Readers are like killers in cop shows: you can’t catch them until you know how they think. Since it’s no crime to be a reader, you might think a direct interview would tell you everything you need to know, but you’d be wrong. Stories operate on deeply buried, emotionally charged, fundamentally incommunicado parts of our personalities, and our affinity for our chosen genres is not easily unpacked. Nor does it need to be -- if you’re a reader. But if you’re a writer trying to design a successful story, you are left with two options. You can either:

The latter sounds much more appealing to me. To do it, we’ll need to go to the scene of the crime, and for our first subject, the Grunt, we’ll need to go to the scene of the war crime: this type of reader is the core demo for war stories, so we’ll look at some classics.

But we’re not interested in the mise en scène of Saving Private Ryan, Aliens, Halo, or Warhammer 40k. Anyone can write a story with hulking suits of power armor, doomed frontal assaults, and skittering insectile tangos. The question is: why? What’s so interesting about a suit of power armor? Why are space marines always shooting bugs? Why does rescuing a soldier from the war he volunteered to fight in make any kind of sense for a plot?

To answer, we need to dive into some psychology. So let’s start the same way Will Graham would: with a sweeping declaration of his quarry’s fundamental emotional dynamic.

The Grunt is a man unhappy with the hand that sexual dimorphism dealt him.

Two flukes of biology have forced him to occupy the uneasy nexus of aggression, vulnerability, and anonymity. Namely:

  1. Females bear children
  2. Males bear arms

The first point is a supply and demand issue that can tilt into an inferiority complex. Females are far more valuable than males when it comes to the survival of our species. In terms of cash value, a sperm donor will make about a hundred bucks a pop, while a surrogate mother will make 30-80k. The reasons for that price gap are clear: the sperm donor has surrendered, at most, his lunch break, while the surrogate mother is signing up for 40+ weeks on a hormonal rollercoaster that will put enormous stress on her body.

Beyond the time cost of any single pregnancy, female fertility is scarcer in every other regard: women have fewer eggs and less time to use them, due to menopause. For every egg that is ovulated, 1 billion sperm are produced.

As a result of this oversupply, the average male is reproductively worthless. In extreme circumstances, this can be a death sentence. 80% of the male passengers died on the Titanic, as opposed to 25% of the female. Normally I wouldn’t bother to cite an axe that has been ground over the years by some extremely bitter men, but it’s instructive here: that bitterness stems from a sense of disposability, and that disposability stems from the economics of reproduction.

Beyond the odd maritime disaster, you can confirm this disposability by reading your genetic code (Nature’s very own blockchain!): apparently we have half as many fathers as mothers among our ancestors. (I even found one article that claims there was a time when 17 women reproduced for every one man).

The fact that huge quantities of men can be destroyed before the species will notice is quite convenient. Because while one industrious milkman (or lecherous pharaoh) can keep the nurseries crowded, when it comes time for battle, it’s all hands on deck. This is where fluke number two kicks in: the stronger you are, the closer you’ll be to the front lines.

I’m sure that increased upper body strength was a lifesaver in the wars of antiquity. But now, even the strongest soldier is powerless in the face of modern war machines. They don’t even have to be that modern, honestly: I don’t think anybody watched the Omaha beach landing in Saving Private Ryan, saw the MG-42 machine gun, “Hitler’s Buzzsaw”, in action, and thought: rip to ur grandpa but im different.

The gut-wrenching/gut-spilling sense of squishiness provoked by this kind of scene is challenging for a Grunt to sit with. Intentionally so. This initiating stressor gets the reader in the right headspace, priming them for what’s to come. Because if you weren’t of age during Vietnam, you have no idea what it feels like to tune in each evening to find out if your draft lottery number has been called. We’re insulated from war, and most of us are equally insulated from the emotional dysfunction that these war stories tap into. So the stories need to strip away that insulation, and the best way to do that is with a ritual sacrifice. Therefore, Grunt stories typically open with a vivid & tragic casualty.

In The Naked and the Dead, it’s Hennessey who panics, shits himself, and dies by shrapnel. In Catch-22 it’s Snowden, whose corpse discloses a terrible truth:

[Yossarian] felt goose pimples clacking all over him as he gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor. It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garbage. That was Snowden’s secret. Ripeness was all.

