A few days ago, I received a free eBook for an honest review, part of the Read It & Reap program through the Shut Up and Read GoodReads group. Part of the reason I asked for the book, other than the fact that it sounded interesting, was that one of the main characters was billed as a female veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. I cleared my mind, set my expectations to low, and started reading. (You can read my pretty favorable review of The Journeyman by Michael Alan Peck here.)
I finished reading, having enjoyed the story, but once again feeling like the author based his characterization of the Iraq veteran on what he watched on a few television shows or The Hurt Locker. Once again, I wondered if he had even bothered to seek out a female veteran to get her take on one of the main characters in the novel, one for whom her service was ostensibly a large part of the character. Once again, I thought: Why bother mentioning her service in the promotional material for the book, if you don’t spend a minute to do some research and get it right?
Here’s the deal: If you are billing one of your top character as a “veteran,” you are banking on a certain audiences interest in that aspect of the character. Thus, his or her veteran status becomes a selling point for your work. And there’s nothing wrong with that, because readers – and I count myself among them – are attracted to those aspects in which they are interested. Heck, that’s what book blurbs are there for.
However, if you don’t exert the time and effort to get the details right, then what you are writing is not a veteran, but a facsimile. And one of the problems I have with that, especially when it involves a main character or important supporting character, is that facsimiles add up. Right now, we have a lot of people writing and portraying facsimiles rather than real characters, and audiences, who probably haven’t served and whose vision of a “veteran” typically comes from news and entertainment media, incorporate these facsimiles into their vision of who and what comprises a veteran.
A recent article on Task & Purpose explored some of the reasons that Hollywood gets things wrong, focussing on areas such as poor screenwriting, the fog of filmmaking, and physical limitations such as budget or poor communication in post-production. But I think the issue is wider. These errors, such as the wrong patch on a uniform, are easily overlooked. But situations such as getting every fundamental fact about service wrong, or relying on an easy stereotype for a military character, go deeper than just a female veteran wearing a crossed rifles branch insignia (The Unit, I’m looking at you.)
This reminds me of my experience with The Hurt Locker. I first heard of the movie by reading an article that detailed the director’s quest to correctly portray the explosions in the movie. I went to the movie focused on the explosions, and was not disappointed. Later on, watching it again, I realized the explosions were the only accurate thing about the movie. That and the scene in the grocery store. In other words – they got a few details right and wrote whatever they wanted to for the rest of it. WTF?
What is the solution to this problem? First, perhaps an acknowledgment that a problem exists, and that if you are a civilian writer, filmmaker, etc., it might help you avoid creating a facsimile and perpetuating a stereotype if you seek out a veteran, engage him or her in some conversation, and perhaps invite them to do a beta read of your work. We may be less than one percent of the population, but LinkedIn is a great place to start. Veteran-interest sites like Task & Purpose are another great place. Also, the military has what’s known as Public Affairs Officers. From my own experience, some of them are more user friendly than others, but it’s a good place to start. If you’re reading this and wondering where you can find someone to help you out, here’s a hint – drop a comment and I’ll be in touch.
This next part is directed at my fellow service members. Part of the solution will be for us to get our story out there. There are plenty of avenues. When I was part of the mil-blogging community (I guess I technically still am?) I joined several aggregation sites that served up military-interest blogs to anyone who was interested. If you have a chance, contact a site like Medium.com, Task & Purpose, etc., and see what you have to contribute. If writing is not your forte, then the Web is making it easier to communicate with those who are creating. Leave a review, or drop a line.
But most importantly, we need to take control of our own narratives. Right now, there are a lot of military people talking news and columns to each other, and a lot of civilians making entertainment for other civilians. I think we need to find some way to share the dialogue of the veteran with the news feed of the civilian, and to produce the screenplay of the veteran for the civilian audience. Only when we start interesting, marketing to, and engaging across that gap will we leave the facsimiles behind … and picking up a new book will be less of a crap shoot.