Think about your favorite military-themed novel (SF or otherwise), if you have one. Did the author serve in the military? Is it necessary for a writer of military fiction to have been in the military to lend the story authenticity, or is it possible to “fake the funk”?
Furthermore–can someone who’s never served write a military novel that’s convincing enough to a veteran?
When I read a military novel of whatever genre, I can generally tell if the author has first-hand knowledge of military service. Research can get you a long way, but there are certain bits and pieces of flavoring that usually mark the military vet author. Those are the things that will often only be picked up by military vet readers–small stuff that seems insignificant to someone who hasn’t worn a uniform, but that’ll instantly lend verisimilitude to the story.
For example, John Scalzi and Joe Haldeman are both outstanding MilSF writers, but I can tell which one of the two has carried a rifle and a rucksack in a combat zone. The Old Man’s War books are among my favorite military science fiction novels, but some of the details just kind of bumped me in the synapses, so to speak. (For example, a drill instructor would never aim a loaded weapon at a recruit, or tolerate a recruit aiming that weapon at someone else with live ammo in the gun, regardless of the safety protocols active on the weapon. That’s just one thing that wouldn’t bother someone who’s never been a drill instructor–probably 99% of the readership.) With other writers, it’s stuff like weapons technology and -handling, or other military procedure that doesn’t at least somewhat match real life. Overall, Scalzi’s writing is so good in every respect that I am more than willing to overlook that little niggle and keep reading.
(To give a contrasting example, John Ringo gets all his military and weapon details right, but his writing isn’t as polished as Scalzi’s, and I can’t get into his stories precisely because a weaker handle on the language is a much bigger turnoff to me than a very minor technical inconsistency in otherwise great writing. I’ve read all of Scalzi’s stuff; I’ve read very few of Ringo’s books.)
If you have a favorite military novel, whether SF or historical or what-have-you: how does your military experience (or the lack thereof) make you look at the narrative considering the author’s military experience (or the lack thereof)? Can a good, strong story overcome minor flaws based on lack of personal experience? Can an in-depth knowledge of military technology and procedure save an otherwise mediocre narrative?
In short, do you have to have been a soldier to write novels about soldiers that are convincing enough to soldiers?