Guest Post: Jay Posey on Writing the Warfighter and Getting it Right

outridersJay Posey is the author of Outriders, a new military sci-fi novel from Angry Robot Books about a special forces operative in the U.S. military’s most elite, secretive combat team. For years, he’s strived to think realistically about warfare as a writer for the Tom Clancy video game series. Below, he joins us to talk about why it is so important to him to Get It Right when he’s writing about combat, and the soldiers who sacrifice everything for their ideals. 

I wrote this blog post wrong.

The first time around, I mean. I hope I got it right this time, but the first time I tried to write it, I definitely did it wrong.

JayPoseyWhen one of the fine folks at Angry Robot Books suggested I write a blog post about talking with warfighters, it sounded like a great idea. Most importantly, it sounded like something I could do pretty easily (and quickly!).

Five days later, I was still wrestling with it. I had no idea why.

I’d written a couple of thousand words on the topic, but none of them seemed to be saying what I wanted to say. And by the fifth day or so, I wasn’t even sure what I was trying to say anymore. It shouldn’t have been so difficult. I didn’t know why it was so difficult.

Over the course of the past decade or so, I’ve had the honor and privilege of meeting with warfighters a dozen, maybe fifteen, maybe twenty times. Maybe more. I’ve chatted with quite a few combat veterans, most of them members of Special Operations. I’ve even toured training facilities, and watched Green Berets practice live-fire exercises. This should have been easy. It was supposed to have been easy.

I mentioned my troubles to a buddy of mine, and he had a crazy suggestion.

“Why don’t you let me interview you about it?”

Why would I let him interview me about it, I wondered. That was just silly. Plus, I had this blog post I had to write, I really shouldn’t waste time talking about it when I was supposed to be writing about it.

But I was desperate enough that I agreed.

We talked for over an hour.

He asked me questions about what it was like to sit down and talk with combat veterans, about tips and techniques I’d learned for running those sorts of interviews, and about how those conversations had shaped and impacted my work. But there was a question towards the end that caught me off guard.

“Why does this matter to you?”

After a silent moment, he rephrased, turned it into a statement.

“This matters to you.”

He was right. It did matter to me. It does matter to me. But I didn’t know why.

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Pick a topic you know a lot about. Something you have a lot of experience with, personally. Maybe it’s your job, or your favorite hobby. Maybe it’s driving trucks, maybe it’s running a five-star restaurant, maybe it’s playing video games.

Whatever it is, keep that firmly in mind. Now think about how you’ve seen that portrayed elsewhere; in newspaper articles, or think-pieces, or on TV shows, or in the movies. Or think about what it’s like to talk with someone who’s never done it before, and the kinds of questions they ask, or assumptions they make.

However wrong the Average Person is about Your Thing? Generally speaking, that’s roughly how wrong they are about the military. It doesn’t matter how much that movie tells you it’s based on True Events. Or how many unnamed sources that journalist says they’ve consulted. The picture they’re painting of How It Really Is is probably mostly wrong.

Obviously, there are exceptions; there are plenty of truly fantastic journalists out there, and a number of filmmakers who have gone into harm’s way to capture as much of the reality as possible (Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s documentary Restrepo is excellent).

But on average, people seem to get about as much wrong as they get right. And those are the folks who are reporting. Not the people (like me) who are trying to make an entertainment product.

I got my start in military entertainment working for Red Storm Entertainment, the video game development studio founded by Tom Clancy. I’ve spent over 11 years making games there, and most of my time has been on the Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon franchise, a game about a fictional U.S. Army Special Forces team.

One of the things I love about Red Storm is the studio’s dedication to getting things right. It’s so important to us that we employ a full-time Authenticity Coordinator, whose job it is to develop and manage relationships with various advisors so that whenever we have a question about How It’s Really Done, we have access to a whole bank of people ready and willing to provide an answer.

Our Authenticity Coordinator has a quote up on his door, from Mark Twain.

“Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.”

