I sing the song of the wrath of Achilles. So said Homer in opening the Iliad. Several thousand years later, in writing the closing of his novel “Voyage Across The Stars” David Drake quotes these words, explaining how he builds upon the reputation of Homer and others. That it is a privilege to stand on their shoulders, and leave a mark in the world.
I echo these sentiments, for many reasons. My introduction to written science fiction came in high school. I preferred books to people. Books didn’t cause drama, books didn’t try to pick fights with you for no good reason; books didn’t care that you wore the cheap jeans your mother bought at Walmart because it was all she could afford, not Aeropostale, Hollister, or Abercrombie.
I stumbled over David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers in the school library, followed by John Ringo’s Posleen-verse. This was followed in quick order by Heinlein, Asimov and Piers Anthony. Their words took my teenaged mind far beyond the pavement and asphalt of a Southern California high school to somewhere better. Somewhere above and beyond the muck and the grind. I firmly believe that good science fiction is intended to do exactly this — carry a man or woman to another place. A story must do that, must transport the reader from wherever they are to wherever they wish to be. It must fill the imagination, must inspire us to seek for new horizons. Quality romance should not simply titillate, but encourage one to dream of better times, better places. What is life if we cannot dream?
I spent my 22nd birthday at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego. I had some inkling of what I was getting into. But I could never imagine how true to life Drake’s words, or Ringo’s, or Kratman’s would be, about the affect on a young man to learn to wage war against his fellow man. There is much truth to the idea put forth regarding how a young man can grow old soldiering. There is great truth in how NCOs train young enlisted men to do their jobs and to do it well. That the satisfaction comes not from spilling an enemy’s blood but because you did your job, you did it well, and you protected the lives of your fellow Marines.
Along the way you learn what real brotherhood is, above and beyond a frat house affectation. You learn fanatic loyalty for the man on your left and right. As Gene Wolfe stated so eloquently in the introduction to the recently reissued Hammer’s Slammers Volumes (Number 1 to be precise) “a friend is someone who will give you a drink from his canteen and watch while you sleep”.
Sadly, there are few remaining of that adventurous generation. Since the mid 60s, the literary world has been filled with a dearth of truly experienced authors. Instead we get the Tempest Bradfords and John Scalzis of the world. Men and women who have never traveled, have never struggled, have never truly lived outside their own mooching off rich friends and government grants. All because they were too scared to try.
Gone is the Kipling, who lived in India and wrote about what he knew. Consider Louis L’Amour, creator of the modern western romance: He had, by his own admission “Skinned cattle in west Texas, baled hay in the Pecos valley of New Mexico, worked in the mines of Arizona, California, and Nevada, and in the saw mills and lumber yards of Oregon and Washington”, boxed as an amateur and a professional, coached several Golden Gloves teams, hoboed across the country, visited England, Japan, China, Borneo, the Dutch East Indies, Arabia, Egypt, and Panama as a merchant seaman”, all before serving as an officer in Europe during World War 2.
Tell us Tempest Bradford, how that stacks up against “After Clarion West I wandered around the country for a few years visiting friends, writing, and discovering that all one needs to survive in life is confidence, charm, and many well-off friends. In 2006 I returned to New York City and took up freelancing to support myself.”
What does it say about an author when they judge a book by the skin color of the writer, rather than the content of their story? I refuse to divulge my familial background because I don’t want to get by based on my skin color. I don’t want sympathy points. I want what I have because I earned it. Because I tell the best damn story you’re going to pick up and read for at least a month. Am I still learning? Absolutely. Writing is as much an evolutionary learning process as service to the artillery.
Lest any be curious, I’ve read, or tried to read the “works” of Tempest Bradford. My sophomore honors English teacher shoved such down our throats with all the efficiency of gulag jailers trying to break a hunger strike. It was no more palatable then than it is now. I had never imagined that an English teacher would so actively desire to make students hate printed words as Desiree Hamill did. I found more joy in reading Clancy and Le Carre’s Cold War thrillers than I did the supposedly “brilliant philosophical musing” of a coke-using hippie reminiscing on what their last narcotics binge did for them. My classmates read Harry Potter, Anne Rice, anything to escape the horrendous idiocy of what Desiree Hamill made us read.
A good story, a very good story, gives to its readers as much as it might take away in time spent. How many children fell in love with reading because they could imagine in their mind’s eye Harry Potter chasing after the Snitch on his Firebolt broomstick? How many young women started to read for themselves after falling in love with Twilight? Can we criticize their authors? Of course. But we cannot criticize results. Consider how many people chose to try their hand at writing because of JK Rowling — on fanfiction.net alone, there are over 708,000 fan-written Harry Potter stories. What a wondrous and beautiful thing for young minds to find the spark of reation and let it become their own flame!
Why do I bring this up? Because it explains why I write. The most common misperception in America is not bigotry by skin color, but that the men and women who wear the uniform of this country are stupid, slavering psychopaths. We are modern-day Myrmidons as a dear friend of mine has stated. We are all John Rambo, ready to snap at a moment’s notice and kill everything within missile range.
I was fired by the Bon Ton Corporation from my position at one of their Herberger stores, not because I beat a customer or terrorized my fellow employees, but because being a veteran automatically made the store manager and assistant store manager feel threatened by my presence. We’ll ignore that I had worked in retail for a year and a half before then; we’ll ignore the numerous customer comments thanking me for my helpful service and assistance while they were shopping at my previous employer; we’ll ignore all of that for the sake of irrational fear. I spent 8 weeks on unpaid suspension was forced to undergo a psych eval (I passed) — and they still fired me! No warning, no unemployment pay. Nothing. A man with a family, forced to go into debt and use up his credit to keep his family fed and a roof over their heads. All because of irrational fear.
I learned an invaluable lesson from that though — now, more than ever, the American fighting man has a dire need for his story to be heard. Not to have it misstated by talking heads on CNN and MSNBC who lie about their personal exploits. Not to have authors like John Scalzi try and fail to explain what makes us tick, what makes us stand and fight. We have a dire need to show the world that we have not foregone our humanity in the pursuit of martial virtues and martial valor.
Because if we don’t tell our stories, the way it really happened, senseless ignoramuses who’ve never actually struggled will make false assumptions about what we are, pass it off as truth, and further propagate the lies. Because the men I served alongside in the sands of foreign lands deserve better. In The Dance of Time, Drake mentions Calopodius the Blind, and how he writes so that the families of men he fights alongside may know that their kinfolk are still alive on that battlefield. More importantly, so that “their names will exist somewhere, on something other than a tombstone.”
I swore to myself after I came home from Afghanistan with 12th Marine Regiment, that I would give my brothers fame. Though we left hands and feet and childhood and innocence and even our lives behind in that Godforsaken desert, I will make sure the world knew they were good men. The very best men. The ones you call upon to build a nation, to guarantee freedom of speech, freedom to pursue happiness, freedom to dream.
Most important of all, in the words of a poet, “Nobody sees the myrmidon’s tears”. And it’s time the world knew the truth, from the myrmidon’s own lips.