Overthinking: Starlancer, Dirty Communists, and Western Good Guys
The Cold War was a simpler time, with a simple, straightforward morality in the West: There were good guys and the bad guys. On one side, there were the righteous Usonians (replace with any NATO country as needed).
On the other were the Dirty Communists: Evil, heartless, and immoral, willing to do anything and everything for victory. Perfidy? You bet. Betrayal? Absolutely. Terror? That’s Tuesday.
You’d think that the whole motif would die off with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, but old habits die hard.
My beloved Starlancer is one of the finest example of how you can resurrect the trope in modern times. I love the game’s atmosphere, ship designs, and the story. But the premise? It’s basically the Cold War recycled in space, with about as much nuance and subtlety as a brick to the face.
At least until you start thinking more seriously about the setting.
Corrupt Communists Capture Cherished Colonies!
The game opens on the eve of the historic Balma Treaty of 2160, promising to end decades of colonial conflict between the Western Alliance (not-NATO) and the newly formed Eastern Coalition (not-Warsaw Pact). As befitting a Cold War story, the dirty Communists don’t actually plan to sign the treaty, but instead launch a sneak attack, taking the Alliance by surprise.
In case you have any doubts as to the dirtiness of these Communists, Admiral Kulov leaves no doubts: When the vide-admiral asks for additional ships to house the prisoners, he orders them all executed.
Beyond ambushing Alliance fleets at Europa, the Coalition also launches offensives throughout the known space, wipes out the Franco-Italian fleets berthed at Deimos and nearly puts the Alliance in the ground.
Survivors are pushed all the way back to the ass end of the solar system, to Neptune. The Coalition, of course, wastes no time in doing dastardly evil deeds, like shooting colonists pretty much everywhere to pacify them (they can’t disagree with you if they can’t breathe), attacking hospital ships, destroying escape pods, strafing colonies, putting people in floating concentration camps, the usual very evil things ascribed to Communists.
I bought it at face value in the past, thanks to the Polish education system. When it comes to history, it’s less education and more propaganda: Instead of teaching you to understand history as a process and grasping the nuances of human condition, it is conditioning students that a. Communism is bad (which stands for all left-wing thought), b. Poland and capitalism are good, and c.
some animals are more equal than most questioning the U.S.-centric narrative is verboten.
So when the impressionable young me played the game, it fit the narrative fed to me by my country: Communists were evil. Capitalists were good. Russia bad. America good. History is a straightforward conflict between good or bad.
Then I got older and things became more complicated.
“Kill them all.”
Much like our own world, the straightforward morality of Starlancer holds up only if you don’t look at it too closely – or rather, at all.
For starters, the Alliance/Coalition divide goes beyond ideological and geographic differences. The setting is divided along ethnic lines. The Alliance is multinational, and you primarily fly with German, American, British, and Japanese pilots and commanders (with token presence from other nationalities and ethnicities).
Meanwhile, the Coalition is essentially a mash-up of various more or less offensive stereotypes:
- The Eastern Republic (not-Russia) is represented by a variety of invariably ugly war criminals, such as Admiral Kulov, architect of the perfidious Balma Treaty ruse, and the Petrov brothers, known for murdering POWs and extreme violence slash sadism, respectively.
- The Tigris Confederation (not-Middle East) have the deceptive and cunning Al-Rahan with Hakeem Sharif, notable for massacring undefended colonies. Their premiere squadron, the Black Sun, is also known for attacks on civilian transports, medical ships, and other assorted war crimes.
- The East Asian Federation (not-China) is the least fleshed out nation and it’s probably for the best. The only known pilot is Red Dragon, mixing Yellow Peril and Mysterious Orient stereotypes into one.
Meanwhile, the worst excesses of the Alliance and its pilots are largely glossed over. Just color. Jake Singleton ignored his superior’s orders and was nearly court martialed. Doug McLeod takes no prisoners in combat, but that’s fine, because he’s the Good Guy(tm). The 503rd Stingers are even noted as being known for their take no prisoners approach to battle, but again, Tigris squadrons are the ones to be chewed out for that, not the Good Guys.
Even if they do pretty much the same thing.
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.”
Something more interesting becomes apparent when you look more closely at the setting. Buried in the profiles of Coalition pilots and leaders are the reasons for why the Coalition is so aggressive and strikes when the Balma Treaty is signed:
- The Coalition cannot expand at the rate of the Alliance due to lacking the necessary technology.
- The Coalition and its member nations are set to becoming a secondary power in the next wave of space colonization.
On the surface, it seems as if they are sore losers. The Alliance was the first to claim extraterrestrial real estate, so they have all the rights to seizing it, right?
Even if that means taking pretty much the whole of the solar system: Territories on Earth, colonies on terraformed Mars, the Galilean moons of Jupiter, Saturn’s Titan (the only colonized and terraformed moon), Triton at Neptune, and even preparing for extra-solar mission. The Alliance has seized almost the entire solar system, leaving the Coalition to fight for leftover scraps. The member countries of the Coalition were left with the moonless wastelands of Mercury and Venus, where no meaningful colonization can take place.
The Alliance was exploiting the rich bounty of, well, most of the solar system, using them to bolster their already considerable technological edge: Zero-gravity manufacturing, nanotechnology, terraforming, while the Coalition’s member countries were abandoned and left to fend for themselves. The Alliance won the economic war.
However, such a dry statement ignores the impact such a defeat would have on the people. First, some numbers as to the population.
