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“Act of Valor”? Beware Exalting Our Starship Troopers

Image from "Act of Valor." (Photo: IATM LLC – © 2011 Relativity Media

One of my favorite books as a teenager was Robert Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” (1959). Heinlein imagined a future in which an elite all-volunteer military force would defend the Earth against a terrifyingly clever arachnid-like species of “bugs.” One could never predict where the bugs would strike next, so one had to be on guard all the time and everywhere. And one had to take the fight to the bug enemy, capturing their controllers or “brain bugs” and torturing the same to get actionable intelligence. High-tech weaponry featured prominently as “force multipliers”; so, too, did private contractors, whose role it was to support the troopers so that all of the latter could focus on fighting and killing (a symbiotic warrior/corporation, if you will).

Vital as they were to societal preservation, only troopers, ex-troopers or other public servants had full citizenship rights, notably an exclusive right to vote and to hold office.

Heinlein’s futuristic militarized society of hyper-capable troopers resonates today in the USA. Consider the latest Hollywood exaltation of our very own hyper-capable elite, the “real” Navy SEALs celebrated in the movie “Act of Valor.” Consider President Obama’s hyperbolic paeans of praise to America’s “generation of heroes,” members of “the finest military force the world has ever known.” Consider our military’s increasing reliance on unmanned drones (Predators and Reapers) – reminiscent of starships unleashing hellfire from orbit as in Heinlein’s imagined universe – to smite the terrorist “bugs” from a distance.

America today celebrates the lethality of our all-volunteer “warriors” and “warfighters” even as we rely increasingly on private contractors to supply them and support them. We’ve effectively turned the Earth into a global kill zone as we reach out to squash “bugs” irrespective of national borders and international laws. We’ve become so enamored with our own “starship troopers” and our own drone ships that we deploy them to the most unpromising of situations and the most inhospitable of places (think Afghanistan) and expect them to prevail – or at least to keep the bugs over there.

At the same time as we celebrate our troopers, most Americans remain curiously detached from them and their wars, a situation again echoed in Heinlein’s book. Heinlein himself depicted most people as weak-minded sheep in need of doers and defenders, the latter to be nurtured in harsh combat against a ruthless enemy. And while the USA today is, of course, led by a civilian commander in chief, our recent past suggests that our presidents are increasingly constrained if not controlled by a surging military establishment, a fact they are more than eager to praise, at least in public.

The dangers of a militarized society are many, but perhaps the most insidious is how global violence directed against “bugs” spills over into the domestic realm. Consider the response to the various “Occupy” movements, including the increasing use of “eye in the sky” surveillance platforms and police outfitted with the very latest in high-tech riot gear. Like Heinlein’s troopers, police are striking hard and fast, using the element of surprise to corral and quash domestic “bugs” that are seen by our leaders as posing a threat to civil order in the homeland.

At least the police are forced to come to grips with their “bug” opponent, a process that sometimes leads to a level of comprehension, if not always compassion. Our military has increasingly detached itself from its killing violence, a fact illustrated by an ongoing transition from an “air” to a “chair” force. Today’s warrior-drone pilots are at no risk whatsoever as they “fly,” via remote control, their drone ships over foreign skies. These chair-bound snipers of the skies inflict death at a distance – both emotional and physical. They’re like corporate severance specialists, rightsizing the bug enemy with Hellfire missiles – kinetic termination notices that once unleashed cannot be recalled.

And precisely because our chair-bound warriors are never at risk, precisely because our defense contractors are so eager to serve and empower them (and profit from them), we blithely accept their actions as being praiseworthy, even heroic. After all, they’re keeping us safe by killing bugs.

Yet, in celebrating violence as exercised by high-tech drones and elite troopers, have we not acquiesced in our own marginalization as voiceless non-citizens of a militarized nation?

If you’re not windshield, you’re bug. America may praise the former in the form of troopers and drones, but how many Americans are eager to admit to being the latter?

Societal “acts of valor” come in all forms. In choosing to elevate the most violent acts, even when such violence is needed for self-defense, we drink deeply from the wellsprings of militarized passion while spurning the serene waters of compassion.

Above all else, a god needs compassion,” a proud starship captain by the name of Jim Kirk once said. Today’s proto-starship troopers – indeed, all of us – would do well to heed the valor and wisdom of his words.

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