Even the best and most popular authors get facts wrong sometimes (often because they leave research to others and don’t vet it, or are careless in their own investigations), but that’s no excuse for shoddy writing that contradicts what a large segment of the readership knows to be true. One area that’s a minefield, so to speak, for writers is the military. It’s easy to find detailed information about military ranks, units, and weaponry, not to mention history, but here’s some basic training:
Various nations follow differing conventions of nomenclature for military ranks, which specify an individual’s place in the military hierarchy. Charts that compare various military ranks among and within countries abound in print and online, but the major distinction is between commissioned officers, noncommissioned officers, and enlisted personnel. The first category is for personnel, often college graduates, who command units of various sizes depending on seniority. Noncoms are experienced enlisted personnel who supervise smaller groups of lower-ranking personnel.
The term captain is a common point of confusion. A captain (the word is from the Latin for “head”) originally led a company of soldiers of indeterminate size. In modern armies, marine units, and air forces, captains are relatively low-ranking officers probably in their late 20s or early 30s. Naval captains, however, for reasons I won’t detail here, are much higher in equivalent seniority and usually much older. Furthermore, the commanding officer of most vessels is, by tradition, called the captain, though they may not hold that specific rank.
In books, films, and television programs, the creators often stretch the bounds of probability as far as rank is concerned. In the original Star Trek TV series, for example, Captain Kirk was very young to be commanding a starship, though the 2009 big-screen reboot gives a plausible explanation for his precocious promotion. (Well, as plausible as anything is concerned when the subject is Star Trek.) By contrast, Brad Pitt’s character in Quentin Tarantino’s World War II action flick Inglourious Basterds [sic] is a mere army lieutenant. People who hold that beginner’s rank are likely to be in their early to mid-20s, but Pitt is old enough to be a lieutenant’s father.
Military-style ranks are used in American police and fire departments. In large cities, a captain is a fairly high rank (while lieutenants are fairly common, especially among detectives), but in smaller departments, the chief may hold the rank of captain, and there may be only one lieutenant, or up to several. Similarly, a captain or a lieutenant heads up a fire company, which may consist of only a few firefighters, but a small-town fire department with a single station may be headed by a captain.
You’ve seen it before: a book or movie synopsis that goes something like “A tough sergeant leads a platoon of commandos behind enemy lines . . . .” The military has a very specific organizational structure, and a platoon, which consists of several dozen soldiers, is never led by a sergeant, who in combat would be responsible for no more than a dozen or so men.
As it turns out, the story’s commando unit consists of eight guys. There’s no military unit ordinarily consisting of eight soldiers, but an ad hoc assemblage could informally be called a squad. But if it’s on a special mission, even a mere eight-man unit would likely be led not by a sergeant but by a fairly junior officer, like Tom Hanks’s Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan (who is assisted by a sergeant, who would take charge if his commanding officer were killed or incapacitated).
Plenty of derision has been aimed over the years at war and cop movies and westerns, and at genre fiction, in which the hero’s magic gun never runs out of bullets, but it still happens. (I was annoyed too, while watching an already annoying fantasy film, when a character ambled through a crowded market square with an uncovered double-bladed battle-ax strapped to his back. All he had to do was inadvertently back into somebody to perform an instant nose-ectomy.)
Follow the Drill
Details like these may seem trivial to civilians, but they’re distracting to millions of service members and veterans, and many others, who know a sergeant major from a major general, a division from a detachment, and a Luger from a Ruger. The same problem afflicts people with firsthand or secondhand knowledge of any other system or profession or industry or avocation. So, if you’re going to write about the military, or about any other topic, do your research, and write it right.