A Conversation with David Sherman and Dan Cragg, authors of the Starfist series
Del Rey: The best military science fiction is written by real combat vets. Can you tell us about your military backgrounds?
David Sherman: I enlisted in the Marine Corps right out of high school in Omaha in 1962. Went to boot camp in San Diego and infantry training in Camp San Onofre, Camp Pendleton, California. Then served two years in Company L, Third Battalion, Fourth Marines, First Marine Brigade, based at MCAS Kaneohe Bay, Oahu, Hawaii, where I rose from PFC rifleman to lance corporal fire team leader. Next came a tour as a military policeman at Marine Corps Air Station, Cherry Point, North Carolina. My last tour of duty was in Vietnam, where I was first a fire team leader in India Company, Third Battalion, First Marines and promoted to corporal, then in a Combined Action Platoon in Ky Hoa village, several miles from Chu Lai. (Mine was the first CAP in the Chu Lai area.) I was released from active duty four years, three months, and twenty-six days later from the same place I entered it, San Diego.
I qualified as an Expert Rifleman, and was awarded the Combat Action Ribbon and Good Conduct Medal, along with a slew of unit citations and campaign and service medals, including three Vietnamese medals and ribbons.
Dan Cragg: I enlisted in the U. S. Army in July 1958 and after Infantry Basic Training at Ft. Dix, NJ, was trained as a combat medic at Ft. Sam Houston, Texas. I then went to U. S. Army, Europe, where I was stationed at a training center not far from the Czech border. I reenlisted in 1961 and was thereafter assigned to the Southern European Task Force headquarters based in Verona, Italy, but in March 1962 volunteered to go to Vietnam during the first buildup. I spent six months in Saigon and then a year with the advisory team at the 5th VN Infantry Division. Col. Nguyen Van Thieu was division commander at that time. I returned to the States in 1963. In 1964 I went back to Germany, the Landstuhl Army Medical Center, but in 1965 volunteered to go back to Vietnam, where I remained in various staff assignments at General Westmoreland’s headquarters until September 1969. After some stateside service I went to Korea in 1972 and served there for 18 months. I was assigned to the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon when I retired in September 1980, having decided not to make a career of the Army.
DR: Methods of warfare have changed tremendously even in the time since the two of you saw action. How is today’s Marine or Army infantryman different from what he was in the ’60s?
Sherman: In many ways they’re very much improved. Enlistment standards are higher; many of the Marines I served with wouldn’t be allowed to join today’s Corps. Today’s Marines are better educated and enter the Corps in generally better physical condition. They’re also better motivated, as many are washed out in boot camp, which simply wasn’t allowed in the 1960s. And their weaponry is generally far superior to what the Marines had when I was one. I firmly believe the Marine infantry I served in was, battalion for battalion, the most powerful foot-mobile military force in the world. Today’s is so much stronger, we couldn’t stand up to it.
On the other hand:
My exposure to today’s Marines tells me that at heart, they’re very much the same as we were, which doesn’t surprise me at all. In my reading through history, I’ve been struck by the commonalities among soldiers of different eras. I’ve read letters home from Roman Legionnaires stationed at Hadrian’s Wall and on the Rhine that, allowing for differences in technology and tactics, read just like the letters I wrote home from Vietnam and the letters I received from Marines in the 1991 Gulf War. It’s the same with soldiers in the Civil War and World War I. When I’ve talked with Marine veterans of World War II and Korea, I found we speak the same language; the only real differences are those dictated by technology and tactics.
Technology drives tactics, so how wars are fought changes over time, sometimes dramatically. But the men who get down in the mud and do the actual fighting remain very much the same.
Cragg: I haven’t been closely associated with active-duty people since 1980, and a lot has happened in weapons, technology, and personnel recruiting since then. When I was young in the Army we still had the draft and later, during the Vietnam War drawdown, we had a lot of dissent, generally centering around racial issues. During the draft years we had a lot of mature, well-educated men in the ranks; we also had a lot who were only marginally effective. I think today with the all-volunteer Army, higher educational requirements for recruits, higher physical standards, and a much improved enlisted educational system for soldiers of all ranks, the average soldier who makes it through Basic and advanced training is certainly more highly motivated and perhaps more educated in his job than we were in my day.
I have always been comfortable around enlisted people and most officers. The enlisted folks I deal with in my Department of Defense job are generally top-notch; some of the action officers are idiots, Marines excepted. I mean, they don’t get their work done on time or in the proper manner. My job is to publish all of the Secretary of Defense’s regulations and directives, and some of the action officers responsible for those publications can’t think straight and I wonder how the poor things ever got a commission, much less promoted to field-grade ranks. Ironically, my closest personal contacts these days are with Marine Reservists, and those guys and gals are sharp.
