Because that’s the point, after all. Stormtroopers with faces would be creepy. You might have to think a bit before you mowed them down in swathes.

Because you’ve got to have orcs, right? Or insert your alternative – urgles(1) or cultists or zombies, demons, in short – minions. Dread legions of mindless (and most often useless) minions, so that your heroes can be greatly outnumbered without being overly menaced. And the minions, as well as being faceless and mindless and pointless, must also be evil. No, they must be Evil. They must be Evil not only in being followers of Evil, but Evil in themselves, by word, by deed, and of their very essence. That way nobody has to feel bad about them. Right?

I suppose the archetypal faceless stormtroopers are, well, the faceless stormtroopers of that other Empire. During the cold war, when other films were busy shooting commies (or nazis depending) it was all right to shoot the faceless stormtroopers, even though the assumption was generally that they were human under the shell. Interestingly, the clone theory was kicking about even then, to account for the stormtroopers, on the back of Alec Guinness’ single offhand mention of “the clone wars.” And of course, you have to feel even less guilty if you’re mowing down faceless clone stormtroopers. I mean, there are always more clones, eh? Yeah, those clones, coming in here, stealing our jobs, all look the same dontcherknow. I bet even they can’t tell the difference…

But come prequel territory, in allegedly more enlightened times, and even the faceless stormtroopers were too human to be mown down without a thought, and so we get battle droids, which are surely the ultimate footsoldier for the disposable age. Most of them are even remote controlled, for the lord’s sake (2). Faceless robot stormtroopers are surely the ultimate morally justifiable kill (3).

Of course, and to your author’s enduring disgruntlement, film 2 gives us the Geonosians (spelling? Can’t be bothered to look it up), who are insects. Insects, in the world of Star Wars, are also morally justifiable kills, it turns out. Even civilian insects without weapons. Well hell, they’re jedi, right? They’re like paladins. If they killed it, it must have been bad

And then we have orcs, fantasy’s faceless stormtroopers, except that Tolkien gives us several little vignettes of orc small talk, and whilst they’re Evil, by way of their very existence, they are as much victims of Sauron as anyone else – more so, surely. For all that Tolkien’s characterisation can come under fire, he takes a few brief moments to let us know that there’s more going on in Mordor than Aragorn or any of the rest of the righteous bunch (4) ever guess at.

But on the whole fantasy gives us hordes of faceless stormtroopers, and the soldiers of the evil empire/religion/demon lord/necromancer are Evil and Wrong and deserve nothing but an en passant death as the hero closes in on the villain. Right?

Well, I do occasionally listen to what people say about their preferences in fiction. Every so often something sinks in. A friend of mine in the army gets very het up about the whole faceless stormtroopering business, mostly because it tends to assume that every soldier not following the guy on the white horse with the crown (5) is Evil and Wrong. Which is why the Wasp-kinden in Shadows of the Apt are not faceless stormtroopers. Oh the Empire’s a nasty piece of work, and lord knows, when you meet the Emperor in book 2 (6) you’ll see that he’s not exactly Mother Theresa either (7), but there are decent men amongst the Wasps, and there are pretty despicable examples amongst the other kinden too: greedy Beetles and deceitful Spiders, and the Mantids, don’t get me started on the Mantis-kinden… But if the Wasps collectively are bad, then it is because the structure of their Empire is bad (8), and if so many individual Wasps are bad, it is because a totalitarian society run by generals and a secret police will forever attempt to mould its people in its own image, in order to justify its very existence.

And of course the Wasps don’t think they’re bad. They think they have a destiny. They’re all about bringing order and unity to a divided world of inferior races that are just crying out for a little discipline, if only they knew it.

Similarly, writers like Erikson and Gemmell, who like to look at life from the eyeline of a soldier, are also sympathetic, and very keen to assign the blame squarely up the ranks of the Evil hegemony, rather than loading each individual footsoldier with malice aforethought. When it comes to the “only obeying orders” defence, they take each one as it comes – just because soldiers don’t have to be evil, doesn’t mean that some of them aren’t, but it’s a case by case basis. For all the soldiers intent on child-murder and rape, there are yet some who will turn aside from the act, finding room for mercy between the words of their orders. Erikson even mentions, in Toll the Hounds, soldiers on campaign who would, on finding the defenceless little peasant village, rather than loot it and raze it, take time to give the local badman a kicking and marginally improve the lives of those they left behind. Mary Gentle takes it all rather further with Grunts, in which the orcs very definitively get it their own way (9).

Because at the end of the day, faceless stormtroopers are a get-out clause. They allow the loutish hero free reign to kill and maim, to exercise his mighty thews, to pose (with scantily-clad maiden clinging) upon a pile of the dead, and feel no guilt. Dehumanising the enemy, after all, is one of the first rules of wartime propaganda. If the hero, after scything down a pack of faceless stormtroopers, had found in one’s front pocket a picture of Mrs stormtrooper and all the little stormtroopers, well, then the big sword-wielding lump might actually feel bad about it. Just for a moment.

(1) Courtesy of Eragon, or at least the film. I get the impression that the wretched urgles were supposed to be, well, orcs, basically. However the film budget was apparently blown on the dragon, which meant that the poor urgles turned out to be fat, dirty men with bad teeth. The film’s one redeeming feature was the way that the periodic shout of “urgles!” would go up, sounding less like the name of the bad guys and more like an alternative to “cripes!” or “criminy!” One can imagine Boris Johnson crying out “urgles!” if he fell off his bicycle.

(2) And just as well, because an army without an off-switch is a little bit more than your average nine-year-old space pilot can deal with by way of accidental damage.

(3) …er… and yet two of the main SW characters are droids, and even the poor battle droids get some (frankly woefully misplaced) dialogue that suggests that they have something more than a radio receiver in there. So, as they march to their inevitable doom, do they have dreams? Do they fear? Is their stand against the all-conquering jedi not mindless slavery but a strange courage?

(4) Boromir was always my favourite from the fellowship. Flaws maketh the man.

(5) The guy has the crown, not the horse. Or at least, if the horse does then I’ve not read that one.

(6) Spoilers, spoilers!

(7) Because that would be weird.

(8) And even that’s subjective – let the Wasps win, let them overrun the Lowlands and establish their  Empire. Let’s see whether later historians think they’re bad, or whether they’re lauded as the great civilising and unifying force, and mourned after their fall. The idea that the Romans might not have been such a great thing after all seems to be fairly new to orthodox historians, ditto Alexander the Great or any other successful conqueror. If Napoleon had won Trafalgar we’d all be singing his praises in French by now, you mark my words. What separates history’s heroes and villains is not morality but success.

(9) And are still Evil and Wrong, and you love them for it.

Be Sociable, Share!