Citizen, Soldier, Veteran, Writer

Military SF author David Drake recently passed away at the age of 78

Citizen, Soldier, Veteran, Writer
Image: Andrew Liptak

Some sad news surfaced earlier this week: veteran and author David Drake passed away at the age of 78, according to his family. He was a prolific author who is best known for his military science fiction stories, which he began writing after serving in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam war.

Drake was one of the military science fiction authors that I've read very little of: I have a copy of his collection Hammer's Slammers that I picked up at some point. I've leafed through it, but it's one of those books that's sort of sat on the back burner for a while. What I have been reading has been his newsletter, which he's sent out with regular updates about his thoughts on the world, writing, and his health. He announced in November 2021 that he had stopped writing completely because of health issues: "My health problems continue, whatever they are. I can't concentrate enough to write a novel ... I just couldn't keep my texts straight. I'm still able to write stories and I think they're pretty good."

The Vietnam War was a divisive moment in American history, divisions that have lingered in our collective psyche as a nation. Science fiction fandom wasn't immune to this: in a 1990 essay titled "The Vietnam War as American Science Fiction and Fantasy" in Science Fiction Studies, H. Bruce Franklin noted that the conflict was a source of inspiration for a range of genre creators, who turned to writing as a way to process the complexities and impact of the war that was unfolding a world away.

The war was also a source of direct inspiration for a new generation of authors: Drake, Joe Haldeman, Elizabeth Anne Scarborough, Robert Jordan, and others. Haldeman's The Forever War is probably the best-known example, a story about a soldier who experiences a generations-long conflict thanks to faster-than-light time dilation, and through which we see him become more and more alienated form a society that's changed so much he has a hard time recognizing it as his home.

Drake's part of this post-war movement. Born in 1945, he studied history and went on to Duke University to study law when he was drafted into the U.S. Army and deployed to Vietnam and Cambodia in 1970 with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. Earlier this year, he wrote in his newsletter that the war "turned my life over in unexpected ways. I wasn’t injured in Nam and Cambodia. On the other hand, I came back a different and less good person than the guy who went over. I was very angry, sort of generally." (You can read a bit more about his experiences here.)

He had taken up writing in the 1960s, but after coming back from overseas, he completed his legal studies and became a lawyer, and began writing science fiction in earnest, noting that the experience of writing military science fiction was a sort of therapeutic exercise: "The stories were more important to me as self-therapy than they were as the start of a career. They gave me a chance to write about what I’d seen and heard; about the men I’d served with and person I’d become in that time. Being able to get that out on paper helped me keep it between the ditches and (from what they’ve told me) helped other veterans by showing them that they weren’t alone."

Science fiction about the military has deep roots in science fiction: you can go back to stories like H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds to look at the consequences of British imperialism or George Tomkyns Chesney's The Battle of Dorking to see how authors were using fiction as a way to imagine what the future of warfare might look like. Science fiction is particularly attuned to warfare: there's no shortage of gadgets and tools for authors to play with, and there's no shortage of stories playing with different types of imaginary weapons.

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Science fiction was born in the fires of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

You can probably trace the roots of Military SF as a distinct genre to books like Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers: a techy, violent political parable about the relationship between war and society, and which spawned plenty of successors from authors enamored by the allure of power armor and alien guts, like Haldeman's Forever War and John Steakley's Armor. (And more modern versions like Kameron Hurley's The Light Brigade and John Scalzi's Old Man's War.)

In his book Gateways to Forever: The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1970 to 1980, Mike Ashley notes that there was a good amount of variety in that genre: where Jerry Pournelle's Falkenberg stories were "military engagements against political machinations," Drake "concentrates on military tactics in alien environments."

His early military stories followed a group of tank-borne mercenaries known as "Hammer's Slammers", which hew drew upon from his own experiences during the Vietnam war, or from various mythological sources. He sold a handful of short stories set in this fictional world and in 1979 pulled them together in a collection. In the years that followed, he wrote a handful of sequel novels and spinoff projects following the characters and world.

There's a wide gulf between the world of military personnel and regular civilians in the United States. Until recently in the nation's history, wartime has largely been – with notable exceptions – something of a shared experience for much of the population. Popular and patriotic sentiments about duty to one's nation or to a cause, widespread drafts, or the opportunities that military service afforded citizens meant that the experiences of combat were widely understood. Following the trauma of the Vietnam War, the US shifted policies to focus on an all-volunteer military force.

There are nearly 18 million veterans in the US – around 6% of the population – according to a recent Pew study, and it's widely understood that the civilian world has a poor understanding of the military world and those who served. That has drastic consequences on a number of fronts; the policymakers and supporters who get us into war don't understand the complexities, purposes, and experience of armed conflict, and on the other side, those who did serve have a difficult time reintegrating back into society. Sebastian Junger's book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging makes a compelling argument for how that collective ignorance means that we as a society are less able to empathize or understand these experiences. "Modern society," he writes, "rarely give veterans– gives anyone– opportunities to [vent their feelings to a wider community]."

Drake's stories served as a way to process those feelings that he came back with. Writing on his website, he noted that "At one point I hoped the stories would help civilians understand also. I don’t think that can happen. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just a matter of people not having the background to hear what the words mean to people who’ve been there."

The stories he wrote not capture the full story of what he experienced, but they – and others like them – are an important for us as a collective to ingest and process. It's not about agreeing with or opposing the ideology, motivations, or rationale for going into war; it's about understanding the impact and consequences, about listening to those who've been harmed and realizing that the war continues long after the bullets stop flying.

Hopefully, Drake's stories can help with that in their own small way.