An often overlooked concept when making military movies, or when using a character with military experience, is building a proper base. What I mean by building a base is constructing an appropriate background for the character so that his skill set and actions make sense. Everyone has heard of Special Operations and often it becomes a catch phrase to explain why a character can single handedly defeat 12 bad guys with nothing more than a paperclip and a killer smile. Hands down the best PR, with regards to Special Operations, goes to the Navy SEALS. Take for example the Bin Laden raid; does anyone really believe that only SEALS participated in that operation? This PR, combined with a lack of military knowledge, has led to stories where we simply need to say that the protagonist was a SEAL and all further actions are taken as acceptable. I would challenge writers and directors to dig a little deeper.
The right tool for the job
Just as it is important to have the proper tool in construction it is also important to grab the right tool from the Special Operations tool box.
- Special Forces (Green Berets) are groups trained to instruct and lead the local population (of a particular geographical area) to better their ability to defend themselves and to inflict harm on the enemy. The enemy of my enemy is my friend really sums them up. Think of them as the college professors of the third world’s militaries.
- Navy SEALS, primarily they are the premier operators for amphibious raids. Anything that has to do with water, whether it is launching the raid from water, conducting underwater missions or the need to traverse water in any manner.
- Ranger’s bread and butter are airborne operations, with an emphasis on airfield seizures. Rangers will jump out of planes, take an airfield from the enemy, and hold it until reinforcements can arrive via the airfield. Furthermore Rangers excel at operations behind enemy lines striving to disrupt operations or capture HVT (High Value Targets).
- Finally Delta Force…if you don’t know then you probably shouldn’t know.
Now let’s say that we have a story that involves a protagonist who has to do something fantastic, such as disarming a bomb on a dam that was planted by a deranged terrorist. Which group should we base our protagonist’s story around a water operation? Navy SEAL. A brute force assault? Rangers. Something so mind bafflingly crazy it can’t succeed? Delta.
Understanding the mindset and training of each group
Having only experienced the path to becoming a Ranger I will stick to what I know rather than speculate. First you start at basic training; most people understand that this is a grueling course set up to condition you mentally and physically for the tasks of a Soldier. Next comes MOS (Military Occupational Specialty). This school will vary in length and difficulty depending on your MOS (infantry, radio operator, etc...) After this course you are shipped off to Airborne school where you learn to become a paratrooper. Now the fun starts, RASP, formerly known as RIP (Ranger Indoctrination Program). This is a one month course to see if you have what it takes mentally and physically to be a part of Ranger Battalion. There are road marches, runs, land navigation and constant physical exercises and demands that will weed out the field. Once this is completed you have the privilege to become a private at a Ranger Battalion where you will be punished mentally and physically in training and combat until you earn the right to go to Ranger School. Ranger School is a 62 day (Plus 30 if you are from a Ranger Battalion, irony I know) attrition school where you learn about operations orders, combat operations, and leadership in high intensity stressful situations. After all this is done you will be eligible to compete for a leadership position inside Ranger Battalion. Why is all this important? Because each man who got to this point volunteered for it and wanted it. This is an important concept because often movies depict that a particularly dangerous mission is one that soldiers don’t want. Not only do Rangers want this mission they will fight to get go, and they will be pissed if you cut them out. They trained hard for the opportunity to be placed in the best possible situation to close and kill the enemy. If movies depicted this aspect they may appear darker, however it would be significantly more realistic.
Something that has always bothered me is when a movie took the time to build the base, used the right tools and understood the mindset, but then missed the little details. An example would be depicting a Ranger and for whatever reason he has a scene where he is in his dress uniform but the ribbons, patches and tabs don’t tell the same story the movie is trying to tell. How can you have a Ranger without a parachutist badge or a tan beret? Or a Navy SEAL without a trident? If you are going to take the time and energy required to make a compelling character, spend the extra 5 minutes required to make sure that their appearance is sound. The devil really is in the details.