John Scalzi's Old Man's War is essentially a love letter to Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, and Scalzi admits as much in his novel's acknowledgements. It's an excellent tribute, too—like Heinlein's classic novel, which defined military SF for decades to come, Old Man's War is a fun, well-written, exciting adventure story. Both novels tell the story of a high-tech fighting force sent to faraway worlds to defend human colony worlds from alien attack. Both novels are very good, compelling reads. And both novels tell their stories with a level of militarism that is morally reprehensible.
The characters of Old Man's War are senior citizens who leave Earth at age 70, have their brains transplanted into souped-up cyborg bodies, and make war against dozens of hostile alien races. One would expect that the life experience of these characters would lead to a complex and varied range of responses to military life in general and combat in particular. Instead, Scalzi's characters universally take glee in fighting. I hoped that someone, somewhere in this book would feel a pang of conscience about their army's xenocidal imperialism. The narrator eventually does express some guilt in one scene about two thirds in. While slaughtering a species of aliens that literally can't fight back (they're under an inch tall), he begins to worry that military life has turned him into a soulless killing machine. His superior officers laugh off his concerns, and his guilt lasts all of nine pages, after which the character just gets over it and goes back to following orders. It's a shame, too—the book would have been far more enjoyable for me if it had brought some moral complexity to its wanton destruction.
I should add that it's entirely possible that Scalzi's goal is to satirize the military. Despite its often-disturbing violence, the book is frequently quite funny. But the butts of its most obvious jokes are rarely those who follow orders. In one sequence, a character named Bender—a former Senator known for his diplomatic efforts on Earth—attempts to make peace with one alien race, only to be brutally killed. Another character gives an interpretation of his death that sums up the book's attitude towards diplomacy:
"Walking up to a bunch of people whose planet we just destroyed and acting like he was their friend. What an asshole. If I were one of them, I'd have shot him too."Scalzi certainly aspires to satire, but I strongly doubt militarism is his intended target.
Heinlein was in the Navy for a few years, but never saw combat*, and Scalzi has no military background. Perhaps the finest work of military SF was written by a Vietnam veteran, and it is a strongly anti-war book: Joe Haldeman's The Forever War. Like Starship Troopers and Old Man's War, it is a story about an interstellar war based on competition for colony planets. Because the soldiers fighting this war travel from planet to planet at relativistic speeds, they become temporally removed from the world they are fighting for. A few months pass between battles for the soldiers, but for Earth—and those highest in the military chain of command—decades or even centuries go by. Haldeman's novel is a powerful allegory about Vietnam, showing the alienation veterans can feel from the civilian world and the gulf that can develop between combat soldiers and their superior officers. The Forever War paints a very different picture of warfare than more the gung-ho works of military SF that preceded and followed it. When Haldeman's characters first use their high-tech weapons on live targets, the results make them physically ill:
"I felt my gorge rising and knew that all the lurid training tapes, all the horrible deaths in training accidents, hadn't prepared me for this sudden reality. . . that I had a magic wand that I could point at a life and make it a smoking piece of half raw meat."This reaction is a far cry from the cheerful exterminators of Heinlein's or Scalzi's novels, and far more more accurately reflects the actual experience of combat veterans.
While I was re-reading Starship Troopers and The Forever War, I also read Herakles Gone Mad: Rethinking Heroism in an Age of Endless War by Robert Emmet Meagher, a Pulitzer-nominated classicist (and, incidentally, one of my advisors at Hampshire College). The centerpiece of the book is a new translation of Euripides' Herakles, which Meagher reads as a piece about post-traumatic stress disorder. There's a compelling case to be made for the argument—the play's story concerns Herakles' murder of his wife and children following his return from his legendary 12 labors. In a fascinating introductory essay, Meagher discusses Herakles in the context of Greek warfare, pointing out that Euripides served in the Peloponnesian War. The bulk of his audience were veterans who would likely recognize the origins of Herakles' madness from their own experiences. Herakles is a work about the impact of war upon the warrior, written by someone with firsthand experience of the madness of combat.
Meagher frames his introductory essay as a rebuttal to Donald Kagan and Victor Davis Hanson, two prominent classicists who have used aspects ancient history and literature in support of an arch-conservative position on the Iraq War, ignoring the sharp critique of militarism in stories by or about veterans like Herakles and The Odyssey. Though its author may not have intended it, Scalzi's Old Man's War risks doing the same thing for SF, painting an exciting, glorified picture of war while ignoring the actual experience of combat veterans like Haldeman. Literature about war has a responsibility to be honest in its portrayal of combat. The most prominent recent work of military SF—Battlestar Galactica—has not shied away from this responsibility, and has given vivid portrayals of the psychological stress that war can cause. Scalzi's novel opts for a picture of war that is fun, action-packed, and dishonest.
*And interestingly, apart from the opening and closing chapters, Starship Troopers contains very few scenes of actual combat, focusing instead on military life between battles.