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Starship Troopers and the Reality of Fascism

Johnny Rico kills a bug in the Starship Troopers movie

Taking a look back at the Starship Troopers movie.

The Starship Troopers movie is one that will be familiar to almost everybody. It’s the most basic “space marine” story that’s out there, and is also the original: spacemen from earth laden with high-tech weapons and armor are pitted against godless arachnoid swarming aliens and slaughter them across barren worlds with great zeal. Everyone loves a good us-versus-outsiders film, and Starship Troopers aims to please.

The black-clad “Mobile Infantry” are led by a gruff Michael Ironside, known in the film as Lt. Rasczak. Coincidentally, Rasczak is the former high school History and Moral Philosophy teacher of the main characters. From scenes of the main characters in high school, we learn about the society that the film takes place in. We learn that the society of Starship Troopers is both partially self-aware and proud of its existence as a fascist state. Consistent with a fascist form of government, the government itself is glorified, and its concessions regarding civil liberties are discussed as both necessary and useful.

Taking Personal Responsibility For the Health of the Body Politic

The first clues we get regarding fascism are the lackadaisical tone that Rasczak uses when educating his students about the history of humankind’s government. Casually citing the “failure of democracy and social scientists who brought our world to the brink of chaos”, Rasczak makes it clear that rule of the masses is looked down upon after having failed, as is a technocracy of intellectuals. Next, Rasczak states that in the course of the class, the students learned about “the veterans, and how they took control, and imposed the stability that has lasted for generations since.”

Michael Ironsides in the Starship Troopers movie

Image courtesty of Columbia Tri-Star

We next learn that there is a division between “citizens”, who have served in the military and thus are granted suffrage, and “civilians”, who have not volunteered to risk themselves, and so have no political power. Rasczak goes on to explain that only via the use of violence, the ultimate origin of all power, can citizens differentiate themselves from civilians. By being willing to use violence, citizens earn their right to inflict their political will upon others. The act of voting that is earned from military service is described as “an act of force”, and responsibility is emphasized.

There’s already a lot to unpack here, but most of it is historical data, and I’d prefer to focus on the present. Within the classroom, we see the winner’s view of history. Liberal social rule is brushed away as having failed, without any further elaboration. Stability and military rule are praised, with no real angles of ambiguity to criticize or question. Force is the supreme dictator of what is right, and is heralded as the main way of solving problems involving conflicts between societies.

Mass Media With an Authoritative Tone

The authoritarian tone that we first see via Rasczak’s class is ubiquitous in the media of the Starship Troopers movie. From the blatantly propagandistic internet-like interludes prompting the viewer to “learn more” or “join up” to the battlefront newscasts, the mass media of Starship Troopers is unified in its purpose: to galvanize humanity for war. Everyone expects wartime propaganda, but Starship Troopers doesn’t make any bones about it: it’s impossible to think of the film’s media as unbiased whatsoever.

This, too, ties into the gestalt of fascism within the film’s society. Given humanity’s life-or-death struggle against the bugs, all hesitations of subtlety have gone out the window. Quibbling about political issues is considered irrelevant.

Though it’s clear that the bugs are a spacefaring species capable of intentional action and strategy, there is also hesitation among the humans about the genocidal ambitions of the human fleet. The plan within the film is to encroach upon the bug home world, clearing its neighboring planets one by one by orbital bombardment. There’s no talk of ceasefires, peace agreements, or partial-escalation: complete destruction is literally the only path. The bugs aren’t considered to have any rights or sentience whatsoever.

The Enemy is Always Dehumanized

So, what did I mean by the reality of fascism? Well, for one, that the entire human society depicted in Starship Troopers is on board with the militaristic and ultra-conservative vision outlined in Rasczak’s class. Though people fresh out of high school aren’t expected to be deeply intellectual, the film’s depiction of the squad lends itself to the impression that totalitarianism and xenophobia are expected and normal. The complete lack of popular suffrage is accepted widely; Johnny Rico’s parents encourage him to continue being a civilian, as it means that he will be able to live safely, albeit without any political power.

Brazil is an especially bizarre film from 1985 that demands interpretation from the viewer. Starring Robert De Niro and Johnathan Pryce, Brazil is the only film in which guerilla plumbers are a prominent plot element. Yes, that’s right, guerilla plumbers. With rappelling gear–and guns.

The backdrop of Brazil is a noir totalitarian dystopia–not the country Brazil itself. There are a few items unique to Brazil which really define its totalitarian government. [Click here to read more…]

The main characters proceed through high school with the expectation that many of them will go to fight the bugs in an endless war, supposedly started by the bugs. This is completely normal, and upon closer examination, it seems like the glimpses we get of their high school experience are actually gauged to prime them for military service–the dissection of dead bugs in science class is a particularly good example. Nobody asks any questions about whether the war with the bugs is right; all discussion starts from the premise that the war is just, and that their system of government works better than any other.

Personal choice in the direction of government has been eroded such that the only way to get any kind of say is to endanger oneself and participate in the organized slaughter of the enemies of the state. After such a commitment, could it be considered possible to do an about-face and say that the system and the war are both wrong? I’d say that it’s highly unlikely. The end-result of encouraging citizens to risk themselves is a deep investment within the system of government that they risked their necks to protect. The parallels to the predicaments of the current age are very easy to draw, but it isn’t news that constant war erodes democracy. The surprise is that the death of democracy is applauded, internalized, propagandized, and re-propagated via the democracy-supporting institution of education.

Featured Image of the Starship Troopers movie courtesy of Columbia Tri-Star

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2 Responses

  1. Don Schmitz

    The movie is full of fascist ideas because director Verhooven wanted it to be. The book it is based on is a subtle exploration of duty – duty to family and country and even species – with a rip-roaring bit of space opera layered on, but that was sadly too subtle for Hollywood, where there are no shades of gray.

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