In 2019, Russia and China account for 20% of the world’s population, at over 1.5 billion people. If we add the Middle East, an easy 400 million people, and Ukraine (references in Petrov’s bio as part of the Eastern Republic), with 40 million, we bring the total to nearly 2 billion, or 27% of the world’s population. Given the mentions of satellite countries, the actual number would be even larger. If we factor in Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand etc.) that’s another 650 million. Central gives another 70 million – perhaps part of the Eastern Republic, like Ukraine. Finally, adding southern Asia, sandwiched between the three major Coalition powers, adds another 1.8 billion people.
The total population represented by the Coalition ranges from 2 billion if we just factor in the not-Russia, not-Middle East, and not-China, or 27% of the world’s population, to 4.5 billion factoring in adjacent region – well over 50% of the global population at the present time.
Meantime, if we adopt a similar methodology for the Alliance, tallying the confirmed members of not-NATO gives us: United States (330 million), Great Britain (66 million), Italy (60 million), France (67 million), Germany (83 million), Japan (126 million), and Spain (46 million), for a grant total of ~760 million people, half of China alone.
That’s before we factor in the population growth between our time and Starlancer‘s timeframe, in 2160.
This lengthy introduction leads me to my point: The Coalition’s brutality needs to be put in the context of its situation, nations that have been vanquished in the economic war and the race for the solar system, not unlike the post-collapse Eastern Bloc.
Through the lens of the Alliance and its media, the Coalition is a horde of mindless beasts focused on killing and destroying. It’s corrupt Russians, savage Arabs, and the Yellow Peril. The only honorable adversaries are volunteers from satellite nations outside the Eastern Republic, East Asian Federation, and the Tigris Confederation.
You’re not meant to pay attention. It’s just evil people being evil.
But to me, from a former Eastern Bloc country, it’s a question unasked:
Just how bad is the situation within the Coalition home territories that people raised there are so… broken, for a lack of a better world?
How much of that situation can be attributed to the Alliance’s domination across the solar system?
People aren’t blank slates, as much as we want them to be. We are shaped by the environment. If you beat someone their whole life, they will only learn hatred and resentment. They will snap eventually. Now magnify that by a thousand. A million. Maybe two billion. Beat a nation long enough and they, too, will eventually decide they’ve had enough. Every revolution is built on the anger of millions.
This is the context that’s glossed over in favor of the simplistic, binary morality of war – made all the worse by the righteousness of both sides, confident that they are fighting for a worthy cause.
For example: When the Coalition is stated to institute harsh rationing in Allied Martian colonies, it comes across as just a random act of villainy when filtered through the lens of Alliance wartime media. It’s devoid of context.
It wouldn’t have the same impact if the media explained the Coalition was fighting famine in their homelands. Imagine a global government instituting global food rationing. You can’t eat as much as you want anymore.
But at the same time, this rationing allows for keeping the entire world fed. We already produce enough food to feed every single human across the world and we could wipe out hunger with proper distribution. Yet over 700 million people worldwide are hungry and suffering.
Hypocrisy at Large
But even without this context, the actions of the Alliance within the story itself raise questions as to whether it’s all that different. For all the righteous anger about the Coalition not taking prisoners, attacking defenseless ships, and other dishonorable conduct, the Alliance… Isn’t much different.
Over the course of the campaign (two years), you take exactly one prisoner of war, Admiral Kulov. You personally kill several hundred people, if not over a thousand if we count the Kurgens destroyed and unarmed transport vessels exploded. The squadron racks up a kill count that goes into the high thousands, including numerous capital ships.
No quarter is given. On the contrary, everyone in the squadron is absolutely delighted to kill the faceless Coalition mooks by the dozen, with perhaps the most enthusiastic killer sitting right behind you in the fighter: Moose comments on every tune, taunting the dying pilots even as their agonized screams kill the ether.
But bloodlust alone isn’t a real problem. Issues start when it’s accompanied by perfidious behavior. Starlancer provides two textbook examples of it:
- The Balma Treaty ruse (the Deimos Betrayal) at the beginning of the war,
- The Alliance’s destruction of the Second Fleet.
In the second instance, the Alliance uses commandeered Kamov stealth bombers to pose as a returning patrol, infiltrate the Coalition’s Second Fleet sent to relieve the siege of Titan, and destroy the CS Varyag, CS Kozlov, and CS Shinnik using the bombers’ torpedoes.
For reference, when German commandos pulled a similar trick during World War II and the Battle of the Bulge (see Operation Greif), seventeen of them were executed by firing squad. Otto Skorzeny was also tried as a war criminal, but acquitted for lack of evidence that he actually gave orders for his men to fight while disguised as American troops.
But here, your squadron leader issues the orders in writing as if it was just a normal tactic to use.
So, really, where’s the difference?
Staring into the Abyss
Perhaps there is no meaningful difference in the end. The Allianc might claim to stand for freedom and liberty, but becomes a single superstate with nations subordinated to the position of President halfway through the campaign. The Coalition fights like a cornered beast and… It pretty much was.
Neither side takes prisoners.
Neither side gives quarter.
Both dehumanize the enemy.
Both seek total victory over the other.
Digital Anvil was aware of this symmetry and Freelancer leaves no doubts that the war between the Alliance and the Coalition eventually led to one hundred years of war, where, in the end, no one could really remember why they were fighting in the first place.
Millions died over the same pieces of rock, again, and again, in a mindless conflict. Ultimately, the Alliance lost and fled the solar system altogether, leaving the Coalition to pick up the pieces, while its five arks colonized the Sirius system.
The Coalition was left with a scorched solar system and the Alliance had to rebuild again, over the course of 800 years.
To me, the question remains: What if they didn’t have to?
What if the Alliance shared from the outset?
What if we all shared, rather than mindlessly pursuing profit and consuming with fervor worthy of a greater cause?
It wouldn’t make for a good war story, but damn if it wasn’t a world worth living in.