Guest Post by Michael Bacera
Mike saves children in India from leprosy by day and writes epic military fantasy by night. But mostly he plays a lot of video games and spends Friday nights with his sewing machine. He graduated from BYU-Hawai`i with a math degree in hopes of engineering something that would make the world a better place. Now he writes fiction, basically hoping to do the same thing. Also, he does something with computers and graphics and designing things. He blogs occasionally at michaelbacera.com
I watch a lot of war movies. Heck, I’m watching one right now — “We Were Soldiers” if you’re wondering— to get into the mood. Whether it’s Maximus in Gladiator progressing from general to gladiator to savior of Rome, or William Wallace in Braveheart progressing from husband to commander to martyr, or countless other war movies, I love me good character development
Some people might disagree, saying that war movies are all about explosions, yelling, and shooting, and gruff soldiers that don’t talk about their feelings. But behind that, there is a lot of narrative that can, and should be told.
- The Scene and Sequel cycle
Some of you may have heard of the term “action fatigue”, where a book or movie employs so much action that the reader/viewer becomes tired. If you’ve watched a recent Michael Bay or Zak Snyder movie, you might have also experienced its cousin “explosion fatigue” and “destruction fatigue”. Yet there are many war movies that have as much action, but don’t get tiresome. Action fatigue can be avoided, not by having less scenes, but by having stronger sequels.
I prefer KM Weilands “How to Structure Scenes” http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/how-to-structure-scenes/ which goes:
Let’s HBO’s TV series “Band of Brothers” as an example. 1st Lt. Winters of the 101st Airborne, Easy Company is asked to attack Brecourt manor to disable four coastal defense guns.
Amazon Prime Video: Band of Brothers ep2 “Day of Days”, or Youtube here: https://youtu.be/aCo6Dh08ayQ (Language and Violence warning)
Winter’s assault can be broken down to
Goal: Destroy four German large guns.
Conflict: Defended by an unknown force of Germans.
Disaster: Upon reaching Brecourt, Winters discovers the defenders outnumber them 3 to 1, and have trenches and machine gun (MG) emplacements.
Reaction: Winters is resolved to take the initiative despite the overwhelming odds.
Dilemma: He analyzes the tactical situation and deployment of the MG emplacements.
Decision: His fire team makes the initial assault and provide a base of fire, while his two assault teams alternate taking machine gun emplacements, destroying the large guns, and providing leap frog cover for each other.
The attack is so rapid and effective that the German forces attack each other in the confusion. Winter’s trial by fire as a combat officer is used in West Point as a textbook example of assault on a defended position.
This is one of the strongest advantages war stories have: their scene and sequel cycles mirror the decisions and actions the characters are taking during combat. This cycle is repeated time and time again, with Winter’s reevaluating his goals based on his assessment of the battle. Now, these sequel segments are very short, and rapid fire. Winters is a company commander, meaning he must use a “Go where I go, shoot where I shoot” command style, and he must make these decisions quickly or else he puts his forces in danger of being pinned down, or worse, overrun. However, these sequels are presented cinematically clear, logical, and goal oriented. This makes your battle commander seem decisive and competent.
Something to note is that Winter’s S&S goals are simply part of the 2nd Battalion / 506th Regiment’s larger goals, which are simply part of the 101st Airborne Division’s even larger goals. And on the other end, nested in Easy Company’s goals (which Winter’s commands) are small platoon or squad goals, and even at times, individual S&S goals. Stated in very military ladened lingo: Scene goals of larger Areas of Operations, Formations, and Commands are made up of nested scene goals of their small AOs, formations, and commands.
- Be Responsible with your Responsibilities
A common saying military sayism is “above my pay grade”, which means, “not my responsibility”. This is because one’s rank (ie pay grade) usually has a direct correlation to one’s area of responsibility. The military works in a very rigid chain of command and separation of duties whenever possible, especially when it involves combat with joint and/or combined task forces. (PS joint means composed of more than one service, combined means composed of more than one nation, and combined joint means more than one service from more than one nation)
There is always a chain of command and a standard procedure unless there are extenuating circumstances. Yes, it would be really cool for your MC to rise to be a general yet still be involved in the glorious combat charge, but a General (who commands at a division level) has no place taking part in company level responsibilities.
Black Hawk Down Trailer https://youtu.be/tnV6wM-vd9s
However, don’t think of this as a setback, but rather as an opportunity to tell a more cohesive yet complex story with varying levels of stakes and conflicts. A great example is Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down”, which brings to film the conflict in Mogedishu involving the 75th Rangers, 160th SOAR, the 1st SFOD. Notice the different formations mentioned. Each have their own areas of responsibilities during the conflict, and their own chain of command. Not only does the opposing force of Mogedishu irregulars create conflict, but there is conflict between the Special Forces command and Ranger’s command structure, both strategically and tactically, and conflict between the company and individual chalk’s (Ranger equivalent of Platoon) different goals.
- Fight Organically
Before going into this example, we will want to define two terms. Organic, which means “part of the formation structure” and logistics which is “the discipline of planning and carrying out the movement and maintenance of military forces.”
Yes, it’s really cool to have a sniper (correctly called a designated marksmen) with an impressively large anti-material sniper rifle hanging out in your squad, but where is she going to get her ammo and spare parts? Anti-armor teams usually operate at two formations or more above the squad, and are inorganic to the squad. And why is there only one, making her even more of a hassle to repair and resupply? The decisions you employ as a writer should make logistical sense.
We Were Soldiers Trailer https://youtu.be/wYK4jrhepdU
But just like with chain of command, don’t view logistics as a storytelling crutch, but a storytelling and world building strength. For example, take Randall Wallace’s Vietnam Era film “We Were Soldiers” which follows the combat actions of 1st the Battalion / 7th Cavalry Regiment in the la Drang Valley. The 1/7th is an air cavalry regiment, meaning that it deployed and resupplied by helicopter. In this conflict, Colonel Moore is restricted by the fact that he cannot deploy all his forces at once, but rather only a company at a time, and to receive further reinforcement and supplies, he must hold that LZ (landing zone) no matter the cost.
Now this small piece of land carries huge stakes in the storytelling, as the Vietnam Forces continually attempt to push into and envelop the LZ to cut off the 1/7th. They also face other logistical concerns that push the narrative forward: the evacuation of the wounded, the resupply of their ammo, the deployment of troops in different stages. Also, it is a joy to see the effectiveness of the RO, or Radio Operator, as he calls in Organic (to the company) and Inorganic artillery fires, barely maintaining their defensive lines through the sheer wall explosive and incendiary force.
I could go on and on about the merits and shortcomings of a laundry list of military film, tv, and books, but that is not the intent of the article. Instead it is to open the readers eyes to the complex, and in my opinion beautiful, world of military strategy, command, and logistics.