The Spartan Program
Ah yes, the Halo universe, one of the more interesting science fiction settings that I have come across in all of my adventures in nerd-dom. This one had it all: far flung worlds at the edge of the galaxy, new and interesting technologies, fleets of ships exploring space and discovering new and exciting places, the alien races hell-bent on wiping out humanity, and of course, the super-soldiers. No one who has had any form of involvement with the Halo franchise will ever forget the main character and mascot of the series, Master Chief Petty Officer John 117. Throughout the games we witness the Master Chief perform incredible feats and general moments of ass-kickery as he battles the alien Covenant. And it was all so glorious, watching this genetically engineered badass fight the alien menace and win.
During the games I had little knowledge of who the Chief really was or why he was genetically engineered in the first place. I just knew that he was a super-soldier and that he was kicking Covenant ass. And for a while that was all I needed to know. He was the savior of mankind and that was good enough. We knew that the Chief was part of something called the Spartan program, but little else. We knew the Spartan program was the super-soldier project, but didn’t know what exactly that entailed. But then came the time where a friend of mine introduced me to the book Fall of Reach. That’s when things got interesting for me. That’s when I learned what the Spartan program was and what it did. However, it took many more years for the true horror of the program to really hit me. From here on there will be spoilers regarding the books Fall of Reach, Ghosts of Onyx, as well as those in the Kilo Five trilogy and for the audio series Hunt the Truth. You have been warned.
In the book Fall of Reach we learn the origins of the Spartan program, more specifically, the Spartan II program. I’ll admit that the full weight of the actions described didn’t fully hit me until many years after I had read the book. In fact it wasn’t until I had read Glasslands, the first book in the Kilo Five trilogy that I began to understand. Early in Fall of Reach we follow Dr. Catherine Halsey as she is evaluating potential candidates for the program. What I had not known at the time of my first play through the original Halo was that the candidates were children. The people running the Spartan II program were scouring Human worlds for children no older than six years old. At first I didn’t think too much of it. I was waiting for the Super soldier badass to come into play. Now that I stop to think about it years after the fact this one little part of the Spartan program is terrifying. We see full grown adults essentially preying on the youth of various worlds. Halsey and her companions are evaluating the kids over time to see if they are worthy of being inducted into the program. It took me far longer than it should have to realize how creepy that is. These adults know full well what is going to happen to the kids they are observing, they know they are condemning these children to a life of pain and misery. Yet all they see are statistics and test subjects. The adults are seriously contemplating ripping these kids away from their happy lives that they haven’t even had a chance to fully live yet, all in the name of a science experiment trying to create a weapon. Like I said, that aspect didn’t hit me until much later. This particular portion of Fall of Reach was being told through the perspective of Halsey and other adult figures, and while there were some mentions of the horrible nature of their actions it wasn’t given too much attention. As a result I was taken in by their logic that this was necessary. I was also waiting to see how the Chief would be worked into the equation. As a result I was somewhat blinded to the rather creepy actions taking place. On some level I acknowledged them, but they weren’t my focus.
It’s at this point that the truly horrifying part of the Spartan program comes into play. The kidnappings. This is another point of the story of the Spartans that didn’t really hit me until much later on. Halsey and the UNSC have the children selected for the program kidnapped in the middle of the night. Think about that for a moment. These children have no idea what’s going to happen, thay have been put to bed, likely by loving parents, in a place that is intimately familiar to them and should be considered safe for them. They are snatched up while they sleep to be used as weapons. That was something that was certainly never brought up in the games. The fact that the Master Chief was once a six year old that was taken while he slept adds a new wrinkle to the character. He all of a sudden becomes a more sympathetic character than he is presented as in the games. After the kidnappings comes the training. This is a different kind of terrible when compared to the kidnappings. Whereas the kidnappings are a far more intimate and invasive event, the brutal training that the prospective Spartans undergo is a blunt and destructive thing. Here the children are put through grueling drills and exercise that could boarder on torture. They are starved and beaten throughout in an attempt to fast track the process of turning them into soldiers. If you were like me you were wondering why the picked the kids at such a young age, surely older people would fare better than young kids. Again, the significance of the reason behind the choice would take time to truly hit home. It’s because children were easier to manipulate and indoctrinate to the program. At one point Dr. Halsey even states that they chose the children specifically because they are easier to indoctrinate, essentially brainwashing them. Then there are the genetic modifications that wound up killing or maiming a great number of the children. When a fan of the Halo universe stops to consider these things the Master Chief all of a sudden becomes a much more complete character than he was shown to be in the games as well as a character that deserves our sympathy. Think about the series of events for a moment. At one point John, the boy who would become the Master Chief, was sleeping in his own room, when he is snatched by people he has never met from a loving home, and is then essentially brainwashed and tortured for years on end. That thought puts a much different spin on the character than I was used to.
Now for the really disturbing part of the story, the clones used to replace the missing children. This was one of those things that I knew immediately was a horrifying topic, the audio series Hunt the Truth really brought home how terrible it was. In this case the taken children were cloned so that the copies could be put back where the kids were taken from so the parents wouldn’t suspect anything. The only issue was that the clones were rapidly grown, as a result they would die rapidly. At first I thought this was a terrible thing because the parents would be forced to watch what they thought was their child suddenly turns ill and dies with little to no reason. I only considered it from the point of view of the parents who lost their child twice, and of the original children who lost their claim to their own life. It wasn’t until I read the Kilo Five trilogy and listened to Hunt the Truth that I thought about it from a different perspective. That of the clones themselves. The main character of Hunt the Truth, Ben Giraud, brings up a very interesting take on the clones and what they were going through during all of this. I’ll freely admit that I hadn’t given the clones much thought at all before listening to this series. To me the focus was always on the parents who had lost the children, and the people who had taken them. The journals of Ben Giraud made me think about the clones, how could they possibly understand the world that they were thrust into? How were they raised? Were they told what was going to happen to them? As Giraud asks, what were their handlers like? Did they talk to the clones? Did they touch them at all? I didn’t know, none of the books really covered that aspect. But the series made me think that the clones probably would have had a miserable existence. In this sense, Halsey and the people of the UNSC were effectively ruining three sets of lives, the child that has been taken, the clone made to replace them, and the parents who lose the child. When these are all taken into account it’s hard to view someone like the Master Chief, or any of the other Spartan characters with anything other than pity. Their condition was not their choice, they were not given the option of any other type of life. They were made weapons against their will by powers far greater than they could have possibly comprehended at the time.
Now if you think that all of this was bad in regards to the Spartan II’s, wait until you think about what happened to the Spartan III’s. But that is for another time.