The above photo is from INTERCON 2005, Norway, the panel debate on "Militarism & Space Opera - Why Are These Themes So Popular in SF?".
From right to left (no pun intended): A.R.Yngve, Elizabeth Moon, Öyvind Myhre, Heikki Sörum, and Gunnar Bakken(?).
I have not yet transcribed the whole 1-hour tape from this panel (which occurred on July 31), but here are some quotes:
I'm not sure the line is always that firm (between military SF and Space Opera).
One of my books might start out an adventure story, some military creeps into it, you get interested in that, it leans toward military SF, you think that is too serious; you throw in something as idiotic as a hot-air balloon, or a horse; it wanders back toward being Space Opera, and then gradually - for me - the series is going to end up being military SF - but it can take six books for me to get there.
We can't really imagine a past, our future, without serious conflict.
Primitive man didn't have war - there wasn't the resources for it.
In a well-organized society, we have an accumulation of power and riches - things to catch hold of - and there's no way to take away these resources from anyone without force.
Early literature was all about this fight for power: who's going to come on top.
There's one thing that makes science-fictional war stories unique from "mainstream" war stories: in this genre we have a complete freedom to shape the conflict situation and how it is fought.
You can invent weapons, enemies and situations that don't or can't exist. And there's the inherent danger of the genre, of inventing a straw-man enemy who represents whatever the writer is against.
You can set up the odds, so that either it seem impossible for the "good" side to win - or you start cheating by inventing a miracle weapon at the last possible minute - push a button and Kaboom! the enemy just vaporizes - Jack Williamson did that in THE LEGION OF SPACE.
I think there's a thin line between science fiction and mainstream war fiction. Take Tom Clancy's books: He will invent what he claims are weapons presently under development - and while these books seem realistic, there is a strong element of fantasy in them, from my point of view.
You have no doubt in old war stories - non-SF - the people who write them always know who is good, who is bad. That's how they're written, and it's one of the attractions, like cowboys-and-indians movies. You know which side is supposed to win. In real life that may not be the "right" side, there may not be a clear victory.
This kind of of story is very satisfying, very comforting to people, and that's why it can be very dangerous - if you become comfortable with something that is not real, and you expect the world to be like that - you're out of luck.
STARSHIP TROOPERS, THE FOREVER WAR, ENDER'S GAME... what makes these books so popular?
The ones that are popular are ripping good stories. They have all the characteristics of an excellent story: you have a main character who is faced with a serious dilemma; has to fight their way through it; characters you can attach to and care about.
Most people would not characterize Lois McMaster Bujold's books as military SF - and yet, through all the Miles Vorkosian books, the main characters are military people; they're either veterans or active duty.
Her handling of the military aspects is good, her handling of how it affects Miles and the other is excellent, it's very realistic... and yet people continuously refer to these books as romances, because some of the characters fall in love with each other.
Soldiers do fall in love each other! Here's a marine (Elizabeth Moon) who married an Army guy. I know all about falling in love with military.
I'd like to quote Steven Francis Murphy, a real Gulf War veteran, what he wrote on the ASIMOV's Message Board...
"Why is it that so many writers seem to focus on the pyro, the technical, and the doctrinal/tactical, while glossing over the human side with a patina of their own personal views?"
And he describes the peculiar schizoid nature of a soldier's mind:
"I'm proud to be a soldier; I hate to kill people; I have to kill to protect my buds; I feel guilty about what I've done; I'm proud to have taken part."
That's a very complex psychology, and would be interesting to write or read about. But how many writers succeed with that?
A few do. If a person has not been a veteran, or has not known one closely, in the family usually, and listened to stories, to understand what veterans are going through, then you can't write it.
I think a lot of the (gung-ho, military-glorifying) sort of books are written by people with no military background. They may have read other writers' military SF, but they haven't themselves ever been around soldiers that much.
There's more, but I'll post it later. Thanks to Steven Francis Murphy for letting me quote him.