I met Michael at Launch Pad 2018. I had already heard of his book, but didn’t know anything about him. I’m glad that changed. I found him smart, generous, and an excellent conversationalist. Also, he helped me with a tricky science bit for one of my upcoming BattleTech novels. I’ve just started reading PLANETSIDE and I’m loving it. Today, he talks about the real all-too-human relationships between soldiers as peers and as enlisted and officers. He knows what he’s talking about.
As I’ve been writing promo posts around the web, some of which are out and some of which are coming soon, I’ve presented a lot of different aspects of PLANETSIDE. But there’s one I haven’t talked about that I really wanted to share. When Jennifer offered me the opportunity to guest post, I knew my subject right away. It’s a small thing—a background aspect of the novel—but it’s something I consciously set out to do in my book, and it’s something I think will resonate with a lot of readers.
I spent a lot of time in the background of this story on the relationship between military characters. Having spent 27 years in the army, it was something I felt comfortable with, and something I don’t always see in books/movies. Specifically, I tried to avoid common tropes, and I tried to put some nuance into the way that soldiers interact with each other.
When you watch a war movie (or read a book, though it’s usually not as pronounced) you see some of the same tropes repeat. There’s the uptight, inexperienced lieutenant. A sergeant yells and curses at his troops but deep down loves them. There’s the super disciplined soldier who never shows emotion, and is no-nonsense and businesslike at all times. There are real people like that in the military, for sure. But not many. Soldiers are individuals, just like any profession, with a range of different likes and dislikes, and there’s no one type that does the job best. I’ve known great soldiers who were also athletes, single moms, computer nerds, party boys, gym-rats, gamers…you name it. I’ve known bad soldiers who were all those things and more, too. There’s no single blueprint for a soldier, and I wanted to populate my world with all kinds.
I think there’s a misconception sometimes that there’s a super strict hierarchy in the military, and that everybody always does what they’re told, no questions asked. There have probably been militaries like that—there probably still are—but it goes back to that thing about being individuals. A soldier isn’t usually going to directly refuse an order from someone of higher rank, but they will probably try harder if they believe in the person giving the order. If they think it’s stupid, they might stall, or prioritize something else, or find a way around it.
There’s a scene in PLANETSIDE where a sergeant hides some information from the main character, a senior officer named Carl Butler, because he doesn’t trust him. Only once Butler earns his respect does he come forward to help. When he does come forward, with information that he knows is important, he’s insistent that the senior officer uses it properly and makes that very clear. Even though he’s junior in rank, he’s morally justified in telling the senior person how to handle it, and the senior officer accepts it in stride. He doesn’t have to, but he recognizes that the sergeant is looking out for his people, and Butler appreciates it.
Another place I tackled relationships was among peers. While everybody is fighting the same war, not everybody is always on the same team. At least not completely. They don’t attack each other, but they don’t always help each other, either. Of course, I took that very real thing and ramped it up a bit for dramatic purposes to the point where it was dysfunctional (which it usually isn’t in real life) but hey, that’s what makes it fun. There are four colonels in my book, each with their own duties and responsibilities. Every one of them thinks they are right. Since each of them is working at somewhat different purposes, it creates conflict on the ‘friendly’ side as well as with the enemy, and creates a lot of opportunity for mayhem. Mayhem is good, from a story perspective. Oh, and spoiler: not all of them are actually right.
I’m not here to tell you that PLANETSIDE is the only book with a military that gets this stuff right. I can name many (and if you buy me a beer some day, I’ll gladly sit and talk to you about them all for hours.) In the end, these kinds of details are background, outside the plot. I do think it makes the world a deeper place for Butler to operate, and will keep both people who enjoy the military and those who haven’t experienced it entertained.
Michael Mammay is a retired army officer and a graduate of the United States Military Academy. He has a Master’s degree in Military History, and he is a veteran of Desert Storm, Somalia, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He lives with his family in Georgia.