Monday, 2 March 2015

The Concept of the ‘Perfect Soldier’

by Nick Graham

The idea of having the best possible soldiers is one that is common both in fiction and in real life. So what makes the ‘perfect soldier’? It turns out that there is no single right answer to this particular question. It also differs massively between cultures and periods of history in real life and this without adding in any fiction, be it historic fiction, fantasy or science fiction. During childhood, many boys and some girls enjoyed ‘being’ their favourite hero or superhero (in the boys' case this is more likely to be some sort of hero who was good at fighting, hence my comment about more boys than girls in relevance to this article) from whatever fictional stories they were a fan of – this is evident by the strong market of collectibles from movies, books, cartoons and TV series. This inevitably leads to debates about which heroes or superheroes are better, and who would win in a fight. But while there may be better and worse soldiers in fiction and real life as well, is there ever a ‘perfect soldier’?

A Spartan hoplite
In ancient times, discipline and training seemed to be the most important qualities of a soldier, as shown by the Spartans and the Roman legions. In the instance of the battle of Thermopylae, 300 Spartan warriors held off a Persian army consisting of tens of thousands of soldiers. Although the 300 were eventually killed, their discipline meant that they fought to the last man, greatly delaying the Persian forces.

Fantasy and science fiction have a great variety of interpretations on the concept of the perfect soldier. These tend to fall into one of three categories: autonomous soldiers, human soldiers, and a fusion of the two. Autonomous soldiers such as droids or drones are often seen as good soldiers, because of their unfailing loyalty and discipline as well as being much more expendable in comparison to human soldiers. Droid soldiers have appeared in several major films including Elysium and the Star Wars prequel trilogy, and they are effective against virtually everything they come up against, with the exception of the heroes in these movies. However in many cases autonomous soldiers lack any form of initiative or the ability to take advantage of their surroundings, meaning that they are not perfect.

Avatar suit
The opposite of this is the use of human soldiers or the living soldiers of other species, and several different routes exist within this category, and some are effective as part of the overall army although obviously not perfect as individuals. Some soldiers are simply normal humans, such as those in Starship Troopers and Avatar. However, the majority of human soldiers in science fiction go beyond normal people. Cloning appears in several different science fiction plots, in various forms. In many of these cases the cloning is done on a massive scale, and they grow up in the same way biologically as humans do, although instead of school they study warfare and take part in training exercises, even from a young age. Examples of this are Star Wars films and the Clone Rebellion series of books by Steven L Kent. They are brilliant soldiers as they have spent their entire life being trained for the role, but again, they often rely on numbers to win any battles. Cloned soldiers also appear in the third series of the modern Doctor Who, although this time they are created as a young adult with instinctive combat skills right from the start. This makes them brilliant soldiers, and the fact that they can go straight into battle after their creation, so in a way, they are very close to being perfect soldiers. 

This is one way in which genetics are used to create better soldiers. The other way is through genetic manipulation. This is often used to increase the strength, speed and resilience of the soldiers, and in some cases is used in conjunction with cloning to create an entire army of genetically enhanced human soldiers. There are several examples of this within the Clone Rebellion series by Steven L Kent: Liberators are a particular breed of clones designed to be more effective in combat than any others, and hormones are used to make them addicted to combat, ensuring that they won’t run away from a fight and are brilliant in the actual battles. The other type are cloned Navy Seals, designed to be for covert operations and as such have a strong and compact frame and are very agile. Both of these types prove to be brilliant soldiers, and because they are clones they are again much more expendable than natural-born humans. Surprisingly, there are actually examples of genetic manipulation in fantasy as well, although it is much more primitive: in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, one of the main villains creates a race called the Uruk hai by interbreeding Orcs and humans to create a more intelligent, tougher species that has less of an aversion to daylight than normal Orcs. These are also excellent soldiers, but they are still not as intelligent as the human soldiers in the same plot.

Uruk-hai, from Lord of the Rings

The final way in which the writers of science fiction have tried to make perfect soldiers is through a combination of man and machine. This has a great range in its severity, from suits that are simply put on the soldier, to the actual integration of mechanics and flesh. Both have appeared at least several times in the last decade. Probably the most famous example of using suits to create perfect soldiers is in the Iron Man movies. Even the original suit, created from pieces of scrap metal in a terrorist’s cave hideout in the mountains of the Middle East was able to best many normal human soldiers. The variation created in the second movie is even better at fighting, and this does make the wearer an utterly outstanding soldier. The large mechanical suits used by the humans in Avatar are another example of where a suit can make the wearer into a vastly superior soldier. Then there is the other end of the spectrum, where the armour, motors and technology are embedded into the person, often an irreversible process. One example of this would be the exoskeleton that is drilled into the body of the hero in the film Elysium, which gives him increased strength, increased endurance, and the ability to take a lot more damage without being killed or incapacitated. This isn’t perfect but again it is quite close to it. An even more extreme example of this are the Cybermen from Doctor Who, where all that is left of each person’s body is their nervous system and their brain – the rest is replaced with a special type of steel. They are decent soldiers because they are so tough and have good built-in weapons, but they are very slow to react, don’t move very fast, and have very little intelligence.

Edge of Tomorrow suit
In summary, while fiction has had many admirable super-soldiers or super-armies (through the use of many expendable and loyal soldiers), there has never been a ‘perfect soldier’. While this is in part due to the boredom that this would create, even the almost invincible soldiers in these stories have had a weakness, either mentioned in the plot or worked out by the many fans. If fiction has been unable to come up with the ‘perfect soldier’, with all of the imaginary advanced technologies that exist in their worlds, then it is highly likely that we will never be able to create the ‘perfect soldier’ in real life. 

Given the advances in technology, it is highly likely that we will be able to mimic many of the technologies seen in these movies and films, but, as we know, they have their weaknesses and in our attempt to reconstruct fictional technologies we will probably only create a much weaker version, and in some cases it is highly unlikely that we will ever be able to bring these fictional soldiers to life. At this point in time, we have already got some of the technologies seen in films, such as drones or basic strength improving exoskeletons (that don’t require the wearer to be bonded to them for life as in Elysium). Due to the constant need of militaries by every country, it is obvious that our technology will improve and we will be able to create outstanding soldiers, but I believe that we will never be able to create the ‘perfect soldier’


  1. How do the Cybermen "have very little intelligence" when they have amassed all the knowledge and data across several million planets. Also if you think that Cybermen are slow see this: (at approximately 1.45-2.00).

    Finally the Sontarans appeared in series 4 not 3 of the modern series and first presented themselves in season 11 of the classic series known as the Time Warrior (it was a decent episode but not as good as the Sonataran experiment or Invasion of time).

  2. During childhood, many boys and some girls enjoyed ‘being’ their favourite hero or superhero (in the boys' case this is more likely to be some sort of hero who was good at fighting, hence my comment about more boys than girls in relevance to this article)

    This is a sexist comment do you not agree? We should not stereotype.


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