Been a while since I've done one of these things, but some stuff has happened in real life, so I'm in a contemplative mood.
One of the most difficult things to get right about writing soldiers is the thought process. What makes them tick? How do they feel? These are the sorts of questions that anyone looking to do them justice has to address, and is unfortunately difficult for anyone who hasn't worn a uniform to grasp.
Last weekend, I found myself in New York City for Memorial day. This wasn't something I had really planned in advance, aside from the general notion of taking a drive on a rare three day weekend. Some friends in Brooklyn offered to put me up for the weekend, so I figured what the hell, might as well. The ten hour drive on the way up, and the twelve hour drive (hangovers are a queen) on the way back gave me plenty of time to think.
Just about everyone I've ever met who has had any sort of success in the military shares a few common traits. We are all stubborn to a fault. That's not a turn of phrase, by the way. Stubbornness gets people hurt. It gets us into situations where we can't possibly hope to achieve anything worthwhile. It gets us killed. And yet, whether we're trying to prove something, trying not to let our buddies down, or just trying to stick it to some other poor dumb bastard, we just don't know when to quit.
Example: one of my best friends in basic training was a 30 year old mother of two from Texas. She was just about the sweetest woman I've ever met, and why she ever tried to join the army was beyond me. She was terrified of heights, which made the obstacle courses something like her own personal hell. She didn't like being yelled at, which made her a target for the drill sergeants, many of whom were several years younger. And yet, she didn't give up. She refused to let herself look weak in front of all but a select few close friends in which she confided. Towards the end of the cycle, the strain caused a stress fracture in her hip. We had less than two weeks to go, and she was determined to tough it out. One of the last major tests was the 12k ruck march, a grueling march through the mountains with something like 70 pounds of gear. She insisted on doing it, despite the fact that simply walking hurt. She didn't drop out of the march, she was forced out by a drill sergeant that recognized just how much agony she was in.
The damage done that day was enough to merit a medical discharge, and a decade later, she still has trouble from it. Continuing on long past the point where any normal person might have thrown in the towel cost her dearly, but in the end, that was a price she was willing to pay.
People without that sort of grit simply don't make it in the military. It's also one of the reasons why so many veterans struggle with mental health issues. It simply doesn't occur to us to get help, because getting help makes us look weak. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. I've spent the last several years living with depression, insomnia, anxiety, the works. Just about everyone I know in the military is at least a borderline alcoholic, because alcohol is a useful tool for forgetting about all the crap floating in our heads for a few hours. Nevermind that it's a really crappy way to deal with problems. Alcohol is acceptable. Therapy is not.
Another common thread is competitiveness. You'll find a lot of lower enlisted who are perfectly happy to just coast along, but they rarely make rank unless they're naturally gifted athletes. PT test scores count a lot towards promotion, and the ability to show up and blow one out of the water can cover up a lot of flaws that would otherwise make someone a poor choice for a leadership position. Those that want to advance in rank, however, tend to be competitive as hell, and the system is designed to encourage that.
Promotions, for instance, are not simply a matter of finding a round peg and shoving it in a round hole. In the army, at least, promotions are based off a point system. PT test scores, rifle qualification, class scores, evaluations from your chain of command, all of these get factored in. If you want to advance, you have to stand out from your peers and get as high on the list as possible. For anyone with even an ounce of ambition, this means busting your ass to make sure you're better than the guy next to you, who is in turn busting his ass to be better than you.
That competitive nature bleeds into other aspects of job performance. In my unit, one of the metrics for success of a drill weekend is the number of fire missions completed by the launcher crews. This means that, for hours on end, we work ourselves and our equipment far harder than is strictly necessary, all in the hopes of coming out on top at the end of the day. First platoon competes against second platoon. Bravo battery competes against alpha. Either we break records, or we break equipment trying.