We understand that we’re an entertainment company first. We’re trying to make a product that the average video game player will want to pick up and play. We want to know how things really are, so we can start from the right place. But we also realize that we’re not trying to make a perfect recreation of military life.

One of our designers, a former Marine, used to joke that he was going to make the most authentic mission of all time. It would require a player to stand in a guard tower, a room about eight feet by eight feet, and move from one corner to the next, continuously, for eight hours. Or how about a sniper mission, where you lie in the dirt and stare at a tree for three days?

Obviously, that’s not the experience we’re trying to create with an entertainment product.

So what’s the point of getting our facts, if we know we’re just going to distort them anyway? That was a question it took me a couple of years to find the right answer to.

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The first time I got to sit down and have an extended conversation with an active duty US Army Special Forces soldier, I have to confess, I was pretty giddy. I don’t quite know what I was expecting, really. The closest thing to meeting a real-life, living, breathing superhero, I guess.

What I got was a man named Art.

Art was a Green Beret Medical Sergeant, and he looked like a guy you might see at the grocery store. He wasn’t ten feet tall, he wasn’t a solid wall of muscle, he wasn’t wrapped in the American flag and (much to my disappointment) he didn’t even have a bald eagle on his shoulder.

He was just a guy.

It was obvious that Art was fit, but he was fit in the that-guy-probably-enjoys-long-bike-rides-and-hiking kind of way, not the that-guy-could-lift-a-bus-and-throw-it-at-a-plane kind of way I’d apparently been expecting.

And he was quiet. Introspective. He answered questions thoroughly and politely, but he was reserved. Over the course of a couple of hours of conversation, I couldn’t get over how extremely…well, normal he seemed. Sure, he was telling me about jumping out of airplanes and wandering through the jungles of South America. But he was also telling me about sitting through Powerpoint presentations and sitting around for hours waiting for people to figure out which plane was supposed to be taking his team somewhere. And he was doing it so casually, like it was no big deal. It was just what he did. Just his job.

I was confounded. Surely Art was just being modest. Surely if I just asked the right questions, I would uncover the truth about this superhuman.

So I asked Art what number of enemy forces was his 12-man team comfortable handling, when they had to assault a target. I’d done my homework, so I had a pretty good idea. Army SF soldiers are some of the best shooters in the world, and their level of training and coordination is unmatched. I’d figured they’d be comfortable taking on an enemy force twice their size. Maybe as much as three times, under the right circumstances.

“We like to have them outnumbered two-to-one.”

My mind flopped over. But but but…all the shooting and the training.

I asked another question. What was the biggest threat they faced in the jungle? Land mines? Booby traps? Deadly wildlife?

No, actually, Art said, the thing they were most concerned about was falling trees. The jungle is full of dead wood, you see, huge sections of tree trunks broken off and stuck in the canopy, just waiting for a little wind, or the branches below to finally give out. Impossible to see, impossible to dodge. For all of Art’s training and weaponry, there wasn’t anything he could do about a dead tree.

Over the course of that conversation, I learned a great deal. But the most important lesson I learned was that I didn’t even know the right questions to ask. All my reading and research, and I was still so ignorant of the realities of the military, and war, and violence, that I didn’t even know enough to ask a good question.

Maybe you’ve had this experience, from Art’s perspective. The thing you’re an expert in, that hobby you know everything about? Maybe someone’s asked you a question so off-the-wall, so beyond the bounds of your experience that all it does is reveal that individual’s deep ignorance of the subject.

It was a couple of years after I’d met Art that I finally got that experience myself. I was at a game developer convention, and I’d just given a lecture about writing for video games when a young man came up to me and said, “I’ve written a story that would make a great video game. How do I submit it to a company to get it made?”

I didn’t even know where to start. That just not how it works. Not even remotely. I didn’t say that, of course. I smiled and tried to answer politely, and did my best to correct the broken assumptions without hurting any feelings or crushing any dreams. Sometime later, I wondered if I’d had the same look on my face talking to that kid as Art had had on his, when he was talking with me.

