Not sure how many you remember the early 2000s, but I remember it now as the era our news media truly became the powerful, manipulative engine that it is today.
Following 9/11, with the expanding digital age and rapid up-to-the-minute 24-hour news programs, Islamophobia coupled with American jingoism was prominent on the airwaves. Pundits with zero to no understanding of the Middle East, its people, and its history loudly opined on TV constantly about the dangers of “Sharia Law” and “evil Muslim Extremists” who apparently “Hate us for our freedom.” These people worked tirelessly every day to manufacture consent for a growing effort toward regime change and conquest of the Middle East by our government that ended in two military quagmires across both Afghanistan and Iraq, who both had little to nothing to do with 9/11.
While much of our media focuses primarily on thousands of US troops who died in both conflicts, very little attention (if any) is ever given to the far higher numbers of Afghanis and Iraqis who perished in these bloody holocausts, with some figures putting it into the millions. All this occurred over the flimsiest of pretexts and a media that was largely all too happy to go along with it.
At the peak of this consent manufacturing, 57 percent of media viewers felt Saddam had connections to Al-Qaeda and 69 percent believed he personally had a hand in 9/11 (source). The media had done its job, operating behind direct sources from our government all to get most of us to go along with two wars we should’ve never been involved with all for the accumulation of resources for largely private interests.
This is what fascism does. It lies. A lot. It keeps lying until it becomes a truth in the minds of its people, and it’s been a thing of the US since the days of scalping “savage” Native Americans in order to push further into the west. It’s only taken a couple of decades for the conflict to be universally unpopular in the eyes of the public, unfortunately well after the damage was done.
The point is media propaganda, as I’ve mentioned in other write-ups, is the government’s most effective tool at garnering support for Imperialism. Be it TV, movies, or the news, the state has many ways of manipulating public opinion if you’re not paying attention because if you’re not you’re very likely to end up supporting fascism overseas whether you know it or not.
So, with all that said, if you came away from watching Paul Verhoeven’s 90s classic “Starship Troopers” thinking the humans were the good guys, congratulations! You might’ve fallen for fascist propaganda there too!
That is of course the point of the famous Dutch director’s sci-fi action satire about a group of Marines shooting up thousands of bugs on a far-off desert planet (hmmm…). Verhoeven grew up in Nazi-occupied Holland and is on record about the film’s satirical meaning. He set out to describe a “fascist utopia” to understand the mindset one has living within this society and he did it so well that many still miss the point entirely when watching it.
To understand why Verhoeven would go with this approach, we first have to understand the original book by Robert Heinlein is very much straight fascist reading material. The book doesn’t go for the same cheesy over-the-top tone that Verhoeven goes for in order to satirize its subject but instead glorifies the supposed heroic, dutiful nature of enlisting in the military. Heinlein himself makes the point of enlistment guaranteeing citizenship not as a joke about society’s hero worship and oversimplification of military service but as a mandate to those that read it. The book becomes about nationalism in this regard. Duty to country and shedding blood for the state becomes a virtue as Rico traverses the universe shooting up bugs and other enemies of the federation.
Verhoeven HATED this book and according to one article found it “so boring.” Through this, he found his inspiration for his own take on the novel combining his early history growing up among the Nazis as a jumping-off point for the movie. The film’s opening scene, a recruitment ad for enlisting in the federation military, is a deliberate wink to Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda feature, “Triumph Of The Will.” The purpose is to intentionally brainwash viewers who aren’t paying attention and as Verhoeven himself says “seduce the audience” into wanting to join the mobile infantry themselves. Everything in the movie from the costumes and set designs to the Federation News Network is meant to invoke the same imagery and understanding of what Verhoeven saw in the fascists growing up.
The film uses similar propaganda techniques that the Office of War Information pulled during WWII (which I described in another write-up), oversimplifying complex geo…err…galactic political conflicts in order to manufacture support for a war with a far-off alien race. The propaganda piece deliberately meant to dehumanize the enemy to the point where viewers could reasonably believe that the Arachnids are vicious beasts hellbent on domination of the galaxy, not the humans.
But if you listen closely, they are the ones actually being harassed. In the scene before the mobile infantry makes its orbital drop on Klendathu, one of the media members makes light mention that the bugs may simply be responding to encroachment on their natural territory and were merely acting in self-defense against the real aggressor in the Federation. Rico punctuates all this by saying “I say we kill them all!”
Rico, of course, has already been radicalized after the bugs destroyed his home of Buenos Aires via their bug meteorites and no one can blame him for being enraged by this.
But propaganda relies on a lack of context, lack of nuance in garnering support for war.
In the aftermath of 9/11, very little coverage was given to the fact the US already had a long history of being involved and encroaching on the Middle East and the sovereignty of its nations. Lost in much of the media coverage, was a total lack of acknowledgment that the CIA were the ones who trained Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda to fight the Soviet Union in the 80s. We militarized people in the region cause it suited our interests at the time. The US kept meddling and meddling, all in the name of maintaining American interests until we very much reaped what we sowed.
But this is intentional of course, propaganda falls apart with sometimes just the tiniest of contextual data. Many fans of “Starship Troopers” have misread the intentional cheesiness and hokiness of these tactics as simply just humor rather than what a real fascist society does do in order to start conflicts with other countries.
But the signs, again, are all there for viewers to see and understand that the society that Rico and his Argentinian (lol) classmates live in is not a good one. At the start of the film, we see these students being taught history by their teacher who is ex-mobile infantry describing “naked force” as the ultimate solution to all of the world’s greatest problems. The teacher goes as far as to use Hiroshima as an example of this which is not far off at all from what history teachers taught us ourselves growing up. And if you have done any additional reading of the atomic bomb, you would know the US were bastards for dropping it.