As to weapons and technology, I trained and qualified on the M1 Garand rifle, the M14 7.62 rifle, the .30 caliber M1 carbine, and the M1911A1 .45 caliber pistol, except for the M14, WWII vintage weapons. In Vietnam I carried a .45 and an M2 (full-auto) carbine. Weapons more recent than those I am not at all familiar with. But the fact is, if you can hit a man at 500 yards with a bolt-action Mauser, that makes all this high-capacity, rapid-fire stuff useless in the hands of a dead man. It’s good to have bombs and artillery galore and infantry weapons that fire promiscuously, but to make sure the job gets done properly you have to have someone go in and kill whoever’s left up close and personal. The Colt M1A1 .45 pistol has been doing that for a hundred years, and rocks and knives also work well in a pinch.
But three things haven’t changed in combat operations: fire and maneuver to close with and destroy the enemy is still key to attaining victory; the hardships of field duty in line units overcomes the barriers of race, education, background, and training; and America’s men and women still, as they did during my day, answer the call to serve and are proud of that service. And that tradition is still be very much alive in the year 2450, when the Starfist novels take place.
DR: What types of research have you conducted while writing the Starfist series?
Sherman: I’m not in the prediction business, so I don’t try to figure out what the technology will be four and a half centuries in the future. Look in the other direction: Four and a half centuries takes us back to the High Renaissance. Today’s world runs on electricity; nobody had any idea of electricity back then, not even Leonardo da Vinci could have guessed today’s technology. Dan and I write about the fighting men and their opponents. I study anthropology, evolution, and military history, and read some about current military developments to develop the people (and aliens) the Marines of 34th FIST come into contact with.
Cragg: Both of us operate on the principle that in writing these stories we’ve got to get our facts straight and do research to support them. For instance, we’ve needed to know things like how to build a rifle from scratch; how birds communicate; how to rig a demolition charge (don’t try it at home), and so on. In my own research I make heavy use of THE ENCYCLOPEDIA BRITTANICA, ENCYCLOPEDIA AMERICANA, Jane’s publications on weapons systems, military training and maintenance manuals, various encyclopedias and dictionaries on military history and biography, and of course the splendid search engines available for surfing the internet.
DR: How did you come up with the idea for the alien Skinks?
Sherman: For my part, I’m not comfortable with the idea of a galaxy-spanning war between humans and aliens. That’s scenario is too limiting; either it shortly becomes repetitious, or the stories have to become progressively more outrageous in order to keep things going. Frankly, I was initially reluctant to introduce the hostile aliens. But the way we’ve done it, the Skinks are only physically present in some of the books, not all of them–though they’ve become a constant in the minds of the major characters, so they’re there even in the books in which they don’t appear.
Cragg: We felt the series required alien bad guys, and the idea of creatures like skinks appealed to us. But any more details about the skinks would prematurely give away the plot of a future novel in the series.
DR: What were some of your literary influences?
Sherman: By way of a lengthy digression . . .
When I was a child, we boys would get together and make up stories to entertain each other. The other boys liked mine the best, though I didn’t think there was anything special about them. After a bit I put that aside and set my sights on being an artist. I went to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the country’s premier art school, after the Marines and had a career as a sculptor. But one thing led to another and one day I simply didn’t have it any longer. There I was, in my late thirties, wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life. Then two things happened. I was in a graduate seminar on Winslow Homer and wrote a paper that made me realize that I really could put words on paper and have them make sense. Then I remembered that childhood story-telling. All right, I decided to give writing a try. Typing was too much work (I had an old Olivetti portable manual), so I went out and bought a Kaypro II computer. A few months later I got my first sale, a combat reminiscence to EAGLE magazine. It took three years to get my first novel sale. In the meanwhile, I quit my job and decided I was going to succeed at writing or die trying.
I came close to dying, but now, after nineteen, soon to be twenty, published novels, I guess I’m starting to have success.
Cragg: I can remember when I couldn’t read and how frustrating it was to get an adult to interpret the Sunday funnies for me. And I can remember the epiphany of the first words I ever read on my own, spoken by Petunia Pig to Porky. Ever since I have been in love with words. One summer when I was still in my early teens I read, a dictionary at my side, William H. Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico and History of the Conquest of Peru. I have never forgotten Prescott’s eloquent literary style or his meticulous research methods but it was his way of telling these great adventures, more exciting than any novel, that inflamed my imagination. Later I found companions to Prescott in Francis Parkman and Howard Phillips Lovecraft. I admire Lovecraft for his use of the language and the research he put into his stories to give them verisimilitude, but I hope I never aped his "first-person delirious" style, as critic Darrell Schweitzer so eloquently puts it.
In the 1950s I read all the science fiction I could get my hands on, novels and stories today that are classics of the genre but then were the literary outpourings of contemporary writers still in their prime. I sat fascinated by the radio adaptations of these tales on programs such as "2000 Plus" and "Dimension X." These stories opened doors to me in many fields because their authors were men steeped in our culture, well schooled in their literary antecedents, science, philosophy. Those were truly days of wonder for me and today I stand, awestruck, on the shoulders of those greats.