by Robert Heinlein
1959, G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Recommended? Know thy enemy
I can’t talk about a Heinlein book, let alone Starship Troopers, without talking about my dad.
My dad’s a lot like I am. We look alike. We both have wanderlust. We both instinctively refuse authority and we both give to people flying signs by the side of the road. We’re both writers, and he raised me to read science fiction. In particular, he raised me to read Heinlein.
My father’s also a marine. He never saw combat—he was honorably discharged for medical reasons not too long after bootcamp. But, you know, once a marine, always a marine.
It’s hard not to imagine that, had I joined the military, my experience would have been similar to my father’s. And his experiences (as I understand them) entirely belie Heinlein’s glorious presentation of the armed forces.
My father blacked the first two weeks of boot camp from his memory. It was only through later conversations that he managed to piece it together that he was intensely bullied (since everyone involved was a grownup, can we just say “routinely assaulted”?) in boot, so much so that he locked away the memories.
Books like Starship Troopers paint a veneer over the simple truth that armed forces are hired killers.
And yet, it’s one of my father’s favorite books. And, perhaps indefensibly, one of mine.
* * *
The book, and the political system it advocates, have been taken to task time and time again, often by much wiser authors than me. In the world of Starship Troopers, the decadent everyone-votes democracies fell into ruin because we stopped spanking our kids. Out of the chaos of that awful no-spanking apocalypse, a group of veterans took over, declared themselves in charge, and decided only veterans could vote. World peace ensued.
I’m leaving out some details, but that really is the gist of it.
A stable, single federation controls Earth and all of its colonies. And in order to gain franchise, you must do federal service. Federal service is optional, but everyone, regardless of race, gender, or physical ability, can apply. Most people serve in the military, others do other jobs that are designed to be equally arduous and dangerous. Lots of people die in boot camp.
Maybe 1/3 of the novel is plot. The rest is dialogue and exposition, describing the moral framework of the society. Some critics have suggested that Heinlein’s society is fascist. I’d say Heinlein is more complicated than that. Fascists probably love this book, but that’s not the book’s fault. No, I wouldn’t call it fascist. I’d call it conservative and, to steal from Moorcock’s critique of it, I’d call it paternalistic.
Starship Troopers is one of the more brilliant and influential arguments for hierarchy ever put to print. For that reason alone, it’s worth reading. Know your enemy. Know why they believe what they believe.
It’s a book that deeply romanticizes war and military service. And you know what? I appreciate that. I’m no pacifist. I wrote a novel deeply romanticizing military struggle myself. But romanticization is dangerous. It’s dangerous when Heinlein does it, it’s dangerous when I do it. There’s no PTSD in Starship Troopers. There’s no separation anxiety as soldiers miss their loved ones—even though the “reason we fight” advocated in the book is to place our bodies between our home and the war’s desolation. There’re no disemboweled friends, only cute simple metaphors for death like “buying the farm.” There’s no horror, just duty. Glorious duty.
The perfect, benevolent hierarchy in Starship Troopers is sugarcoated pretty well. In the Mobile Infantry, even the generals get into the fray. No one is commissioned unless they’ve seen combat. Every officer is a gentleman and a scholar and a bloodied vet. The sky marshal had to work his way up the Navy hierarchy and the Mobile Infantry hierarchy, all without dying. What’s more, a soldier can quit anytime the bullets aren’t flying. They can quit two seconds before being dropped into battle. And the civilian world, while capitalist, isn’t any more authoritarian than our own.
I’ve read a lot of Heinlein books. I’m not surprised that he chose probably the nicest version of intense hierarchy you could summon up. This is the same author who brought us (somewhat capitalistic) anarchist values in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. He helped Upton Sinclair run for office as a socialist in the 30s. He’s written extensively in favor of free love and one of the important life lessons he imparts in Friday is that “everyone is bisexual.”
There’s some pretty interesting irony in that all the hippies were reading Stranger In A Strange Land while Heinlein was openly advocating for US involvement in Vietnam.
In Starship Troopers, every moral truth is considered mathematically provable. There really, truly is a “right” and “wrong” way to do everything. If a crazy man murders a child, the crazy man must be put down like a dog. Because, as Heinlein argues, even if he were curable, the only moral thing for him to do after being cured would be to recognize his horrific action and end his own life. Therefore, there the only thing to do is to kill the man. Logic as benevolent governance.
Heinlein thinks he sees the world rationally. He’s pretty into the “human as animal” argument, and uses it to defend colonization and to attack population reduction strategies. He even outright says that a population that doesn’t practice war would end up wiped out—whether by other humans or by an alien invasion. This might be the greatest hole in Heinlein’s logic. To quote my father:
The “problem” with Heinlein’s postulates is that they need an enemy to give them form. They have no place in a peaceful society. If the protecting force can’t find an enemy, it will have to create one. Everyone who aspires to acquiring and keeping control of others needs a “them.”
If humanity wasn’t at war with the “bugs” or the “skinnies” (the two alien races mentioned in the book), the rational, war-loving government would have to war with itself.
Still, if there’s a moral lesson in this book I can agree with heart and soul, it’s the need for solidarity. Oh, Heinlein doesn’t use that leftist word for it, but he means the same thing. He means that an injury to one is an injury to all. And, what’s more, I agree with him that to truly grow up, to truly become an adult human, is to learn to expand your sense of self-defense to include community defense and be willing to sacrifice as an individual in order to accomplish this. Heinlein’s characters go on at length about why you never leave a living man to die, and that one of humanity’s greatest virtues is that we’re willing to be bad at cold calculations, risking numerous people’s lives in an attempt to rescue a single person.
From this point of view, I’d probably take the colonialist, war-mongering federation of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers over the “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” federation in Star Trek.
Anarchism sits on a knife’s edge between rightwing and leftwing values. It’s not halfway between the two, it includes some extremes of both. And we share this awkward liminal space with, among others, Heinlein. Heinlein’s no anarchist, and Starship Troopers is far better propaganda for the State than it is for us. But his ideas are complex. They’re familiar and unique at the same time.
And I won’t lie, the romanticism gets to me. I love the wounded-in-action officers who take a pay cut to get out of retirement and work as instructors. I love the father who leaves his successful business to volunteer in the infantry. I like to think—no, fuck that, I know—that my dad would be at the barricades with me if the revolution was upon us. Or giant space bugs were trying to kill us all, whichever.