A GI dies on Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan

This is expressed even more poignantly in a poem from Randall Jarrell, “The Death of the Ball Turret”:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Both touch on the same horror: that you can be so gorily and literally depersonalized by combat that you can be washed away with a hose.

Grunts are marked for war and know, deep down, they don’t have any plot armor.
So they gravitate to plots with lots of armor.

Before we proceed, let’s write down the core of the persona, because this is what really counts for storytelling. Though it may feel like a Grunt story needs to be about the military, it’s not required. War just happens to be the metaphor that provides the most direct access to these issues. As long as your story finds a way to push these buttons, it can appeal to a Grunt.

Fears Appeals
Fragility Imperviousness
Anonymity Heroism
Hollowness Sanctioned aggression
Alienation Self-Sacrifice


All microgenres have certain props, plots, and character dynamics which receive a special charge. I’m calling these "fetishes", because I don’t want you thinking about something as dry a symbol. There is a primal, almost magical significance for these things, and we need to demystify them a bit if we’re going to properly employ them in our stories.

The Graven Name

The most important inner relationship for the Grunt is between his name and body — these are weakly tethered, and when they disconnect, odds are good you’re looking at a Grunt-friendly story arc.

Draft Card

An old-fashioned draft card

Grunts are a product of mass societies with large standing armies. More primal, tribalistic violence won’t trigger Grunt resentment so strongly. At those small scales, all fighters are individuals, and most likely fighting for something they have a direct stake in. But when a young man turns eighteen in America he will receive, amidst the birthday cards, a draft card from the Selective Service agency, notifying him that he’s now eligible to die for Uncle Sam right alongside every other young man in his cohort.

The call of duty has no force without a name. Legal threats ensure that the young man will surrender his.

This comes from

If required to register with Selective Service, failure to register is a felony punishable by a fine of up to $250,000 and/or 5 years imprisonment.

During the Vietnam War, the Supreme Court had to rule that burning one’s draft card was not free speech. When the highest court in the land makes it illegal to burn a piece of paper, you know that paper is a powerful symbol. Narratively, consider what sort of thing can start to pry a young man’s name from him, initiating the process of becoming a Grunt. Is there a ritual associated with it?

Dog Tags

Even in vast armies, not all soldiers are nameless. Patton, Eisenhower, Rommel — these names are still familiar to us today. But those men occupied the very top of a chain of command, and below them was a swarm of anonymous soldier ants who were expected to perish for the good of the hive. Militaries do everything they can to urge this anonymizing process along. Already in possession of the Grunt’s name, they next take his clothes and cut his hair. They assign him a rank, throw him in the barracks. They train him up like an attack dog, and hang dog tags around his neck, for the ominous of reasons:

Because you may die mutilated beyond recognition, lying in a pile of identically-dressed corpses, we’re going to need you to wear this death certificate like a necklace.

(Sidenote: The dog tag has existed in many forms throughout history. The Roman legionnaires had a “signaculum”, while the Spartans had inscribed sticks tied to their left wrist.)

In this scene from Saving Private Ryan, the hardened grunts go digging through the dog tags in search of their Private Ryan. The medic, who knows the significance of this symbol, chastises the grunts for handling them like “poker chips” in front of so many fresher-faced infantrymen.

SPR is a Grunt classic because it recognizes the profundity of the name/body dynamic. The whole quest of this movie is about taking a name, Ryan, and finding the body it belongs to. Why? Because all the other Ryan boys have died, and somebody needs to carry that bloodline forward.

Let’s not gloss over how extraordinary a choice this is on the part of the storytellers. Wars have no shortage of really obvious plots. Every battle is a tragedy just waiting to be told, and these all connect in an epic campaign that leads to glorious victory or ignominious defeat. But SPR doesn't tell that story, because that is the general's narrative. You ever seen Patton? It's hard to follow because there's not much of an emotional throughline. And why would there be? War is as impersonal as it gets, a kind of cartographer's psychosis. No, no, no, this border must be redrawn! And to do it, I’ll just need a few billion dollars and a few thousand corpses. For Grunts on the ground, bleeding, it's much more appealing for them to think about being rescued from the battlefield, plucked up by some angels in olive drab and spirited back home to some familiar cornfields. Dunkirk figured this out, too, with Tom Hardy's heroic pilot falling into the hands of the enemy to win his comrades that exhausted train ride home, back to England.

