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