combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 01 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2003

Parthian Shot
a fleeting editorial dart inviting chase

Authorial Brief-Back

"Tell the truth about what you see and what you do. There is an army depending on us for correct information. You can lie all you please when you tell other folks about the rangers, but don't never lie to a ranger or an officer."
by Major Robert Rogers [Rangers' Standing Order #4]

Everyone likes to be entertained by a good tale, rousing or compassionate, inspiring or precautionary; but even the best of them is suspect. For every assertion there is a confutation, and for every speculation there is a rejoinder. Perhaps it's human nature, but our annals are replete with shades of the truth.

If history is a compilation of all the lies and half-truths that are pandered by various factions and vested interests to explain or justify their conduct of affairs, then our vaunted civilization, with its authoritative evidence and authentic literacy, is no better than oral cultures, with their implausible myths and incredible legends. At times, people seem to be so anxious for stories that will fortify or persuade them that we are uncritical, if not complicit. This frangibility makes us vulnerable, and unstable ... and if intractably purblind, makes us even more vulnerable.

The sociopolitical climate has been sufficiently altered after every war that veterans despair of telling the truth ... or their version of the truth, that set of experiences and convictions for which they risked their lives. These veterans tend to talk with each other in exclusive coteries, and despair of transmitting their wisdom to succeeding generations. The ones who do assert themselves, as either paradigms or as emissaries, are usually egotistical or duplicitous, if not both. Some people compose because they were destined to write about something anyway, and the metaphors of war apply elsewhere. Some are compelled by dint of magnificent incitements or profound incentives to archive them, in the same manner of any call to vocation. And some imagine that reality can be altered, or conduct redirected, by rewriting the evidence into some more desirable culmination ... as if the war that could not be won by the sword could be won by the pen.

By definition, violence is not reasonable ... as are all emotions and passions. Psychology cannot validly determine whether violence is inherent or experiential, but there is no empirical evidence of consequential immunity. If conflict was amenable to rational resolution, then war would be either unknown or bygone. Socialization requires the control of, and not the repression or extinction of violence; as evinced by its intermittent utility. Society considers a criminal plea of violent compulsion to warrant incapacity by the admission of irrationality. By contrast, society rewards appropriate or countervailing violence; but is suspicious of persons who serve in professions where violence recurs, holding them to a higher standard of discipline for their tainted association. There is overwhelming force in violence, not unlike the power of an accident, or of natural catastrophes and cataclysms, which grants everyone an analogous sense of the extreme conditions and exceptional sensations unbound by war. If we are awed by lightning and thunder, firestorm and avalanche, typhoon and earthquake, then a barrage or bombardment must be terrifying! ... and the berserker must be fearsome to behold! There will seemingly always be war, but it's not the existence of this entity but its manner ... not what but why ... that fascinates us, that obsesses us, that perplexes us.

It is said that God (or the devil) is in the details, that the overview is too remote, and that the aperçu is too abstract for its significance or meaning to inform us, to impress us, to inspire us. The commonality, or even ubiquity, of human experience doesn't homogenize us; we seem to need individuation of exposure. While propinquity is not essential for sensitivity, we seem to need increased intimacy for enhanced meaning ... nothing makes us more appreciative of life than a close-encounter with death. A distant threat, albeit unsettling, cannot compare with an immediately personal confrontation! ... even in remembrance, our pulse pounds, our nerves twitch, and our thoughts race. The feel of lubricated metal, the smell of sweaty gear, and the taste of gunsmoke have etched our minds. The look of vital blood and the sound of rattling breath have graven our spirits. The pain fades, but the scar remains vivid.

We may be able to exterminate our fellow beings en masse but we still learn ugly truths singly. We must inculcate values, acquire sensibilities, and attain skill levels in the same patient way we individually discover truth, and save our singular souls ... which is the same slow way we transfer these traits. Publishing (especially the mass media) gives us the mistaken impression that a person simultaneously communicates with a vast audience; but we actually meet, through the miracle of technology, as different persons with distinct backgrounds and inequitable attributes. Our communication is contingent upon an adequate accommodation and sufficient sympathy, so as to extend our bases far enough to recognize the unknown in the other. We do this in myriad ways; sometimes beneficially, sometimes embarrassingly, sometimes humorously. Sometimes we have so little in common that we cannot even agree to disagree with equanimity.

The lessons each person learns are part of the entire matrix, and have the potential to enlighten everyone else, given time and inclination. Every infantryman is dependent upon nine other soldiers to support his role, and if wounded, he monopolizes seventeen servicemembers. As the want of a nail conceivably lost a hypothetical battle, so at each phase of activity, each part of the whole must properly function, with each being most important at particular times. The account that each driver and clerk, mechanic and cook, nurse and chaplain has to relate is as significant as that of the dashing pilot or ferocious cannoneer or gallant tanker. A tale of Civil Affairs humanitarianism can be as poignant as any romance or melodrama. Homefront fidelity is as crucial as battlefront loyalty ... but both have been subordinated to remunerative sensationalism, to marketable scandal, to profitable propaganda.

