Much has been written about The Hunger Games and many of the underlying libertarian themes in that story. Jeffrey Tucker recently described the similarity between the fictional games and voting. Brent Railey noted just the other day the realities of the black market springing up to provide what the state can’t, or won’t, and the futility in relying on political figures for salvation. A co-worker of mine suggested that another lesson is that when fighting one evil, it’s important not to become just as evil yourself; a lesson from later in the series. In this essay I’d like to draw attention to the allegory of the games and the modern warfare state.
Briefly, for the benefit of those unfamiliar with the trilogy, here’s the background. North America has descended into a full-blown totalitarian state, with the people forced to live in virtual internment camps. The citizens of each region, or district, work as slaves to the Capitol, providing such goods as coal, seafood, or electronics.
In order to maintain control over the people and remind them of their impotence, a group of teens is selected each year to fight in a gladiatorial arena. The event, called the Hunger Games, is televised for the entertainment of those in the Capitol, and the punishment of those in the various districts. A rebellion ensues and, well, you ought to just read the series.
So right off the bat it’s pretty clear: An impoverished underclass, already forced to pay tribute to the government, has its youth pressed into violent service by the wealthy and politically powerful, for the entertainment and enrichment of this ruling elite. This pretty well describes the nation-state in virtually all times and all places, but it goes far beyond this.
The next similarity one finds is the way in which children are selected for the games: a draft. Each child’s name is placed in a bowl, and a representative from the Capitol draws the "winner." There is a slight twist, one that makes the process even more similar to the actual draft. Each child may be entered additional times in exchange for greater food rations for their family.
The obvious effect is that poorer families are at greater odds of having their children selected for the games. In similar fashion, special rules applied during the draft allowed wealthy draftees to receive deferments, effectively allowing them to avoid military service. In modern times the ranks of the military are almost exclusively made up of the middle class and poor, who are promised better-paying jobs and opportunities otherwise not available at home.
While the people of most districts generally dread the "reaping," in others, participation in the games is a coveted experience. In these districts, children, known as "Careers," volunteer to go after training their whole lives. In very much the same way, military service is a generational endeavor. There are many soldiers now serving who can trace their family’s participation in wars going back many generations. It’s not uncommon for recruits to explain that their reason for joining was, at least in part, because their fathers and grandfathers served; "it’s just what we do."
The games are of course a spectacle. The players are paraded in front of adoring crowds; politicians make grand speeches, the Capitol showers praise on the children, who are costumed and trained before being sent to their deaths. Those who die have their portraits broadcast at the end of each day, in memoriam, not at all unlike the nightly news here when troops are killed in overseas combat.
One point that stands out, as Tucker notes, is that none of the participants would have any real reason to fight one another outside the arena. They are forced to do so, to adopt a base mentality and become uncivilized animals in order to survive. This is also true in virtually all wars. The people of at least one side, if not both, are pressed into service and sent to kill other people they’ve never met, and have no real quarrel with.
As with all contemporary conflicts, the games are televised, and huge profits are realized for those who organize them. Cameras are set up everywhere, ensuring that no detail goes unnoticed. Highlights are routinely played, not just of current games, but of those past.
The children are taught to revere the players, who are immortalized as heroes. Those who survive are paraded through the districts on a victory tour and conditioned to act as if all is fine. The reality is that each is condemned to a lifetime of nightmares and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Some resort to self-medication with drugs or alcohol to cope with their demons.
There is one major deviation, to be sure. "Winners" are treated to special accommodations and never want for any material thing, unlike many of the troops who return from war with broken minds, bodies, and souls. A staggering number of returning veterans are often unable to function in normal society. Having been used up by their government, unfit to continue fighting, they’re no longer valuable and may be left and forgotten.
It’s no surprise that so many parallels exist, given that the series’ author, Suzanne Collins, was inspired when watching news reports about the wars. The two are so strikingly similar I can only hope that the millions of people, mostly teenagers, will make the same connection. To not see The Hunger Games as anything but a warning of the evils of war would be tragic. It would turn a work damning the spectacle of violence into nothing more than just that: a spectacle of violence.