Between scenes, Verhoeven continues to bombard the viewer with more Federation propaganda including nationally televised executions that will appear “on all channels” at once, all while continuing to extol the virtues of service. Under federation law a person cannot be a “citizen” either until they enlist into the armed services, which opens up opportunities such as becoming a politician, paying for school, or even just “having babies.”
Logically, if such rules were in place here or anywhere, we would be against this right? Well, to be fair this isn’t super far off from reality either. The military pours a lot of money into recruitment, particularly preying on people in lower-income families who don’t have much means to raise themselves out of poverty without quite literally bleeding for the state. The military DOES open up possibilities for people in society to make such dreams and aspirations a possibility but many of us, somehow, don’t see that as an inherent problem largely because of the way propaganda has manipulated the conversation. Poor people shouldn’t have to choose between struggling to make ends meet and putting their lives on the line for the state in order to avoid financial ruin.
Getting people to agree to put their lives on the line for the state requires convincing many of them that such a thing is just, however, and that begins by propping the government up above its perceived enemies.
Verhoeven describes this through his continued use of Federation propaganda as it steadily builds consent through the events of the film. It depicts the Arachnids as horrible monsters bent on galactic expansion and an existential threat to the human race. Again though, if we operate with the premise that fascists lie all the time why should we believe the sincerity of anything that is happening? Again, propaganda relies on lack of context in order to make its points or just outright ignorance of the audience. What information we have been given about the bugs in this movie, whether we side with the Federation or not, is clearly biased. The Federation news makes mention of the bugs unleashing asteroids as a form of military action and defense but what reason do we have to believe that this is true? Could the asteroid that destroyed Buenos Aires be a false flag? A pretext for conflict?
The use of bugs here too, under Verhoeven’s direction, deliberately references the way Nazi’s depicted Jews, of course in their own propaganda. Anti-Semitic propaganda of Nazi Germany often used insects and other vermin as a stand-in for Jewish folk to further dehumanize them in the eyes of the public. It’s easy to look at the various crude and often gross monsters of this film and be immediately drawn to the largely Aryan (hah!) main cast of characters, who are all buff, beautiful, and sexy by comparison. Again, Verhoeven wants the viewer to lose sight of themselves and get manipulated by the fascist imagery because as silly as it sounds, it’s very titillating and tempting side with them as one watches the melodramatic love triangle play out in the narrative.
The narrative itself is key to the manipulation, of course. The film offers a fairly standard romance story set to the backdrop of a traditional war movie. It’s not terribly dissimilar to something like “Pearl Harbor” or “Independence Day” in this way, making romantic characters out of our heroes that we actively root for while making easy to hate monsters out of the antagonists (not that Imperial Japan wasn’t monstrous, of course). But the point is propaganda tends to oversimplify complex events and war is not often black and white.
War is ugly, no matter how righteous (or in the case of this film unrighteous) the cause may be. Film and propaganda often desensitize viewers to the horrors of these conflicts in order to cover up the immorality of the violence imposed on the “enemies” of the state. By engaging in escapist action where soldiers die by the thousands onscreen while blowing a part the bodies of hoards of monstrous insects, its easy for the viewer to lose sight of what exactly is going on, especially in the background of this movie.
This is of course by intention, Verhoeven is again trying to manipulate you to get in the mind of a fascist or someone who could be radicalized to fascism. But there is one scene, the scene most fans love the movie for, that is most honest about all this and can be read as the most sincere; the Klendathu drop.
It’s the first scene where Rico and his friends finally see action and be face to face with their bug enemies. They are hyped going into battle as they board drop ships to invade the Arachnid homeworld and Verhoeven ups the triumphant musical score to 11 as they begin to land on the surface.
But as the battle finally starts, the music cuts out and we are left to mostly just watch as things go horribly wrong for our heroes. We see how the Federation is in over its head in this moment and how it costs the lives of thousands of its soldiers in mere hours. Characters we grew attached to in the first begin getting killed, maimed, and in one case dragged screaming to their deaths. It’s the most honest sequence of the movie of what war is actually like and if you’re paying attention enough, a wakeup call to the silliness you watched for the previous hour.
“Starship Troopers” is a fascinating satire on how propaganda manipulates entire populations of people into war against a perceived enemy. It of course can certainly be viewed as just straight escapism and enjoyed on that level as well (I’d be lying if I said I didn’t kick out of it in that way too) but Verhoeven’s intention here is very clear; you’re not immune to propaganda.
Iraq and Afghanistan are mostly in the rearview mirror at this point in our history but before that, we had Vietnam and Korea (to name just a couple). Millions upon millions of bodies piled up overseas all based on falsehoods and propaganda mobilized by the state. Propaganda is always evolving, always getting a little better at manufacturing consent whether you are a Republican or a Democrat. It’s not just one side.
If you don’t believe you can be manipulated ask yourself where your opinions on these countries come from? Who are the ones telling you these things? And can they be reasonably trusted to tell the truth? Does history say they are telling you the truth?
Over the past year I’ve been forced to rethink the way I see a lot of films and popular media, especially blockbusters, that while on surface might extol values I hold, deep down have more nefarious purposes. Whether its “woke” superheroes or movies about giant monsters, propaganda has a way of seeping into all of that be it subliminal or “super-liminal.”
As we enter new Cold Wars with Russia and China again, while ramping up regime change narratives in Cuba it is a good time to ask yourself if you have done your homework on these topics. Do you understand all the context going on out there? Are you being manipulated into cheering on the next Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, etc? Do you believe that any of these countries are actually evil or is that what the state told you they were? If history is any indicator then you might already have your answer.
So, would you like to know more?