An axiom of Military Intelligence is that we must be capable of recognizing our own lies when they are repeated by our enemies. Most popular accounts of combat are written by people with more imagination than experience. Even when these authors do enough diligent research to get the facts right, they invariably get the feeling wrong. Many of the more lucrative authors have turned to consultants for verisimilitude, but it's similar to a virgin writing pornography by querying prostitutes ... something is always awry, if not wry. Unlike acquisitions and lineages, talent is not an heritable mantle. If these hacks would simply depict the way real people truly act and think in crises, then their artificial simulations and projections would not be so unbelievable. It is the authenticity of accounts, even in fiction, that persuades a multitude of people that they, despite their disparities, share a common bond. When people recognize their own encounters in an alien scenario, that representation has the potential of becoming a classic; because its particulars are universally transcendent.

Whether it is war or writing or anything else, there is always more than one way of doing something. This variety, and our willingness to explore, contributes to our tendency toward interpersonal conflicts. That different methods prevail under different conditions, and that every absolute has an exception, makes life anomalous, intricate, and mysterious. The best way of doing something is determined by one's mission, resources, and target parameters. We are frequently compelled, by custom or command, to adopt unwanted elements or adhere to undesirable aspects; and our results bespeak our character more than our objective. It is irrelevant that there is an ostensible better way or a putative wrong way, because our only choice is the military way. If one survives, one may want to write for cathartic ventilation or to express ideation, or even heuristic amelioration. In any case, one has a plethora of options: air assault or prose, infiltration or poetry, envelopment or ....

When an author does sally forth, they are often assailed by synthetic experts and sanctimonious critics, who riddle the work with niggling carps. These armchair commanders or Monday morning quarterbacks imbue themselves with the power to second-guess the man in the arena ... which the best of them once were. That no one's slander should be unchallenged is beside the point, since unpopular assertions are as difficult of substantial proof as one's personal honor or probity. The distortions provoked by enmity are countless. That some stories are cherished and others revised, that some are abandoned and others refuted is beyond anyone's control. Skepticism may be prudent, but boldness has frequently defeated caution. What hindsight exhibits is mankind's critical nature.

For the most part, life imitates life, and art is a pale interpretation ... fact is stranger than fiction. Of late, for too many poor excuses, life has been imitating art ... “It was awesome — just like a movie!” In attempting to ascertain the validity of opinion on reality, one must establish a true basis for assessment. What makes a judgement on the war story so much more important than ordinary poetry or prose is the same thing that makes combat more significant than regular life. Everyone seems to have an opinion about almost everything, so when an ambitious author decides to write a story that will address his attitude on war, the result may be politically-correct, but illiterate. Likewise, when a poseur compiles a bogus account of his fantasies, the result may be entertaining, but illegitimate. As in other times and places, the inaccuracies perpetrated by Latter Day Knights after the Civil War fomented contention ... “Another perfectly good war story was ruined by an eye-witness!”

During the Vietnam War, the brief-back protocol was initiated to help counteract the excessive micromanagement of commanders, and to diminish the friction between field and staff personnel. A team or other small unit was issued a Warning Order with its integral Mission Statement, and the assigned unit would make all arrangements and “brief their Operations Plan back” to the command and staff authority. The element at risk on the ground was responsible for properly planning and executing its assignment, while the staff double-checked, and the commander supervised. This is the military version of this is what I understood you to say, and it worked so well that it became standard doctrine. This is essentially the editorial process.

Every manuscript is scrutinized three times: first by its author, then by its editor, and finally by its audience. Such a review may spawn new work at any phase of the process, from authorial rewrite to critical rebuttal. It is the function of the editor to be suspicious and hypercritical, because he is the skeptic guarding the publication passage. The editor, by virtue of his post, is neither impartial nor unerring; but he is the first line of defense, the initial point of combat. The editor's fortress is the writer's first unsympathetic test, first public trial. Once the work has passed into the publishing jungle, it can no longer be refitted and reinforced. It will only survive if the editor, like a drillmaster, has forced it to be as strong as possible.

At one time, bad boys were given a choice between prison and the military ... there was a similar period in pulp publishing. When military service was a more exclusive privilege, misfits were prevented from enlisting. Whenever a trainee could not be molded into a good soldier, he was compelled to return to civilian status. Whenever the editor cannot obtain a satisfactory brief-back from the author, then the writing will be returned to its original manuscript status. Like other noteworthy insigne, our imprimatur is a mark of distinction reserved for a select few. We are gung-ho!

by Ed Staff