Tombs & Medals

Once training is over, the war begins, and the Grunts battle to keep their names and bodies intact. If it goes well, the Grunt may receive a medal, which is doubly meaningful. Not only are you celebrated as an individual, but you get to carry that token of individuality on your standard-issue uniform. You earn an identity, in other words, by performing so valorously that you stand out from the anonymous swarm. This ties back to the extreme ratios of reproduction. There are millions of sperm, but only one will reach the egg. In scenarios like that, an extraordinary feat (or extraordinary luck) is required for any individual to stick out.

(If a soldier : sperm analogy strikes you as odd, I should point out that an infertile man is often said to be “shooting blanks”. There’s also an Aeon essay that describes the sperm’s journey as a “challenging military obstacle course”.)

But attrition for Grunts is high, and not everyone gets a medal. Many are shot to pieces and left to rot, like Snowden. Clever Grunt stories will acknowledge this moment, beyond simply observing the physical carnage. In Aliens, the death of the marines is registered by a computer display. Not the most cinematic, you might think, but there’s something disquieting about watching the vitals flatten, leaving behind an empty name.

And what do we do with these vacated names?

We build monuments, like the Vietnam memorial in DC, which is a simple wall of names. Or Arlington Cemetry, all those white markers chiselled with all those names. By commiting these names to posterity — and acknowledging those that couldn’t be recovered in the tomb of the unknown soldier — our culture attempts to make durable the name when the body was anything but. In that sense, all stories about Grunts are a kind of monument, and there is a lot of pathos to be mined there.

(Cinematography sidebar: Are we sure Spielberg’s first language is English? Is it possible that the first thing to come out of his mouth was an 8mm print of the Odessa Steps montage? The way the headstones obscure the figure as he moves among them, and then bracket him as he collapses, perfectly expresses his relationship to these fallen soldiers.)

But the living breathing Grunt isn’t interested the cold comfort of a marble tombstone, or a story. They want protection.


The suit of armor is the ultimate fetish for this persona. Why?

First, it solves the squishiness problem. By replacing weak flesh with clean, powerful steel, suddenly the fear of random death (like from a stray piece of shrapnel) is dampened, which reactivates the power fantasy of combat.

Second, it heightens the depersonalization drama. Once you are in the suit, your face is hidden. (The classic "fishbowl" helmets, seen in many sci-fi movies, are not regulation equipment for Grunts.) But becoming faceless is not always a bad thing. We start policing the emotional displays of boys at quite a young age, and the implied solution is for them to construct a stoic and impassive shell which betrays nothing — neither vulnerability nor rage. A suit of armor + helmet strikes the proto-Grunt as ideal. Not only will it defend against external assaults, but it can serve as a bomb coffin, a sort of pressure vessel that can withstand explosive internal forces without subjecting bystanders to any shrapnel.

This is initially quite adaptive: the Grunt is spared the pain of strong emotion, and the Grunt’s intimates get a good soldier. But after awhile, you end up with a close cousin of the Grunt: the Tin Man, or empty suit of armor.* Having banished those powerful feelings that churn in his heart, the Grunt, like the Earth without its molten metal core, loses its magnetic field. His inner compass no longer works, and self-direction becomes difficult. Enter the Commanding Officer: Grunts are dying to take orders. Blurry individual goals are replaced with group objectives. Enter The Glorious Sacrifice for the Good of Mankind: Grunts are dying to die for something.

* That’s how powerful it is as a symbol — it can house multiple personas. But their intersection — Tin Man Grunts, aka Space Marines — is such a rich microgenre that I’ll conflate them going forward.


Some insectile aliens

One question every Grunt story must answer: who are we shooting at? Bugs are best, and not just because Alien popularized them. The Grunt, in his armor/exoskeleton, swarming the battlefield, mindlessly following orders, getting squashed underfoot by air strikes, recognizes that bug. That recognition makes for a natural adversary, a way for the Grunt to vent his self-disgust on a horrifying, inhuman monster. Their inhumanity is crucial: you’re allowed to exterminate a bug without justification, and Grunts relish the chance at some savage, consequence-free slaughter.

