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As I plan to write a war story, I'm considering issues I should try to avoid.

Few that come to my mind already:

  • Glorification of violence, meaning depiction of violence in a positive way, ignoring ethical issues involved and ugly side effects on civilian populations. Engaging but superficial action without reflecting on what hurting and killing people means.
  • Opposite to previous would be a total condemnation of the violence that would be an overly simplistic and generalized view of violence as a bad thing in any case and ignoring nuanced factors that justify its use, i.e., self-defense or protection of one's family or other people unable to defend themselves, protection of one's country, use of force proportional to the threat, etc.
  • Simplisticly depicted antagonists as purely evil. Even worse would be contrasting it with purely good protagonists.
  • Hand in hand with the previous point: lack of rationale for the antagonists' actions. It doesn't have to be objectively rational; even the Nazi ideology of Lebensraum for their "superior" race was a rationale for WWII and the Holocaust. Also, the ongoing Russian-Ukranian war has a rationale on the Russian part, both the one stated in the official propaganda, however ridiculous, and the hidden agenda of control over recourses and territory.
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    Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer.
    – Community Bot
    Commented Mar 19, 2023 at 14:00
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    Before you write "military" anything, you should learn something about the military. Even the authors who write anti-war works are successful, in part, because they are knowledgeable about how militaries actually work. Joe Haldeman, author of "The Forever War" for example, is a Vietnam vet. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_Haldeman Heinlein was in the US Navy. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerry_Pournelle was in the army during the Korean war.
    – Boba Fit
    Commented Mar 19, 2023 at 16:10
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    It's not clear to me that any of the items your list are objectively required for a war story to be well received by some particular audience that you might have in mind. That's just fine, but it leaves unclear what the basis should be for any additional suggestions. Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 15:36
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    Specifically re @BobaFit’s point, I recommend Bret Devereaux’s blog as one startin point, acoup.blog — especially the collections on the Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and the Rings of Power. Not so much for actually learning about military matters — it’s a good start on that, but only a start — but especially for showing how fiction that depicts warfare without understanding it usually ends up ineffective fiction. (Spoiler: Tolkien understood war much better than GRR Martin or the RoP showrunners.) And it’s a fun read!
    – PLL
    Commented Mar 22, 2023 at 15:15
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    @PLL Related: Clancy, Niven-Pournelle, Kim Stanley Robinson all understand their respective world's nd equipment finctionality. When Clancy described a weapon system it was usually "reasonably correct" - although i've seen experts quibble. Whereas eg Jason Bourne creator Robert Ludlum lacked firearms knowledge to the extent that I as a non firearm owning NZer (but admittedly old and well read) found he oftem failed to suspend disbelief when things that go bang were involved. Commented Mar 25, 2023 at 8:11

4 Answers 4

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Glorification of violence, meaning depiction of violence in a positive way, ignoring ethical issues involved and ugly side effects on civilian populations. Engaging but superficial action without reflecting on what hurting and killing people means.

Why should you avoid it? Are you writing a novel that presents a point of view, or are you writing a politically correct piece of pap? If you want to present glorification of violence as a bad thing, then do so - but not because it ticks some point on a checklist of "how to avoid offensive stuff that might keep you off the bestseller list."

People have points of view. Some people do, in fact, glorify violence and war. Some people have a more nuanced view of it - they prefer no war, but will defend their country if they have to. Some people reject it outright - sometimes for well thought out reasons, sometimes because they just don't want to be shot at.

People's views of the enemy aren't simple, either. Some view the enemy as evil - simple caricatures, cardboard cuts of "bad" to be shot and destroyed. Some know that the other guy aiming his gun at you would rather not be there, either - he'd rather be at home, working in a factory or on the farm just like the guys on the other side.

Take a stance on war. Choose your characters to represent those views - and choose characters with opposing views that you'd like to "shoot down." There's your real conflict. People for (and against war) and their reasons. The guys shooting at one another across a battlefield are the result of that conflict in reasoning.

Use the battle scenes as part of your arguments (both sides, for and against war.) Show the effects (good, if you can find any) and bad. Show how it affects the soldiers and the civilians - show how it changes the views of characters with different stand points.

The only thing I'd say not to do is to write a novel about war because it is a popular theme.

War is serious shit. If you're going to use it, use for more than "action packed background for my romance/mystery/adventure/whatever" story.


One of my favorite authors has written a good many novels about wars and why they are fought - and the things that happen in war time besides the open battles.

There are bloody scenes full of dead and dying, both individual and wholesale - everything from a description of a single shot through the eye to (literally) thousands of dead mown down in windrows with blood covering an area of acres.

