Where does one go to find out about the day-to-day of military life? In countries other than my own? I don't mean combat - I mean the boring routine. Basic training. What kind of food is served in the mess. How soldiers address each other, how one speaks to a superior or a subordinate. Who cleans the toilet. What regulations are relevant in the day-to-day. That sort of thing. I am looking for (a) relevant resources and (b) relevant research techniques, not "could you please tell me what it's like".

To clarify, I've done my three years in the Israeli Defence Forces, so I know what military service here looks like. Only, I also know that's not exactly how other militaries work. The big things are similar. The little details - not so much. As an example, the Mildly Military tv-trope lists under its real-life examples some elite units, and the whole of our army. (I guess we switch very easily between "civilians in uniform" and "soldiers". And "soldiers in plain-clothes", if need be. It was normal for me to tell my lieutenant "go to sleep, man. I'll take care of this [task]. I don't need a babysitter".)

What I'd like to find out is what military service in the US and the UK, for example, looks like. I mean, the "international space military whatever" most likely would not be formed and led by Israel, right? (Maybe the Israeli doctrine would be adopted worldwide, but that's a kind of choice I'd like to make after doing my research, not instead of.) To a certain extent, I'm looking for the things that are different - for the "culture shock" a soldier would experience, moving from one environment to another. At the moment, I've only got one point of reference. I want to have more.

So where do I go to find out about other militaries? There is the representation in films, but I don't know how much of it is true. (Then again, I was sure Full Metal Jacket was an absurd over-the-top caricature, turns out it was actually quite realistic.) I tried asking some friends who took part in joint training exercises; got plenty of stories about how "we're awesome" (it's informative, but doesn't actually tell me anything about the other guys - only that we like to pat ourselves on the shoulder).

(While I'm looking for information already knowing quite a bit, I expect answers would also be helpful to people looking to write about military settings, knowing little about military life at all.)

I am aware of the question Character is an expert on something I'm not. The answer "research, research and more research" is hardly helpful with the question how do I do this research. What resources are available to me, in doing this research? Where do I turn to? "I need to research this" is the premise of this question.

  • 3
    Possible duplicate of Character is an expert on something I'm not – prosepraise Feb 22 at 1:44
  • @Chappo I'm struggling to see how my question is categorically different from this one: writing.stackexchange.com/q/41784/14704 (about science) which is getting helpful answers. :-) – Galastel Feb 22 at 5:12
  • Okay, I upvoted you, go add yourself: writing.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/1810/… – Cyn Feb 22 at 5:17
  • @Chappo fair point.Will do, in a couple of hours, when I'm on a PC, not a phone. ☺ – Galastel Feb 22 at 10:50
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    I've retracted my VTC: your edit makes it clear you're after resources and techniques specific to military service, whereas the proposed duplicate is about the general topic of writing on a topic you're not expert in. Assuming we get a good answer, the specificity also makes it a worthwhile addition to our Writing.SE library, so +1. :-) – Chappo Feb 23 at 0:19

I have heard of some American military soldiers in the field keep blogs, you might search for them. Although I heard they shut that down a few years ago for soldiers in combat zones.

I was raised in a military family (my father served 20 years and retired) and in the US military myself for two years after high school (12th grade in the USA) (primarily to be eligible for the GI Bill, which funded my early college career).

I know you weren't asking "what was it like," but that might be the easiest way to explain the differences.

Boot camp was intentionally strenuous, demeaning, trivial and stressful. I knew that going in, put my ego and logic aside and made it through. For example, I understood as it was happening why I was getting yelled at for not cleaning the cap on my toothpaste or making the corners on my bed perfect 45 degree angles (with a stretched blanket that refused to cooperate).

Idiotic and pointless exercises, but the intent is obviously that in some situations you follow orders you don't understand or think are stupid when they are in reality not stupid; the military is not an exercise in forming a consensus on important goals. The soldiers are necessarily expendable pieces that need to follow orders without argument or debate.

That is what boot camp is testing for, and expelling people for if they do not submit. So while IRL I don't do anything just because somebody in authority told me to do it, I treated boot camp like a miserable game I had to play in order to serve my two years and earn my years of pretty-much-free college.

