A few weeks ago, I was substitute teaching a class of Kindergartners at a local elementary school. As we made it through the day learning about shapes, colors, numbers, and all the absolute foundational building blocks of knowledge, a thought began to dawn on me. That thought was, “These are the kinds of kids that Halsey and Ackerson both started their respective Spartan programs from.” Six year-olds like the ones I was teaching were kidnapped and turned into the fiercest super-soldiers within the narrative of the Halo universe. Six year-olds like the one who kept asking me to tie his shoes.
The theme of lost childhood is one you don’t really see much being discussed when talking about Halo. Most conversations about children tend to be about the kids saying the obscene things they’ll do to your mother during a multiplayer match. However, when doing some research for an article I had planned to do on child soldiers and fiction I realized that Halo has had an interesting relationship with the concept of childhood. In short, there really are no kids in the Halo universe. Well, there are, but they are not kids as they SHOULD BE. There are exceptions at times, like when we first meet John-117 playing a game of king of the hill at school or Molly Patel interacting with the mixed species kids at her new school in Onyx, but it does not take long for any domesticity to be wiped away. This is by no means a concept relegated to humanity either.
Consider Bornstellar Makes Eternal Lasting, the Forerunner Manipular we meet in Halo: Cryptum. When we first encounter him, we see him as what can best be described as a rebellious pre-teen at the ripe age of 12. His Builder family kicks him out and makes him live with Miners on Edom (Mars) to build discipline, but he sneaks away to go to Erde-Tyrene (Earth) in search of treasure in the form of the Organon, a mythical object said to activate all Precursor technology. What does he find instead? The cryptum of the Didact (later Ur-Didact), the same Didact who would take Bornstellar and his human guides, Chakas and Riser, on an interstellar odyssey that eventually leaves Bornstellar assuming the Didact’s role (Iso-Didact). For 300 years the Iso-Didact would be in charge of combating the Flood with the Forerunners dwindling resources before ultimately having to activate the Halo Array and purging the galaxy of all sentient life. Bornstellar, in effect, is robbed of his childhood and literally grown in adulthood via brevet mutation under the Ur-Didact’s watch and must shoulder the military burden of his people.
The children of the Sangheili arguably come close to having a childhood we could deem “normal”. Sangheili children seemingly are allowed to play, receive an education of sorts (they do learn narrative poems and ballads), and even hunt as a pastime. Yet, both male and female Sangheili children are taught combat at an early age. For boys, they are raised to be warriors. For girls, they are given combat skills to defend the various Keeps of Sanghelios and other colony worlds. Obviously, humans and aliens are not going to always have the same beliefs and I wouldn’t expect the way children should be raised to be an exception. However, at least for the Sangheili’s history with the Covenant, we saw how this system of childhood turned out. Untold numbers of sons were sent out to fight the Covenant’s battles and many never returned.
And then there is the case of humanity. Given the human-centric nature of the narrative, it’s no surprise we spend the most time with our own species. Yet the way children are portrayed here speaks volumes about how the powers that be see how the youngest of humanity are to be treated and what that means for society. Before even considering the Spartans, the children we see in the context of humanity all seem to be thrust in situations that force them to grow up, perhaps before they are truly ready. Perhaps the only exception is Olympia Vale and even then, she survives a six-month trip from her homeworld of Luyten to Earth after her shuttle’s slipspace drive malfunctions and in her spare time begins to grasp the Sangheili language from recordings on board the ship. She goes on to university once she gets older, but the only reason she is propelled on her journey to ONI language specialist to Spartan is because of an opportunity granted to her during the Covenant War. She’s damn lucky her shuttle dodged Covenant activity during their six-month trip. That’s not normal.
