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Making Starship Troopers

In Starship Troopers, elements of frontier mythology are structured into 'a systematized technology of power in order to reproduce and reinscribe the mythos of expansionist culture, both in the fictional spaces of film and text and, concomitantly, in America-at-large which looks to the cultural machine of Hollywood to rehabilitate its cultural ethos'.

Debra Benita Shaw

Issue #63, April 2003

Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedoms.
— Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers

In 1959, the ex-politician and military historian, Eugene Kinkaid was convinced that ensuring the future of US democracy demanded that 'every American parent, every American teacher, and every American clergyman work to instill in every one of our children a specific understanding of the differences between our way of life and the communist way of life'. In other words, the battle for the hearts and minds of American youth was to begin before they were old enough to ask questions. Kinkaid's ideal American citizen should be a 'citizen-soldier'. Weaned on a set of incontestable 'moral values' and nurtured through childhood to develop the appropriate 'strength of character', he (and Kinkaid, of course, could not have imagined that future wars would include military women) would finally emerge from Army training 'something very close to military perfection'.

Kinkaid was envisioning a soldier suited to the kind of war of which Vietnam was to prove a prime example, predicting, perhaps, the potential for the kind of opposition which prompted widespread rebellion against the draft and the effective mobilization of American youth in the cause of peace, a stance that some have been lamenting the lack of in this current crisis.

Whether or not Kinkaid's recommendations were ever seriously implemented, notably, in the same year, another book was published which came to similar conclusions and which was to have a lasting impact on the American military and popular imagination. Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, which literary critic Alasdair Spark describes as 'distasteful, violent, and near-fascist' was originally rejected by Heinlein's publisher but has endured through several publications and reprints, the most recent to tie-in with the release of Paul Verhoeven's 1997 film version.

Verhoeven's choice was unsurprising. Not only can Heinlein's Starship Troopers be read as the military version of Robocop but with socially rather than biotechnically engineered programming but the novel presents a narrative highly suitable for adaptation to computer game format, a necessary advantage at a time when the film and game markets were increasingly cross-exploiting their consumers. In fact, the appearance of the film seems to emulate the 'chrome' of the more sophisticated games where the characters and the hardware they manipulate approach air-brushed perfection.

Starship Trooper board gameInterestingly, in 1976 Heinlein himself produced a board game version of his book. Because the book contains none of the ambiguity which attends any real world conflict and which gives rise to the sort of moral and political debate which produces opposition and resistance it 'evokes an age of pure belief and a regression to childhood simplicity': the object of the game is to simply kill as many of the opposition as possible. These words are from Julian Stallabrass' book Gargantua Manufactured Mass Culture (1996) and he is actually writing about computer games but much of what he says can be applied to Heinlein's book and board game. Starship Troopers have to attend classes in 'History and Moral Philosophy' in which the complexities of civil rights and conflicting territorial claims are reduced to allegories of adolescent concerns such as the training of puppies, cheating at exams and relationships with parents. Once they have absorbed these lessons, they are ready for the next stage of training which is the excoriating and brutal experience of boot camp. Those that survive are tested in the field of battle (against an arachnoid extraterrestrial enemy, a 'hive polyarchy', known to the troopers as 'bugs') and thus earn the right of citizenship. Only citizen-soldiers can vote because 'Citizenship is an attitude, a state of mind, an emotional conviction that the whole is greater than the part . . . and that the part should be humbly proud to sacrifice itself that the whole may live'.

Advanced technology is, of course, an important element of the Starship Troopers' armory. Techno-prosthetics enable them to jump tall buildings at a single bound and heads-up displays on specially designed helmets afford them a personal view of the field of battle. This heavily armoured 'suit' is not reproduced in the film, apparently because insufficient funds were available but, because film itself is capable of reproducing panoramic viewpoints and aerial views of the action, it substitutes as a visual prosthetic for the viewers/players. The skill both Starship Troopers and computer gamers must develop is in reacting quickly to the intelligence provided and deploying weapons accurately and efficiently.

Troopers and gamers are thus connected by a relationship between the body, technology and consumer capitalism which constructs war as a numbers game to be played according to rules of engagement which derive their moral justification from the reified structures of the free market. As Julian Stallabrass says:

Computer games force a mechanization of the body on their players in which their movements and the image of their alter-ego provide a physical and simulated image of the self under capital, subject to fragmentation, reification and the play of allegory. Games demand that the players hone their skills to make the body a machine, forging from the uncoordinated and ignorant body of the acolyte an embodiment of the spirit of the game.

Nor, with the advent of digital TV, is the experience confined to gamers. Tuning my TV to BBC News 24 recently, I was confronted with a view of the battlefield from a camera mounted on the gun turret of a British army tank. As it panned the field, searching for targets, I became, for that moment, complicit in its inexorable mission to target, aim and fire. The precision with which it accomplished this produced an undeniable sensation of achievement. This is the 'play of allegory' at its most inventive and deadly.