The Superior Officer

Grunts are, of course, order-takers, and chafe at that. The war he’s fighting is never the Grunt’s idea, but rather something some asshole cooked up in an air-conditioned room far from the front lines. There’s bone-deep resentment that comes with having your fate resting in the soft hands of some politico, or foolish general.

A lot of class resentment hovers in this relationship. The Grunt is not happy about being used like a tool, and the resentment is sharpened by the fact that they are taking orders from someone who exerts a completely unphysical power over them. It’s one thing to be dominated by a ferocious enemy combatant, who’s another blue collar worker — that’s a fair contest — but to be manipulated by an even squishier commander is beyond frustrating.

As such, it’s a reliable hit with Grunts to highlight some successful insubordination. At some point in almost all of these stories, somebody’s going to decide that damnit, there’s only one way out of this mess, and that asshole on the radio can’t see it. Aliens has a great moment when Ripley seizes command of the situation from the feckless Gorman and races to save the dying squad of Marines.

Core Texts


After a long slog through development hell, the Halo TV show premieres this month, and I’m betting it will work. Just going off the trailer, it’s tapping into all the psychology I’ve described. Look at these snippets of dialogue:

Text Psychology
Humanity’s best weaponDepersonalized, but still important because the Grunt is so potent
The Master Chief was enhanced and trained for one purpose... to win this war.Good for one thing, which is a group objective.
He is lethal, upgradeable, and most importantly... controllable.Commanding officers looking to manipulate the Grunt
What they did to us... makes you numb.Resentment at having been turned into machine
You just decided to help me? Why would a Spartan do that?Glimmers of humanity, the Grunt seeking to reconnect with his true self
What does one do with a superhuman you’re not sure you can trust?Threat of being strangled by chain of command, promise of some rogue behavior
OUR DEADLIEST WEAPON IS OUR GREATEST HOPESublimate your violent skills into something prosocial

As an IP, Halo has always gone above and beyond for the Grunt. It gets all the props right: the armor design, the gunplay, the vehicles, and the gadgets. But just as critically, Halo gets the feelings right. It tells a very hopeful story, which can be rare for this persona, and is obviously appreciated.

You can hear the hope in the theme song. A carpetbagging artist would never come up with a Gregorian chant for a story about shooting plasma rifles and stomping xeno-Goombas (known as — what else? — Grunts). But the wordless spirituality of the song, drawing so much emotion from reverberations, makes perfect sense: imagine these sounds bouncing off the walls of the Tin Man’s empty suit of armor. That’s his wispy soul, reaching for something purer and more noble. There’s something angelic yearning to be expressed in the Grunt, as demonstrated by the surprisingly rich vein of YouTube videos in which a dude breaks out the Halo theme as soon as he sets foot in a room with sufficient reverb.

Halo’s marketing has always centered around the pathos of the steel-cased angel. Starry Night starts with two kids under the stars, pondering extraterrestial life. The boy says he hopes they’ll get to meet the aliens. Smash cut to the girl, who’s been replaced by a helmet. Her scream morphs into the sound of a falling mortar. A flicker of bright light, and the hero is in his armor, on the battlefield. He dons his helmet, grabs his rifle. Is he dead? Not yet — and then it’s back into the fight. (A battle which features a bubble shield, which is great: on top of the power armor, now Master Chief has a forcefield, too. WHY WON’T YOU LET ANYONE TOUCH YOU, CHIEF?)

Master Chief in a bubble shield

Remember Reach again tugs on the heart strings with some delicate piano work. This time we catch our heroic Grunt midway through a touchdown run, a football/bomb tucked under her arm. She falls halfway through — but another Grunt, this one with a jetpack, picks up the rock. He soars into the clouds, delivers it to the belly of the enemy warship, and blows it to hell as a lone woman hums. “Remember Reach” fades in.

It’s a great example of the kind of memorialization I discussed in the Tombs & Medal section.

