Writing Ranks, Justice League

When I set out to dive into military-themed SF with my Sikander North books, one of the obstacles that I really didn’t anticipate was the sheer murkiness of naval ranks and forms of address. If someone’s in command of a ship, he or she is the captain. But there’s a rank called commander and there’s another rank called captain. People with the rank of commander might not actually be in command. People with the rank of captain might not be in charge of a ship. Worse yet, many ships are commanded by officers of the commander rank who are recognized as being the captains of their ships but are actually outranked by officers who hold the rank of captain. And then you’ve got commodores: The classic definition of a commodore is “an officer in charge of a squadron.” Just like ship captains, officers of different ranks who command squadrons are often referred to as commodore regardless of their actual rank. And in fact many squadrons are commanded by officers whose rank is captain!

The good news is that I’m not at all confused by this; I spent years in the Navy and I internalized all this long ago. The bad news is that I can’t count on my readers having anything like my background in military etiquette and forms of address. So here are a few things I did in Valiant Dust and the ensuing books to try to help out my readers as much as I could.

Aquila’s ranks are based on US Navy ranks. Write what you know, right? If you think US naval ranks are tricky, don’t even look at European navies with corvette captains and frigate captains and what-have-you. USN enlisted ranks go seaman-petty officer-chief petty officer (the equivalent of a master sergeant in the Army or Air Force). USN officer ranks are ensign, lieutenant j.g., lieutenant, lieutenant commander, commander, captain, rear admiral (lower half), rear admiral, vice admiral, admiral.

No lieutenant (junior grade). This one always struck me as troublesome just because it’s a real jaw-cracker—a six-syllable rank title doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Plus, it feels over-precise to many civilians. I borrowed the rank of sub-lieutenant from the Royal Navy as a replacement. Much easier to write, and I don’t have to give my characters phantom promotions to avoid writing (junior grade).

Once I settled on that, I thought about ditching lieutenant commander (another six-syllable jaw-cracker) in favor of sub-commander. It’s a simple term that would work well for the same reason that sub-lieutenant does. But I just couldn’t pull the trigger on this one; every time I started to write Sub-Commander Randall or Sub-Commander Juarez it felt like I was talking about Romulans. At least lieutenant commander clearly belongs in between lieutenant and commander.

Commodore, not rear admiral (lower half). What do you call a one-star admiral? At various times in the past, the US Navy called that officer a commodore, skipped over the rank entirely, or used the term rear admiral (lower half). I decided that commodore is better than rear admiral (lower half). This is going to punish me a bit when I’m dealing with officers who command squadrons but might not actually hold the rank of commodore, but so be it.

Job Titles for Clarity. Here’s the tip that other writers might find useful: In modern military organizations, it’s often acceptable to refer to an officer by their job title, not their rank. The classic example on a typical Navy ship is the executive officer—everybody calls him or her “XO,” and it’s considered perfectly respectful. In Book 2 of Breaker of Empires, I’ve got an important character who is the chief-of-staff and deputy to a commodore (who commands a squadron).  That character holds the rank of captain, but she spends a lot of time on board a ship that is commanded by a different captain. Since it would be confusing as all heck to refer to Captain Reyes (the deputy commodore) and Captain Howard (the ship’s captain) when both are aboard Exeter, I decided that most of the people would “XO” Reyes by referring to her as Deputy Commodore—or D-Com for short.

Common military etiquette does most of this already; you avoid calling anyone but the commanding officer of a ship “captain,” when you’re on board the ship. It’s not unusual for an embarked Marine or Army officer with the rank of captain to get a courtesy promotion to “major” as long as he or she’s on board. Likewise, sailors and officers on an aircraft carrier use the term “CAG” for the ship’s air group commander, who is often a captain by rank. You only want one person on a ship to answer to the term “captain.”

Justice League

I took the family to go see Justice League last night. I enjoyed it—I wish there was a little more depth to the Big Bad and his master plan, but I liked it better than Wonder Woman or Batman vs. Superman. Then again, I’m very generous toward movies, and I tend to like big spectacular movies even when they’re sorta bad or blunder into plot holes. If you want to see really good Justice League movies, I’d recommend some of the animated titles, like Justice League: The New Frontier or Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths.

Overall, I found the 2017 big-screen Justice League to be perfectly watchable, and I enjoyed seeing some of the nice “light” touches that the previous two big-screen releases sorely lacked. (And look for the David Bowie Easter egg!) Thor: Ragnarok wins the head-to-head competition, but they’re both fine. To be honest, my inner geek is still giddy over the idea that we’re getting any half-decent comic-book movies at all—we didn’t have any when I was growing up!


2 thoughts on “Writing Ranks, Justice League

  1. Jack Flynn

    Never have been an SF fan, but I really enjoyed Valiant Dust. Your use of Naval rankings made it somewhat transitional for me to engage in the story line. I also enjoyed the interactions of the officers, as well as the intellectual internal arguments of Sikander. Looking forward to Book 2.


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