If your story includes a war or other military conflict, then, there is one question that absolutely needs answered when you worldbuild: how are soldiers and veterans treated in your story?
Society’s Attitude Towards Soldiers and Veterans
With Veteran’s Day coming up quickly, I’ve found myself thinking about different examples of how soldiers and veterans are treated in books and movies, especially fiction genres like fantasy and science fiction.
Why those genres? Because they’re not as limited by reality.
With realistic fiction, the treatment tends to mirror real life (as it should for the genre and realism), so it’s not as interesting to consider as when the author has free rein to shape the societal views. Creating different societal rules for soldiers and veterans than the ones we live with is especially effective for making a world feel different and interesting.
Standard Views of Soldiers and Veterans
Like anything else, there are standard literary takes on how soldiers are viewed on either side of a conflict. Here are few common ones (although my names for them may be different than others you read).
- Heroes and Politicians: When soldiers are revered, society gives them a great deal of power. Being people, they can use that power for good or bad, but in a state where fighting is respected, it would not be uncommon for successful soldiers to retire to positions of power within the government (national or local).
- Unwitting Game Pieces: The soldiers are mere extensions of the person in power – in the story, they almost never have names or opinions. They do what they’re told and have no real mental contribution to the war being fought (Star Wars and the clones are a pretty good example.). You might also call them Faceless Fodder. As far as their leader is concerned, they have no value beyond achieving his/her goals, and society follows suit.
- Monsters: In a society that hates violence, war, or its government, its own soldiers may be just as reviled. This leaves them with the options of staying in the army (where the government can protect them somewhat), trying to hide what they are (to avoid being ostracized), becoming the monsters the people portray them as (so that the fear gives them some power/protection), or living in isolation from society (in the wild, an asylum, or even the streets). It’s a pretty negative worldview, so it’s better used with darker stories.
Interesting Examples of Soldiers and Veterans in Worldbuilding
In many books, it’s common for soldiers to have no exceptional benefits when serving or once they retire – they do the job and then are simply released and go back to the family farm or wherever they came from before.
In other words, they’re left to make their way on their own.
Off hand, however, I can think of two examples that went further and gave veterans’ rights some added interest. Granted, some of those rights may not be useful for quite a while (if ever), but they’re there.
- Mountains of Mourning (a novella included in Young Miles) by Lois McMaster Bujold: A woman shows up on the count’s doorstep to demand that someone investigate a murder. In her arguments to be seen, she says that her father served in the military, and it is her right to bring her case to the count. The main character confirms that this is true. I would guess that this right has roots in historic feudal society (given the context of the world), but even so, it adds an interesting dimension to the worldbuilding (and is also a good example of how to integrate military practices from history or other cultures).
- Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein: This book takes the Heroes and Politicians concepts to another level by granting what we consider standard rights (full citizenship, the right to vote, and the right to run for/hold public office) only to people who have served in the military. It’s a pretty extreme situation that led to conflict within the book (and without amongst critics). I mention it because it gives useful insights for how to write a society that drastically varies from ours by reminding us that the standard rights don’t have to be the same in the story as in our lives (instead of adding rights for the soldiers, you can simply take them away from others).
Do I think you should use those specific rights in your books? Probably not. But you might consider the methods used to make the rights more interesting when deciding how to integrate soldiers and veterans into your worldbuilding.