Naturally, all this adds up to a tendency towards perfectionism. Only, it's a curious sort of perfectionism. When it comes to things we deem important, the attention to detail can be staggering. A lot of it comes from the fact that most jobs in the military require things to be done right the first time, every time, and leaders will push their soldiers to keep doing the task over and over until they get it done to standard. That same sort of perfection applies equally to half-assing things deemed less important. Doing just the bare minimum to get by on something like, say, getting weapons cleaned when coming out of the field or "area beautification" is an artform. Soldiers learn exactly how much effort is needed to put into a task to keep their chain of command off their backs, and put in not a single iota more. After all, why waste all day scrubbing the latrine when you know exactly what your leaders are looking for?
With all of this comes a certain viciousness. I'm not saying we can be mean when someone fails to live up to our standards. I'm saying we are mean, and we can be downright nasty. If someone earns a reputation as a screwup, they can count on catching hell from their peers and leaders alike. To someone in that position, life can be miserable. Everyone remembers the infamous blanket party scene in Full Metal Jacket, where Private Pile's platoon holds him down and beats the crap out of him at night because he just can't get right. That sort of thing is rare these days, but it still happens. More than likely, when a person earns the Can't Get Right moniker, they're ignored at best. Either their leaders will find something unimportant and menial for them to do to get them out of the way, or they'll end up shunned by their peers.
As a leader, it's hard to handle cases like that, because after a certain point, you realize they're just not going to get any better. Either they stopped caring, or they're just too stupid or clumsy or all around useless to figure it out, and you've got to decide when it's time to just cut them loose.
All of these factors feed into each other and off of each other, and the results can be amazing, or they can be grim. Stubborn perfectionism backed by competition is why veterans tend to excel in certain tasks in the civilian world. It's also why they tend to suck at others.
I have never known a vet to do well in retail or customer service, unless they were working for or owned a business that catered almost exclusively to other vets or likeminded people. Dealing with the staggeringly inane concerns that most folks in those fields cope with on a daily basis is beyond them. On the other hand, put them in a field where they can apply their skillsets to the fullest, and they'll be some of the best employees you'll ever meet.
It's worth noting that these are generalizations. Common, but not universal. Call it a baseline. I'm sort of rambling at this point, and I promise I'll wrap it up soon, but first, there's one thing I want to cover.
How does the mind of a soldier work when their life is on the line?
Well, that's sort of a complex question.
The initial response to combat is almost always surprise. Even when you know it's coming, there's that brief second of "oh poodoo, it's starting." When you know what you're getting into, the buildup can go a few different ways. Some people are terrified that they're not going to make it, or that they'll let their buddies down. Others get themselves psyched up. Music can help with that. Still others will try to keep calm, or find their center. You don't see that much with modern soldiers, but you'll find the occasional warrior monk mindset.
Once the bullets start flying, well, then all bets are off. Everyone reacts differently. There's rarely time for something as abstract as thought once you're in the thick of it. You tend to fall back on your training. It's for this reason that the leadership of a combat unit is rarely directly involved in the fighting. They might be there, taking the same fire that everyone else is, but at one remove. Their job is to think, to give orders, to anticipate the enemy, and to look after their soldiers.
For the ones doing the fighting, there's fear, excitement, rage, and hilarity, sometimes all at the same time. When you're pumped up on adrenaline, fine motor skills and decision making go out the window, which is why training is important. By pounding the muscle memory into your body, you can overcome that deficiency and make the fight or flight response work to your favor. Emotions tend to come to the forefront when rational thought goes out he window, and it's all sorts of jumbled. A close call could piss you off, or make you piss yourself. The strangest things are gut bustingly hilarious. The scariest people are the ones for whom it's just another day at the officer. They don't get excited, they just move from one target to the next like an office drone sending out the world's deadliest emails.
For the sake of writing, it's simpler just to focus on one aspect. It's hard to really describe something that confusing, which is why most people don't even try. There's no point unless you're an extremely talented writer with a gift for the abstract. Focus on the actions, save the emotions for flavor.
At any rate, that's all I've got on that. As always, the comments and my inbox are open.