Veteran’s Day

by J.D. Rhoades

Yes, I know, it was yesterday. But it got me to thinking about how many characters in crime fiction  are ex-military…and why.

Harry Bosch is an ex-Vietnam "tunnel rat." Elvis Cole’s an ex-Army Ranger, while Joe Pike’s a former Marine. Jack Reacher’s an ex-MP who got caught in the explosion of the Marine barracks in Beirut. Our Zoe’s Charlie Fox is ex-SAS. Both of James Crumley’s PIs, Milo Milodragovitch and C.W. Sughrue, are ex-military intelligence.  Travis McGee’s a veteran of a war that’s never really specified, but we assume it’s Korea. Chris Grabenstein’s John Ceepak is a veteran of the Second Gulf War; my own Jack Keller’s a veteran of the First, while his lover Marie’s another ex-MP. Walter Mosely’s Easy Rawlins is a WWII vet, as is Stephen Hunter’s Earl Swagger and Spillane’s Mike Hammer. Even Lindsey Davis’ Falco is an ex-legionary, while Brother Cadfael served in the First Crusade.  I could go on, but you get the point.

So why are so many crime fiction protagonists ex-military? Well, for one thing, it already gives them a certain amount of built-in bad-ass cred. It’s a little more plausible that someone who’s been in the military, particularly in combat, would have less trouble handling guns and would be less likely to fall apart in a fit of the shakes in the event that they have to drop the hammer on some bad guy.

Then there’s the increased possibility that an ex-soldier or Marine will have some sort of tragic backstory. Jack Keller’s still shaking off the PTSD caused by a "friendly fire"  incident in the First Gulf War. Rennie Airth’s John Madden is still trying to get over the horrors of trench warfare in the First World War.

On the up-side, the virtues the military instills (or at least tries to) in its members can come in handy for a crime fiction protagonist: Duty. Honor. Sacrifice. Self-reliance. Courage.

The same types of things, it should be noted, apply to another oft-seen breed of protagonist: the cop or the ex-cop.

But this raises the question: is it sometimes too easy to clothe a character in an ex-military uniform to make him either admirable or tortured or both? Do we risk getting cliched?

(I’ll note that Our Zoe manages to dodge the trap of cliche quite nimbly by giving Charlie Fox’s story a particularly dark twist: she hasn’t been in combat, but what happened to her at the hands of some supposed comrades leaves scars just as deep and lasting.)

What do you think about characters who are ex-military? Done to death? Can’t get enough? How else, other than making a character an ex-soldier or a cop, do you give him or her that bad-ass credibility and  sad past? And while we’re at it…who’s your favorite ex-soldier?

The floor is open. And to all our veterans…thanks.

25 thoughts on “Veteran’s Day

  1. Wilfred Bereswill

    Done to death? It does seem to be done a lot. But there is enough variety out there where it’s not saturated.

    I’m trying to remember Jack Ryan’s (Clancy) backstory. I think he went to a military school, and I know he was severely injured. I’m just not sure he was a military guy. But Jack Ryan is still one of my favs.

    I personally know a Vietnam tunnel rat. Very small in stature and one of the most interesting guys to listen to after a few drinks. Sober he never talks about it, but talk about a creepy, creepy assignment.

  2. woodstock

    I was going to mention Chris Grabenstein’s John Seepak, but you beat me to it!

    I enjoy Charles Todd’s books featuring Ian Rutledge, a WWI survivor who carries daily psychic reminders of what he endured in the person of a ghost of a young Scot in Rutledge’s command who was executed for disobeying an order.

    Nice post – I hadn’t really thought about these characters from your viewpoint before!

  3. Dana King

    It could get overdone, and there are some writers who use veteran status as a crutch, but everything you said about them is true when you want to create a compelling potential badass willing to sacrifice to do the right thing. There are enough possible military backgrounds and experiences to keep the device fresh. (It’s not as tedious as “literary” authors who use writers as characters. Some do it well, but come on. There are more literary characters who are authors than there are actual authors.)

