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[GUEST POST] Myke Cole On: Writing the Battle

As a security contractor, government civilian and military officer, Myke Cole`s career has run the gamut from Counterterrorism to Cyber Warfare to Federal Law Enforcement. He`s done three tours in Iraq and was recalled to serve during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. All that conflict can wear a guy out. Thank goodness for fantasy novels, comic books, late night games of Dungeons and Dragons and lots of angst fueled writing. Find Myke on Twitter: @MykeCole

Writing the Battle

Warfare in fantasy is an intimate thing. This is driven partially by the need for drama in a story, and partially by the overwhelming prevalence of the medieval/ancient setting. When the best you can do is a sword, every fight is hand-to-hand, close enough to smell your enemy’s breath, to see the look on his face when the blade goes in, to see, smell and feel his insides coming out. It takes a while to kill a man with a sword. It leaves plenty of time for snatches of snappy dialogue, catchy one-liners just before the coup de grace is delivered, “I want my father back, you sonofabitch!” Warfighters are valorous, heroic individuals who win battles, and eventually wars, by dint of personal strength, ingenuity and resourcefulness.

This was the war I was raised on. I read it in novels and comic books, played it out on the tabletop in D&D and Warhammer campaigns, even saw it in film and television.

And then I got to experience the real thing.

Here’s the thing about modern war. It *can* be a frightening, directionless affair a la Platoon or The Hurt Locker. An unknowable enemy hidden in the dark, lethal fire coming in from god-knows-where. You *do* meet insane, or careless, or cowardly leaders who put lives at risk for no good reason. There *are* desperate conditions, shivering in the dark, sleeping 2 hours a night, not showering for months on end.

But modern war, at least for those belligerents fortunate enough to be from industrialized, Western countries, is more often an antiseptic thing. For every shooter hunkering down in a Combat Outpost (COP) in the ass-end of Afghanistan, there are three support personnel in air conditioned buildings back at the Forward Operating Base (FOB), eating three decent meals a day at the Dining Facility (DFAC), enjoying hot showers, medical care, and Sundays off. During my third tour, I finally made my way to the PX at Camp Liberty, only to find a massive complex that was the equal of any Wal-Mart I’d ever seen. You could buy huge flat screen TVs, vibrating back massagers, DVDs and flavored dental floss. You could even get special deals on cars that would be waiting for you when you got back stateside.

There was killing, of course. But it wasn’t the intimate killing I’d read about in fantasy novels. It was killing across miles, death delivered by drones moving so fast and at altitudes where you never heard more than a faint buzzing in the distance. It was killing from indirect fire, rockets and mortar rounds coming in from incredible ranges, echoing booms a long way off, hushed whispers the next morning. Life on the FOB might as well have been life in a suburb afflicted with some rare disease. You headed off to the office one morning, only to hear that so-and-so had died last night. You clucked your tongue, muttered a prayer, and got back to work.

The individual heroism of a Conan or Theoden didn’t fly in this new theater of war. The war I fought in turned on cold, clear-minded professionalism. Bureaucratic behemoths wielding byzantine layers of regulations won these wars by means of the largest teams I’d ever seen assembled. The speech-makers, the shield-beaters were nowhere to be found. Nobody was bearing any rings into Mordor. War was less the domain of knights and kings, and now the realm of technicians, psychologists and engineers.

This style of war had been written about extensively by journalists and narrative historians, biographers and documentary film makers. But I hadn’t seen it in fantasy before.

Stories, especially war stories, require drama. Finding the drama in the “comfortable” side of a war zone, the stomping grounds of the REMFs (Rear Echelon Mother Fuckers) and the Fobbits, was something I really wanted to explore. Zero Dark Thirty and No Easy Day attract enormous audiences with tales of the 1% of the armed forces, the super powered Direct Action teams that are the modern day equivalent of the Ninja Tong. Restrepo and The Hurt Locker talk about the up front combat gigs in Explosive Ordnance Disposal or straight up combat arms. Generation Kill looked at the seedier side of Force Recon.

But the majority of the warfighting military has a very different experience, one I’d argue is just as powerful, dangerous and harrowing in its own way. Creeping death, instead of immediate. Thematic danger, instead of acute. Perilous in an entirely different way. The warfighter comes home fundamentally changed, but not the way you’d think.

That was the kind of war I wanted to show in Fortress Frontier, the occupier’s war, the battle to take and hold human terrain.

I hope I pulled it off.

2 Comments on [GUEST POST] Myke Cole On: Writing the Battle

  1. I finally made my way to the PX at Camp Liberty, only to find a massive complex that was the equal of any Wal-Mart I’d ever seen. You could buy huge flat screen TVs, vibrating back massagers, DVDs and flavored dental floss.

    I had no idea. But it makes sense.

    “Amateurs talk strategy. Generals talk logistics”.

    And you bring that pyramid of people needed for modern warfare into your fantasy. And in a well done manner, needless to say.

  2. Josh Turner // January 18, 2013 at 3:12 am //

    Interesting post thanks with great insight, especially glad to see Restrepo mentioned, a harrowing piece of film making that really opens your eyes to how modern war fare works for individual troops.

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