This week, in true Stripes fashion, I’ll be joining the Army. Okay, not really, but I’ll be talking about the military and how it’s portrayed in the motion pictures.
My father was in the Airforce, my mother’s father was OSS (precursor to the CIA), and my uncle was Airborne, so I’ve had a long line of military personnel in my family. One of my father’s pet peeves is particularly egregious breaches of military protocol.
First off I’ll be going back to the first article I ever wrote, which discussed gun tropes in the media. I’m back after seeing some rather hilarious examples in movies.
Now, I don’t know if you guys know, but guns are pretty dangerous. They’re very good at what they’re designed to do: hurt/kill things. And if you don’t handle them correctly, you can get into some bloody messes. In fact, firearms kept in homes are three times more likely to kill someone in an accident than successfully ward off an attacker (source to prevent a flamewar). Proper gun safety is super duper important. The problem with firearms in movies is that they get it so wrong that it actually affects people in the real world. People try to mimic things in movies and practice horribly dangerous gun safety.
Now, I love the original Robocop, but there are several times where trained police officers should have known better. For instance, protagonist Alex Murphy (pre-Robocop) twirls his gun to impress some kids. The problem with pretty much all gun twirling is that your finger is inside the trigger guard, and it’s quite easily to accidentally fire the gun like that. Now, true, Murphy probably had the safety on, but one of the key tenants of gun safety is to treat all firearms as if they were loaded at all times.
Not to go back to shitting on Wanted, but I’m going to shit on Wanted one more time. In the beginning and the end of the movie, someone snipes another person from a very long distance using a multistage bullet. And once more, Wanted disregards basic principles of physics. The multistage nature of that bullet would do nothing to increase distance or power. At. All. Now, the cool thing is that sniping someone at this distance is actually possible–and in fact has been done. The record for longest sniping kill is held by a British Calvary officer named Craig Harrison at 2,707 yards. That’s over a mile! This is incredible not just because of the distance, but because that shot had to factor in the wind, the bullet drop, and at that range, EVEN THE ROTATION OF THE EARTH. As Cracked.com put it “Snipers aren’t deadly because they carry the biggest guns; they’re deadly because they’ve learned how to weaponize math.”
Now onto the military proper:
First up, most people don’t know what tanks are. I know that sounds super silly, but it’s true. Believe it or not, not every single armored vehicle is a tank. Most times in fiction, armored cars, self-propelled guns, and armored personal carries are simply labeled as tanks. Here, we’ll do a pop quiz.
Which one of these is a tank?
The answer? NONE OF THEM.
Seriously, not a tank among them. From top left is a self-propelled anti-aircraft gun, an armored personnel carrier, a self-propelled howitzer, and an anti-tank vehicle. Tanks are a pretty nebulaic concept, however. But they’re designed largely to defend infantry and provide mobile cover and support. They’re not really designed to take out tanks, provide artillery, destroy anti-aircraft, or carry troops.
Most movies depict boot camp as a horrible, degrading hell-hole. Don’t get me wrong, it ain’t a picnic. I’m reasonably fit and tough, but there’s no way in hell I’d get through it. It’s hard, but it’s no Fullmetal Jacket. Most Drill Sergeants I’ve heard about aren’t abusive. Demanding? Sure. But not violent. You see, if Drill Sergeants and instructors were abusive, troop morale would be in the shitter and nobody would join. Boot camp isn’t designed to hurt you–it’s designed to toughen you up and prepare you (at least basically) for life as a soldier. And it’s not all running and pushups, there’s a fair chunk of it designed just for wearing/taking care of your uniform.
Speaking of your uniform, there are actually multiple types. From the Korean War to modern times, the fatigues used during combat were called Battle Dress Uniforms (BDU’s). They’re relatively simple camouflaged fatigues and have a Beret. These are what you’d see on most soldiers in the movies. But there’s also the Dress Uniform, this is used in ceremonies and parades, and it’s the one with the fancy hat. Across all branches of the military, your hat/beret (called a cover) isn’t worn indoors, and you only salute with your cover on. This is frequently ignored/unknown in military movies. So, by and large, any movie that shows salutes indoors is wrong. Also on Salutes, official protocol states NOT to salute an officer in an active war zone. If you’ve seen Forest Gump, you’ve seen this. Saluting an officer immediately identifies them as such to any enemies possibly watching.
One more thing that movies tend to get wrong is the procedure of the salute, first, the junior officer ALWAYS initiates the salute (this is universal through the military), and second, you almost never salute a civilian. The only possible exceptions are the President of the United States (though technically “part” of the army as the Commander in Chief) and retired recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor (and then you’re saluting the medal more so than the person). Interestingly enough, the original movie Stargate gets this right. When the local guerilla fighters see Kurt Russell off, they salute him–but he never returns the Salute except to his men.
Ranks are some sort of impossible black magic for media, when really it’s not all that hard to get straight. First off, actually research the rank and the insignia. You shouldn’t have a Lieutenant wearing oak leaves (that’s for a Major). Secondly, don’t make someone who’s 18 a Commander. Even the best soldier takes time to advance the ranks. That being said, promotions are still based upon merit. You don’t get to be a Captain if you’re an incompetent dumbass or a military maverick. Also on those lines, be careful about the difference between enlisted men and officers. Most officers don’t lead on the front lines–pretty much everything above a Lieutenant (which is the lowest officer rank) is more administrative than fighting. In fact, the vast, VAST majority of people in the military are in non-combat support roles.
Flight preparations for most planes range from 20-60 hours for every flight hour. New, top of the line planes like the f-18 take “only” 6 hours per flight hour. For every 1 combat role, there are 2.5-5 non-combat roles. Think about it: all the people who have to run maintenance, cleaning, fueling, fixing, and moving those tanks, boats, subs, planes, and drones. With only a relatively few people actually using them. And not just the vehicles. What about all the translators, administrative assistants, psychologists (woot), researchers, engineers, computer scientists, logistics specialists, communication specialists? Where’s their Top Gun?
As much as all of us love Sherlock, there are several blunders in John Watson’s military service. He identifies as being from the 5th Northumberland Fusiliers. This is a relic from Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories; the problem is that that regiment no longer exists. It hasn’t existed since 1968 (before John was even born), it’s been absorbed by the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. And even then, the Fusiliers is an infantry unit. John was a surgeon- not a soldier, so he’d really identify as from the Royal Army Medical Corps.
One of my favorite military shows is The Unit. If you’ve ever wanted to see the All-State guy kick serious ass, go check it out. It’s a drama/action series that suffers from serious bi-polar issues; it’s simultaneously badass/depressing/heartwarming/funny. The Unit is adapted from Inside Delta Force: The Story of America’s Elite Counter Terrorist Unit, memoirs from actual Delta Force operator Eric Hanely. In fact, a lot of the episodes from the first season are taken directly from his missions. Hanely also acted as chief advisory for the series, and as a result, the show is surprisingly accurate. If you like movies like Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down, you oughta check it out.
Hey, you- yes, you with the face. Did you know that Rooster Illusion offers merchandise now? Come check out the stickers we offer at Redbubble
And be sure to check out my other column, where I review action films on Mondays: Mindless Action Mondays
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