    My fave(s) are probably Elvis and Joe, though Dave Robicheaux is right up there.

  4. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dusty

    Thanks for bringing up Charlie Fox in such an illustrious list! Can I just make the point, though, that she is not ex-SAS. Women are not permitted to serve in the British SAS, nor the Navy equivalent, the SBS.

    Yes, Charlie’s backstory is that she was selected for Special Forces training, but this covers a whole multitude of sins and I specifically had in mind an outfit called 14 Intelligence Company, who did a lot of undercover work in Northern Ireland during the worst of the conflict there. They found female operatives particularly useful for covert undercover work as they looked a lot less obviously like a squaddie.

    I think part of the appeal of the ex-miltary character is that they’re trained for a single purpose – to kill the enemy. If you are of a certain mindset, how do you successfully stand down from that when your military service is over? How do you fit back into civilian life?

    Jack Keller’s struggle with this problem are part of what makes him so interesting as a character.

    Just as, Reacher’s total lack of a problem with killing people when they step over his line in the sand, is what makes him interesting.

    And yes, if there are a lot of ex-miltary characters out there, it’s what each author does with them that counts.

  5. Allison Brennan

    I don’t think they’re over-done for just the reasons you mentioned: duty, honor, self-sacrifice. Cliche? No–because there’s the balance of those in the same professions who don’t uphold those principles. They’re either the bad guy or a catalyst or, sometimes, a friend. Experience is important in crime fiction because we want to believe that our hero can solve this crime. And, in romantic suspense, military guys are simply sexy. 😉

    For my books, I usually have one main character in law enforcement. A military background may or may not be part of it but because I know a lot of cops who used to be military, it tends to be there in the background. Writing my first non-law enforcement heroine was particularly hard because I wanted her to be strong–I really don’t like weak women. So I gave her a compelling reason to have obtained a concealed carry permit. It might have been a bit of a cop-out, and next book I had a heroine who didn’t have ANY creds like that, but she was volunteer search and rescue which made sense for her background.

    The universal themes associated with law enforcement and military are timeless. I don’t think they’re going away anytime soon.

  6. Becky Lejeune

    I agree with Allison, I think it’s a universal theme. I’m not tired of reading about them.

    When I was in high school I was plowing through Nelson DeMille and reading about Vietnam vets. It was especially interesting to me because I wasn’t alive during Vietnam. It was, I think, an important but not overbearing way of opening me personally up to some of the effects of war on my parents’ generation, which was a pretty foreign concept to me at the time not really having had any family in the military then.

  7. Tammy Cravit

    I think that military characters, like any other class of characters, are problems only when the writer takes the lazy way out and uses the tag “military veteran” rather than fully developing a character. All the examples you cited in your post are great characters precisely because they’re fully-realized characters, not cardboard cutouts.

    And Wilfred, I seem to recall that Jack Ryan was a Marine and a graduate of the USMC’s Infantry Officer’s Course at Quantico, VA when a helicopter crash ended his military career.

  8. toni mcgee causey

    Self-reliance is also a big bonus for military / cop characters. Type-A personality, getting things done. Handy to have in a protagonist. I have an ex Spec Ops guy and a state cop–two of the three main characters in the books, and I needed strong men to keep up with and interest Bobbie Faye.

    There are, of course, self reliant people in other fields, but I think the traits needed to survive tend to transfer to other pursuits (like detective work, etc.) for this particular genre we write. As a general public, we understand the point and goal of a military force (at least, generally), whereas it might be more difficult and take a lot more explaining to have a molecular engineer’s traits transfer. I think, too, we also understand the downfall of a bureaucracy, the meddlesome middle men, the petty types who can weasel their way through and survive, if not thrive.

