I’ve got a game of Warhammer 40,000 against a friend of mine coming up this weekend, which has led me to give the idea of the ‘super-soldier’ some thought, as the Warhammer 40K universe is one awash in so many super-soldiers that the one army that doesn’t use genetically engineered/cybernetically enhanced/psychically modified supermen to fight their battles is a notable exception in the whole length and breadth of the galaxy. (For those of you who care, that one faction is the Imperial Guard, and they make up for it by taking gigantic tanks everywhere)
Anyway, all of us should be familiar with the bog-standard super-soldier storyline. It goes like this:
- Government/Madman/Religion/Secret Society creates super soldiers to destroy enemies.
- Super Soldiers Destroy Enemies and HOW!
- Government/Madman/Religion/Secret Society no longer needs super soldiers/doesn’t want super soldiers anymore.
- Super Soldiers feel marginalized.
- Super Soldiers proceed to smash government/madman/religion/secret society or their designated representatives.
This is, essentially, the plot of everything from Soldier to the Horus Heresy to Universal Soldier and so on. To be perfectly honest, it’s a fun story, if a bit predictable. The extent to which the story is silly or powerful or interesting varies widely dependent upon execution. That isn’t really what I want to talk about here, though. No, what I’m mostly interested in is the following question: Why do we like this story so much?
I mean, in the first place, when objectively considered, the whole idea is terrifying. Creating people who have no other purpose but slaughter and destruction is bad enough, but then to have them run amok is even worse. The genetically engineered super-soldier isn’t (or shouldn’t) be ‘cool’, since what he/she does is objectively terrible. We, of course, come from a society (among many societies worldwide, mind you) that glorify war, so the whole ‘terrible-ness’ of their behavior is easily lost on us.
Furthermore, when you consider their daily lives and what it consists of, the appeal of the super-soldier should drop even further. I mean, all these guys do and all they can do is practice killing things. I know many of us think that killing things, at least in the abstract, is fun, but I strongly suspect that it is anything but. Even career soldiers in our professional military don’t spend their whole lives fighting in wars against overwhelming odds. Heck, many of them don’t even kill people at all. Those that do have to work very, very hard and those that go into battle wind up dealing with really terrible amounts of stress, anxiety, and, well, violence. Violence is rather inherently unpleasant and, indeed, much of the joy of victory in violent encounters is the knowledge that the violent encounter is over. I would question the sanity of any person who prefers being shot at to not being shot at, full stop. If we consider that a super-soldier has nothing to look forward to at all beyond a violent death, it at once becomes obvious (a) why they tend to revolt against their masters and (b) why being a super-soldier is an inherently raw deal.
This brings me back to the original question, then: if the actions of a super-soldier are naturally reprehensible and the life of a super-soldier isn’t appealing, then why are super-soldiers such popular implants in science fiction writing? Heck, many of these stories make a point of showing us just how terrible it is being a super soldier, and still we think “man, Kurt Russel was soooo cool in Soldier!’ Isn’t that just a little, you know, perverse?
There are, of course, a whole host of answers to this question, some of which are likely contradictory. We, being contradictory creatures anyway, shouldn’t be troubled by this, however. I would like to present, however, a brief list of reasons why I think we love super-soldiers so much.
- We Love Violence, But We Don’t Like Getting Hurt: The super-soldier allows us to enjoy the adrenaline rush of warfare without the pesky realities of human frailties getting in the way. We don’t need to worry about Van Damme in Universal Soldier because he’s not a real guy, anyway. He can take it. The super-soldier is the superhero of warfare: gets the job done and can skip over the pesky consequences involved in murdering dozens of people and being shot a bunch by bad guys. It justifies the things we like about action heroes already, except with ‘Science!’. It is safe to identify with him, since he can survive where we could not.
- Our Grotesque Love-Affair with War: Some super-soldier stories have been referred to as ‘war-porn’, and the metaphor is an apt one. Wars, as far as we violence-loving action fans are concerned, have the disadvantage of being either fairly short conflicts waged by ordinary people in modest theaters or long, drawn-out conflicts involving complex political and social upheaval. In both cases, the act of blowing things up is constricted by the pace of history or the ugliness of human behavior. The super-soldier lets us condense what we want to read about in warfare (explosions and glorious battle!) while leaving out the stuff we don’t want to read about (why are we fighting anyway? Is this war just?). Bah! Phooey! Just bring on the robot-ninjas, give the space marine a machine gun, and let ‘er rip!
- They Can Destroy The Problems We Can’t Engage: Many of us live with unrestrained frustration at the political world. We don’t trust the government. We fear terrorists. We worry over nuclear war. We want somebody to do something about organized crime. Regardless of the respective realism of these concerns, the super-soldier, much like the superhero, gives us an outlet to vent them. In this sense, he isn’t altogether unlike any action hero, except he is something constructed which inherently makes him achievable. None of us are likely to become Superman and there is little chance of there being more than one John Rambo in the world, but super-soldiers can be mass produced. They are the very literal answer to the question ‘what can be done to stop ‘x”. The answer is ‘fifty Adeptus Astartes in Power Armor will Shoot Them All!’ Viola! All our murderous social fantasies embodied!
So, there you go, my .02 on the issue, if, indeed, it is an issue at all.
