The Continuing Applicability of Ender’s Game

Ender’s Game is an archetype for how certain literary works can remain timeless, and it has rightfully earned its place on the Commandant’s Reading List. Like many futuristic science-fiction novels, the lessons learned from Ender’s Game are not meant to be static; rather, they evolve with changing time and circumstance. With advances and changes in technology, culture, and society, the book provides a mirror for the audience to ask themselves the question, “Is this how things should be.” In the past, the Marine Corps found use in how Ender’s Game presented force-on-force training, applicability Maneuver Warfare, and ethical leadership. While these will always remain valuable lessons from the novel, Ender’s Game has new relevancy with the upcoming age of automation and the use of unmanned systems in future wars.

            If you were to pick up any recent issue of the Marine Corps Gazette, more likely than not, you will find an article discussing the implications of unmanned or automated systems and their lethal utility in future conflicts. Based off of many of Gazette articles, it is likely that humans will become increasingly irrelevant in combat as automated and unmanned systems start to outperform the average Marine. Consequentially, the people controlling and manning these systems will become increasingly removed from the battlefield. Already, the American military has the capability to conduct drone strikes from military bases thousands of miles away; the protagonist of Ender’s Game, Andrew Wiggins, likewise (although unknowingly) utilized an unmanned system (disguised as a training simulation) to command his force and ultimately defeat his enemy at the expense of his own fleet and the almost total genocide of the enemy species.

            Ender’s Game was written toward the tail-end of the Cold War, and the destruction of the bugger’s home-world and species has obvious implications to that era’s fear of a nuclear confrontation resulting in Mutually Assured Destruction—where the deaths of millions were only a button press away. However, to the 21st century reader in the current decade, Ender’s Game provides a useful allegory for the rise of unmanned and automated systems. In the not so distant future, servicemen will have the increased capacity to bring about a greater level of destruction and lethality than ever before. Battlefields will become larger and those controlling unmanned and automated systems will become farther removed from the battlefield. A reoccurring motif in many popular news sources that report on contemporary drone operations always comment on how the devices used to control these systems are reminiscent of video game technology. Much like Ender’s battle station was designed to appear as a training simulation, servicemen are becoming increasingly able to conduct lethal operations without even experiencing the consequences first hand. The Cold War metaphor, “pushing the button,” which symbolized how top leaders had the ability to start a nuclear holocaust at the press of a button, will soon extend to the average service member—who at the press of a button—will also be able to bring destruction while far removed from the consequences. 

            Having recently read Ender’s Game in conjunction with many Gazette articles, I argue that the book still maintains relevance and will continue to be a useful tool for future Marines. Similar to how Andrew Wiggins was able to wage war through an apparent training simulation, far removed from the battlefield, future Marines will increasingly rely on weapons systems that place the user increasingly farther from where the fighting is taking place (albeit on a significantly smaller scale than Andrew Wiggins). With the civilian casualties from drone strikes already being a controversial issue, Ender’s Game acts as a warning to those who fight wars with tools that place the warfighter farther from the battlefield. When pushing a button can mean the difference between life and death for any amount of peoples, the person controlling the system, regardless of rank, must be fully aware of the consequences of their actions. 

-William Treuting

  1. Author’s note: this post contains plot spoilers regarding the novel Ender’s Game.

    Ender’s Game is a relevant and accessible work of fiction that still deserves a spot on the Commandant’s Professional Reading List. However, the selection should be expanded to include at least two of Orson Scott Card’s follow-up novels, Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide. The expanded selection should offset the dominant theme of most discussions of Ender’s Game within the Marine Corps, which center on the Battle Room and the efficacy of adopting similar training tactics and facilities for Marines. Granted, the training centers and Ender’s growth as a leader are important topics, but too often the focus on them comes at the expense of omitting the larger strategic and moral questions posed in Card’s writing.
    The July 2019 Observation Post (OP) article in the Gazette (How Ender Wiggin Became a MEU Commander) is emblematic of a tactical, technical view of Ender’s Game. A fictional vignette is presented where a future Marine officer version of Ender Wiggin reflects on the data-driven, repeated combat simulations he has used to progress throughout his career, culminating in his crushing a war game simulation to screen for O-6 MEU command. The largely positive depiction of Col Wiggin’s training and career in this OP vignette is myopic, insofar as it shares none of the introspection and guilt that characterizes Card’s Ender.
    A better PME reading of Ender’s Game must consider Card’s insights to moral and strategic-level questions about war. The fact that Ender was a child-soldier (albeit, a precocious one) and that later generations of humanity perceived him as a psychotic war-criminal for eliminating the Formic species should temper any overenthusiasm about adopting a Wiggin-esque approach to training. A moral/strategic reading of Card’s work, tailored to the Marine Corps, might pose the following questions:
    -Did the human species have a morally-sound strategy in their fight against the Formics?
    -What were the assumptions that went into this strategy (i.e. did the Formics actually pose an existential threat to humanity)?
    -At what point are the costs of victory too high (i.e. are there scenarios in a potential future conflict where the U.S. would find it morally acceptable to train child-soldiers)?
    -Two of the Marine Corps’ 11 leadership principles are to “know your Marines and look out for their welfare” and “keep your Marines informed.” Ender had to use lethal force to kill a classmate and was not informed that he was destroying the Formic home-world until after the action was complete, so arguably his leaders violated both leadership principles in pursuit of strategic aims. Are there similar situations where Marine Corps leaders may feel compelled to violate leadership principles in the pursuit of strategic endstates, and is that justified? Why or why not?
    There are numerous other questions that could be posed, but the ones above are meant to drive a deeper discussion about Card’s work and how it relates to the strategic and moral actions of the Marine Corps. The actual fighting against the Formics is a small part of Ender’s Game, but much of the plot for the next two novels stems from Ender’s attempt to undo the damage of nearly eliminating the Formics as a species (à la, xenocide) and the burden of guilt he carries, fairly or unfairly, as a Speaker for the Dead. Marines reading Ender’s Game as part of their professional PME would be remiss if they did not reflect on the moral and strategic questions posed by the end of the novel and Card’s follow-on works.