Fantasy books are full of epic battles like the Battle of Helm’s Deep from Lord of the Rings . And for most fans just reading about such battles is enough, but some fans go further, enlisting in the military in order to live out real-life adventures. One of them is Weston Ochse, a thirty-year military vet who still works with the military, traveling regularly to warzones in countries like Afghanistan. He traces his yearning for adventure back to reading The Hobbit as a child.
“That desire was definitely inculcated by the idea that one lone hobbit can make a difference,” Ochse says in Episode 143 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “And if one lone hobbit can make a difference, then this poor guy from Tennessee can make a difference too. So absolutely it was inspirational.”
Ochse now draws on his military experience to write his own fantasy novels, such as the SEAL Team 666 series, which is currently in development at MGM, with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson attached to star.
Another fantasy author who is also a military vet is Myke Cole, author of the Shadow Ops series. As a child he was a “scrawny nerd,” and he credits fantasy novels and Dungeons & Dragons with inspiring him to become a warrior.
“Your first step to changing who you are is imagining what you want to be,” he says. “And fantasy was the thing that gave me the tools to pretend, to imagine that I could be a knight, until one day I was actually able to do it.”
Cole and Ochse both appear in Operation Arcana , a new anthology of military fantasy edited by Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy producer John Joseph Adams (read an excerpt from the anthology here). He likes the military fantasy genre because it lets authors depict the realities of military life using symbol and metaphor.
“It gives you the opportunity to place soldiers in situations where they have to figure out how to deal with the impossible,” says Adams. “Because I think that we ask soldiers to do that kind of thing on a regular basis, and so I think that one of the things that military fantasy allows you to do is literalize that and have some fun with it.”
Another favorite of both Cole and Ochse is George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire , the basis for the HBO series Game of Thrones. And though Martin isn’t a military veteran, his extensive research into medieval warfare lets him write characters that Cole and Ochse find both authentic and inspiring.
“When Rear Admiral Acton commissioned me,” says Cole, “and I raised my right hand to say the oath, in the back of my mind I was saying the words of the Night’s Watch— ‘I am the sword in the darkness, I am the watcher on the walls, I am the shield that guards the realms of men.’ I really did that, consciously, and it was sort of my nod to my nerd roots, as I assumed my mantle as a warrior in real life.”
Listen to our complete interview with Weston Ochse, Myke Cole, and John Joseph Adams in Episode 143 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above), and check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Myke Cole on officers vs. grunts:
“There is far less of a division between a member of the officer class and an enlisted person now than there has ever been in the history of armed conflict, including in Tolkien’s day when he was serving. I’ll give you an example. I once did joint exercises with the Saudis, and Saudi officers are royalty, just like they were in the medieval world that Tolkien was describing. And I had a Saudi guy hand me his rucksuck and tell me to hump it, because he was an officer and they don’t carry rucksacks. And there was this moment of cultural disconnect, where I had to tell him, ‘Sorry man, you need to carry your own rucksack—I don’t care who you are—because we do things differently in America.’ But it was this incredible realization of, wow, I’m really interacting with a medieval society, for whom these things are normal. … And that’s why Aragorn was such a revolutionary character. He is this king who is willing to go out an be a ranger.”
Myke Cole on Naomi Novik:
“I’d like to make sure that people are acknowledging Naomi Novik, whose Temeraire series is about the Napoleanic War, told from the point of view of a former navy officer who’s now in their aerial corps, which is mounted on dragons. It is a fundamentally and foundationally military tale. … And the dragons send ripples [through society]. For example, Longwings—which are a very powerful dragon, because they can spit acid—are a key part of the British military, and a key asset to winning the war. But Longwings will only accept female captains. So now you have to let women in the military, and because the captain of a dragon is like the captain of a ship—it’s a very senior rank, the equivalent of a colonel, and it’s a gateway to the admiralty in the aerial corps—women’s status in society is completely in flux at the time of these books, and Naomi Novik deals with it brilliantly and convincingly.”
Weston Ochse on the SEAL Team 666 series:
“I heard that Dwayne Johnson, when he got the first script, it was kind of a tongue-in-cheek pastiche of a military unit, kind of a black comedy, and he turned it down, he said, ‘Absolutely not.’ He said—and I can’t believe I’m saying this with my ‘out loud’ voice—he said, ‘I want it the way Weston wrote the book,’ which is kind of awesome. But the reason I did that is because I wanted every single military person who read that to be able to acknowledge, ‘OK, this is real. This is what’s happening. And boy, isn’t it nice that rather than shooting at this enemy, we’re actually trying to puzzle out how to defeat this Chinese demon.’ … Sometimes, if it’s a lower demon, it’s just a matter of the amount of lead you can pour into them, but other times, no matter how much you fire at them, nothing’s going to happen. And a lot of times these guys have to learn on the fly what’s going to work, or they’re going to die.”
Myke Cole on his essay “What PTSD Is”:
“The Institute of Combat Stress reprinted it, and I’ve heard from a number of military doctors who are using it in recovery groups. I wish my fiction was this popular! That really resonated with people. And that was one of those blog posts that scared the crap out of me to post, because I didn’t know how people were going to react, because I’m basically turning to this huge medical establishment that has been acknowledging that this thing is a problem, and saying, ‘Yeah, you’re off base here. This is what I think is going on.’ And look, I’m not a doctor, and this is the kind of thing that needs somebody who can dedicate their life to it, but I do think it clearly resonated with people. And the basic idea is that it’s not a disease, it’s a permanent change in worldview, and it’s a small thing, but I think it’s pretty significant.”