“Starship Troopers” and Conditioned Killing

Like many others of my generation, I grew up with the movie Starship Troopers. In fact, it was one of my favorite films as a child. At the time, I was not old enough to understand the film’s obvious socio-political commentary. Growing up, the original 1959 book has always been on my extensive reading list, yet I never came across it in-store or made a point to order it on Amazon.

I found it at Half-Price books on Saturday and have started reading it (I’m on page 65).

For those unfamiliar with the story, it is a classic sci-fi novel about a militaristic (somewhat fascist) empire called the Terran Federation of Earth that creates intrusive conflicts (sound familiar?) throughout the galaxy. The main character, Johnnie, is an officer in the mobile infantry, a branch of the federal service that normal plebeians must first “volunteer” for before they may earn the status and rights of a Federal Citizen. As of this post, I have not finished the book, so I will not yet speculate on the major themes. However, I have already happened across a section that piqued my interest.

While in basic training, Johnnie comments that in the past, the majority of shooting was done to suppress the enemy instead of killing them. Now, in the his futuristic world, soldiers are stripped of all humanity and taught to kill as machines.

This topic inspired me to go out and get a copy of Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s 1996 book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. 

To militarists, it is no secret that humans are generally adverse to killing each other. In fact, on page four, Grossman states that, through his research, he has discovered that most humans would not kill even to save their own lives or that of their friends. In fact, most soldiers must endure extensive conditioning in order to kill.

To us, it may not be surprising that humans are adverse to conflict, but the stats are alarming. During WWII, U.S. Army Brigadier General S. L. A. Marshall performed a comprehensive study of U.S. infantrymen. He concluded that, in any given engagement, only 15 to 20 percent of American soldiers “would take any part with their weapons,” a rate that remained the same even when those surveyed were faced with multiple banzai charges.

A general theme throughout On Killing highlights the U.S. Military’s ongoing efforts to further condition soldiers to overcome their natural aversion to killing. My speculation would be that these efforts have become more and more prevalent in response to the increasing futility of the U.S. Military’s global interventionism.

Although, from what I’ve read, it appears that Grossman continues to justify the necessity of this conflict, On Killing is a fascinating (yet sorrowful) insight to Humankind’s natural–and steadfast–inclination toward peace. It is a read I would thoroughly recommend re-tooling for your intellectual anti-war arsenal.

As always, thanks for reading and be sure to check out these works through my Amazon affiliate links:


Starship Troopers; [1997 Film] 

Starship Troopers; [1959 Book] Robert Heinlein

On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society Lt. Col. Dave Grossman

Tell me what you think!