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Obey orders, fight hard, die well: The ethics of clone troopers in Star Wars and 2000ad

Updated: Dec 24, 2023


Clone troopers Rogue and Friday 2000ad comic series Rogue Trooper and Hunter from Star Wars TV series The Bad Batch.
Clone warriors: From the pages of 2000ad GIs Rogue (centre) and Friday (left) and Hunter (right) from Star Wars series The Bad Batch are all excellent examples of clone troopers in popular media

WHY does the concept of genetically engineered clone troopers hold such a powerful fascination? Epic battles in the future or a galaxy far, far away deliver pulsating action and adventure but it’s the wider ethical questions raised which keep fans coming back for more.


There is something deeply questionable but alluring about growing an army of genetically altered human clones and indoctrinating them into the military from the moment they leave their artificial wombs. It’s a concept which is having its moment in the mainstream after been embraced by the world-conquering Star Wars franchise. Both the ‘The Clone Wars’ and ‘The Bad Batch’ TV series have started to explore the complexities when charting what happened to the vast ranks of Galactic Republic’s clone armies. They also share DNA with British comic character Rogue Trooper.


2000ad character Rogue Trooper from cover of Rogue Trooper: Tales of Nu Earth 01.
The original Rogue Trooper, Rogue, was a brooding spectral presence on the battlefields of Nu Earth. Arrtwork by Dave Gibbons.

Rogue Trooper was created by artist Dave Gibbons and Gerry Finley-Day and published in 1981 (1) by 2000ad. The strip tells the story of Rogue, the surviving member of a regiment of biologically engineered soldiers called Genetic Infantrymen (GIs). They were designed to survive the toxic atmosphere of Nu Earth, which had been devastated by the unending war between the Souther and Nort factions. In 1989, the character was rebooted and a second version, called Friday, was introduced in the epic 14-part story ‘The War Machine’, which tackled the ethics of cloning soldiers more explicitly.




In democratic societies humans make choices about their lives, but the GIs and Republic troopers are denied this basic right this because they’re indoctrinated into the military from birth. This differs from how nations recruit armies, usually through volunteering or conscription, which often plays on nationalism or offers new rights to citizens who risk their lives for their country (2). Consequently, the relationship between clone soldier and country is very different.


Copying a human being mind, body and soul presents a moral problem. Imagine growing an exact mental and physical clone of Albert Einstein (3) in the hope he would build on his scientific discoveries. But what if this 'new' version didn't want to be a scientist? Forcing him to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps would be unethical. Cloning soldiers sidesteps this issue but remains problematic. While the GIs and troopers are physical copies, they are not attempts to recreate the original DNA donor's personality or memories (like Jango Fett). Instead, they are genetically altered blank slates whose individuality is further subordinated within the military, which focuses on the collective and following orders. What chance would an impressionable young clone have? The fatalistic mantra ‘obey orders, fight hard, die well’ chanted by the GIs in ‘War Machine’ captures this indoctrination and the naïve overconfidence of soldiers who have yet to experience war.


Picture of 2000ad clone trooper Friday from 'The War Machine' graphic novel. Artwork by Henry Flint.
The second version of Rogue Trooper, Friday, debuted in 1989 in 2000ad in the story 'The War Machine'. Artwork by Henry Flint.

Restraints on these cloned warriors are also mental. Undoubtedly, the idea of warriors bred for combat is enticing but they are tragic figures rather than all-conquering super-soldiers. For example, Republic troopers were designed to instinctively to follow orders from high command, which limits their adaptability on the battlefield but is a useful check on potentially dangerous combatants (4). Ironically, genetic variation is important to survival – both Rogue and Friday are considered different, which enables them to survive the massacres which wiped out their brothers. The latter's name even refers to ‘Friday afternoon car’, a British phrase for shoddily built equipment (5). At the start of 'The War Machine', there is an error in Friday's cloning process, resulting in him being different.


Tragically, Republic troopers are designed to age twice as fast as naturally born humans, further limiting their chances of a life outside the army and hastening their impending obsolescence. Inhibitor chips implanted in their heads only accentuate their lack of autonomy – forcing them to betray the Jedi when ‘Order 66’ was given. Only Clone Force 99 in ‘The Bad Batch’, were able to resist the chip’s influence because they genetically deviated from the regular troopers. Interestingly, the pure-bred Omega is an exception which proves the rule, having not endured the conditioning or modifications of her clone brothers. 'The Bad Batch' explores the fate of the Republic's clone armies through their adventures.


Clone troopers from the Star Wars TV series The Bad Batch on Disney Plus. y
The Bad Batch: Clone Force 99 are a special team of clone troopers within the Galactic Republic's forces. Unlike the other clones, they have mutations, such as improved senses, accuracy, intelligence and strength, which sees them stand apart from the regular troops. They were also joined by cyborg Echo (extreme left) and the pure bred clone Omega. Left to right: Echo, Crosshairs, Hunter, Omega, Tech and Wrecker.

Without free will, who controls the troopers? Cloning impacts all of society but how do these new armies fit in (6)? In the UK, those forced or coerced into physical work without adequate payment are considered modern slaves (7). Considering their lack of choice, clone soldiers arguably fall into this category, which raises serious doubts about the ethics of any nation which deploys them. When discovering the ready-made army produced by the geneticists on Kamino, the Galactic Republic parked any ethical worries and enlisted the clones to fight the separatists. As the Legal Geeks’ blog points out (8), the soldiers of the Republic were ‘state property’, without any of the legal rights a natural born citizen would enjoy.