In actual service, I was not in the field, but in a computer room for two years, dealing with code and weather prediction for flight plans. My experience there was NOT collegial; rank matters, even among the non-commissioned. My supervisors were "sergeant," "master sergeant", "lieutenant", "major", etc, with a last name. I was called by my last name, without a title. Fine distinctions like "first lieutenant" and "second lieutenant" or intermediate forms for "sergeant" were not used.

That said, though titles were used, within ranks cursing was rampant. F--cking this, this piece of sh-t, balls deep motherf--cker, c--cksucker, all f--cked up, etc. Never cursing at someone (especially a superior), but profane language. Less so (but not absent) amongst officers. Less so (but not absent) amongst female soldiers.

Day-to-day regulations did not matter much, other than basic grooming and dress. And being on time. Lunch hour was one hour, Arriving at 8:00 AM did not mean walking into the office at 8:02 AM, and the end of the day at 5:00 PM did not mean walking out at 4:55 PM. Although most people just watched the clock for the last twenty minutes, it wasn't a slave camp. More like "the schedule is the f--king schedule; if you want to stare at the wall and write a book in your head for the last hour, fine, but you don't leave my f--cking office until 5:00."

My barracks in boot-camp were wood buildings; on station I lived in a cinder-block and steel barracks, I shared a 12x12 room with a fellow computer nerd. Rooms were inspected about once a quarter, with warning. Nevertheless, in my time there, three people were dishonorably discharged for having marijuana in their rooms. Or for being stoned idiots, since these were not surprise inspections. One person was written up for making candles in their room. Not lighting them, casting them in molds and selling these character-candles at a flea market in town on the weekends. (I personally thought that a harmless enterprise. Perhaps a minor fire hazard, but no more so than the other hot-plates most of us had, and were allowed.)

My father's experience in the military was less harsh. He was never an officer, but a high-rank of sergeant. He had an office job his entire career, he worked up to manage a staff that planned staffing for new military facilities of all kinds. For example, I remember him working on a new hospital; he was part of the team that determined how many doctors, nurses, techs, janitors, cooks, accountants, medical equipment maintenance, buildings and grounds maintenance, plumbers, electricians, whatever, every job in the hospital, what ranks occupied each position, the command structure within the hospital, all of that stuff. Everything to do with people, employees, civilian contractors, etc.

For him I think the atmosphere was more collegial; but he still referred to his boss as "major", "colonel," etc. And he was ten or twelve ranks above anything I achieved.


This is a hard one. You really need to go to another country and spend a couple days hanging out on base and seeing how they do things. Obviously, travel is expensive and you may not have other plans in the near future to go. But, aside from that, this is not something you can just do. It's not like asking a doctor friend to let you shadow her for a day so you can learn about hospital work (and even that has privacy issues to work around).

Second best choice: documentaries, home movies taken by soldiers, and books (both nonfiction and fiction).

Close third best choice: talking with soldiers from other countries.

Really the very best choice: All of the above.

Okay, you can't really shadow a soldier from another country, but you can probably visit her on base, see where she lives, shop at the commissary, eat at the mess. Some of it at least. Most bases in the US allow visitors to the housing areas, to a degree. (This article also has some good descriptions of life on a base...not that all active duty military live on base.)


I would recomend Yanks with Tanks and Brits with Battleships from TVTropes' UselfulNotes section (They also have a bunch of nations with weapons articles, all that detail the nations military set up, even if historical, like Rebs with Repeating Rifles, which is about the military of the Confederate States of America.). They are fairly good.

The United States military is famous for it's inter-service rivalries (to the point that the US military refers to foreign forces as "The Adversary" to preserve a joke at the Navy's expense: An Army General was once bored in a meeting about "The Enemy (Russian military) forces" and promptly explained to the young officer giving the briefing that "The Russians are the Adversary. The Navy is the Enemy!"). If you google U.S. military jokes, expect to see most about the various services, especially ones about Backronyming names... the U.S. Military loves them acronyms and it's not hard to string a few to cover a few groups. There are even quasi-alliances (The Army and Air Force (which has it's roots in Army) tend to gang up on the Navy and Marines (Both are under Department of Navy) and vice-versa. The Coast Guard (sort of the red headed step child of the services) tends to be the bottom of the totem pole between the Navy and Marines and will be mostly ignored by the Army and Air Force, but they will support the Coast Guard if it means they can also attack the Navy and Marines. This also bleeds into some wonky insistent termonology (yes it's listed under that trope) such as those who fly planes in the air force being called Pilots, but those who fly planes in the Navy are Aviators. Each service even has an official approval grunt!