The ideal gamer, then, is the Starship Trooper, and the Starship Trooper is the ideal soldier under the terms of 21st Century war. As Stallabrass reminds us, General Norman Schwartzkopf dubbed the first Gulf War 'the first Nintendo war', a description that takes on added significance in terms of Henry Jenkins description of Nintendo as 'a conspicuous consumption of space' which Mary Fuller elaborates as 'feed[ing] the appetite for encountering a succession of new spaces (as well as helping to create such an appetite)'. Fuller, interestingly, compares the experience of playing Nintendo to the experience provided by Renaissance travel narratives and speculates 'that part of the drive behind the rhetoric of virtual reality as a New World or new frontier is the desire to recreate the Renaissance encounter with America without guilt'.

The space race also, of course, borrows the rhetoric of benign colonization which, in Starship Troopers, both film and book, is recast as a violent encounter. Like the astronaut, the Starship Trooper is a member of an elite group who, in Dale Carter's words:

live by higher standards of behaviour than ordinary mortals, members of an enclosed order united by shared qualities and common risks . . . cool under pressure and skillful at the edge of disaster . . . calculating risks for status within a world of permanent testing . . . act[ing] as bearers and protectors of those all-absorbing, ostensibly supra-American values of discipline and family, deity and flag.

Carter, here, is actually discussing the original seven Mercury test pilots selected to inaugurate NASA who, as he says 'embodied a nation, a social system, a whole way of life' and these words appear in a chapter that he titles 'Starship Troopers.' Although he makes no direct reference to the book, the implication is clear, particularly where he discusses the conflict between the idea of what he calls 'heroic vitalism' and the actuality of space flight which required the astronaut to be little more than what he refers to as 'a pre-packed human cannonball' and he asks 'what happens to heroic vitalism when its domain is subjected to the demands of instrumentation and remote command?', a question which Heinlein seems to have anticipated.

As Johnny Rico, Heinlein's hero, tells us 'the beauty of [the Starship Trooper's] powered suit [is that] you don't have to think about it. You don't have to drive it, fly it, conn it, operate it; you just wear it and it takes its orders directly from your muscles'. The Mobile Infantryman receives his heroism from the chain of command and from the promise of citizenship that marks him as a stolid defender of the ideals of the so called Terran Federation. The suit is a reminder of the technological expertise and ingenuity that has produced it which, itself, is the product of adherence to these ideals.

Similarly, as Carter suggests, the Mercury astronauts, who originally rebelled against their training regime and were pacified with the promise of a more active role were also presented in the public sphere, not as maverick gamblers but as ideal embodiments of what Carter calls 'those universal American values of piety and hard work'; a reconstructed heroic vitalism in which, to quote Tom Wolfe, the astronaut 'maintains a sense of discipline while civilians abandon themselves to hedonism and a sense of honor while civilians live by opportunism and greed'.

Starship Trooper suitThe Mercury astronauts could, in fact, be said to wear their space vehicles in the same way as the Starship Trooper wears his suit. Both are technological extensions of the body that wholly define the public identity of their operators. Both are equally protective armour and prosthesis which carry the marks of an ideology. In Carter's terms, the spacecraft was 'a microcosm of incipient totalitarian life and its abundance, and the astronauts were condensed testimonies to the rewards of incipient totalitarian labour'. In Starship Troopers the powered suit is a microcosm of a fully-formed and functioning totalitarianism and the Troopers themselves condensed testimonies to the guiding principles of totalitarian labour, whether incipient or otherwise, such as, in Heinlein's words, that 'war and moral perfection derive from the same genetic inheritance'.

As Marina Benjamin says 'like outer space, cyberspace is a cipher for utopian dreams'. The space race was seen as 'part of our genetic inheritance', a new space in which a new and improved version of humankind would flourish. Cyberspace equally invites fantasies of the emergence of a better, faster human who can not only leap tall buildings but, with the aid of visual and aural prosthetics, can approach the surveillance capabilities of a god. Contemporary war is the Six Million Dollar Man on cocaine, at least for the US.

But Major Steve Austin begins to look like a relatively benign premonition of the real Starship Troopers which Captain Robert Smullen of the US Marine Corps Reserve, in 1996, suggested it should be possible to produce by prioritizing unit cohesion in training simulations because, as the man says, 'highly cohesive units [are] especially critical today in harnessing the potential of the new technology'. Smullen's article, for Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute, claims 'We Can Make Real Starship Troopers' and is accompanied by a photograph of a combat uniform with a copy of the book sticking out of the back pocket. The inference, that the ideas that it contains should be carried to the field of battle, is inescapable.

