Is military science fiction nationalistic?

In a recent New York Times article about how the U.S. military's strategy has changed, Commander Layne McDowell said:

Our culture is a fangs-out, kill-kill-kill culture. That's how we train. And back then, the mindset was: maximum, number of enemy killed, maximum number of bombs on deck, to achieve a maximum psychological effect.

In a lot of ways, this is still an accurate description of the way the United States wages war: overwhelming force, with the intent to bring a conflict to a decisive and quick end. A lot of military science fiction in the US follows the same mindset: overwhelming force, with a goal oriented towards an unequivocal victory against some outside foe that threatens our values and way of life.

War varies from nation to nation, and accordingly, military science fiction from outside of the United States is influenced by the home country's own military history and outlook. We can see these influences at work in military science fiction, too. This becomes especially obvious when you look at military SF from a variety of countries, and compare their different approaches to futuristic warfare.

Illustration by Steve Simmons

In 2005, retired Colonel John Nagl, of the Center for a New American Security, published a book that had grown out of his doctoral thesis from Oxford: Learning to Eat Soup With A Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. The book, a counterinsurgency study that examined the two approaches towards counterinsurgency doctrine between the United States in Vietnam and the United Kingdom in Malaya, which starkly looks at how a country's individual experience with warfare influences how it conducts military operations. At the same time, I came across a short military science fiction novella, Crisis at Zephra, authored by Karl Schroeder following research from the Canadian Department of Defence's Directorate of Land Strategic Concepts. Reading the two concurrently, it became increasingly clear that fiction is affected in much the same way: writers from different countries understand and approach warfare differently. Military doctrine is influenced by national history, while military science fiction is influenced by authors' perceptions of their own country's experiences of warfare. Stories about war, told by people from two different nations, often turn out quite differently. And these differences go beyond plot choices — they are clearly affected by national cultures, as we shall see.

The US Way of War: History Guiding Fiction

A key point of Nagl's book is that a nation's own military history helps to inform the ways in which said nation will go to war and use its military. The United States has a different makeup of conflict DNA than Canada, the United Kingdom and Japan and accordingly, we have a different perception of not only the ways in which the military should operate, but also philosophically; how and why wars or battles should be fought. In the science fiction world, the stories are reactionary, typically looking at lessons learned from a past conflict, such as colonial battles (War of the Worlds), World War II / Korea (Starship Troopers), Vietnam (The Forever War), Iraq / Afghanistan (Control Point / Germline). Military science fiction has a passionate following, but I often wonder if at points, if some variety should be added to the mix. We know how we like to do things, but what about how others go about doing the same thing?

Predominantly, military science fiction is an American-centric genre: Most of the really big names in military science fiction, such as Joe Halderman (The Forever War), John Ringo (A Hymn Before Battle), David Drake (Hammer's Slammers) and David Weber (the Honor Harrington series) all served in the United States military, (as well as some of the newer authors, such as Myke Cole and D.B. Grady) whom have drawn upon their experiences and knowledge accordingly for their stories. Other authors who work in the genre, such as John Scalzi (Old Man's War), David J. Williams (Autumn Rain trilogy) and Orson Scott Card (Ender's Game), also hail from the United States and are likewise influenced by their home country. Indeed, the landmark entries in the genre from the US are remarkably consistent when it comes to the doctrine and style of warfare that the US has traditionally engaged in: overwhelming force for a clear, decisive objective.

Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein is often held up as the definitive novel of the genre, and falls firmly within this US Way of War model: humanity is at war with the Arachnids, an alien race, with high stakes: humanity fights on multiple fronts, including Earth. Written in 1959, the book takes a very good look at the theory that helps guide warfare, and plays out in accordance with the strategy that had begun to unfold after the 2nd World War: a heavy emphasis on entering a conflict with specific intentions to secure a victory (in this case, Humanity's survival) for Earth. From the first chapter, this model is scattered within the specific battles that we see early on from the book's first chapter: the soldiers drop in, wreck havoc with their ordinance, and then jump out, mission accomplished, smaller versions of the larger strategy that's unfolding above them.

Similarly, Old Man's War by John Scalzi follows some of the same elements of seen in Starship Troopers, by design. There's an overarching notion that superior force can achieve a swift and expedient victory, but something that stuck out in my mind was some of the political ideas behind the story was the explanation of resources in the galaxy: a finite number of habitable planets means that everyone else is playing the same game. The Colonial Defense Force's purpose is to secure humanity's existence amongst the stars.

