It’s Memorial Day here in the United States, a day set aside to remember the men and women of the US Armed Forces who died while in service to their country, and observed on the last Monday of May. It’s an important holiday to observe, and while most workplaces are closed for the day, it’s important to take a couple of minutes to think about the sacrifices made to preserve the United States.
Honoring those who served take many forms, from raising a flag, to moments of silence, to visiting a relative or family member in a national cemetery. For my part, I choose to look at how military service has impacted our popular culture. Science Fiction has often looked to military actions for inspiration, and in some cases, science fiction has become recommended readings for members of the armed forces, examining the ethics, nature and meaning of warfare. Looking at the various militaries portrayed in science fiction is a good way to understand just what it is people do to serve their country, planet, or government.
Looking at the Marine Corps reading list, the first title that appears is Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, which features the Terran Federation’s Mobile Infantry. The novel was a controversial one from the start, but features a pointed political message about service to one’s country. Set in a fictional Earth during a conflict against the Arachnids, humanity’s citizens have a voice in their government following federal service. Heinlein’s Johnny Rico enlists into service, donning the Infantry’s powered armor as he fights his way across the galaxy.
Another fictional military that’s worth looking at is Battlestar Galactica
’s Colonial Armed Forces (which includes the Colonial Fleet and Colonial Marine Corps). Following the destruction of the 12 colonies, the survivors set out to find Earth, a mythical home world that will be their salvation. This show is particularly good with its portrayal of the relationship between the military and civilian governments, and there’s one particularly good quote that stuck in my mind: “There’s a reason you separate military and police. One fights the enemies of the state; the other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both, then the enemies of the state tend to become the people.”
The Marine Corps stationed onboard the USS Saratoga in Space Above and Beyond is also a rather good portrayal of military issues in science fiction. Humanity comes under attack from an alien race called the Chigs, bringing humanity into interstellar war. The show was a bit silly at times, but its heart was in the right place, spelling out issues related to one’s duty to country, and to each other throughout the show.
In Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, the United Nations Exploratory Force wages an interstellar war that lasts for centuries against the Taurans. William Mandella is conscripted into the armed forces, and as he’s shot across the galaxy, he finds himself fighting for a society that’s radically changed as he ages slower than his surroundings. Written after the aftermath of the Vietnam War, it’s one of the absolute classics of the genre.
Bungie’s Halo franchise is an ever evolving military story set across video games, novels, a web series and soon, a television show. Halo has one of the more interesting views of a military force in space, following the United Nations Space Command as it acts as humanity’s military force against the Covenant and rebelling colonies. One of the best themes to emerge from the various stories is the lengths to which humanity will go to win wars, namely in the creation of the Spartan program, a group of heavily modified soldiers designed to be nearly unstoppable.
Another army of genetically engineered soldiers can be found in John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series, which features the Colonial Defense Force, an interplanetary peacekeeping and military force designed to protect humanity’s interests across the universe against a wide range of alien races. (See our review of The Human Division, the latest book in the series). The CDF is a bit of a morally ambiguous organization, as it technologically stunts Earth to further its own power and influence across humanity’s colonies. However, the books in the series put together a complicated picture of the lengths to which people will go to hand over that power in the name of security.
Members of Stargate Command come from all branches of the military (including some civilians) in Stargate SG-1/Atlantis/Universe. The long-lived SyFy show followed the adventures of a number of characters working to explore the universe, acquire new technologies and to protect the Earth from the dangers that exist in deep space. The members of the show’s units frequently come up against ethical decisions that are rarely easy to approach, ranging from the service to one’s country against a greater good, to sacrifices that they must make to ensure Earth’s safety.
One of the surprisingly excellent portrayals of military service comes from the Clone Wars era of the Star Wars franchise. Covering novels, comic books, cartoons and video games, the Expanded Universe has some very interesting stories to tell about the role of soldiers in wartime. Two particular entries stand out: Karin Traviss’s novel Hard Contact focuses on members of the Republic Commandos, early in the war, and follows a team as they’re dropped onto a planet. There, and in the sequels to the novel, the members of Omega Squad come to grips with the fact that they’re members of a military that are essentially enslaved into service.
Similarly, members of the 501st Legion in Star Wars: The Clone Wars face similar moral issues as they fight on behalf of the Republic, a fight for which they have little stake. In particular, the Umbara arc in Season 4 highlights the issues of duty, honor and responsibility in excellent form.
Another fantastic television series is Babylon 5, which features the Earth Alliance. Taking place several years after a major interstellar conflict between Humanity and the Minbari Federation, the fleet and ground soldiers are the armed protectors of Earth’s interests across space. Over the course of the show, a major recurring theme is on duty, as main characters are forced to make hard choices as Earth’s political leadership makes questionable decisions that lead to a civil war.
Myke Cole’s recently released novel Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier is the second book in his Shadow Ops series, which follows the Special Operations Corps after magic emerges in our world. Cole has noted that in the real military, there’s rules for everything, and should something as powerful as magic appear, the same would be true. Magical abilities here are regulated and enforced through national militaries, and in his books, Cole examines the use of power and the lengths which are taken to control it.
Finally, the recently released Star Trek Into Darkness has some very interesting things to say about the use of military force as Starfleet grapples with the fallout of the destruction of Vulcan in the 2009 film. (Some spoilers) Following the destruction of the planet, the organization looks to new ways to defend itself, some going to incredible lengths to prepare for and provoke war. Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise find themselves caught against someone driven to go to war, no matter what the cost to the fleet.
Watching, reading or playing military characters is a pale representation of the real sacrifices that the members of our real militaries go through on a daily basis, but for the general public, the arts can provide a very good interpretation of military service and what lengths are taken to preserve one’s way of life.
Images: Lucasfilm, Paramount, Studio 343, Fox, Warner Bros, Syfy, Tor Books, St Martin’s Press, GP Putnam’s Sons