(BTW: Faramir’s charge, in Lord of the Rings, hammers this same beat. Sweet-voiced Billy Boyd singing over the unloved son’s futile attempt at winning his father’s approval. Good to keep in mind that you aren’t married to sci-fi if you’re interested in courting this persona.)

Warhammer 40k

Warhammer 40k is Halo’s polar opposite. This space marine story is dark, vicious, and unredemptive... but equally appealing. Here’s an extremely sound recruitment pitch to the Grunt:

“They shall be my finest warriors, these men who give of themselves to me. Like clay I shall mould them, and in the furnace of war forge them. They will be of iron will and steely muscle. In great armour shall I clad them and with the mightiest guns will they be armed. They will be untouched by plague or disease, no sickness will blight them. They will have tactics, strategies and machines so that no foe can best them in battle. They are my bulwark against the Terror. They are the Defenders of Humanity. They are my Space Marines and they shall know no fear.” — The Immortal God-Emperor of Mankind, Warhammer 40,000

Power, freedom from bodily weakness & fear, defending humanity, loss of agency — all familiar impulses to us by now.

Now if you want to sample what pure fentanyl looks like for a Grunt, check out The Astartes Project.

This is a staggering piece of work from a lone creator — not only does this dude know his way around a 3D modelling program, he knows his way around the Grunt’s id. His Space Marines are fast, huge, and fire guns with a shit-ton of bass. They move with single-minded purpose, conquering a Gigeresque battlespace with no muss and no fuss — the space marines of Aliens are childish next to them. They exhibit zero distress, even as they are being mangled by telekinetic alien orbs. Near-death experiences are shrugged off. These shock troops are incapable of being shocked.

This clip is a great example of what Astartes does best:

Grunts are extremely logical when it comes to violence, which is unusual. In the animal kingdom, most violence is predation. That’s natural & individualized — a shark only takes orders from its appetite, and if its belly is full, you’re not a priority. Outside of predation, animal violence is largely a tool for establishing the in-group dominance hierarchy. Stags lock antlers, rams butt heads, silverback gorillas and alpha wolves fend off younger challengers, etc. This is more like prizefighting than warfare -- the point isn’t to kill your rival, but to defeat and diminish him. Not so for Grunts. They do not commit violence to impress, or to win status — but to exterminate. That’s because Grunts fight so far outside the domestic sphere that their only spectators are their squadmates and the enemy itself. As such, a premium is placed on efficiency, and Grunt stories that can deliver no-holds-barred, hyperlogical violence will undoubtedly strike a chord.

I’ve used that word, exterminate, a few times now, and we should acknowledge that other, even darker personas will come sniffing around when such a spectacle is on the menu. Fascists, for instance, love exterminating their enemies. Games Workshop, the company that publishes Warhammer, recently had to send a memo clarifying that they are anti-fascist, after a player turned up to a tournament wearing a Nazi insignia. (Not a great day in the PR department when you’ve got to draft such a memo, I’m sure.)

They state, in bold type, that “Like so many aspects of Warhammer 40,000, the Imperium of Man is satirical.” And for all I know, it very well may be. But Astartes certainly isn’t. And it turns out that Games Workshop hired that artist, Syama Pedersen, to work for them. Why wouldn’t they? It’s got 10M+ views on YouTube.

(A more innocuous example that occurred since I published this piece: the Halo TV show — which was as satisfying as I predicted — caught flak for humanizing its protagonist, Master Chief. Hardcore fans wanted a robotic killing machine that only occasionally dispensed tough one-liners. Character arc? Emotions? Who needs ’em. Just give me an avatar of mechanized destruction.)

John Steakley, Armor

Originally published in 1984, this is a seminal Grunt novel. My memories of the text itself are foggy — it’s been 25 years since I read it. But let’s take a second to appreciate the marketing material for what it is: a pinpoint strike on the Grunt’s palate. First, the title is perfect. Now here’s the blurb:

The military sci-fi classic of courage on a dangerous alien planet

The planet is called Banshee. The air is unbreathable, the water is poisonous. It is home to the most implacable enemies that humanity, in all its interstellar expansion, has ever encountered.