Now, if you’ll pardon me, I need to organize a company of Imperial Fists Space Marines to smite their brothers, the Ultramarines, in glorious battle.
Author’s Note: This is some introductory and conclusionary fluff to a battle report I wrote for one of my many Warhammer 40K boards. I think it’s a fun little vigniette in its own right, so I’ve put it here. If you are interested in the battle report itself (or curious about how 40K works), I’ve placed a link. Again, no infringement of Games Workshop’s copyright is intended.
Kryptmann Gore, Archheretic and architect of the Glorious Revolution, shivered in the cold morning dew. He had spent the last four days sleeping in the back of a ramshackle Chimera with the remnants of the Lustborn command staff–some of his first converts to the cause. They were all couching amid the ruins of a small trading post nestled in the rugged highlands of Hasturia’s northern continent, their eyes bloodshot and their moods iritiable. The drugs–both combat related and recreational–had run out yesterday, and already the withdrawal symptoms were taking their toll. Kryptmann knew one squad had died already from the effects, and another two had deserted over the night. “The fools,” he muttered, hugging his sodden coat closer to his body–Lysander and his Astartes would run them down and kill them before they cleared the first ridge.
“What are we waiting for, Kryptmann?” General Hortense asked in a ragged voice, his cheek twitching.
“The shuttle won’t land until we secure the landing area.” Kryptmann snapped. “You’re the damned general–you should know that!”
Hortense rose, his face pale with what Kryptmann assumed was anger, but realized was nausea. While the former High Commander of the Lustborn Legions vomited in the grass, Kryptmann looked at the small, pale man in the flight jacket who had appeared in camp the night before. “You’re certain your master’s ship is undetected?”
The pirate smiled, showing a decidedly imperfect set of teeth. “Low orbit, limited energy signature–the blockade won’t pick us up for hours.”
“But we’ll still have orbital support?” General Hortense groaned over his wretching, “We need orbital support!”
The rest of the command group nodded, shivering and weak with need. All their red-rimmed eyes fixed on the pirate and Kryptmann. The pirate smiled again, “You’ll get enough. We have a Valkyrie with Imperial transpoder codes that’s inbound, and I’ve got a link to an artillery satellite–you’ll have support.”
The vox-man, Barent, jumped as his device came to life. Pressing the earphones to his head, he turned pale. “Sir,” he reported to Hortense, “It’s them…they’ve found us.”
The little group sprang into action, the terror they felt at the nearness of their foe enough to overcome their paralyzing drug-withdrawal. Kryptmann, the only man present not shaking with nausea and chills, licked his lips and stepped inside the chimera. “Not a chance, Lysander–you’ll never catch me alive.”
Read the Report of the battle here.
Kryptmann’s lungs burned almost as much as the tears streaking down his cheeks, but still he ran. The rest of the command group was with him, he thought–he could hear their panicked breaths and hurried footfalls around him and behind him, but they were laden with heavier equipment and armor than he, and they were falling behind.
In front of Kryptmann stretched a broad, beautiful valley of tall grass and scattered trees, all spread beneath a perfect sky of aquamarine. He felt, somehow, that the universe was mocking him.
There was a hiss and an ear-splitting pop as the first bolt hit home, killing the vox man–Kryptmann could tell from the timbre of his scream. Another shot didn’t follow for a few seconds, but when it did it killed the general with equal efficiency. “Bastards,” Kryptmann thought, “They’re taking their time with us. Emperor forbid they waste ammunition.”
Pop! Another man down. Kryptmann tried to count in his head–how many more before they got to him? His stomach churning with terror, he willed his legs somehow to pump faster. His ragged breaths were now tinged with gasps of pain.
Pop! Another garbled cry, another dead follower…
Kryptmann risked a quick, panicked look behind him. He only glimpsed five golden-armored giants, moving in perfect unison across a sea of green grass. A split second later, the arch-heretic’s hip exploded with a pop and a shower of bone-chips and blood. Kryptmann screamed and pitched forwards into the grass and rolled down the slope, limbs flopping like dead snakes.
He came to rest in a shallow gulley, facing up at the clear, perfect sky. The pain was so intense it was all he could do to breathe and moan in agony. His eyes were swallowed by the broad, blue expanse above him, and it was all he could see or think about for a long, long time. Gradually, he realized he wasn’t dead. There was the briefest moment of hope, but then he remembered something. Something very important.
The Astartes didn’t miss a kill shot unless they meant to.
Kryptmann waited, gasping in pain, until he felt his doom approach. Lysander’s heavy steps made the ground shake a full minute before he appeared over him, the Captain’s huge, scarred face looking down upon him like a god sitting in judgment. Kryptmann managed a smile and grunted, “Come to gloat?”
Lysander’s voice was as cold as winter itself. “I promised you when this began that I would kill you with my own hands, wretch.”
“You…you don’t intimidate me, you oaf. You…you mindless stooge…” Kryptman growled.
Lysander planted a huge, armored boot on Kryptman’s chest. “I always keep my promises.”
“You’re nothing but a servant. I…I was a god amongst men!” Kryptman managed, spitting blood through his teeth.
Lysander shook his head very slowly. “No, you were but a man. A man among rats.”
A moment later, the Captain’s golden gauntlet descended, and Kryptman lost sight of the sky.