The point is not to glorify the violence. The point is to make it clear that death and killing are not pretty or desirable.

The battles are a failure of the politicians or other authorities. The content of the battles and how they play out are a result of the people on the battlefield.

The stories are (to my taste) well written. The characters are interesting. The settings are exotic but well described. There's adventure and action, and many smaller things along the way.

Connecting it all, though, is a clear eyed look at what a bloody, horrific, terrifying, deadly clusterfuck war really is.

What do you have to say on the subject?

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    Upvoted for the last line. Commented Mar 19, 2023 at 14:46
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    Who is this author you talk about in the second part of your answer? Commented Mar 19, 2023 at 17:04
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    Probably the best indicator of the point I'm going to make is the title of the book I'm considering changing the current one to: Si vi pacem para bellum. Also, one of the MCs, a colonel and a veteran of a few wars, who has become a cyborg due to combat injuries, will be quoting Dwight D. Eisenhower's line: "I hate war as only a soldier can hate it." Commented Mar 19, 2023 at 18:57
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    Also, glorification of violence isn't inherently bad. You can have a story about a war or violence that uses it as a backdrop or as a part of the adventure without needing to dig into moral issues. "The Celestial Guardians Defend Earth from the Voidspawn" could be about "there are bad guys, we gotta fight them" and have that be exciting and fun. If you don't want to glorify violence then don't, but like everything in writing, it's contextual. There are no "wrong keys" on a piano, and there are no inherently bad story elements, only ones that are harder to pull off or use well.
    – Aos Sidhe
    Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 21:27
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Figure out what bothers you when reading military-related topics, and avoid doing that.

For every point mentioned, there's doubtless a successful counter example. Eg: Glorification of violence - A Clockwork Orange literally has "ultraviolence" as a theme.

Having a plot that tries to stay fair-and-balanced might risk being boring. Whereas something like Starship Troopers movie writing leans heavily into propaganda and a distorted media presentation of facts to the point of satire. Specifically the movie presentation, not the book.
The press will present the enemy as "pure evil" because that's part of propaganda and motivating a population to a war-footing. Consider how the US villainised Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein while they were alive.

One thing that bugs many non-Americans is the suggestion that "the US won both world wars" which is a massive oversimplification.
There were more deaths on D-day amongst UK troops than US troops, with 3300 and 2500, while Germany lost 6000 that day.
Both allied nations lost about 1% of their total WW2 casualties that day, whereas Germany was 0.3% of their whole-war casualties. Source

And that last paragraph omits the thousand Canadians lost, and all other allied nation's contributions, simply pushing the horizon of annoyance down some. It's easy to do unintentionally.

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    " Whereas something like Starship Troopers leans heavily into propaganda and a distorted media presentation of facts to the point of satire. More-so the movie than the book." Only the movie, not the book. The movie is a farce, made by a man who openly acknowledges that he never read the book. The two are as different as night and day.
    – JRE
    Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 5:53
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    @JRE: The movie Starship Troopers wasn't made by one person. Its writer, Ed Neumeier, loved the book as a kid. londonscreenwritersfestival.com/… Its director, Paul Verhoeven, disliked the book so much that he quit reading after two chapters, and asked Neumeier to tell him the story instead. empireonline.com/movies/features/paul-verhoeven Together, they made what by most accounts is a brilliant and cutting parody of the original. Love it or hate it, but don't dismiss the care and intention that went into it.
    – Vectornaut
    Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 8:05
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    @Vectornaut: I dismiss the movie for pissing on a very good novel. If Verhoeven wanted to make a parody, then that's fine - but not under the original title. I wouldn't call the movie "brilliant" or "cutting." It is more like "juvenile" and "attacking a straw man image of the novel."
    – JRE
    Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 10:11
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    @Vectornaut That article points out that Neumeier (a) completely misremembered the novel, which doesn't count as "loved" for me (b) thought it had "very little story" and as such, completely butchered its plot by inserting a love triangle to make it more appealing to audiences. So we have a writer making things up as he went along, and a director who chose to have no knowledge of the source material. There's no universe in which the movie they produced can be considered anything but loosely inspired by the novel; it's very obviously a film made solely to sell movie tickets, not a parody.
    – Ian Kemp
    Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 11:19
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    If you think that "Starship Troopers" movie had any relationship whatsoever to the book (especially thematically), you should read this very extensive asnwer on a sister SciFi stackexchange site: scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/13666/….
    – DVK
    Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 22:26
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For a start, you are under no obligation to present a 'correct' attitude in your story. Plenty of literature that glorifies war, demonizes the 'enemy' etc. has been written, is being written, and will continue to have a market.