Since then, I’ve discovered the secret to getting out of my own way. There’s nothing better for me than getting a few veterans in a room together, and then listening to them tell their stories to one another. And it’s always impressed me how, time and time again, these highly trained, incredibly skilled individuals seem to be more ready to tell you about the awesome things their teammates have done than to talk about themselves at all.

These days, after all the conversations I’ve had, and the people I’ve gotten to know who’ve actually Done the Work, I’m happy to say that maybe I’ve learned just enough to know that I hardly know anything at all. Enough to realize that there are certain things about the military experience that, as a civilian, I’ll never truly get.

But, after all the conversations I’ve had, there’s one thing, one very important thing, that I strive to get right. No matter what else I change, or what facts I distort, there’s one thing I have to maintain. And it’s really the only thing that matters.

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I have a deep-rooted love and respect for our warfighters. But these days when I hear people say that everyone who serves in the armed forces is a hero, it makes me uncomfortable.

Not because I disagree with the sentiment; I can’t think of anything more noble, more heroic, than willingly, selflessly serving your nation, and being willing to risk your very life for a society that won’t understand or in many cases even acknowledge that service.

But the use of that term also concerns me, because it’s a very small step from “that person is a hero” to “that person is fundamentally different than me”.

Warfighters are people first.

This is no surprise to any one of them, of course. But for many of us, the mythos that surrounds our armed forces sometimes obscures the fact that those who serve our nation aren’t superhuman or some otherwise fundamentally different creature. They are not a marvel or a spectacle. They’re simply people who’ve volunteered to do a specific job, for a certain amount of time, on behalf of our nation.

To be sure, when you meet certain individuals, it can be awfully tempting to believe they’re superhuman. There really are men and women in the military with Olympic athlete levels of fitness, and action movie-like levels of combat proficiency.

But there are also men and women in the military whose peers can’t understand how they keep their jobs. Have you ever been frustrated by a co-worker who never seems to actually do anything useful, and yet continues to advance? That phenomenon isn’t unique to the civilian world.

There are also men and women in the military who can’t wait to get out, some who wish they’d never joined, some who believe everyone should serve, some who can’t imagine ever having done anything else with their lives, and so on.

About the only thing I’ve found that all of our service members truly have in common is the fact that they’re just people, like you or me. Just like our friends, and neighbors, and family members. For some of us, they are our friends, neighbors, and family members.

And that is the thing, the one thing, that I realized I have to get right.

It’s the people that matter. You can get every technical detail right, every word of slang or jargon, every technique, tactic, or procedure, but if you get the people wrong, you’ll miss every single time.

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I didn’t see the planes hit the towers. But, like many Americans, I watched in horror as the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center collapsed on September 11, 2001.

What I didn’t do, was walk to my nearest recruiting station and join up. If you were to ask me why, I could give you a long list of reasons. They’re probably even valid. But none of them would get down to the very root of the question, which is, why, when this country that I love so deeply was directly attacked, did I choose to let others go off to do the fighting for me?

It’s a question I still haven’t satisfactorily answered for myself. And one of the underlying reasons I haven’t been able to answer that question is wrapped up in the reason I couldn’t answer my friend’s question at the end of our conversation.

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James Rye Barton was a Mississippi farm boy. A walk-the-plow-behind-a-single-mule kind of farm boy. And when war was unfolding, he signed up, and became an officer in the Coastal Artillery Corps. He was supposed to stay in the US, to guard her coastline from invaders. After they’d hit us at Pearl Harbor, no one was really sure how safe the US was anymore.

But there was a shortage of officers, so Lieutenant Barton, my grandfather, got on a boat and went to the Pacific. He was the company commander of Company A, 519th Military Police Battalion, serving in support of the 7th Infantry Division. They were combat military policemen, distinguished from military policemen in general.

Enemy forces acquired information on American night defensive positions, and laid out plans to infiltrate them. It was the job of my grandfather and his men to eliminate those enemy infiltrators before they could cause any harm. They did all their fighting at night. They never failed in their mission.