Of course, one cannot discuss the United States Military Culture without discussing the U.S. Marine Corp (USMC) who have such a culture identity, there's a sub-trope about their cultural identity on TVTropes (Semper Fi). The Marines are generally the badasses of the U.S. Military and very much encourage this trope. The official song of the USMC explicitly states that God himself chose the Corp to guard Heaven. There is also no such thing as an Ex-Marine or Retired Marine. There are only Marines, some of who are Honorably Discharged at the moment... and those that were dishonorably discharged were never Marines, retroactively if necessary (No True Scotsman, this attitude also is prevalent with respect to Marines that commit serious criminal offenses.). Marines also have an ideology that "Every Marine is a Rifle Man" from the lowest private to the top General and this actually creates a unique culture to how they eat: The other four services feed Officers first, Enlisted second and from top to bottom rank in the mess. The USMC reverses this and the Enlisted eat first followed by the Officers, and lowest rank to highest in order as the job of fighting stuff is enlisted duties and that's all what the marines about (except the air force where officers do the fighting... and eat first).

Given the sheer personnel size of the U.S. Military (2nd in the world), they do have a very developed culture, to the point that they even have their own unique accent (enforced, so that everyone can be understood) and are given to spelling in NATO Alphabet. They also are unique for singing in formation (Jodi Calls) which include not safe for work lyrics (in fiction they almost always start with "I don't know what I've been told..." and often have a Sound)

  • I learned "I don't know but I've been told ..." Not "what", "but". Usually followed by a rhyme in the same (poetic) metre. – Amadeus Feb 23 at 11:48

I dated a cop who couldn't stand watching "police dramas" because he said they were so unrealistic they might as well be on Mars. Being a writer I tried to get at the essence of what his criticism was, and asking direct questions the best way he could explain it was the characters face dramas and fringe situations in every episode that most police would never encounter in their entire careers. That made sense, but it could easily be said for any fictional story – afterall we generally want stories about interesting people doing interesting things, not people who sleep for 8hrs and commute to work.

What I later observed from the few cop shows he actually thought were "realistic" generally had nothing to do with police drama. Instead they were just typical workplace situations that I didn't really think had anything to do with being a cop – and that was the point. He liked dumb misunderstandings between characters, and one character slacking off and the others mis-interpreting it as something else, so a chain reaction of (what I would call) silly workplace predicaments: someone makes a mistake, and so a boss sets a new rule to fix it, and that unleashes a chain of unrelated issues as everyone has to adapt to a new "rule" which is arbitrary for them. Some of the situations he described as being the most realistic, were to my eyes the most farcical and absurd and the least like a police-procedural drama.

He also reacted to the dialog. Cops sitting around discussing "crime" was totally unrealistic, but cops sitting around talking about their retirement and pension plans was extremely realistic – for me this was inane dialog that didn't tell me anything about the characters or their backstories or their philosophical differences, and again, I guess that is the whole point. Their common ground was actually very mundane and union employee-related. A cop doing their job is just suppose to follow procedure, not make value judgements about who is a good person. Those conversations just never came up, but conversations about doing each other's paperwork and double-checking with the resident "nerd" about procedure and protocol was normal.

Also, perhaps most important, the idea that union jobs will attract a small number of "gung ho" employees, but a majority of (low-tier) rank-and-file employees who have no control or authority, so the goal is to get the job done without any fireworks or improvising. The "status quo" is about not standing out, not doing more or less than expected, and essentially counting the days until retirement.

I have no idea how to get a feel for this, without sitting down with a bunch of military people and listening to the (for a writer) inane dialog and off-topic banter between them. However, that dialog is probably very universal. It isn't interesting for plot or drama, but it will ring true to the people who have been there.

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