Other books, such as The Forever War, by Joe Halderman, written as result of Halderman's experiences in Vietnam, likewise follow some of the same underlying US-influenced guidelines: Earth goes to war against an alien race called the Taurans following a deadly ambush. Humanity is at war for an all or nothing survival, against a powerful Alien race. Interestingly, the Forever War turns this on its head with a powerful, critical argument that really earns it the reputation as an anti-Starship Troopers novel: humanity is at war over misunderstanding and from an inability to speak with the Taurans, arguments that aren't far from criticisms on the US's conduct during the Vietnam War, and during the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. Still other books follow similar influences: A Hymn for Battle, by John Ringo, Nancy Kress's Probability trilogy, and Orphanages by Robert Buettner, also come to mind.

For my money, Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game is one of the best examples of the genre when it comes to understanding the larger nature of warfare from the US perspective, for a couple of reasons: The first is the justification of hostilities: two massive invasions, one exploratory, the other a colonization effort, on the part of the Formics, bringing about unprecedented social, political and military changes for Earth's population. The second looks at the de-escalation of hostilities following the invasions. Secondly, Ender's Game takes a good look at not only the war that's being fought against the Formics, but it also looks to planet Earth for what happens when a coalition begins to fragment after the cause is no longer applicable; Ender is part of a united Earth that had come together following the first invasion: with the collapse of the Formic race, Earth once again turns to a world of factions, a particularly relevant storyline at the fall of a unified Soviet Union.

The influence that Starship Troopers had on the American genre can't be understated, nor can the influence of the authors who have direct experience from within the American military: these books have the ability to tap into certain themes that don't usually register in the numerous subgenres of science fiction, especially around nationalism and a self-examination of the US motivations to go to war. Historically, the United States is prompted into action, either by direct attack or invasion, such as during the American War for Independence, the Second World War and Afghanistan, or by citing potential major threats to national interests, such as in Korea, Vietnam and Operation Iraqi Freedom. (For better or for worse). In American-influenced military science fiction novels, the same rational typically exists: most often through direct assault, invasion or declaration of war, or through threats to humanity's (and by extension, our) way of life.

Differences in Doctrine: Canada, the UK and Japan

While the United States certainly has a significant lead in influence when it comes to the military science fiction genre, it is by no means the only place to which very good military science fiction is produced. Where US authors are heavily influenced by the Pentagon, other authors have their respective military histories to draw upon for influence, telling different types of military stories.

A great example of the intersection between military science fiction and real world politics comes with the founding novel of the genre: H.G. Well's The War of the Worlds. The work looks closely to Great Britain's colonial history, where the British find themselves at the end of what had been their own policies under their Empire across the world. Well's book is notable not for the action, but for the commentary that it provides at the time of the book's publication. England faced other issues at the time: rising powers in Europe that proceeded the First World War, and a declining Imperial presence in the world. Unlike the US model, there's no uniform plan, or objective, other than to survive (and survive they do, thanks to the inherent strength of British – and by extension, UK bacteria) on one hand, and the lengths at which to go in order to obtain and retain colonial assets.

In far more recent times, UK author Karen Traviss is well known within the military science fiction world, not only for her tie-in work, such as from the Star Wars, Gears of War and Halo franchises, but also for her own, the Wess'Har Wars (City of Pearl, Crossing the Line, The World Before, Matriarch, Ally and Judge). Here, we see further elements of the colonial history, as military and police assets are dispatched to a colonial system. Here, the role of the military is far different than what is typically seen in US military fiction: the goal is to protect earth holdings, from human colonists to a particularly valuable seedbank.

Thinking back to some of the lessons out of Nagl's book, Traviss's Royal Marines seem to follow some of the same approaches that Britain has used in real life: tailor one's approach to conflicts individually, working with native or local forces when needed to achieve low-level goals. As such, there's a far more complicated nature to the conflict that brews in the Wess'har books: there's no overarching alien invasion that threatens humanity (at first), but a plethora of smaller issues that have greater consequences. Furthermore, looking at some of Traviss's short fiction displays some of the same influences when it comes to her country's colonial roots; her short story Suitable for the Orient, takes on this directly with a colonial doctor far from Earth, where colonial military personnel have a touchy relationship with the natives, with situations that feel like they are drawn from very real examples.

Finally, British author Adam Roberts' foray into military science fiction, New Model Army, avoids Britain's colonial history and looks inwards towards a country that is increasingly divided amongst classes, and formulates a new style of warfare that rejects older methods and rational for warfare: warfare from the people, as if the Occupy movement were to become armed with guns and smart phones. In the direct crosshairs of the novel is the strict military hierarchy and how it strips out innovation in an age that feels like it is constantly accelerating, questioning not only how militaries will conduct their operations in an age where they're continually under observation, but when you have a divided population that it's fighting for.

Canadian military science fiction also exhibits some of the same influences and traits as that of United Kingdom military science fiction. One of the more notable examples of this is Karl Schroeder's short novel Crisis at Zephra, which explores near-to-modern day combat that Canadian soldiers will soon see, based on material created by military futurists for use as a training tool. Here, Canadian soldiers undertake a familiar role of peacekeeping in an increasingly changing world. The result is a story that helps to explore the role of how soldiers operate in this future environment, but likewise draws upon Canada's history as an expeditionary force. This book has solid roots in Canada's contributions to the conflicts in the Middle East, but never works from the perspective that it's part of a winner-take-all conflict; instead, the soldiers work with limited goals that support a much larger mission: overall stability of the country during its own elections.