Otherwise, we can look at Thomas Lasky’s time at Corbulo. Coming from a military family, he was already saddled with expectations given his mother was a colonel and his ODST brother Cadmon was a star pupil of Corbulo. Perhaps in the years before Corbulo he may have had a normal childhood, but this is our earliest encounter with the young Lasky. Despite a history of insubordination, health problems relating to adapting to cryosleep and rebel sympathies, the Covenant attack on the world where Corbulo was situated forced him to assume a leadership role for the sake of his comrades. Still, the fact that there was an expectation for him to be in the military speaks of the values of his day. True, his friend Petra and him had at least one fun moment at a carnival, but that seems to be an outlier rather than a trend. Even a civilian like Sadie Endesha, whose dotting father created a subroutine of New Mombasa’s Superintendent AI to watch her throughout her childhood, felt fleeing to the military at age 18 was a necessity despite how badly the war was really going. We know how effective UNSC and ONI propaganda was after all, but for someone from the safety of Earth to run off towards danger is staggering in its insanity. Of course, the Covenant would soon invade and out an end to that plan for Sadie.
Then there are the Spartan-IIs and Spartan-IIIs, arguably the poster children for lost childhoods. Whereas the previous cases dealt with much older children, really teenagers in some cases, the IIs and IIIs are children through and through. Halsey picked the best and brightest six year-olds for her program while Ackerson picked six year-olds as well as kids as young as four. Four! In the S-IIs case, they were made to fight against an insurrection projected to reach critical levels of danger before long that threatened the stability of humanity. Seemingly as an added bonus (perhaps intentional or not), these kids were kidnapped from mostly Outer Colony worlds where rebellion was most active. They were trained, drilled, beaten, and experimented on to be the greatest super-soldiers known to mankind. Undoubtedly, they were.
The Spartan-IIIs, however, had a far different fate. The government did not need to step in to ruin their lives, the Covenant got to them first. Orphaned by the war, ONI took advantage of their anger and resentment of the Covenant and molded them into a new breed of super-soldiers. Unlike their Spartan-II brothers and sisters, they were made to buy the UNSC time to plan the war as suicide soldiers. Kids as young as four went through even more rigorous training than the S-IIs only to die by the hundreds in perilous missions. Though they retained some childlike qualities, as seen Mark, Ash, and Olivia’s behavior with Veta Lopis, they don’t get to be children. Despite surviving the Battle of Onyx, these kids are put to work as black ops troops. The Covenant War they were made for had ended, but their service to ONI was not.
So, what does this tell us? Ultimately, I feel this reflects the influence war has on a society. Obviously, there are direct influences be they manufactured pride in military service, propaganda supporting that venture, suspensions of traditional government systems, and so on. However, the effect it has on children is consuming if, at times, a bit harder to see. People like Vale and Sadie likely had average childhoods, but they still found themselves positioned towards careers that would put them in the employ of the UNSC and ONI. Without war being a constant factor in their lives, would this have been the case? Perhaps, perhaps not. While not tantamount to being robbed of their childhood, they couldn’t escape the pull the war had on their lives. This is more so for Lasky as his family upbringing left him few options but to put his childhood away in favor of being taught at a military academy. No normal schooling and no normal friendships outside of his one civilian friend Petra (and even then, being at Corbulo limited that contact) could be had for Lasky.
The Spartan kids certainly were robbed of being kids at the whims of their governments, first to suppress human vs human war and then to supply bodies for a bulwark against alien warfighting. And just to remind you, we are talking about kids who at this time would probably be learning their ABCs and shapes. The fact these measures were seen as necessary to both the insurrectionist and Covenant war-efforts speaks to how little individual lives mattered in the end to the UNSC and ONI. There were wars to win and these kids were deemed the sacrifices to win those wars. The same could be said of the Sangheili youth with the Covenant. The Prophets demanded blood in their pursuit of the Great Journey and so child after child was trained to spill their blood for a false faith.
In conclusion, perhaps we will know that Halo’s story is drawing to a close when we encounter a new generation of children who don’t know the corrupting influence of war. We see a germ of this with Bornstellar’s son in the epilogue to Halo: Fractures. All he knows is the farm life his parents have relegated themselves to and the mythologized stories of the Precursors, Forerunners, Flood and Halos his father tells him before he slumbers. One day, the Spartans, Covenant and whatever comes next will be told as bedtime stories. When that happens, when the children of the Halo universe get to be children, that will be the end. After all, Halo started on a school playground and children at play would be as good as any future to fight for.
“At the end of the game, the king and the pawn go back in the same box.”