Starship Troopers and the Allure of Fascism


This article first appeared in World War II magazine.  Reprinted with permission.

At first blush Starship Troopers appears to have only a superficial connection with World War II. In the 1997 film, transports carry elite troops across long distances to a hostile shore, where the troops clamber into landing craft that carry them into battle against an enemy who neither gives quarter nor surrenders. That sounds like the U.S. Marine invasions of Tarawa and Iwo Jima. But Starship Troopers is set in the late 23rd century. The hostile shore is an enemy planet. And the enemy  are gigantic bugs

However Starship Troopers contains many elements that smack strongly of fascism, the dominant Axis ideology. The very first scene shows hundreds of Mobile Infantry—the starship troopers—at attention in a  stance identical to SS troopers at the Nuremberg rallies. Their uniforms  closely resemble those of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Much of the rhetoric sounds  fascist, as when Sky Marshal Diennes (Bruce Gray) stands at a lectern in a  scene that looks very much like Hitler addressing the Reichstag, and declares  war on the Arachnids (the bugs) to an enthusiastic crowd: “We must…ensure that  human civilization, not insect, dominates this galaxy now and always!</I

Starship Troopers appears redolent of fascism because director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Edward Neumeier consciously set out to make a film about fascism. The idea originated with Neumeier, who had co-written Verhoeven’s earlier RoboCop (1987). Told by “liberal friends” that RoboCop was “fascist,” Neumeier reflected that action films are inherently fascist, so why not make one that made the connection explicit? The concept appealed to Verhoeven, perhaps because he had spent his early childhood in Nazi-occupied Holland. And Starship Troopers made a good vehicle for such an effort, based as it was upon a 1959 Robert Heinlein novel widely regarded as crypto-fascist

The first shot in Starship Troopers is a visual quote from Triumph of the Will, German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 Nazi propaganda masterpiece. A subsequent sequence introducing the main characters—Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), Carmen Ibañez (Denise Richards), and Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyers)—on their last day of high school also introduces the basic philosophy of their world. “This year in history, we talked about the failure of democracy….,” teacher Jean Rasczak (Michael Ironside) says. “We talked about the veterans, how they took control and imposed the stability that has lasted for generations since.” Disillusionment with democracy was one of the main attributes of fascism. In the film, only military veterans may vote: they are citizens, while non-veterans are merely “civilians.” Military service has so thoroughly indoctrinated the veterans that, for all practical purposes, the world government is a one-party police state.

The high school chums soon enlist, and when war with the Arachnids breaks out, they are in the thick of the fight. Rasczak, who has re-entered active duty, serves as the  platoon leader of Mobile Infantrymen Rico and Flores, while overhead Ibañez pilots a starship. Rico, Flores, and Ibañez are gorgeous—the 23rd century equivalent of the ideal Aryan youth—and they enthusiastically embrace a worldview that accepts, indeed celebrates, life as violent struggle—another core fascism principle. Moreover, the protagonists willingly subordinate their individual identities to the State, another fascist tenet. As Italian dictator Benito Mussolini said, “There is no concept of the State which is not fundamentally a concept of life

The film also makes clear that the State controls the media. Frequent clips from the “Federal Network” supply exposition for the story, and illustrate how the society works. For example, in a triumph of order over the discredited liberal “coddling” of criminals, a man is accused of murder in the morning, convicted that afternoon, and executed—live on television—that evening. One could multiply the parallels between fascism and Starship Troopers almost indefinitely.

Verhoeven and Neumeier deliberately crafted Starship Troopers to make its worldview
seem appealing. “I wanted to do something more than just a movie about giant bugs,” Verhoeven said in an interview. “I tried to seduce the audience to join [Starship Troopers’] society, but then ask, ‘What are you really joining up for?’” Some critics who got the satirical point nevertheless worried that a younger audience would not—that naïve viewers would embrace this fascist world, much as those of similar age did in the 1930s. Indeed, the film’s success in depicting the the allure of fascism is what makes it an aid to understanding World War II, for we have long been so appalled by fascism that it is difficult to see the mass appeal it once possessed.

Some critics, indeed, mistook Starship Troopers as a celebration of fascism. In the DVD commentary Verhoeven and Neumeier seemed a bit surprised that anyone could believe such a thing. But they reserved their main scorn for TIME magazine film critic Richard Schickel, who concluded his review of Starship Troopers with the words: “[W]e’re looking at a happily fascist world. Maybe that’s the movie’s final, deadpan joke. Maybe it’s saying that war inevitably makes fascists of us all. Or—best guess—maybe the filmmakers are so lost in their slambang visual effects that they don’t give a hoot about the movie’s scariest implications.” The filmmakers chuckled derisively at that because, of course, fascism was exactly the subject of the film. Moreover, they added, Schickel got its thesis exactly right: “War makes fascists of us all.” Thus, Starship Troopers does not just satirize fascism. It also warns about its continued allure
in times of strife.

