us know when you're done with the story. I'm sure lots of Mefites would be glad to help out.

posted by Man with Lantern at 11:18 AM on August 20, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great answers!

Is there anything you can tell us about the character? Is he infantry, or supply clerk, or intel or what? Different jobs have different tells. (hal_c_on)

One is a medic, one is a supply clerk and mechanic, two are various kinds of infantry. I'm imagining people live longer and cross-train through several related MOS designations, though, so the medic is currently a trauma surgeon and was a physician's assistant before that and a special operations combat medic before that (which means, sixty years ago, he was also pretty hard-core infantry). This might also help homogenize the different areas of the service a little bit, too, although I agree it'd be unrealistic to smush say, Marines and Air Force together.

I think a lot of these answers are overly simplistic / stereotypical. (charmcityblues)

It's a LOT harder to drop a habit when you've been doing it since you could walk -- it wouldn't even necessarily occur to you that it's a habit, since that'd be the way everyone has done it in your life, it's just the way things are! (aramaic)

Exactly, so don't worry about how realistic it would be for whomever you served with. For example, in my military, there's a bar code on the name tape that acts like ID, debit card, and bus pass. So after a good fifty years of that, when the cashier at the grocery store raises a scanner, he'll tug his shirt taut without even thinking, like you'd hold a door for someone. That's just the polite thing to do.
posted by d. z. wang at 11:38 AM on August 20, 2010

Being able to fall asleep anywhere and under most any conditions. My husband attributes this to working odd shifts on a noisy submarine where you'd "hot bunk" with two other guys (not as sexy as it sounds). If one of them was in the bed, you'd have to find somewhere else to sleep, and sometimes that was the floor, while the boat was moving to and fro. My husband can fall asleep anywhere. But like Splunge's friend, I have to wake him up very carefully if he's fallen asleep somewhere other than our bed (e.g., watching a movie). He was never in combat though so maybe that's unrelated.

It's hard to tell what's a military trait and what's a personality trait. Or a generational difference. My ex-Air Force dad is hyper-organized, my ex-Navy husband is not. My dad is stiff and formal around strangers, my husband is casual and talkative. My dad's up at 6 am every morning, even though he's retired. My husband is a snooze button addict. *shrugs* Both of them are hyper-alert to perceived danger.
posted by desjardins at 1:15 PM on August 20, 2010

Alertness to perceived danger is also a good one.
posted by Biru at 1:43 PM on August 20, 2010

I didn't. I also didn't miss the part where you told us of your background...making you a person who isn't trying to hide his background. Please read the OPs question again.

I have read the question, and answered it using examples of identifying behaviour from the British armed forces, which you appeared to question as accurate, based on I have no idea what. If you're questioning that British soldiers aren't known for their capacity for drink (and can be identified by it when out of uniform and going out for the night) I don't know what to tell you.

Whether the OP wants to give his fictional military the drinking habits of British squaddies is moot. It's a behaviour that makes them stick out, especially when away from their home country. And drinking is an inherently risky activity when trying to keep secrets. Upthread, you appeared to dismiss the idea that drinking and military culture are connected. That's incorrect wrt the British military and several others.
posted by Happy Dave at 4:00 PM on August 20, 2010

Upright posture.
Declarative tone where a civilian might use a more indecisive or fake-questiony tone.

The ex-military people I've known have tended to be the type who can get along with just about anybody, they have a supply of good funny/amazing stories -- not usually stories about the military, unless it's about some very mundane stuff like maintenance work or shore leave or whatever, never stories about real danger. Being in the military involves a lot of waiting around and boring duties, where you're stuck say guarding a gate for ten hours in the rain with some other random guy who might not be from your unit, and you might never have seen him before or see him again -- so you develop an ear for stories and pass them around, because it's a way of killing time and making connections with other people from different backgrounds. I don't know that you could use this as a giveaway (unless there's some story your guys' army always told, about some seemingly innocent thing like "there was this one-legged frog who found a great lily pad", and one of the guys is later at a relaxed venue and starts in on the story not realizing it will be a giveaway).
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:57 PM on August 20, 2010

Biru said:

Happy Dave said this:
Also, reacting to loud noises by turning their heads very sharply and immediately scanning for threats. Oh, and walking down a street silently looking around (which one of my mates told me is a completely habitual scanning for potential sniper cover and in-depth enemy positions that he picked up in Iraq). Also, giving items of random debris by the side of the road a wide berth (although I think that's very current-conflict-specific).
I can definitely relate to that. Especially the scanning thing. I do it all the time. I'll be getting off a train or a tube and as I'm walking to the exit, I'm sizing up who's around me, looking for reflective surfaces, checking exits. This just as a matter of habit. I find that when I'm at home with "civvy" mates, they find it weird when I mention "Did you see that bloke on the left sat on his own as we came into the bar?" and when I'm able to describe him in some detail, even though I'm not looking at him, they see this as odd. I see it as nothing more than being aware of one's surroundings should something "kick off"."