  9. billie

    I have both current and retired special ops guys in three novels so far. (I don’t use the term “ex-military” as I was told by some of my sources that they don’t ever consider themselves “ex” – it’s in their blood)

    I think the appeal is the warrior archetype. It’s very powerful, in a whole lot of ways, touching something primitive in all of us, imo.

  10. Rae

    To me, it’s an issue of verisimilitude. Joe Pike, for instance, wouldn’t be believable if he didn’t have a military background. You don’t just wake up one morning and decide you know how to wallop bad guys. It takes training, and one of the best places to get that training is in the military. So, I’m typically relieved when I discover that a protagonist has a military background, because it’ll be that much easier to suspend my disbelief when they start acting like Batman.

    Favorite ex-soldier? No doubt about it – Jack Reacher.

  11. Louise Ure

    Great post, J.D., and a wonderful compilation of some of my favorite ex-military protagonists.

    I don’t think they’re overdone in contemporary crime fiction because they are our modern day Paladins. Their counterpart from a century ago was that other strong, independent, physical man with a personal code of honor — the cowboy.

  12. rosebud

    Doesn’t feel overdone to this reader. The military does seem to give the instant credibility to a character for many of the reasons already listed. If not the military, they seem to be trying to overcome a downtrodden background of some sort (many have both). It is kind of hard to picture a guy (or gal) with no history, other than a cushy life in the mansion on the hill, running down a dark alley after the bad guy. Why would they bother? Truth, justice and the American way? Possible, but seems boring reading without a little personal angst to dwell on. Though I guess there are plenty of dark secrets happening with mansion dwellers you could build on.

    Besides my love of Elvis, Joe and Harry, I must say I have recently developed a huge crush on Craig Johnson’s Vietnam vets, Walt Longmire and his buddy Henry Standing Bear – gentle giants not to be missed.

  13. J.D. Rhoades

    Yikes! Sorry, Zoe, I got my Brit SF’s wrong. This is what I get for not double checking.

    Will: I read a book a few years ago about the tunnel rats. What stuck with me was the stories of how some VC would wait just inside a lateral tunnel for an American to start coming down feet first. Then the VC would stab him in the leg so as to sever the femoral artery, grab the soldier’s legs and hang on while he struggled to get out of the hole until he bled out and died. Dark, dark stuff.

    Woodstock: I’m going to have to check that series out, especially since I met Charles and Caroline this past weekend. Lovely folks.

  14. J.D. Rhoades

    Dana: I don’t know how I forgot Dave Robicheaux.

    Billie, Louise: You make a good point about the warrior/paladin archetype. I once saw Lee Child give s speech in which he discussed why, on the most basic level, people need stories. What evolutionary purpose do they serve? He posited a group of primitive humans in a cave, late at night, with the cold and the predators outside. They needed something to get them through the night, something to get them over the fear so they didn’t just lay down and die. So they created stories of hunter/warriors to raise their spirits. The soldier/hero is an outgrowth of that, I suppose, as is the cop.

  15. Doug Riddle

    I believe Jack Ryan was a Marine, and that he had injured his back in a chopper crash. Can’t remember if that was from the book Red Oct. or the the movie of the same name.

  16. JT Ellison

    What a wonderful topic! I love the honorable characters who aren’t afraid to do the “wrong” thing to makes things right. We cheer for assassins like John Rain, pump our fists when Reacher takes out a bad guy. It’s fascinating to me the dichotomy that exists. No, that’s not the right word. It’s a double standard. We expect the men and women who have a code to clean up our streets, vigilante style. And ex-military, who are already trained and accustomed to deal in death, are our perfect anti-hero. If an average everyday person starts killing bad guys, we’d lock them up.

    Isn’t fiction grand???