Body armor has been devised for the commando forces that are to be dropped on Banshee—the culmination of ten thousand years of the armorers’ craft. A trooper in this armor is a one-man, atomic powered battle fortress. But he will have to fight a nearly endless horde of berserk, hard-shelled monsters—the fighting arm of a species which uses biological technology to design perfect, mindless war minions.

Felix is a scout in A-team Two. Highly competent, he is the sole survivor of mission after mission. Yet he is a man consumed by fear and hatred. And he is protected, not only by his custom-fitted body armor, but by an odd being which seems to live within him, a cold killing machine he calls “The Engine.”

This is Felix’s story—a story of the horror, the courage, and the aftermath of combat, and the story, too, of how strength of spirit can be the greatest armor of all.

And here’s the first page. Have written the previous 3,000 words before looking at this, let’s say I feel like this profile is onto something. All emphases are mine.

He drank alone.

Which was odd since he didn’t have trouble with people. He had always managed to make acquaintances without much effort. And, despite what had happened, he still liked people. Recently, he had even grown to miss them again. Yet here he was, drinking alone.

Maybe I’m just shy, he thought to himself and then laughed at such a feeble attempt at self-delusion. For he knew what it was.

From his place at the end of the long bar he examined the others in the crowded lounge. He recognized a handful from training. Training was where it had begun. Where he had felt that odd sensation descending upon him like mist, separating him from all those thousands of others around him in the mess hall. It was a dull kind of temporal shock at first, a reaction reverberating from somewhere deep within him. He had somehow felt ... No, he had somehow known that they all would die.

He shook his head, drained his glass. If he was in the mood for honesty he would have to admit that his chances were no better. No better at all...

It’s all there: disconnection, horror of mortality, lack of plot armor.

The Iron Giant / Big Hero 6 / Terminator 2

These are Tin Men stories first and foremost, but when it comes time to send that machine to the dump, Grunts are going to lean in. Because nobody does a heroic sacrifice better than the hollow Tin Man. Whenever there’s an unexpected shortfall of emotional intensity from a character, the audience naturally compensates — it’s what makes understatement so effective as a rhetorical device. Watching a numb character destroy themselves for the sake of others works unbelievably well, because it’s so tragically misguided. In a story, you can have a T-800, this cybernetic organism with a true deficit of emotion. But in the real world, all the "cyborgs" you see are people who have been cleaved from their own emotional experience, and that’s a sad situation. It is particularly profound for the Grunt, who may believe that only through a heroic sacrifice will he truly matter to other.

For this to really work, the Tin Man needs to acknowledge both the gravity of what they’re doing and the impossibility of them reclaiming their embodied emotions. “I know now why you cry. But it’s something I can never do.”

This is the rare moment when the Grunt’s act of insubordination is tragic, not triumphant. Edward Furlong, with the greatest cracked vocal performance in child actor history, begs the cyborg to stay. “I order you not to go!”

Sidenote: the fact that Tin Men so often die in fire is significant. As something that was forged in a crucible, where better place for them to be unmade? Grunts know all about that crucible, too. Bill Paxton’s character in Edge of Tomorrow:

Battle is the Great Redeemer. It is the fiery crucible in which true heroes are forged. The one place where all men truly share the same rank, regardless of what kind of parasitic scum they were going in.

Vader in the Hallway

Darth Vader is an exemplary Tin Man/Grunt. Terrifying, part machine, tightly controlled by his commanding officer, but underneath that chitinous & insectile mask is a squishy and scarred man. I'm not a Star Wars guy, but I credit the original trilogy for unmasking Vader. To build an iconic villain and undo him so quickly takes guts.

But Rogue One recognizes that, deep down, nobody wants Vader to be humanized. Keep the helmet on, please, let’s preserve the fantasy of an implacable lieutenant that can crush an underling’s trachea with a thought. And not only does Rogue One do that, it lets Palpatine’s doberman off the leash in a spectacular and violent way, with the hallway slaughter.

This is why I think Rogue One enjoys such a good reputation among the recent Star Wars movies. It deploys this moment of fan service tactically, with real awareness of the audience’s emotions. The scene comes right on the heels of the protagonists’ noble, Grunty deaths, as they are annihilated in a flash of light. (No one makes it home, but they manage to get the Death Star plans out, which makes their sacrifice all worth it.) But instead of sending the audience out on that sorrowful beat, the filmmakers take us into a pitch black hallway. Cue the respirator. Cue the red lightsaber. The movie uses a vicious display of force from the villain — a pure Grunt power fantasy no different from Astartes — as a way of equalizing the helpless vulnerability that the death of the protagonists evoked. That way, everyone walks out of the theater leveled out.

