What is the "Mildly Military" Trope?
This is one of the most common "sins" among military sci-fi works and some of the most popular works in military science fiction fully embrace the trope with a full-on wet French kiss. Basically, the mildly military trope is when a fictional military organization is lax with discipline, training, rank, uniform, or mission. I also include more with the mildly military label. I believe that mildly military should apply to half-baked concepts within the umbra of being a military organization. This includes wrong weaponry, lack of Combined Arms, and soldiers that are too young. At times, some elements of mildly military can be excused depending on the designs of the creator, and other times, it is just an inability of the creator to understand the military or how they operate. This trope is often mixed with the "main characters do everything" trope that plagues some of the best and most well known sic-fi properties, like Space: Above and Beyond and Star Trek.
The Elements of Mildly Military
Lack of Discipline and Appearance Standards
Most of the examples of mildly military examples on the TV Tropes website involves the lack of discipline in supposed military units, like Tom Cruise's "Maverick" in Top Gear or the Recon Marines from Heartbreak Ridge. In any military unit, if you are an undisciplined hot-mess that is a problem for your officers, you can and will be kicked out of the world. Any military, no matter if they are A-level door-kickers to cooks, needs discipline and the ability to follow orders. If that breaks down, the entire machine of the unit breaks down. More over, those rebels and mavericks cannot be trusted, which is also a deal breaker for any military unit. In combat, all you have is each order. When it comes time for a military unit to break orders, it is a big deal and needs to be handled carefully by the creator.
Then there is the uniforms. Anime and manga are the fucking worst about allowing characters that are supposed to be in the military to be out of uniform, wearing completely bullshit hairstyles, or wearing the uniform completely wrong. There is some latitude with regard to uniforms in some units, like CAG or DEVGRU, but even then, these soldiers and sailors are expected to be in the proper uniform when it counts. Once a year, DELTA operators were to cut their hair back to military regulations for their official photography...but it seems in the UN Spacy, no one is expected to have regulation hair. I swear, the SDF-1 PX must have the best selection of hair products off-world.
This one brothers me, and it may be nitpicky of me to include this, but one element of mildly military (to me) is having soldiers using the wrong weaponry. Much like anything, there are trends, and weapons have theirs. Take the H&K MP5 submachine gun as a prime example. This 9x19mm SMG was uber popular in the 1980's, and it was the tool of elite counter-terrorism units and SWAT teams. Popular media picked up on this, and put the excellent weapon in every fucking thing they could, even if it didn't make any goddamn sense. This includes the film Predator to the SG Teams from Stargate (film and TV series). The Desert Eagle is the same way. At times, this can be forgiven, like in on-line military shooters or in sci-fi military units, but if you are trying to portray a modern-day military organization, it is not forgivable, due your research that does not include Call of Duty or 80's action movies.
Lack of Real World Military Structure
Soldiers that are too Young
The "Main Characters Do Everything"
Ground Troops Only
Most mildly military armed forces seen in sci-fi are basically half-baked military organizations at their heart. It is hard to take a fictional military organization seriously when the creator has not covered the basics of combat. One portion that deep troubles me is the simple lack of Combined Arms in these fictional armies. Combined arms involves all elements of an armed forces to be brought to the battlefield like artillery, armored vehicles, machine guns, mortars, SOF, orbital weapon platforms, and CAS . Some works try to justify the lack of combined arms via "it's the future" or "we have mecha" or "we're the only ship in the quadrant" but still, if you are in an infantry unit, you would still want CAS, artillery, or a fucking machine gun! Never join the Starfleet Marines.
Why the Mildly Military Trope So Widespread in Military Sci-Fi?
With Star Trek, Stargate, B5, and BSG all falling under the mildly military label, it begs the question of why this cancer is so widespread in science fiction. Here is my list of why:
Lack of Military Experience
Sins of the Father are the Sins of the Son and the Grandson
Much like civilizations that build upon one another, popular media is the same way; if something is popular or inventive, it is copied and used as a springboard. What we are exposed to what alters our experience and imagination, and since mildly military is incredibly common in sci-fi, it becomes like an STD on a cruise ship. This could explain how mildly military became such a hallmark of sci-fi: creators were basing their own creations off of others works that were mildly military themselves. If the progenitor inspiriting work is mildly military than the acorn doesn't fall far from the mildly military tree. Three of the largest progenitor mildly military sci-fi works are: Starship Troopers, Star Trek, and Star Wars. You would be hard pressed to find any someone that did not use those founding works as an inspiration.