Archival Finds: Dr. Joseph Fitzharris and the Burned Book

The 3rd Minnesota Volunteer Infantry had the misfortune to be surrendered by its Colonel, Henry C. Lester, to  Nathan Bedford Forrest at Murfreesboro, TN on 13 July 1862. Because of the situation and the officers involved (a Crittenden and others with “clout”), one of the research questions became: how did the Third learn to do picket and guard duty. Col. Lester held schools for the company officers and sergeants to teach them so they could teach their men. But that does not answer the question.

We know his training was good. One officer (Christopher Columbus Andrews) wrote a manual on the duties of  a company officer: Hints to Company Officers on Their Military Duties. This book was very well received and he was complimented by several general officers. From Andrews’ Hints, and its reception, we can conclude that Lester had high expectations and trained the men well. So how were they trained to do guard and picket duty?

In the manual, Andrews almost casually remarks that, of course, all infantry officers (his primary audience) would be familiar with McClellan’s work on picketing and guard duty. That reference was to George B. McClellan, Regulations and Instructions for the Field Service of the U.S. Cavalry in Time of War (Philadelphia, PA: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1861). If Lester actually used McClellan’s manual and trained the men in that style,, they most likely conducted picket and guard duty in that manner. Assuming he did, the standard story of the regiment (and Col. Lester) at Murfreesboro has serious flaws and becomes another example of General Officer Protective Association at work.

Out of curiosity about the manual, I looked to see if the Minnesota Historical Society had a copy. They did. I ordered it, and when it came out, it was charred on the spine and the edges of the cover. Company officer tents were burned by Forrest after he finally captured the Third’s camp on 13 July 1862. Opening the book, I found inscribed on the fly leaf the name of the owner: Capt. Hans Mattson, company D, 3rd Minnesota!

This charred volume proved that Lester trained his officers and men in the style he learned in the 1st Minnesota under Colonels Gorman and Dana – to McClellan’s model. Thus, we know that the standard interpretation of events at Murfreesboro on the eve of Forrest’s attack are, of necessity, incorrect.

 –Dr. Joseph Fitzharris

University of St. Thomas, Professor Emeritus of History

The Hero’s Adventure in Sands of Iwo Jima

Sands of Iwo Jima Poster

 

 

This article originally appeared in World War II magazine.  Reprinted with Permission.  Cross-posted from Blog Them Out of The Stone Age

The next time you’re talking war movie trivia with friends, ask, “Who’s the hero in Sands of Iwo Jima?”  Almost inevitably, they will respond, “John Wayne.”  Or perhaps “Sergeant Stryker,” since that’s the name of the character that Wayne portrays.  But either way they will be wrong.  The hero is not Stryker, as one might expect because he is the film’s central figure.  It is instead the squad he leads into battle, and the story unfolds most richly when this is understood.

In everyday terms, anyone potentially can behave “heroically” in the sense of behaving courageously.  But in mythic terms, “Hero” has a specific meaning.  It refers to the character in a story who undergoes an adventure in which he is challenged and changed, and from which he returns with a “boon”; that is to say, something of lasting value for himself or for others.  Mythologist Joseph Campbell set forth this definition in a classic book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, published in 1949 (the same year in which Sands of Iwo Jima debuted). Based on a study of cultures the world over, Campbell discovered that each had stories of a hero whose journey of adventure shared a common structure.

Although you may never have heard of Campbell’s book, you’ve surely seen its ideas on display, because when creating his Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983), writer/producer George Lucas consciously drew upon them.   The Hero (Luke Skywalker) leaves the “ordinary world” of the planet Tatooine, enters the “special world” of the adventure, learns how to function in this special world, fights an adversary (the Empire), reaches a point of maximum peril (the loss of a hand and of his friend, Han Solo, in The Empire Strikes Back), and finally defeats his adversary and brings the boon of enduring peace to the galaxy in Return of the Jedi.  But although Campbell was the first to identify this structure, story-tellers have unconsciously used it for millennia.  So it was with Sands of Iwo Jima, written by Harry Brown and James Edward Grant, and directed by Alan Dwan.

As Campbell makes clear, the Hero’s journey invariably contains certain standard archetypes, chief among them the Mentor, who teaches the Hero how to operate in the special world of the adventure.  In the Star Wars trilogy the Mentor is Obi Wan Kenobi.  In Sands of Iwo Jima it is Sergeant John M. Stryker.  Thus, the film opens in the “ordinary world” of a New Zealand training camp. The members of the squad—in mythic terms the Hero Team, because they embark on the adventure together—are the first to be introduced. Only then does Stryker appear.  His task is to prepare the Hero Team to enter the “special world” of combat.  He makes this plain when he and the squad first meet:  “If I can’t teach you one way, I’ll teach you another. But I’ll get the job done.”

Save for the two combat veterans in the squad, Stryker is not particularly well liked by the men.  Nor does he try to make himself likeable.  He even butt strokes PFC “Sky” Choynski (Hal Baylor), who cannot master the foot work involved with bayonet drill.  But true to his word, if Stryker can’t teach Choynski one way, he’ll teach him another, and later in the film he does so using the “Mexican Hat Dance” to give Choynski a sense of the rhythm and shifting of body weight involved.