More recently, the ethos of the book has again been evoked by Captain Timothy J Walker in an article for Marine Corps Gazette (2002) in which he assesses the viability of the US Army's Land Warrior System in Marine Squad operations on urbanized terrain. He includes an epigraph taken from Heinlein's book in which a drill sergeant tells his recruits 'We can spare you, but we can't spare that fancy suit you're wearing . . . get me?' The System itself is similar to the Starship Troopers' combat suit (minus the ability to jump tall buildings), giving the Marines the ability to see around corners. The 'integrated helmet assembly subsystem' includes 'helmet-mounted display (HMD) (color)', 'land warrior assault helmet', 'audio system' and 'night display'. Walker wants to assure his readers that the system will be both cost effective and good for morale but the use of the quote is telling. Despite the paternalistic rhetoric, it emphasizes the expendability of the individual Trooper in service of a higher ideal figured in terms of continuing expansion linked to technological mastery. And, of course, the specifications of the system (too lengthy to quote here in full) are pretty much interchangeable with what might be provided for a sophisticated virtual reality game. Gerry J Gilmore, writing for the US Army News Service in 1997, referred to the Land Warrior System as 'Robo-Cop in the Army — the Army's prototype infantryman of the future'. Although Computer Sciences Corporation's announcement of a $7.2 million contract to develop the system suggests that the 'next generation' will not be available until later this year, on March 21st the US Army's Material Command research facility demonstrated 'technology being used in the War on Terrorism including operations in Iraq' which included the Scorpion Integrated Protection Analysis Combat Ensemble to be used in association with the PackBot, a robot ground vehicle employed to some effect in searching caves in Afghanistan, which can relay data to all soldiers in a unit simultaneously. And, on April 1st, the Stryker Brigade Combat Team, out of Fort Lewis, Washington, demonstrated the 'digital bridge' which can transmit information and pictures to units on the ground from anywhere in the world (see

This tight integration of the soldier with digital systems, armoured vehicles and smart weapons realizes a dream of cyborg mastery born on the pages of Heinlein's novel and nurtured in cyberspace. As J C Hertz, in her book Joystick Nation pointed out:

By the age of twenty, most military personnel have been playing videogames for a dozen years [. . .]. Today's joystick jockeys, as Ronald Reagan liked to argue, are tomorrow's high-tech soldiers. The Discovery Channel hammered this point home in the wake of Operation Desert Storm by showing Mortal Kombat battle sequences illuminating shiny faced Latino adolescents while a baritone voice-over boomed, "These are the warriors of tomorrow. Their strategic sense, rapid responses to continually changing threat environments, and their thirst for the kill, combined with their ease with computers, makes them ideally qualified to fight the wars of the future. Years of high-speed opponents have prepared them for modern war, where the body heat of distant enemies is spotted in video screens and flesh is seared from bone by remote control".

And she adds, 'Concerned mothers can now rest assured that their children have a mandate, if not a moral obligation, to play as much Virtual Fighter 5 as possible. It's in the interest of national security'.

Hardly surprising then, that the US military has, according to Mike Anderiesz in The Guardian, been using 'its own free videogame, America's Army, to entice young males to sign up'. And, of course, the suggestion that Heinlein's book has been fulfilling the same function for some time is borne out by the knowing and understated references of Smullen and Walker. The way that the film of Starship Troopers co-opts this idea is through foregrounding the role of the media in recruiting for the military with cuts to 'Want to Know More?' ads for the Army and blatant propaganda films designed to demonize the enemy which J. P. Telotte, in a Literature/Film Quarterly, suggests is a device which ironizes the ways in which audiovisual culture conditions our sense of reality. But this ironic gesture is perhaps a little too mired in hindsight to be effective.

Alasdair Spark wonders how Heinlein's state operates in peace time and concludes that the only thing that such a martial system can do is continually pick fights. But, in an article that also compares the film and the book, Jamie King argues that this is precisely the point. 'Heinlein's state', he says, 'does not intend to stop fighting, and incorporates a never ending, embattled frontier into its operational mechanics'. This, as he points out 'is the thematic heart of Starship Troopers'. Elements of frontier mythology are structured into what he calls 'a systematized technology of power in order to reproduce and reinscribe the mythos of expansionist culture, both in the fictional spaces of film and text and, concomitantly, in America-at-large which looks to the cultural machine of Hollywood to rehabilitate its cultural ethos'. The system that the book evokes finds its fullest cultural expression in the connection between computer gaming, the military-industrial complex and Hollywood, and between virtual war games and virtual war.

Debra Benita Shaw teaches Cultural Studies at the University of East London. She is the author of Women, Science & Fiction: The Frankenstein Inheritance (Palgrave, 2000).

Copyright © 2003 by Debra Benita Shaw. All rights reserved.