A great deal depends on when you lived, and sci-fi is no exception. When a creator lives informs us of how that time in history will influence the creator and their creation. Consider when two of the founding classics of military sci-fi were written; after World War II and Vietnam War. Starship Troopers was written in the beginning of the Cold War and the Space Race, and after the 2nd World War. Robert Heinlein suited his MI troopers with futuristic battle armor and armed with flamethrowers and micro-atomic weapons. The Mobile Infantry troopers themselves are based around WWII style paratrooper tactics. ALIENS was made in the 1980's, and the US military and the American people were still under the shadow of the Vietnam War, and the breakdown of discipline was an enduring image of that war. This shadow of Vietnam War can be seen coloring the Colonial Marines of ALIENS and even the core characters of The Forever War. Due to the alternation of time, these values can be seen as mildly military to future audiences.
Lack of Research
Sometimes, authors and creators just don't do research, and that lack of research does effect their product. Research is an important element of any work, especially if the creator is not an expert in the subject that they are talking about. Research can and does make up for the some of the deficits of the writer, but only if they do it. Mildly military could be the symptom of simply not researching your subject and relaying on what you think you about the military, tactics, and combat. Speaking as a trained historical researcher, the internet has made our jobs easier. Search engines allow unbelieveable amounts of data to be at the fingers of the creator. So, there is little excuse of being lazy. An creator could assume they know everything about the military because they play Battlefield or they've watched Band of Brothers, and put that faulty POV in their work and we get mildly military.
The Creator's Vision and Giving Zero Fucks
As an author, your fictional universe is the world that your characters and events occupy and live in, and it is our own vision...that means, just like Bob Ross told us, that this is your world and you can do what you want in your own world. Gene Roddenberry created Starfleet, George Lucas created the Jedi due to their own vision, despite being prime examples of the mildly military trope. When Roddenberry created Starfleet, he did not want a 100% space navy that was devoted to the defense of the Federation, but instead a unique organization is that devoted to defense, exploration, first contact, and peacekeeping...and he give zero fucks about criticism about his vision of that 23rd century organization. Lucas is the same. His vision of laser-sword wielding space Samurai pitted against a galactic empire with the power to destroy entire planets and has an army of white-armor wearing soldiers was not based on a realistic military model...and once again, he give zero fucks and laughed all the way to the bank. This vision of how their universe works is a powerful one, and this could be the number one reason for the trope of mildly military.
The Justifications of Mildly Military
Because it is the Future Dammit!
We cannot know what changes will occur when mankind pushes out and establishes a presence in our solar system and beyond. The same goes for the military as well and technology. How will a military organizations handle outposts on exoplanets, space stations, deploying forces across lightyears and not miles, and FTL starships? We simply do not know, and one defense for mildly military trope is that these fictional military organizations are set in the future, have superior technology, and their service members are from other planets and even other species so that the comparison between today's military and the one in the far-future is not applicable.
Streamlining the Complexity To Save the Story
Some creators point to the use of mockery to excuse their mildly military nature. If some levels a criticism of their work, the creator can just say, "well, it was for laughs, asshole." Of course, prime examples is Red Vs. Blue, Kelly's Heroes...especially Hogan's Heroes, but even more mainstream works use this to cover up their deficits. Even high-levels of humor as seen in the Stargate television series were a way to balance the mildly military aspects.
They are Special Operations Forces
In the real-world, the most elite Special Forces units, like CAG, SAS, SBS, and DEVGRU are allowed a greater degree of freedom and autonomy than regular military units. This idea populates into sci-fi and often authors and creators used the "but they're SOF!" defense to justify the nature of their creation. I have done with my own military science fiction novel Endangered Species. The MCAG that my main character is a member is an elite TIER-One special missions unit and the abilities of the members allows for their irregular status. Just examine any SOF unit in science fiction and you can see the mildly military trope alive and well, but it can be justified by the creator because of their elite status. This can even be seen in modern military films like Black Hawk Down.
Bad Shit Has Just Happened...