Many adventures involve both a Mentor and a Shadow Mentor.  The latter tries to induce the Hero into embracing the dark side of the special world.  In the Star Wars trilogy the Shadow Mentor is Darth Vader. In Sands of Iwo Jima, Stryker represents both Mentor and Shadow Mentor.  Most of the squad see only the Mentor.  But one of them, PFC Peter Conway (John Agar) clearly perceives the Shadow Mentor, helped by the fact that he regards Stryker as the epitome of his own father, a flinty Marine colonel under whose command Stryker served on Guadalcanal.  Of his father, Conway speaks bitterly.  “I wasn’t tough enough for him. Too soft.  ‘No guts’ was the phrase he used. He wanted me to be like Stryker. . . . I bet they got along just fine.  Both with ramrods strapped on their backs. . . .They’re not going to strap one on mine.”  Conway views Stryker as the embodiment of man the violent animal as opposed to man the lover of life, family, and culture.

Conway encounters the Shadow Mentor most directly during the first night after the invasion of Tarawa.  This is the point of maximum peril for the Hero Team, for it has been assigned to hold a sector that ought to be defended by a force three times its size.  In the midst of this tense situation, Conway and Stryker hear the desperate cry of a wounded comrade.  Stryker refuses to help, saying that the cry may be a ruse and that an attempted rescue will give away the squad’s position.  To Conway this response is inhuman. “Sit here if you want,” he says, “I’m getting him. The only way you’ll stop me is to kill me.”  Stryker turns his rifle on Conway, his expression one of icy malevolence: “That’s just what I’ll do!”  Conway stays put.

Then, using Stryker’s trademark phrase, Conway steps forward to lead them. “All right, saddle up!” he growls. “Let’s get back in the war.” The squad has completed the Hero’s adventure.  But myth permits a nuanced reading of the film that leaves us wondering what individual journey Conway has completed.  Has he embraced Stryker as Mentor after all?  Or has he embraced the Shadow Mentor?  Perhaps, as Campbell once expressed it, Conway has “put aside his pride, his virtue, beauty and life” and has at last submitted “to the absolutely intolerable.”

Pearl Harbor after Pearl Harbor

Every year the United States pauses for a moment on December 7 to remember the “date that will live in infamy.”    http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5166/  It is only one of a number of anniversaries that Americans mark by the date — July 4, 9/11, December 7 — but among the most important.  The interest peaks every 12/7, as this Google Trends analysis shows:

First

The peaks are the beginning of December of each year as the nation turns to Hawaii and then, when the moment passes, turns away again.  There are other historical events in the Pacific War to move on to:  the fall of Wake Island, Coral Sea, Midway, Guadalcanal, and so.  The dominant narrative of the war is locked into those highlights, one coming after the other.  Here is the Google Trends graph for “Coral Sea:”

Second

It shows the same, if somewhat lower, peaks and valleys as the Pearl Harbor graph.

While the historical narrative shines its light in various places and then moves on, the actual history kept going in those places.  Those left alive in Oahu after the Japanese attack on December 7 woke up the next day, December 8, and the next, December 9, and set to work recovering the base, the ships, and themselves.  Pearl Harbor, the military base, remained, even after Pearl Harbor, the historical event, had passed.

Wreckage littered the harbor in the water and on land.  Gas and oil slicked surfaces.  The ruins of ships still burned fiercely.  Bodies and body parts were everywhere. The survivors, still stunned by the attack and worried about a renewed assault or even an amphibious landing, had to set about clearing everything.  It was an awful experience.  John Harold Chapman, a sailor on the West Virginia  http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/vhp/bib/loc.natlib.afc2001001.11756 spent the day after the attack dealing with the dead bodies on the USS Arizona:

Geez what a mess.  The men on top were still intact, but the men down below were cooked raw.  They had been steamed.  The fire had been raging underneath them for 12 hours and they were steamed.  We tried to grab them by the leg and the whole flesh would come off the  leg.  We tried to grab the bone and the bone came off.  Men were getting sick and heaving over the side.

Third

In addition to the cleanup, there was resurrection.  Ships, unlike men, could be brought back to life.  The shattered hulks on battleship row were potentially salvageable and so each was evaluated for potential repair.  The Arizona, Oklahoma, and Utah were beyond hope, but the rest could be raised out of the water and fixed.  As the months went by, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cofferdam cofferdams sprouted around the gashes in the bulkheads, water was pumped out, and the ships were raised.  The ships that could not be raised were left where they were, blackened reminders of the disaster of December 7.

The foremast of the Arizona, an iconic presence since the attack, was cut down and hauled ashore on 6 May 1942, serving as as good an end point to the recovery as any.  Work continued throughout the war, but perhaps without the desperation of those first few months.  That same day, American forces in the Philippines finally surrendered, and the Battle of Coral Sea continued.  The former could be seen as the end of the beginning of the Pacific War, a period of almost uninterrupted Japanese victories, and the latter the beginning of next phase, as the United States successfully pushed back.  Despite the repairs and its continuing use as a naval base, in some ways Pearl Harbor would never advance beyond December 7, 1941, at 7:55 am, as the Sunday bands played, and the Japanese planes first tilted down over the water.  That image, at least, could not be fixed.

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