This may sound a little confusing but hear me out. In my story, I have a character who’s going through a more or less boot camp for a dystopian empire. The ultimate goal of this “camp” is to make killing the enemy less of a regrettable necessity and more like a game, or a challenge- basically twist the morals of the soldiers so they no longer care about who they kill, they just care about the kill. Would this be feasible, or does it go too far into the “hurr durr Spartans are tough” trap.
So, you don’t actually have to teach soldiers how to do this. Dehumanize an enemy enough and they’ll do it all on their own. In fact, they’ll dehumanize enemies all on their own. All you need is the enemy killing people they care about in the abstract. It doesn’t have to be people they know, family, or friends. They don’t need a personal stake. After all, dehumanization of the enemy is part of how we stave off that pesky mental limit which leads to psychotic breaks.
What many writers don’t realize is that in this case we honestly don’t have work that hard to justify the behavior. The behavior already exists, and happened in ways far worse than you or I can imagine.
If you have the stomach for it, I recommend looking at the Pacific Theater for WWII (though the Nazis are good too.) Specifically stuff like the “Contest To Kill 100 People Using A Sword” series run by a pair of Japanese newspapers covering a contest between Japanese officers Toshiaki Mukai and Tsuyoshi Noda during the Nanking Massacre. The quest to see who could kill 100 people with their sword fastest, this included Chinese civilians and POWs.
And, yes, it happened. That’s not dystopian. That’s history.
Japan’s war crimes during World War II are built on the specific variety of nationalism the country practiced during the period and their outlook on the concept of surrender. Look no further than the extensive list of Japanese war crimes in the Pacific Theater, from The Comfort Women, Unit 731, and I would not look at the POW camps unless you have a strong stomach. However, I will say they did ship POWs back to Japan and vivisected them while still alive. I include this as its probably one of the less disturbing actions toward the treating of POWs during the war. When the men were recovered, they looked like what we’d expect from a Nazi concentration camp.
Japan is not the only example, there are countless others throughout history, and they’re not unique but they are relatively recent. Also, often, overlooked. The revenge Allied troops took on Germany, specifically those from territories occupied by German soldiers like the French is also there. In the words of a German professor from college whose family survived Allied occupation of Berlin, “no woman between seven and seventy was safe” in those quarters held by the French. At the time, her mother was a little girl and she told the story about how German citizens went running for those areas under American control. (The reason, of course, being that the Americans suffered less during the war with their civilians being an ocean away.) In the Pacific Theater, Allied soldiers would cut out the teeth of dead Japanese soldiers for their gold fillings. They called it “Jap gold”.
Kill counts, war trophies, every game you can imagine, and plenty you can’t have all happened during periods of wartime. War is an ugly business, and some wars are uglier than others.
The problem is assuming you need some sort of special training to get people there. The sad truth is such training isn’t necessary, and that’s what makes this topic dystopic. Dystopia is based in human nature, it what could happen in the future when the world is on course. The events and outlooks which led the Japanese to behave the way they did when they went to war are just as present and relevant now in countries all over the world. That includes the US.
Rid yourself now of the idea there’s ever such a thing as a “clean” war. All war is dark, all war is dirty, and all wars involve people doing terrible things to one another.
If you really want to write this story then you need to be learning everything you can about the mindset of soldiers and what they go through while on the battlefield. This means watching documentaries, shows based on anecdotes and biographical experiences like The Pacific and Band of Brothers. You should be reading Starship Troopers as a primer if you haven’t already. Do so while understanding Heinlein is a fascist and that is what he endorses in the novel. You should be going over Vietnam. I’d even watch M.A.S.H., the show, the movie, and read the book. Growing Up Black In Nazi Germany is a stunningly eye-opening read if you’ve ever wondered how the German people were swept away by Hitler and what that looked like within their culture. Read the short story, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch to get a look inside the camps run in Soviet Russia. Then tackle All Quiet on the Western Front. You want as much pro-war and anti-war media as you can get your hands on with history to fill in the gaps. Also, George Orwell’s 1984. Here’s the trick to understanding the best of the dypstopian genre: 1984 may be fictional, but similar events happened in the Soviet Union. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is entirely possible as a future for the United States, and it is plausible. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is dystopic and fictionalized, but the research behind it isn’t. The Jungle is part of why we have the FDA. There’s also Richard Wright’s Native Son.
You want to look at the cultures specifically that produced some of history’s most horrific war crimes and study up on the mindsets which led them there. That is how this happens, and that is what you need to write dystopias: an understanding of human nature.
Look beyond The Hunger Games to Rome. Consider the Spartan children whipped in stadiums to provide entertainment for the masses in simulation of ancient Spartan training, and that is only one small anecdote to the greater horrors of the Arena. See the horror in an entire culture reduced to a themepark attraction.
Remember, all dystopia is political and it is all based as a reaction to the real world. The best dystopias are talking about events that have happened in a fictional context with the warning they might happen again. We may all get upset at Animal Farm but that is a breakdown of how Soviet Russia came to be and it will teach you how the political system took hold.
All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others. – Animal Farm
Some people are more equal than others, some people are better than others, some people are more deserving than others. Be that their nation of origin, the color of their skin, their ethnic background, their accent, their education level, their economic background, or the part of a country they come from (much less the world). Dehumanization is all you need to justify great cruelty, and human beings do it to each other all the time.
After all, take any military shooter from the genre and do a hard contrast to Spec Ops: the Line. Take your experiences and what you feel while playing a military shooter, then imagine feeling those same emotions while killing real people.
You will. They’re not people to you anymore. After all, when was the last time you thought of the Stormtroopers from Star Wars IV: A New Hope as human beings?
When American soldiers called the members of the VietCong Charlies, what they were doing was taking letters of the alphabet VictorCharlie and translating their targets into anonymous individuals. They are no longer people. They’re all Charlies.
This is the key to understanding the horrors of warfare. Once you figure out how to write your characters from the perspective where they don’t see the people they kill as people, you’re off to the races. The only place you’re off is the idea they need to be trained to not care or turn it into a game.
Give them training.
They’ll make games out of killing their enemies all on their own.