Differential Diagnosis

With such a focus on armor, you might assume that a medieval knight could fit the bill. But knights are inseparable from chivalry, which places them far too close to the realm of romance and polite society. For every Lancelot, there’s a Guinevere. The Grunt never sets foot in court; he receives no favor from women. If there’s a woman on his mind, it’s the archetypal Spartan mother, exhorting the Grunt to “Come back with your shield — or on it.”

Ironically, 300, which is about actual Spartans, is a terrible example of a Grunt story. The acting is too expressive, there’s too much erotic energy, and each performer is too individualized — the particular configurations of their 6-packs are like fingerprints. Grunt stories are drained of sexuality, they’re stuck in the trenches and can’t afford to think about that. The choreography of Grunt warfare emphasizes brutal efficiency, not the flowing dance of 300. Also, the Spartans used shields, and shields don’t do it for Tin Men. Their core fantasy is of protection through total enclosure.

If you’re interested in a Grunt’s take on Sparta, Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield is a good one. Pressfield was a marine, and his work appears on the Corps’s official reading list. He’s also one of the two authors I ever sent a letter to. I think I was 13, and had just learned about pederasty in ancient Greece. I wanted to know why that was completely absent from the text, and Mr. Pressfield very kindly took the time to reply. He told me that incorporating this aspect of Greek life would distract from the story he wanted to tell. As a pubescent know-it-all who’d just come into possession of a salacious historical tidbit, I remember being dubious* -- why would you ever exclude sex from your story? It’s all bound up, right? Sex and death, love and war? But I think Pressfield was being truthful to his own artistic vision, and certainly to the wants of his readership. The Grunt very rarely has sex on his mind.

* Today I’m dubious for less naive reasons; seems like if you’re going to valorize the Spartans in the eyes of a modern audience, you’re hitting off the short tees by omitting the institutionalized rape of minors.

When Grunts do want to contemplate sex, however abstractly, they turn to Tin Women, like the ones you see in Alita: Battle Angel and Ghost in the Shell. These run a clever end-around on a long-standing aesthetic problem: if we put a lady in armor, how are we going to know if she’s hot?! This is apparently so untenable* that, historically, most game artists opted for “boob armor”. If you’re not familiar, it’s the plate mail version of a Hooter’s uniform. For a long time, you could skate on this, but in the early aughts these outfits started to catch heat for being ludicrously impractical. Who would ever wear a suit of armor that fully exposes your midriff?

* Samus Aran, first seen clad in hulking red-yellow power armor, now frequently appears in her “Zero Suit”, which is a Birthday Suit + a coat of blue paint.

For a Tin Woman character, however, no armor is required: they can just be adamantium sex dolls. But — and this comes as no surprise, since Grunts are so focused on impenetrability — there’s not a ton of desire around these objectified women*. It feels like a thin eye candy coating atop the same sense of hollowness. Perhaps because the Grunt himself feels unfairly objectified as a war machine, by virtue of his sex, he can identify with these Tin Women.

* The eerie intro to Ghost in the Shell, with its lingering closeups of a naked robot's pelvis, still doesn’t feel like it spikes above baseline levels of anime perversity. I also want to shout out Ghost in the Shell’s title, which perfectly captures the Tin Man dilemma in just four words.

Giant mechs are quite close, but the scale and typical unruliness of the armor suits pushes it just slightly over the line into a Beast Bonder, for me. The core fantasy there isn’t that you’re impervious inside your armor, but rather that your puny human mind can control this enormous monster. I’ll make an exception for Neon Genesis Evangelion, though: from what I’ve seen, it certainly seems like there’s a lot of alienation in the characters, who are forced to fight a war they didn’t choose. There’s one episode which discusses the “hedgehog’s dilemma”, which is bang on the money for the Tin Man — the idea is that this armored animal can’t get close to others because its defense mechanisms get in the way.