The 7th Infantry Division participated in what some authorities have called the bloodiest of all battles in the Pacific area. My grandfather was there for it all, from the first day to the last. 82 days in all. His company set a record for exemplary performance.

The line about how we “sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm”? That was my grandfather. That was my Pop. Soldiers, rough men who’d been out fighting during the day, slept at night because my granddad was out there, with his rough men, watching over them.

And when all that fighting was done, Pop got back on a boat, and came back home. He took a job, he went to church, he raised his daughter, he got involved in his community. He returned to civilian life, and didn’t talk much about the war.

One evening, when my grandmother was sick in the hospital, and Pop and I were having dinner together, he opened up a very little bit. And he told me that no matter what happened, that no matter what the future held for me, I should never feel pressured to join the military. Our family had already paid enough, he said. My grandfather loved his country, and he was proud of his service. But I had no idea just how much he’d done, or how much he’d endured, until years after he was gone.

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And that brings us back full circle, to why this post was so hard to write, and why getting the people right matters so much to me. It wasn’t until some time after my conversation with my friend that I realized just how much of it tied back to my own grandfather.

Pop was a Mississippi farm boy, who went off to war, protected the lives of hundreds of his fellow soldiers, lost men under his command, saw fierce combat in some of the most nightmarish conditions, and then came home and led a quiet, unassuming life. He told me we’d already paid enough as a family. But I don’t think there’s any question what he would have done had he been in my shoes on 9/11.

His is just one of millions of such stories. Over the years, I’ve been privileged to collect many more. My assumptions about the military, my preconceived notions about who our veterans are, my perception of war and violence, have all been challenged and changed by my interactions with a few of these incredible, amazing, ordinary people. They’ve shared with me some of their frustrations, their struggles, their boredom, and their absolutely insane sense of humor. I’ve listened as they’ve told me about how they manage to hold on to their humanity in the midst of the most inhuman of circumstances.

And I’ve heard stories like the one about a Special Forces soldier who, while pursuing a bad guy, took a short cut and fell straight into an open sewer. Or the one who fell back on a fence in the middle of a firefight and jabbed a hole in his butt cheek, and how hilarious every one of his teammates thought it was, even while the fight raged on around them. Once, when talking with an advisor about books, I asked if he’d read the one about a particular elite unit and one of its most important operations in Afghanistan. “I didn’t have to,” he said with a casual smile. “I was there.”

I didn’t serve my country by volunteering for military service. So maybe in just some small way, writing these stories, and doing my best to capture the essence of the men and women who serve, is my tribute to them. My tiny service to their much greater service.

These stories deserve to be told. They deserve to be heard by those of us who have gone on living our lives while our nation has endured 15 years of war. We as a society need to be reminded of the quality and the caliber of men and women who serve, the realities they face, and above all, the fact that they are people first.

Because they are ordinary people doing extraordinary things. In many cases, I don’t think many of the veterans I’ve talked with even recognized how extraordinary their actions were. Like Benny, a man who ran 88 hostage rescue missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and made no mention of it at all until one of his buddies prompted him about it. Because they were part of a culture where that was the norm. They were just doing what they had to do.

But it’s by understanding them first and foremost as people, as real-life, regular, every day people, that we can then start to grasp just how extraordinary their accomplishments are. We expect superheroes to do super things. But it’s our friends, and our family, and our neighbors out there. It’s my grandfather.

It’s hard to see them as people if we don’t know them as people. Even though I write science-fiction where spaceships and power armor are real, it is my great and sincere hope that I’m always able to capture and communicate something deeply true about the men and women who serve our nation in the military. I hope to honor them, by getting them right. They are ordinary people; people who sometimes lie, and who slack off, and who are selfishly motivated, and who struggle with all the things normal humans do; and they are also people who shield Iraqi children from gunfire with their bodies, and who jump on top of grenades to save their friends, and who eagerly rush into harm’s way when their allies call for help.

And to me, it’s that raw humanity, their complete and utter humanness, that makes them some of the most extraordinary people in the world.

Outriders is available now.

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