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Literature / Stark's War

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Stark's War is a Science Fiction novel trilogy by John Hemry (initially published under that name; later re-released under his pen name, Jack Campbell). They were his first published novels (although not his first published work overall).

The books are:

  • Stark's War (2000)
  • Stark's Command (2001)
  • Stark's Crusade (2002)

The series focuses on Ethan Stark, a sergeant in the United States military. The United States and its megacorporations control most of the Earth's resources, but the Moon is still up for grabs, and Stark is part of the expedition sent to press an American claim of ownership. This meets with stronger-than-expected resistance from factions fed up with American hegemony, and the protracted warfare which results isn't helped by the zero-atmosphere, low-gravity battleground. Stark's biggest problem, however, is the massive incompetence of his own side's officers, who are inexperienced, politicised, addicted to micromanagement, and completely out of touch with the reality on the ground. All Stark really cares about is looking after his own squad, but as the situation gets worse and worse, he's going to have to get political whether he wants it or not.

This series provides examples of:

  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Robotic soldiers called Jabberwockies and Bandersnatchi are introduced in the third novel. When discussing it with his men, they bring up that automated troops had been tried before and always failed, since if there's a command link back to headquarters, then the robots can be hacked, and if there isn't, there's no way to update their preprogrammed orders if something unexpected happens after they're set loose.
  • Armchair Military: Almost all the officers Stark interacts with. Only the most junior officers actually go out in the field with their troops, but because every soldier has Powered Armor with permanently-on communication links, the senior officers can still be virtually present on operations without actually being in any danger. They make free use of this to constantly interrupt troops with unhelpful, distracting, and often downright idiotic orders.
  • Armies Are Evil: Civilians tend to take this view; soldiers are seen as borderline psychopaths who, while regrettably necessary, should still be kept away from decent folk. (There are businesses with signs like "No dogs or military".) Soldiers, for their part, tend to have a correspondingly negative view of civilians — see Straw Civilian, below. A significant problem that Stark faces is getting his own side and the civilian authorities to talk to each other politely.
  • Blood Sport: One of the military's bright ideas for increasing its budget is to package footage of military action (notably that recorded by soldiers' Powered Armor) as entertainment for civilians back home. They're usually not so stupid as to broadcast live, since that would let the enemy gain useful tactical information from it, but "usually" isn't always. An unintended consequence of the broadcast of war is that there's pressure on military commanders to make sure there's plenty of action to keep ratings up.
  • Captain Smooth and Sergeant Rough: Officers are notably fancier in their speech and manners than the gruff and forthright Sergeant Stark. Unlike a lot of examples of this trope, though, the smoothness of the officers is a distinctly negative trait — they're not so much Officer and a Gentleman as they are Pointy-Haired Bosses in uniform, addicted to a military version of management-speak and unwilling to listen to "impertinent" enlisted personnel who actually know what's going on. The officers stay unflinchingly smooth and urbane even as they get vast numbers of their troops slaughtered.
  • Cassandra Truth: Just about any issue that the noncoms bring up about the "brilliant" plans of their senior officers.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: Two Mauve Shirt members of Stark's squad who survive all of the first book are mentioned as being Killed Offscreen in the first battle of the second book.
  • Engineered Public Confession: A variant in which the intent is not so much to expose the villain as to disassociate the hero from him. The General who Stark's mutiny overthrew suggests a We Can Rule Together arrangement could be reached in which Stark sets up a few of his comrades as scapegoats. Stark doesn't know that his eloquent, vehement refusal was being recoded and spread around, leaving his fellow mutineers convinced of his integrity and therefore willing draft him as leader, which is what Stark's friends wanted.
  • Ensign Newbie: Since the standard tour of duty for an officer is six months, this applies to just about all of them. Just when they're finally starting to learn the ropes of their posting, they're shipped off to a new one. But what makes it worse is that most officers don't understand that they're rookies who should be relying on their veteran noncoms.
  • Exact Words: When seeing the treaty that would end the war with the US at the end of the trilogy, Stark hesitates to agree to it because the part relevant to him and his men talks about "enlisted personnel", and a handful of his people aren't enlisted and thus would implicitly not be covered by the agreement. After explaining this, he gets the section rewritten so that it explicitly covers everyone who was under his command.