    Tammy’s close. According to the movie, Jack Ryan had the helicopter crash his third year at the Naval Academy and finished his coursework from a hospital bed, but that wasn’t the right story. I lifted this from Wiki:

    “After graduating from Loyola High School in Towson, Maryland, Ryan attends Boston College, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Economics (strong minor in history) and a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps (via NROTC). While waiting for the Corps to assign him somewhere, he passes the Certified Public Accountant exam.[1]

    After finishing The Basic School (TBS) and the Infantry Officer’s Course (IOC) at Quantico, Virginia, he is deployed to a line unit as a platoon commander on the USS Guam. Three months later his military career is cut short at the age of 23, when as part of the Atlantic Fleet Marine Force (FMF), his platoon’s helicopter, a CH-46, crashes during a NATO exercise over the Greek island of Crete. Ryan’s back is badly injured in the crash. Unfortunately, the Navy surgeons at Bethesda Naval Medical Center make inadequate repairs to his back. This occasions a lengthy recovery process (during which he was nearly addicted to pain medications) after which, complete with a permanent disability and wearing a back brace, he left the USMC, passes his stock broker’s exam and takes a position with the Baltimore office of the Wall Street investment firm Merrill Lynch. (The Hunt for Red October film tells Ryan’s story differently: Adm Joshua Painter states “Summer of his third year, he went down in a chopper accident. Bad. Pilot and crew killed. That kid spent months in traction and another year learning to walk again. He did his fourth year from the hospital.” The film is inconsistent with the novels, which are generally considered canonical.)

    His parents die in a plane crash at Chicago’s Midway Airport only 19 months after his crash in Crete. He develops a fear of flying that persists for years.”

    Now, talk about creating a rich, full character with minefields of backstory and a reason. You need a reason, no matter if you’re ex-military or ex-debutante.

  17. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Generally I avoid all things military, gun-related, assassin-related, and high-tech. It takes a lot of word of mouth (or, you know, death threats) to get me to read those books. I end up reading and writing about cops, and I enjoy that, but I’ve had far more cops in my life (working in the juvenile court system) than military folk and I just have more of a comfort level there.

  18. Gayle Carline

    I don’t think any character is done to death if they’re done correctly. If they’re written like one big cliche, then it’s not the genre’s fault.

    I just finished Andrew Peterson’s First to Kill. His protagonist, Nathan McBride, is ex-military, and has such a tortured past, he’s got the scars to prove it. Good story, good characters, I recommend it.

  19. Marianne

    As ex-military, I find I’m somewhat drawn to ex-military characters. In fact, reading about WWI vets in novel form as a child in Australia was what prompted me to join the Airforce in the first place, even though our family usually gravitated towards Navy (heritage that goes back centuries) or Army. I liked the idea of flying.

    The series protagonist I’m working on at the moment is tortured by default as the widow of an Iraqi war vet – she just couldn’t help him through his growing combat fatigue before he returned to duty over there and died. She has a near fatal car accident five days after the funeral and gains a paranormal affliction: she spends months running from all three events, but then returns home to face them all down and restart her career. A part of her personality is the compulsion to help the dead. It’s a complicated and rocky road to be sure. 🙂

    My current favourite military guilty pleasure: NCIS reruns. Loved Jack Ryan novels until they got a bit too way out. Recent vintage favourite is Baynard Kendrick’s ex-military blind detective, Captain Duncan Maclain. 😀


  20. Jake Nantz

    Nice, thought-provoking. I love characters who have a military background, but I know that it can be done poorly. My first protag had a different backstory that led him to policework. My second protag has a very unique military background, and she is going to be a lot of fun to write (hell, she was a lot of fun to research!).

  21. Fran

    I’m fond of Kelley Armstrong’s Nadia Stafford,and I’m seriously jazzed she’s got a second one coming out. Nadia’s ex-police, just trying to get by and supporting her hunting lodge where her cop buddies come to go hunting by being a hit woman. Nothing otherworldly about it, and it’s great fun. But without Nadia’s cop background, her abilities and mind-set wouldn’t make sense. She’s getting rid of the bad guys, and she needs the money.

    The framework is one we’re all familiar with, and it’s how the author creates the character and situation that matter. I think serial killers are more overdone than ex-miliary/ex-cop.


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