If you’ve ever wanted to write a military romance – and who hasn’t! – then ask Pat Haggerty any questions on how to make your Marine hero realistic. Fire away!
Writing Marine Heroes
Just at the end of World War II, Eleanor Roosevelt said, “The Marines I have seen around the world have the cleanest bodies, the filthiest minds, the highest morale, and the lowest morals of any group of animals I have ever seen. Thank God for the United States Marine Corps!”
I read a lot of romance novels and as a man and a Marine it’s always interesting to see how romance writers, who are frequently women and who’ve usually never been in the USMC, write Marines. On the whole they do a really good job. Occasionally, not so much =)
So what information can you use to create a better Marine?
Most Marines portrayed in romantic literature are men. Don’t get me wrong, female Marines are hard chargers just like their male counterparts, but they don’t seem to show up in books quite as often. Also and though this is changing, female Marines have historically been banned from Military Occupational Specialties (MOSs) that are considered front line. If you’re going to be sitting in a tank or manning a machine gun in an infantry platoon, then you’re going to be a man.
Now, I don’t want to go down the whole, “How to write a better man” road. There are a lot of good classes on that topic and I would highly recommend Sascha Illyvich’s Male POV workshop. He runs it frequently and does a good job. His S&M workshop is great too.
Sascha likes to say that men have a tape running in their heads telling them who they think they are and what they think they should do in a given situation. In the case of a Marine that tape is usually filled with things related to family, honor, service, protection, sex, and killing. Ha. Conflict arises when reality doesn’t mesh well with that mental self image and set of expectations.
Marines have the highest Armed Service Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) requirements (tied with Air Force) and longest boot camp of any service. Marines (not Soldiers) enter service through one of two Marine Corps Recruit Depots (MCRDs): MCRD San Diego or MCRD Paris Island, depending on which side of the Mississippi river they enlist on. Boot camp serves two purposes. It turns recruits into gung-ho killing machines, and it culls the men and women who for whatever reason can’t get through basic training. Boot camp is hell and those that make it to the end have truly earned the title Marine.
I knew a bunch of Marines who failed out of boot camp due to some physical problem. If you have a heat stroke in boot camp you are immediately expelled. How would that mess with your characters self image? One of my Drill Instructors (DIs) was a sadistic bastard who was dishonorably discharged after he ran into trouble with my training platoon. I was there when he caused a recruit to break a hip and pelvis during punishment. That Marine never made it back to training. How would that hurt your Marine’s self image?
If you want to get a glimpse into what boot camp is like, watch the first part of Full Metal Jacket. Stanly Kubrick couldn’t quite get the boot camp section to his liking so he asked the Marine consultant, R. Lee Ermey, to help out. A lot of what Ermey says is adlibbed. Ermey was a Drill Instructor (DI) for a number of years and knew what to say and how to say it.
By the end of boot camp a Marine sees himself as a killer. I heard a DI say once, “Mankind might be an apex predator, but a United States Marine is the apex predator.” They see themselves as different, set apart even from other military branches. I remember hearing Light (Lieutenant) Colonel Oliver North on the news one time. He said something like, “Three military men and two Marines…” In his mind, the Military Men were general but the Marines were unto themselves.
Marines typically aren’t heavily muscled. When I got out of MCRD Paris Island I was 20 years old, straight as a rail, 6’3” tall, and down to 160lbs. I was nothing but bone, sinew, muscle, and attitude. I got married the week after basic training and in my wedding pictures it’s scary how thin I was, and how little hair I had.
A friend of mine recently pulled our wedding album off the shelf and leafed through. After a few pages he frowned, looked at my wife and said, “Was this your first husband?”
Marine training is focused on shifting your own body around. It’s all about how far can you run under any conditions, how far can you swim, how many sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups can you do? Even after boot camp Marines continue the same type of Physical Training (PT). Sure, a Marine might augment PT with weights but they still stay thin on the whole. Marines who become Fat Bodies (overweight) tend to end up doing loads of extra PT to get themselves back in shape. Marines are tested biannually to make sure they can still meet specific criteria. The Physical Fitness Test (PFT) consists of three events: running three miles, crunches, and pull-ups. A perfect score would be three miles in 18 minutes, 100 crunches in two minutes, and 20 pull-ups. Again, notice how the PFT depends on your ability to manipulate your own body.
The Enlisted Man Mystique
Have you ever seen Clint Eastwood’s Heartbreak Ridge? It’s a great example of the whole, “Don’t call me sir, I work for a living” mystique. The bumbling “butter bars” Second Lieutenant. The salty Gunny (Gunnery Sergeant) who one character says “…should be sealed in a case that reads break glass only in the event of war.” Though Marine officers are seriously badass and very much believe in leading from the front, there’s still this feeling in books and literature that real Marines are enlisted. True or not, it can play very well for you in your story.
The men that make up the Corps are from every walk of life but a lot of them are from small towns and they are following in the footsteps of other family members. They are just out of high school. Many say ma’am and sir and that’s before they enlist, and all of them say it after. They have a strong sense of God and country, and they believe in the Marine Corps and in the United States of America. The most popular music on the radio in a USMC unit? Why they play both kinds: country and western, closely followed by rap, and classic rock.
Flaws and Vulnerabilities (Reality vs. Sascha’s Mental Tape)
Marines come out of MRCD, School of Infantry (SOI), and MOS training with the tapes in their heads saying (rightly so) that they are badass, indestructible, killing machines. They’re ready to kill and ask for more. Blood makes the grass grow. Travel the world, meet new and interesting people, and kill them. All of that.