For the record; I've never served (I was a seal brat though) and I do that too. I don't go anywhere without knowing where the exits are, and who might be problematic. Another learned trait was that I always sit with my back to something, where I can see anyone coming in. I don't think I'm obvious about it, in that nobody has ever mentioned how weird they thought it was that I do those things...but I do them none the less.

Someone upstream mentioned eye contact; this is very common in military personnel that I've known, but is also something that is a learned behavior and appears in the children raised on base. (I do this too, I've staved off trouble on more than one occasion because of "the stare".)

Posture of lifers is dramatically different than civilians. More straight, less slouching. Their bodies do what they tell their bodies to do, gravity just doesn't seem to have the same effect on them as it does the rest of us. Probably all the exercise.

I also think desjardins has a valid point about generations. As well, time served is really important. In a society such as the OP premised, where it's generations of soldiers; a lot of physical stuff is going to be ingrained muscle memory. Muscle memory is significantly harder to train away than behavior memory.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 5:01 PM on August 20, 2010

Army people from neck of the woods always point using all fingers of the hand pointing towards the target, civilians generally point using the index finger only.
posted by boogieboy at 9:03 AM on August 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Haha, yes, the Brecon point.
posted by Biru at 10:10 AM on August 21, 2010

Response by poster: Could someone explain the Brecon point? Google gets confused by all the people talking about some actual place called Brecon (presumably where this pointing originated?).
posted by d. z. wang at 11:55 AM on August 21, 2010

"Brecon" is both a range of mountains in Wales and the informal name for the various NCO and junior officer infantry battle courses that take place there. The "Brecon Point" is the habit of using your whole hand to point, learned on said courses (and in the British military in general) and is a dead giveaway of any time spent in the UK forces, or anybody trained by them.
posted by Happy Dave at 6:00 PM on August 21, 2010

Something else which comes to mind is a situation involving a group of guys, all with non-local accents, all of which are different. For example, being in Salisbury with my Scottish Accent, my mate's Welsh accent, another guy from Liverpool and a fourth from Newcastle. None of us are really of a University going age so explaining what we're all doing there without revealing a military link is not always easy.
posted by Biru at 7:21 AM on August 22, 2010

Ok it took ages to track this down, but this is as close as I can find to the Brecon point. His fingers are slightly open, which they shouldn't be... but here you go. Note also, the point is being given whilst on one knee, during an impromptu briefing.
posted by Biru at 7:44 AM on August 22, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks, Biru and Happy Dave. I was looking for one giveaway that was very subtle but really couldn't be explained away to anyone who knew what he was looking for, and this Brecon point might be it.

By the way, why were just these two people half-kneeling? I see two others in the background still standing. Is going to one knee something Brecon teaches for these impromptu briefings?
posted by d. z. wang at 4:34 PM on August 22, 2010

Nah, the kneeling is just a case of "close in" (the command, not the description) in order that they can talk quietly (eg, in a tactical environment).
posted by Biru at 2:17 AM on August 23, 2010

By the way, why were just these two people half-kneeling? I see two others in the background still standing. Is going to one knee something Brecon teaches for these impromptu briefings?

Yes, if you're in the field and not in a known safe area, you generally 'take a knee' to deliver or take orders. The standing people in the background are likely instructors observing. I doubt your fictional soldier would automatically take a knee, but the four-finger Brecon point is very hard to shake. I still do it and I was only ever OTC, nearly a decade ago.
posted by Happy Dave at 2:17 AM on August 23, 2010

Out of curiosity, what's the rationale for indicating direction with the whole hand rather than just one finger? Is it thought to be easier to see?
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:32 PM on August 23, 2010

I think it may just be a case of seeming more authorative when using the full hand. Furthermore, pointing with a single finger is generally for pointing out things in detail, eg, up close on a map. When using the Brecon point, you're generally giving orders such as "Move your men up to that copse", where the thing being pointed out is large/distinct.
posted by Biru at 5:55 AM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

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