  • General Failure: The army's officer corps contains almost nothing but. There are good officers, but they end up sidelined — it's the ones who focus on political games and sucking up to their superiors who are rewarded, not the ones who actually do their jobs. And since officers rotate through positions so quickly (and can jump ship to cushy jobs with a Mega-Corp if need be), they're never held to account for failure. At the end of the war, the US government unilaterally fires everyone in the military ranked O-6 and above because of this trope, and then does careful weeding of the lower ranks to see who is actually competent.
  • Good Shepherd: It is briefly mentioned that at least some of the base's chaplains chose to side with the mutineers.
  • Gratuitous Spanish: Corporal, later Sergeant Gomez tends to have a couple of common Spanish words in the middle of every paragraph she speaks.
  • Head-in-the-Sand Management: The army's top brass is pretty much incapable of understanding or accepting anything that doesn't fit what they were planning to do anyway, as best shown during the briefing with Colonel Center. The enemy has defenses which would complicate a planned advance? Our troops are dying in scores because we keep charging right into enemy heavy artillery fire? No, sergeant, our intelligence reports assure us that you're just imagining it, and clearly, the plan can't be wrong. Further comment from the ranks is not required.
  • Heads-Up Display: All American troops have complicated electronic displays in their Powered Armor. Some of this is useful, but some of it is widely detested, because it exists to harry soldiers into exact obedience to the overall mission plan, regardless of the reality on the ground. Military command always assumes that their plans will go like clockwork, and yells at soldiers for getting even slightly behind their pre-programmed timeline. Heaven help the soldier whose HUD starts to show orange or red numbers on its clock instead of the approved green.
  • If You Kill Him, You Will Be Just Like Him!: After Stark's rebellion, decisions must be taken about what to do with the resulting prisoners. They don't have many defenders, and there's talk of simply shooting them — it's not as though there's any shortage of reasons for revenge. It's pointed out, however, that the whole idea is to be better than that.
  • Insane Troll Logic: The high command takes the Napoleon statement that the moral is to the physical as is three to one to mean that since they believe that their cause is just, they can pretend that two thirds of the enemy forces don't exist. This works about as well in the field as you'd expect.
  • Meaningful Name: The McClellan tank. They're very advanced, but so expensive that the high command refuses to risk it getting damaged in battle. George McClellan was an American Civil War general who did a superb job of training the Union army — but then didn't want to risk it getting torn up by the fighting.
  • Mission Control: Every soldier's Powered Armor is in constant communication with military command, meaning that officers can provide direct instructions to individual soldiers at any time. This is isn't a good thing, however, because the officers in question are all incompetent micromanagers who believe their "genius" plans can triumph over reality. Being ignored by mission control is a blessing, since it means you don't get chewed out for "dangerous" departures from the battle plan like standing a meter away from the spot designated for you (even if that spot is right in the line of fire).
  • Mega-Corp: They're a major power. While the military is theoretically pursuing America's interests, those interests are defined in such a way that mission objectives often revolve around the needs of the corporations. This doesn't do wonders for the morale of ordinary soldiers.
  • The Men First:
    • Stark was willing to turn down a pardon because the wording of it didn't cover a dozen or so people out of the thousands of men under his command.
    • Stark and his men are thrown for a loop when they are assigned an officer who believes in this. The officer actually disobeys the battle plan to rescue some trapped soldiers. He is promptly Reassigned to Antarctica for his actions but Stark and his fellow soldiers consider him the best officer they ever had.
  • The Mutiny: Given the manifest incompetence of the army's officers, it's no surprise that they're worried about dissent in the ranks. This comes to a head during a particularly stupid attack in which repeated waves of troops are sent directly into heavy enemy bombardment. Stark chooses to disable his officer and lead his people to help the wounded, prompting a wider mutiny across the army.
  • The Neidermeyer: Just about every colonel and general in the series hurls rude abuse and mockery at any soldier who dears contradict them.