Therefore, their presence is a sign of democratic decay or absence. It could be argued that the Galactic Republic sacrificed its ideals when it adopted the clone armies and started the rot which leads to the far more authoritarian Empire. Elsewhere, the GIs were also products of undemocratic societies. The original Rogue and his regiment were designed to win an intractable global war on a planet dominated by two military factions. Meanwhile, Friday and his clone brothers were created by the galaxy spanning Clavel corporation as military wetware, which replaced government and orchestrated wars for profit.


Societies could face further implications. American legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin argued of a fundamental link between democracies and people’s right to have children (9), which in any future society could conceivably include cloning. If a nation is mass producing cloned armies, then it would be difficult to deny citizens access to the same technology, particularly if there are legitimate medical reasons to use it. Both Rogue Trooper Star Wars' clones hint at how incompatible state or corporation-controlled military cloning is within democratic society.


Francis Fukuyama argues cloning humans potentially heralds a more hierarchical and rigid society (10). Genetically engineered mass-produced armies would be a completely new social class and draw comparison with the Deltas and Gammas in Brave New World, who are locked into their status by their ‘inferior’ genetics. Is that the fate of clone soldiers? Are they destined to fight in an unending war until death? What would have happened if the Galactic Republic had won? Would it have demobbed thousands of humans specifically bred to fight wars? Ultimately, the Empire manipulated the regular clone troopers’ role in the destruction of Kamino, despite following imperial orders, as the reason for their decommission and replacement by storm trooper conscripts ('Truth and Consequences'). As a consequence, they were treated like outdated equipment: stripped of legal protections and whittled down through neglect, cruelty and experimentation (this is particularly illustrated in 'The Outpost').


Amid the dehumanisation, there are glimmers of free will. The future warriors reject the letters or numbers they were designated by their superiors and choose names which reflect their individual personalities (11). Nicknames such as Wrecker, Crosshairs, or Gunnar are the definition of nominative determinism but also self identification. Both Rogue and Friday resisted their conditioning and training to avenge the deaths of their brothers on their own versions of Nu Earth. Tragically, escaping their genetics and training is difficult. These soldiers were bred to ‘fight hard and die well’ for their superiors but by choosing their own battles they took back some control of their lives. For example, Captain Rex aided his brothers before joining the Rebel Alliance to fight the Empire. Elsewhere, Clone Force 99 made a decisive break away from the Empire and strengthened their autonomy in the episode 'Battle Scars', where they removed the control chips in their heads.


Clone trooper Captain Rex in Star Wars TV series The Bad Batch.
Old Man: Captain Rex in his accelerated mature years.

The 21st century seems to be rushing to catch up. Gene editing technique CRISPR has made it quicker and cheaper to alter human genes (12), which means the potential for life to imitate science fiction is a step nearer. Nations will also always continue to enhance their troops. In 2011, a US Department of Defense report said it will continue to search for ways to “extend physical and mental endurance and enhance physiological and psychological resilience to reduce injury and illness.” (13). The prospect of modern armies with soldiers enhanced via technology, implants, drugs or genetic enhancements links back to the key theme these stories explore: autonomy. Would an inexperienced soldier be able to give ‘voluntary and informed consent’ (14) to being enhanced within the confines of the military? Both the GIs and clone troopers, who are denied autonomy, warn of the dangers of meddling with enhancing soldiers.


Splicing war stories and cloning created a particularly compelling hybrid which satisfies head and heart. Thrilling action and adventure are counterbalanced by deeper questions over free will and society. Rogue, Friday and the Republic troopers could be perceived as tragic characters, locked as they are into genetic and societal straitjackets. But these manufactured men of war also escape their bonds to deliver very human stories of triumphing over impossible odds.


References


1) The Rogue Trooper Wikipedia page.


2) A piece written by Nina Nasr in E-International Relations which compares how Singapore and Switzerland build national identity through army conscription. Read here. It helps to contrast with the clone armies.


3) I discovered the idea of using an Einstein clone to explain the difficulties of copying a human being in this paper by Dong-Ryul Chu, a member of the faculty at Hallym University in South Korea.


4) The Wikipedia page about clone troopers was very helpful.


5) The definition of ‘Friday afternoon car’ can be found here. It refers to an urban myth that workers at British car manufacturers were so tired on Fridays their work was poor quality.


6) This point is made in chapter five of ‘Human Cloning and Human Dignity: An Ethical Enquiry’ chapter five by the President’s Council of Bioethics in 2002.


7) The definition of modern slavery is from charity Justice & Care, which fights modern slavery abroad and in the UK.


8) I recommend reading the Legal Geeks’ blog, which looks at US slavery law and applies it to the Galactic Republic.


9) This is a defence of human cloning by bioethicist John Harris from University of Manchester in

his paper ‘Clones, genes, and reproductive autonomy: The ethics of human cloning’. He uses Dworkin’s ideas as part of his argument.


10) The extract of Francis Fukuyama’s book ‘Our Posthuman Future’ was printed by the Guardian in 2002 and can be found here.


11) It was explained in ‘MilliCom Memories’ that GIs were originally given letters instead of names. For example, Rogue was named ‘R’. Meanwhile, Republic troopers were given code numbers – Captain Rex was originally CT-7567.


12) An article in New Scientist about the impact of gene editing technique CRISPR.


13) An article from Miliary Review written by Col. Dave Shunk, outlines many practical and ethical concerns about enhanced soldiers. The quote in this blog is taken from the article but it is originally from the 2011 ‘Force Health Protection Concept of Operations’ (CONOPS). It’s a good illustration of how militaries constantly try to enhance their personnel.


14) Enhanced Warfighters: Risk, Ethics, and Policy was written by Patrick Lin, Maxwell J. Mehlman and Keith Abney for the Case Western Reserve University in 2013 and explores many ethical considerations. However, the conclusion stresses the importance of the soldier giving consent to enhancement, but also asks if this is possible in the military.

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