But what happens when reality hits and it’s not quite as clean and neat as it seemed in basic?
War is hell. It’s a nasty business that should be avoided until it’s the absolute last option, and then it should be entered upon fully and without reservation. But that’s not the way the modern world and politics actually works. Marines are put in positions where they might not be able to engage the enemy the way they like. They were trained to kill but frequently they find themselves acting more like policemen. They might expect an enemy soldier fighting an “honorable” attack and end up having to kill a child wearing a suicide vest.
I was in an airport talking to an Army Delta Force guy once. He was talking about how Marines had an excessively high opinion of themselves and sometimes they couldn’t spot their own weaknesses. Delta Force does serious training, as does the Special Forces components of the Corps, but a Marine directly out of boot camp might not be as highly skilled as he thinks. How does that reality interact with the tape he has playing in his head?
When Marines run in formation they sing a cadence called by whoever is leading the platoon. The cadences keep the Marines in step and in forward (combat) units they are frequently raunchy and filled with shocking imagery. Partly the cadences are a form of death humor and partly they are used as a desensitization technique.
I was in a formation once and the cadence had a line that said, “Children in the school yard tryin to learn, drop a little napalm and watch them burn.” Soon as the line came out of the running Marines a visiting, high-ranking officer who was running at the front of the formation broke out and attacked the Sergeant who was leading the platoon and calling the cadence. He threw the man to the ground and as others pulled the officer off he was shouting, “Have you ever seen a baby on fire?! Smelled it?”
No, the Marine calling the cadence hadn’t. None of us in the platoon had. But I’ve never had a doubt whether that particular officer had or not.
Marines see themselves as the man’s man, the indestructible killer, the protector of the innocent and of his fellow Marine, and the doer of right. Hell, they see themselves as the freaking sword of God. That’s on that tape running through the Marines mind and when things break that self-image, problems and inner conflict arise.
I started a fight between a Marine and his wife once. How? The wife was just graduating law school and I said, “Man, y’all going to have someone making the big bucks soon.” The Marine exploded. “No wife of mine is ever going to have to work, and if she does, she sure as shit is never going to make more money than me.” Her making more than him was messing with that tape in that Marines mind.
I had a former Marine (never an ex-Marine) grab me by the shoulders one time. It was 1989 and I was in uniform on the Mall in Washington DC. He was a homeless man, stereotypically so: filthy mismatched USMC uniform, dirty camouflage coat, stringy hair, the works.
He said, “Have they sent you over yet?”
I said, “Over where?”
“To Nam man. To Nam.”
He shook his head and tears sprang into his eyes, “You don’t want to kill ‘em, but you have to. The kids. You have to kill the kids. You just gota put your back to the trees and kill them all, dead.”
He dropped his arms and walked off, talking to himself. “You gotta kill ‘em all.”
I’ll never forget that man, or that his inability to reconcile reality with the mental image he had going to war, had left him wondering the streets of the capitol city of the greatest country in the world.
The mental version a Marine has going into killing and war is rarely like the reality. And that’s more true now than ever. Today a forward operating Marine is much more likely to be blown up by a terrorist with an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) than by an enemy combat soldier shooting a rifle.
Battlefield medicine is better than it ever has been. Most of what you see in a modern emergency room and in trauma units was developed by military doctors to help treat combat injuries. Wounded Marines get to doctors faster than ever. The temporary treatments used on battlefields are better than ever. The protection that Marines have on their body in terms of combat armor and in the vehicles they drive in is terrifically better than it was even a hand full of years ago. The result is that Marines today survive injuries that would have left them dead in Vietnam or WWII.
But that higher survival rate sometimes comes at a terrible cost. Marines return home with higher rates of mental damage. They come back missing limbs and with permanent, totally or partially debilitating injuries. How does a Marine missing his legs reconcile his condition with that indestructible mental image of himself? How does he deal with his limited ability to protect his loved ones? What if he was the Marine that once upon a time couldn’t imaging his wife working and making more than him and now she’s the only one that can work at all?
Marines have a long and glorious history of service and dedication to God, Country, and Corps. They improvise, overcome, and adapt to the situations in which they find themselves. But Marines are human, with human weaknesses and flaws. Remember that tape in their heads, that mental self-image, and use it when you’re working through your hero’s back-story. Incorporate the realities of war and how they frequently contradict a Marines expectations. And never forget the potential for physical and psychological issues related to what your character may have seen and been through.
And do research. There are loads of good books and sites that will give you a glimpse into Marine life (99% boredom and 1% terror). Also, make sure to research Marine terminology and make sure you’re not saying something that a Marine would never say. And get a Marine to do a beta read =)
Best of luck to you and to your Marine.
Did you know the USMC has a required reading list? Yup:
Got any questions for our favorite Marine? Ask away!
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Bio: After four years in the USMC, Patrick Haggerty studied Actuarial Science and Computers at Georgia State University. He has spent the past 15+ years developing and delivering technical training courses for Learning Tree International. On the side he has a successful consulting practice doing web application development for clients ranging from the United State Marines to Delta Airlines.
Seven years ago, stuck reading a mediocre book in yet another hotel, Patrick decided to try his hand at fiction. He may not be published, but these days you are much more likely to find him spending his evenings writing romance, than code. Patrick is an active member of RWA, RWAustralia, RW New Zealand, and is VP of Membership for Gulf Coast Romance Writers of America, and VP of OIRWA.