But you feel a moral responsibility towards your readers. Or maybe fear criticism from your community. OK, that's valid. If you live in a Quaker or Amish community, you'd probably better restrict any mention of war to straightforward disapproval. If your neighbours fly the Confederate flag and dream of dressing up in bedsheets you can afford to be more gung-ho. Can you please both extremes in the same story? I suspect not, but I'd be very interested to see your attempt! Perhaps you should aim to be President rather than wasting your talents on writing.

Why do you WANT to write 'military sci-fi'? Because you've identified a market for straightforward space opera with a hero and a bug-eyed monster? Fine, put your scruples on hold and go for it. Or because you appreciate that in this imperfect world a war might be necessary but are troubled by the human consequences? So write THAT story.

Remember that you're writing a story, not a manifesto. Your characters don't have to be saints. You can enjoy yourself describing a battle scene through the eyes of one character, then present a different angle through another's. Or perhaps you could quote a flag-waving magazine article then a character's reaction to it.

Be aware, of course, that anything any character says will trigger some people to condemn it as YOUR opinion. Any balancing narrative will be ignored. You will be 'cancelled' from your Creative Writing course.

Now, that's an idea. How about a story about a young writer who has pride in his father's military record (let's assume the war was a 'necessary' one) and wants to write about it, but knows he'll be shouted down in his CR class.

Also, re-read "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty".

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    "Also, re-read 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty'." Firstly, you're assuming that OP has read it before. Secondly, why should they read (or re-read) it? Can you explain why it's relevant to the question?
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Mar 21, 2023 at 15:45
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    We’re dealing with a writer. Writers EXPLORE. They don’t just obediently follow instructions.
    – Laurence
    Commented Mar 21, 2023 at 16:04
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None of those are, in and of themselves, things to avoid unless YOU specifically wish to. There are plenty of examples of excellent and enjoyable military-themed books that have one or more of those "avoids". Instead I would suggest the following:

Don't Ignore Logistics: Even if your POV is entirely one private in one army who knows nothing about "the war" YOU, the author, are tasked with running the entire war. Depending on the time period you might need to know how many wagons of fodder are needed to feed a cavalry division, how fast an infantry unit can march in 6 hours, how many miles (yes miles) of road an armored brigade takes up etc etc etc. These may never make it onto the page in broad strokes, but it will enable you to add the little touches that make writing believable. Even if your setting is wholly fantasy/scifi a realistic treatment of the hows and whys of army movement/upkeep lends your story an air of realism. For example Tolkien's campaigns are all based on historical realism and all "make sense" from a military standpoint.

Don't oversell: Individual squads/companies/warbands whatever may get wiped out. They may take horrendous casualties and fight through to win the day. But in general an army that loses 16% of its combat forces has lost the battle and lost it badly. A post-gunpowder army losing 25% has had a Very Bad Day. Ancient armies that rely on standing within arms reach and sticking the other guy with something pointy TENDED to break and run at about 8% casualties and then might lose many, many more during the rout as the enemy chases them down and slaughters them. But nothing takes a knowledgeable reader out of a book quicker than something like "in minutes 10% of the army was killed" and then the fight carries on as if that's something nobody'd worry about.

Battlefields aren't all muddy shell-strewn hellholes: Unless your forces are in trenches, have been there a while, and have access to modern (1900s-onward) artillery, your battlefields are NOT muddy cratered moonscapes. Ancient-early modern armies that aren't fighting in the rain (and they generally didn't do that because of reasons I won't go into here) won't even tear up the landscape that much. Cavalry might trample crops like cornfields, but if the fight is in a meadow the meadow will look basically the same after, just with bodies in it. Even a WWI+ army is unlikely to effect the ground if the battle lasts for a few hours/a day or two barring a truly tremendous amount of artillery being concentrated in a small area.

Be Culturally Sensitive to How People Make War: Know how your culture historically and at the "current" time of writing views war and what is permissible/disallowed. For example a Zulu thinks nothing of cutting open corpses of the dead. He's freeing the spirits of the fallen. A British infantrymen thinks the Zulu is desecrating corpses. But in turn the Zulu is going to be shocked that the Brit isn't doing that. Or that many ancient cultures admire war and the warrior and think nothing but good thoughts about things like "slaughtering prisoners" or "burning an enemy town to the ground and enslaving the survivors". You might still have a character/characters who have "modern" sensibilities about such things, but forcing modern values and opinions onto the entire setting/everyone in the book will cause problems.

There are some excellent articles on these subjects over at acoup.blog, which is written by an ancient history PhD holder with extensive knowledge about military history in general.

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