One thing that is highly noticeable about Veterans is that there is an attraction to the written word. Veterans it seems, no matter the technology used, add to rich history of literature with frequency.
It’s worth examining why. Why do Veterans write? Why do they seem to find some measure of success? Why do they seem to be able to express complex ideas with such clarity?
Why Veterans write probably produces an answer as varied as the Veterans themselves. Writing can be therapeutic, a way to honour comrades, a way to stay involved, or it may fill a void the Veteran himself does not understand. Sometimes a Veteran will experience all of the above. I know I certainly have, and in the notes from some favourite authors I see the same themes.
Military Science Fiction author David Drake recounts writing his “Hammer’s Slammers” series based on his own Vietnam experiences. It shows. At times there are moments I would describe as ‘subtly brutal.’ Those times when one of his characters does something that seems senseless, unless you have served. I’m not sure civilians can understand some of it at a basic level.
One scene that Drake wrote has always stuck with me: A new guy is on the wing-gun of an armoured vehicle during combat. A bus load of refugees passes by and the new guy sees the flash of a face in dark clothes and reflexively engages. The weapon he is using has its best analogue in the M134 mini gun. He is stopped quickly, it doesn’t matter. Massive firepower takes little time to convert accident into atrocity.
The companions seem callous, treating the matter as relatively insignificant. They’re not inhuman, in fact they are driven by the most human of instincts, survival. He didn’t get the word they weren’t hostiles, it happens. There is always somebody who doesn’t get the memo. He saw a face, translated face to THREAT, and he reacted just as they would. This time there was no valid threat, next time there might be… and hosing fire down range keeps them all alive. They have no higher priority, in the cold calculus of combat survival is the only acceptable individual outcome.
Obviously David Drake has had some demons to expunge. His later writings are frequently lighter, less haunted. He found a way to get the demons down range. In mental health they say to ‘Tell Somebody’. He told anyone who would listen, in a way he could handle.
Dale Brown, famous for the series of books that starts with ‘Flight of the Old Dog’, had a different motivation. His writing bears the hallmark of someone who’s time in various bull sessions needed to be expressed. Brown was himself a ‘crew dog’ on the B-52 and like many of us suffered through watching a beloved old mount not get the upgrades that would let her shine. His B-52 MegaFortress got those upgrades, all of them and then some.
This is a common theme among members of the military, the feeling that ‘We can do more, if only you let us.’ Brown’s ‘Old Dog’ speaks to that desire, let us do more. To be certain it’s taken to an extreme, it’s also immensely satisfying to those of us who have had similar daydreams of being allowed to expand the envelope just a bit.
My own feeble fumbling in the literary arts has centered on a way to be involved. The ideas I forward aren’t always going to be well accepted, but they do serve to highlight options. Even a discarded option has the chance of sparking interest in avenues not explored. That isn’t to say that my writings have been ignored. On a basic level, I’ve succeeded. My voice appears to have been heard. Not often, but there have been responses and the odd repetition. On the fringes perhaps, but I am involved.
Why Veterans find a measure of success is easier than why they write. One of the basic rules is ‘Write what you know’. Veterans seem to take this to heart. Whether it be stories, blogs or serious analysis the Veteran is, by his experience, somewhat of a subject matter expert. He may not have studied the material formally, he does have the benefit of a hands-on knowledge that is hard to find substitute for.
The clarity that Veteran authors so often find is the simplest thing of all to understand. We were taught by the military to express ourselves clearly. Clarity in military communications is paramount, without clarity we add to the fog of war in unpredictable ways. The uniform may have gone, the habit of being clear in our message remains.
Perhaps the simple truth is that ‘the pen is mightier than the sword.’ Perhaps those who’s lives depended on the sword find that picking up a pen is re-civilizing.
That’s a goal worthy of a few words.