In Sixteenth Watch, author Myke Cole wants to bring your attention to a different sort of military branch — one whose remit is different, but no less vital, than any other, and how that differing mission is vital for his novel and the story he’s telling within.
When we hear the word “military,” we’re rightly put in mind of its core connotation – bombs exploding, bullets flying, bodies hitting dirt. We picture Baghdad during the opening phases of “shock and awe,” drone feeds from Afghan mountainsides just before they evaporate in clouds of superheated grit blown out by the overpressure. That’s a military, that’s what a military does. “We put warheads on foreheads” was an axiom I heard all the time. “Our primary role,” an enterprising 1SG (First Sergeant) told me in Camp Liberty, “is to kill people and destroy property.”
She wasn’t wrong. Militaries exist to fight and warfighting is an ugly business. It is, no matter how we dress it up, an exercise in killing – inflicting as much egregious harm on other human beings as quickly as possible in the hope that they will cry uncle and comply with our policy objectives.
A core function, sure, but not the only function.
In my years in uniform I saw military engineers build infrastructure that would benefit civilian populations for years to come. I saw the attache corps foster relationships with foreign governments that would further diplomacy so that we could avoid future fights. I saw sports teams and gaming clubs. I saw research centers and scientific ferments. The military gave us the Internet. The military (or military contractors) gave us handheld radios, superglue, duct tape, GPS, and nuclear power.
When I decided to join up (ironically after I had already done two tours in Iraq as a mercenary) I wanted the branch that was the most elite, the hardest to get into. I thought, as most do, that was the US Marine Corps.
It was the US Coast Guard.
Like most of you, I didn’t realize the USCG was part of the American military, but they have fought in every American war since the service’s creation in 1790. The Coast Guard has an undeserved reputation for being soft, more cops than warfighters, and as a member you are far less likely to deploy overseas than in the other four branches. This means that everyone who wants to join the military, but doesn’t really want to join the military, thinks the Coast Guard will be a nice smooth ride (they get a rude awakening when they report to New London for OCS or Cape May for boot). They have an insane glut of applicants and the smallest budget of all the branches. Therefore, they are selective as hell. It is really hard to get into the guard.
The Coast Guard are warfighters. They kill people and destroy property. They put warheads on foreheads.
But unlike the other four branches, that isn’t the why of the service. This difference is why the guard alone is under the Department of Homeland Security rather than the Department of Defense. It is why the guard alone is governed by its own special title of the US Code – Title 14.
Because while all other military branches were chartered first and foremost to take lives, the guard alone were chartered to save them.
And that’s the big idea behind Sixteenth Watch.
Military science fiction is an incredibly popular genre. It has a guaranteed audience of rabid fans who scarf down book after book from names you’ve probably heard – Jack Campbell, John Ringo, Karen Traviss, Linda Nagata, Orson Scott Card, Joe Haldeman, David Drake, Elizabeth Moon, Tanya Huff, Robert Buettner, and plenty of other big names that are no longer with us. But one thing all of this vast body of work has in common is its focus on the core of the military’s mission – killing people and destroying property. Military SF has always centered around the warfighting aspect of the military experience.
But while the Coast Guard certainly fights wars, that isn’t the heart of what they do. The guard’s core 11 missions are marine safety, search-and-rescue (SAR), aids to navigation, protecting living marine resources, marine environmental protection, ice operations (ice breaking), PWCS (ports, waterways, and coastal security), drug interdiction, migrant interdiction, defense readiness, and maritime law enforcement.
Only one of these – “defense readiness” is a warfighting component. The guard is a military service dedicated almost wholly to environmental protection, life-saving, and the enforcement of maritime law.
The guard’s story, the story of these other missions, is absolutely a military story, and it is a story that has not been adequately told in military science fiction. Some of the greatest authors in the genre have extrapolated every military service in the country out into the stars. We’ve seen Heinlein’s Mobile Infantry, Buettner’s army of orphans, the Adeptus Astartes of Warhammer 40,000, the Federation fleet and the Imperial navy. We’ve seen iteration after iteration of futuristic imaginings of the warfighting.
But not the Coast Guard. We haven’t sufficiently imagined the rigors of search-and-rescue missions on the moon, haven’t speculated on the challenges of customs enforcement along an interstellar border. We haven’t sat down and taken our best guess at how Title 14 of the US Code would stretch and bend and change to accommodate the new frontier, how the challenges that face the Guard in 2020 – fighting for respect and the budget allocations that come with it – would play out as humanity expands into the stars.
We haven’t and I’m proud to take my shot at changing that.
Captain Jane Oliver of the United States Coast Guard has been through some tough times, and emerged changed by them. A combination of her unique abilities and wild circumstance have placed her on the moon in a unique position to both propel the Coast Guard into the future and prevent the first lunar war with China, a war that, should it break out, surely won’t stay on the moon.
I can’t wait to share Jane’s story with you.
I can’t wait for her to get the chance to show you that there is so much more to warriors than war.