BIG BOYS DON’T CRY is a novella by LTC Tom Kratman, U.S. Army (Ret.), known for A DESERT CALLED PEACE and his Carrera series. The story follows the life cycle of a Ratha, a sentient future supertank that dutifully fights Man’s battles on dozens of alien worlds. But will the massive creature still be grateful to its creators when it discovers it has a conscience? And how long will an intelligent war machine with enough firepower to flatten a city be content to remain Man’s obedient slave? DRM-free.
Kratman’s schtick is to speak hard truths about military reality coated with a thin veneer of science fiction to help it go down easy. This novella isn’t about AI-driven tanks, it’s about training soldiers. Specifically, it’s a paean to the soldiers who’ve been left behind in VA hospitals scattered across America. Spoilers follow.
Kratman begins with a mechanical description of the perfect soldier’s psychology as expressed by a futuristic machine intelligence, mixing hot passions with cold, calculating brutality. As they said in Full Metal Jacket, the military doesn’t want to train people into robots because robots are stupid. They lack initiative and judgment. The military wants to train people into killers. There is and will always be high demand for killers who can think their way around a problem and empathize with their allies and enemies.
The second, larger part of the novella follows the sentient tank’s thought processes while it’s laid up in traction, after being irreparably damaged. Analogous to the countless veterans being abused every day by low-cost immigrant workers and an apolitically heartless VA apparatus, the AI begins to wonder Why, why did I do it? Why was I ever loyal to these people. It traces these thoughts back to its “psychological” training by a behavioral scientist, who had put the tank’s mind through a series of ancient military simulations. Using applications of overwhelming pain and pleasure, the tank learned which attitudes and behaviors were “good” and which were “bad”. Ever so coincidentally, the “good” behaviors were those which developed the military virtues of bravery, intelligence, savagery, initiative, loyalty, and so on.
This is really the key point about training, because the only thing you absolutely must train is a soldier’s psychology. People (and tanks) who have the necessary attitude to get a job done will go out of their way to find the tools they need and develop the skills they need to get it done.
The remainder of the novella deals with the real cost of abandoning your own troops. Leaving all empathy aside, there’s a cold, hard pragmatism in the motto “No man left behind”. The fact is, the only difference between the Americans and the Iraqis in the Gulf War was a culture of trust and loyalty. The Iraqis knew that they would be left behind, so they didn’t even bother fighting (why risk it?). The Americans knew they’d get the best medical care in the world. Economies are also built on trust and loyalty, which meant the Americans had the best training, systems, and equipment, because so many people back home could go to work and do their jobs without fear of predation. The other side is that the real cost of abusing veterans is opportunity cost: somewhere in the area 100 other soldiers and potential recruits who see the abuse and hear about it, and make different decisions in self interest than they would have.
The ideas in the previous paragraph are very abstract, like an argument you’d present to an actuary, which doesn’t work in fiction. So Kratman ends the book with the tank slaughtering its users and abusers in a last gasp of righteous fury. You might be surprised how much you empathize with the tank’s perspective by that point.