Also out of Canada is Karin Lowachee, who started her career with Warchild and two follow-up novels, and recently published The Gaslight Dogs. The Gaslight Dogs takes on a colonial element of its own, and unlike the British flavor of colonialism, this novel takes on the viewpoint of the Canadian frontier, where established ‘western' forces are confronted with native forces within its own borders, or at the very least, within territory that it wants to obtain.

Moving across the planet to Japan, there's a distinct-post World War II view in Hiroshi Sakurazaka's novel All You Need Is Kill. Where the modern military environment largely began with the end of World War II in 1945, so too does the groundwork for elements of the military science fiction that comes out of Japan, which saw a major change in alignment following the war. In Sakurazaka's book, humanity is under attack from an alien race called the Mimics. I found this novel to fall closely to the US model, where there's essentially an all or nothing fight, but there's other elements that make it distinct as well: the characters are directed out of a sense of necessity, rather than attacking elsewhere in the world to save their way of life.

Unlike the US model, this book seems to draw far more on recent history (post-1945) under the Japanese Self-Defense Force. The JSF was seldom permitted to deploy beyond Japanese assets under a strict defense oriented policy: indeed, this body is never referred to as an Army, Navy or military, and the Japanese constitution prohibits rearmament, a very different view how military force can be used as an extension of political power. While the book departs from this, the roots are visible: the military actions taken in the book are essentially present to hold back an incursion that threatens humanity as a whole (in partnership with other militaries, especially the US), without further implications that extend beyond that mission.

Foreign military science fiction has the ability to draw upon an entirely different mindset and history than that of their US counterparts, which bring out a varied set of perceptions of not only what warfare is, but how it should be conducted. Take for example, Crisis in Zephra, where Canadian military engage in counterinsurgency efforts to support local elections in a small African country: the background experience – remembering for a moment that this is a novel commissioned from the Canadian armed forces – is simply different from that of the United States, and tells story that wouldn't come from the US, however relevant it might be. In some cases, jumping outside of one's own history and national context helps to better understand how one might approach and solve a national problem differently.

That said, a novel such as Starship Troopers (and other military science fiction novels that followed) wouldn't exist without their own brand of military understanding, based on the country's own experience with war. As the United States tends to be fairly aggressive when it comes to military force since World War II, so too are the stories that are written here. This isn't a criticism directed towards the nation or genre, but understanding the context in which a novel is written helps to better understand both the author's intentions, but also for their reasons for writing it. Understanding the differences between how nations fight and generally go about war is also critically important, because simply put, not every nation sees war in the same way that the United States does. Given that a vast majority of the military science fiction that I've come across tends to come from the United States, the genre as a whole has a particular slant that makes me wonder what else it has to offer, and what other ways force might be used once we go to the stars.

Why We Fight

Military Science Fiction stories draw – at times, seemingly unconsciously – a great deal from how their home countries perceive warfare, as well as how their authors view their home's role in the greater world during the time at which a story is written. In a lot of ways, military SF is one of the more politically charged subgenres, working between the action and characters to deliver real analysis of a country's ultimate foreign policy.
This is a good thing for science fiction in general, and military science fiction shouldn't be left to the sidelines as an overly patriotic and bombastic example of the genre; promoting discussion on the nature of the world around us is a powerful tool for fiction, and particularly science fiction.

In a number of ways, military science fiction helps to talk about subject material that is wholly uncomfortable: Wells looked at what the British Empire would do to maintain a hold on their numerous colonial powers; Halderman looked at the alienation of soldiers who had no connection to a country for which they had been fighting, and McCarthy has looked at the incredible impact that war has on the individual soldier and what they are left with after the fact. The variety that military science fiction from other nations affords the genre is invaluable, because it brings a certain mindset and different point of view to how a nation conducts itself militarily. In a field that's overwhelmed by stories influenced by the United State's own military culture, stories such as those of Wells, Traviss, Lowachee, Schroeder and others are a breath of fresh air: they bring action to the pages, but the motivations behind the action shows that there's another way to go about doing it.

Additionally, there's value in breaking out of one's own culture to see what happens beyond a country's borders: studying abroad is a particularly eye-opening experience for American students, and similarly, taking in the idea that other countries think and approach foreign and military affairs differently from the United States is a particularly valuable lesson to learn, especially as we're evermore connected to one another in all walks of life: economically, socially, politically and militarily. While fiction isn't a particularly reliable way to understand how one might fight on the battlefield, it does prove to be an interesting way to examine why they're there in the first place.