  • Powered Armor: All American ground forces wear powered combat suits. These are beneficial on Earth, but are essential on the Moon (what with the lack of air and all). However, Stark notes that "armor" isn't really a very accurate description any more, because most modern weapons can punch through the suits fairly easily. Effectively, they're used as fancy high-mobility space suits rather than as protection. There is mention of new combat suits that grant flight capability, but the soldiers refuse to use them because they just make the wearers more obvious targets.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: One threat for misbehavior is guard duty at the lunar pole.
  • Sergeant Rock: Stark himself, but also a lot of the other sergeants we meet. Most of the commissioned officers, by contrast, are on a spectrum between "useless" and "active liability", being Armchair Military who direct (or rather, screw up) combat operations via remote communications link.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: The worst of the officers Stark deals with speak in a sort of hybrid of abstract military theory and management jargon, dressing some very dumb ideas in very complicated language. Just so long as it sounds impressive, that means they're all military geniuses, right?
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: On Stark's first deployment, he ended up getting caught in a battle in which all but three members of his unit died in. He still has nightmares about it.
  • Space Marine: Stark and company, although the "space" part isn't actually their specific vocation — because soldiers all wear environmentally-contained Powered Armor, military command doesn't make distinction between "space marines" and normal ones except for their current posting. (Fighting on the moon does require different competencies than fighting on Earth, naturally, but good luck convincing the incompetent officer corps of that.) Also, the Marines have long since been downsized to a battalion sized formation that is mostly restricted to ceremonial details (Though they still train themselves to the point where Stark wouldn't want to fight them if he didn't have to).
  • Straw Civilian: Explored and deconstructed. Stark and his people mostly have negative views of "civs", thinking that they demand sacrifice of the military while refusing to contribute anything, and that they hypocritically look down on soldiers as violent thugs while still being happy to watch the carnage on television. When Stark actually goes to meet some of the civilians whose colony he's protecting, it isn't quite as he thought: the civilians of the colony are subject to Indentured Servitude and martial law, rather than living privileged lives thanks to soldiers' sacrifices (as soldiers tend to believe). Moreover, it turns out military command has been lying to the civilians that rank-and-file troops are to blame for prolonging the war, saying that ordinary soldiers would refuse to accept a settlement which the civilians would welcome. Partly as a result, civilians often have an unwarrantedly negative view of the military — see Armies Are Evil, above. Stark has to figure out a way to get his people and the civilian authorities to begin thinking of themselves as on the same side.
  • Sycophantic Servant: in just about fifteen pages (his sole scene in the trilogy, when he briefs the senior enlisted about the upcoming assault going on about how the General behind the plan is an infalliable genius and getting mad at anyone who points out mistakes the man made) Colonel Penter cements himself as one of the biggest literary example of this trope (as well a runner-up at least for I Reject Your Reality and Head-in-the-Sand Management) from the year 2000.
  • War for Fun and Profit:
    • The ultimate reason for the Lunar War was that various US Megacorporations realized that non-American countries were turning a profit with their lunar colonies, and bribed the government to claim that since America was on the moon first, they owned all of it (Pre-existing treaties and statements made by the parties who actually made that landing being irrelevant), and thus were justified in conquering those colonies in the name of profit.
    • The televised military Blood Sport started as a way to supplement the Army's budget because Congress kept demanding they fight wars to help their corporate sponsors without providing them with the funding to supply said campaigns. Then Congress found out about it and cut their budget even more so that the military was now dependent on advertising revenue from televised battles to remain functional.
  • We Can Rule Together: After Stark leads a mutiny, the General holds out the offer of high rank and protégée status as an inducement.
  • Yes-Man: Since disagreeing with high command is bad for one's career, everyone doing the staff work and simulated planning take their superior's (frequently highly erroneous) assumptions as absolute fact when working out whether or not said superior's plans are likely to succeed. The superiors used these highly biased staff studies as proof that their plans are foolproof, and thus ignore feedback from front-line troops who try to point out that the plan is based on premises that have no grounding in reality.
  • You Killed My Father: One character in the second book is the younger brother of the squad leader of the unit Stark was in during the Shell-Shocked Veteran incident above. He resents Stark for not saving her, despite the fact that making a break for it and leaving the dying behind was her idea.