When Dustin and I were guests of Pilar Alessandra’s “On the Page” podcast, (episode 313 – It’s a Crime), I mentioned there was a line in movies (I didn't sign up for this) that gets on my nerves like the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard. But I want to be fair to that line and say that it is not the only one. Here is a short list of lines that need to disappear from Law Enforcement and Military movies.
- I Didn't Sign Up For This: I don’t like this line for one very important reason (besides it being cliché). It is used as a foil to make the hero look that much more heroic. It’s saying “Look at all the incompetent, scared soldiers and police officers. Thank goodness the hero is here to save everyone”. Here’s the bottom line, this is exactly what you signed up for. When I applied for Federal Law Enforcement I signed a whole bunch of legal paperwork saying I understood it was an armed position and I may have to use that gun to take someone’s life. I signed insurance paperwork in the case that I was killed in the line of duty. I spent several months in Georgia, at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, having it pounded into me exactly what I had signed up for. Seriously, when you have an instructor calling out a jogging cadence of, “Two to the chest, one to the head, I shot that terrorist really dead”, it’s pretty clear what you signed up for. (Note: That was an extreme example from a rather crazy instructor. But still…) Then, after getting your butt kicked in defensive training on a quarterly basis, in the off chance something happened, you can bet I was going to get my money’s worth if it ever did happen. So yes, we know what we signed up for.
- We’re With Homeland Security: Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is a part of DHS. Never once in my career did I refer to myself as being with Homeland Security. I was always, “Officer Merlino with Customs and Border Protection”. Homeland Security is an umbrella department that houses number of different agencies that have a number of different missions. There is CBP, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Secret Service, The Coast Guard, Citizenship and Immigration Services, FEMA, TSA, and the National Protection and Programs Directorate. Saying "I am with DHS" tells me absolutely nothing about what you do. Hell, I was in DHS and I don’t even know what the National Protection and Programs Directorate does, and I sure didn't like being confused with TSA. So please stop saying DHS and actually pick an agency that might cover what your characters are supposed to be doing.
- He was Special Forces: This is an especially lazy line, and once you start listening for it, you will hear it almost everywhere. Our military consultant, Thomas Sager, covered this about a year ago in much greater detail than I can, but here is the nuts and bolts. Special Forces (actually Joint Special Operations Command, JSOC) is much like DHS in that it is an umbrella term. There are units from all branches of the military that contribute to JSOC. Some of the more famous are the 75th Ranger Regiment, Delta Force, Green Berets and Navy SEALS. All of these units do different things and have different skill sets. This line is lazy because it seems to give filmmakers license to make their characters superheroes, “He’s a Kung Fu Master, sniper, explosives expert and can fly a helicopter? That’s probably because he was Special Forces.” No, it’s not. Yes, Ranger Units have snipers but not every Ranger is a sniper. Yes, Ranger Units have explosives experts, not every Ranger is trained in explosives. Do you know what none of them do? Fly helicopters. I understand that giving your character a background like this automatically makes them tough. Just assign them to one of those units. Say he was a Ranger, or a SEAL, or Delta. Just don’t give him a black belt and a pilot’s license at the same time while he throws homemade pipe bombs from his sniper nest.
- If I Don't Make it, Give this to my Wife: Direct from the mouth of Mr. Sager, a multi-tour combat veteran Ranger, "I have never seen a soldier pass on a letter for his wife". (He's a man of few words).
In conclusion, I know there is a good reason behind these lines, most are to set up characters, but they are just incredibly lazy, skin deep lines. A writer is well served to take it a step further and it brings that much more depth to your characters. It doesn't take any more time to say "He was Special Forces" than it does to say, "He was with the 75th Ranger Regiment", but knowing he was a Ranger instantly tells me a lot more about your character than a vague Special Forces reference.