Any organization, from hospitals, to fast-food restaurants, to the military are all designed to limit crisis and continue to deliver their product or service despite the chaos. During times like October 3rd-4th, 1993, or September 11th, 2001, or even Black Friday, order can be broken down, and natural leaders, despite rank, take charge and solve the problem. This can led to elements associated with the mildly military trope. In sci-fi, we see the mildly military aspect defended with the justification of "bad shit just went down". This is used time-and-time again in both incarnations of Battlestar Galactica after the destruction of the 12 Colonies of Kolob and the accumulation of the ragtag civilian fleet. This is also seen in Stargate: Atlantis with the military contingent that exists within wider Atlantis Expedition, with justification being that the city is cut-off from Terra and also has aliens serving in the ranks of the military contingent, along with being multi-national. I am also guilty of using the "shit went down" to justify certain elements within my own MSF novel Endangered Species. This justification is are to criticize if the creator has done their work properly.
They are Aliens
The universe is packed with galaxies, stars, and planets, and who knows what kind of life is out there. But, if there is intelligence life out among the cold wastes of space, there is also war. War and society breeds organizations devoted to defend their citizenry. To us Terrans, an alien military organizations could be complete different than our own interpretation of how a military should look and function. Depending on the aliens themselves, their society and culture, will determine how this military is designed. Creators have more fun when it comes to designing an alien military organization because there are no rules. This gives creators a blank check to use to dream any type of mildly military alien organizations of their fantasies and relish in pointing those differences to the audience. In short, Klingons are going to do what Klingons do.
Sci-Fi and Mildly Military
The Crew of the Andromeda Ascend from Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda
This show is one of those interesting sci-fi shows that some fans really love and others either hate or simply have ever heard of Andromeda. In the series, Systems Commonwealth High Guard officer Dylan Hunt wakes up three hundreds years in the future, and is the sole surviving ship of the old government. While he and his ship's AI, Romie, attempt to hold to the old High Guard structure, while the bulk of the new crew is composed of civilians who are more akin to the crew of the Serenity than a spit-and-polish naval warship. This mildly military element is build into the series and is organic part of the story and universe.
SG Command from the Stargate Universe
When it comes to sci-fi franchise on television, Stargate is one of the biggest names, and it is the longest running military sci-fi television series. Unlike Trek, the SG team and the Atlantis Expedition featured throughout the series are based on current day military units and operate within a sci-fi universe. The interesting thing about Stargate and the mildly military trope is that in some ways, Stargate can be justified due to the entire SG Project being a highly classified operation, forging a unique structure with the in-field units. I tend to disagree that the USAF would be spearheading the entire SG project, and they would be the lead in-field operatives. If I where sending teams through a FTL gate to off-world locations, I think the SMU JSOC taskforces would be best, or even US Army Special Forces ODA teams with specialized civilian members.
Starfleet from the Star Trek Universe
Here is one of the prime examples of the mildly military organizations in all of science fiction. Starfleet is not a completely military organization, it is mostly devoted to exploration, defense, and peacekeeping rather than standard naval military operations. For a semi-military organizations, Starfleet is completely half-baked. Starfleet itself has no real concept of how to fight a war, they lack a ground force, their ships are bipolar, being devoted to exploration and defensive operations, and their captains are expected to be Sir Horatio Nelson, Stephen Hawking, and Zbigniew Brzezinski depending on the situation. Of course, since Starfleet is so unique in the realm of science fiction, and Roddenberry was attempting to create Starfleet as something more unique than the US Navy in space, it can be more justified in-universe than other mildly military organizations.
The Mobile Infantry from Starship Troopers
The Robotech Defense Force from the ROBOTECH Universe
The entire cast of the G.I Joe from the Animated G.I. Joe Series.
There has been GI Joes since 1964, and over time, the figures and the products associates have gone more down the path of mildly military. This apexed around the time of the GI Joe: Real American Hero in 1982, and it got more EXTREME! in the 1990's, causing the Joes to be little more than a joke of a military organization. Seriously, the Joes were the most oddball SpecOps unit in the American Armed Forces with their animals, weird gear, and bizarro outfits. The Joes are the least effective military unit to boot with their lack of ability to hit their enemy! In this Robot Chicken segment, we can really see just mildly military the Joes really are:
The Marine Corps of 2063 from Space:Above and Beyond (I am so sorry!)
The Colonial Marines from the ALIENS Universe...What The Frak?!
The Crew of BSG-75 from Battlefield Galactica (1978 and 2004)
The Military of the Imperium of Man from WH40K
One of the most unique military organizations in all of science fiction is the Imperium of Man web of military organizations. While they are mildly military, they are not mildly military due to discipline. The Imperium has ways of dealing with people that act up. However, it is mildly military because of its unconventional structure, units, and enemies...you know, genestealers, oaks, space elves, and dark gods.
Next Time on FWS...