Starship Troopers: A Book Review

By Todd Lewis

Having just completed my second read-through of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, I thought I would write about my thoughts on Heinlein’s political philosophy as expressed in this must-read work. Starship Troopers is one of those true gems of Science-Fiction; it uses fiction to explore something interesting about the human condition, in this case war, peace, order and duty, with little to no suspension of disbelief. There are no moments where the reader is going to think, that’s bogus! The Terran Federation has no easy victories, and a couple of sound defeats.

The plot of the book revolves around the volunteer Rico and his rise from a cadet to a Sergeant. The reader is introduced to a colorful cast of hardnosed fighters such as Frankel, Zim, and Blackie, but everything is built around Heinlein’s view of human nature and politics, which is told through flashbacks to Rico’s classes with Mr. Dubois, a teacher of History and Moral Philosophy. The real meat of the book is contained in the discussions of those classes. Heinlein discusses five components of his world: (1) all life is engaged in a struggle for survival, (2) nothing gained without struggle is valued, (3) the voting franchise should be limited to those who care for the human race as a whole, (4) man has no innate moral sense and is at base an animal, and (5) military life.

Life is Struggle

Heinlein, through Rico, seeks to communicate to the reader that all life is engaged in a Darwinian struggle for survival where the best and strongest win. This struggle is seen taking  place between the Terran Federation and the Arachnnids, also called the “Bugs,” and to a lesser degree the hominid Skinnies. Rico at one point muses about the inevitability of war and the inevitability of one species eradicating the other, be it the Bugs eradicating humans or humans eradicating the Bugs. Before the Aliens, the Tyranids, or the Zerg, there were the Bugs. The Bugs are clearly a stand-in for the communist menace that was ever present in 1959 (the year that the book was published). This connection is made explicit when Rico reflects on the Anglo-Russian-American war with the Chinese Hegemony. He observes that fighting soldiers that have one brain thinking for them is very difficult to fight, something that was prefigured in the Chinese Hegemony. We see a struggle between individual freedom, represented by the M.I. (mobile infantry) and collective conformity in the Bugs. Rico states that the M.I. are the best military in history because they choose to fight and choose to protect the whole, whereas no military before ever had such a commitment to these values and, consequently, failed.

The motivation for a soldier in the M.I. to fight is the knowledge that his own defeat will lead to the complete genocide of the human race. Throughout the book it is stated that either the Humans or the Bugs would win; there was no middle option. In this struggle, much like Rome and Carthage, only one side can prevail, and that side’s success will be at the expense of the very existence of the other. This stark and gritty world is in many ways similar to the dark, xenophobic world of Warhammer 40K where the imperium of man is engaged in an unrelenting war of survival against alien races.

Nothing Free is Valued

Heinlein reveals through Mr. Dubois, the crippled M.I. teacher of History and Moral Philosophy, his belief that a man only values something if he has worked for it. To illustrate this principle, Dubois gives Rico a medal that places him in first place in a competition in which Rico had only placed third. This offended Rico, but illustrated the point that nothing given for free is valued. Dubois argues that twentieth century democracies fell by giving out the voting franchise, as well as everything else, for free. This world of irresponsibility and false promises of limitless gain caused people to act  in ways that were actually against their self-interest, such as tolerating the rise of feral criminal children. It bears stating that Heinlein was extremely prescient here, with rising juvenile crime, gang bangers in the hood, and youth riots in London, most everything he predicted has happened and I would argue for much the same reasons. The expansion of the voting franchise to non-property holding males under Andrew Jackson was the beginning of a terrible trend, one that would ultimately lead every Tom, Dick, Harry, and eventually Jane to believe that no matter how stupid,  indecent, or lazy a person was, he or she had the right to be heard and given a say in governing the nation.

The Citizen

Mr. Dubois argues that, while the Terran Federation might not have the smartest or most talented people leading the nation, it has been the most successful government in history. Mr. Dubois argues that the secret is in limiting the voting franchise to service men – either the M.I. or the Navy. Heinlein believes that all of humanity is united in a Darwinian struggle for survival and that only those who are willing to put their life on the line for humanity should have a say in making the laws that govern humanity. This is a sophisticated way of describing a very old notion called civic militarism. In ancient Greece and Rome, it was expected that only those who bore arms in service of the commonwealth should have a say in its governance. The rationale was much the same as Heinlein’s: if people don’t risk their lives in protecting the commonwealth, they will not be able to make decisions for the good of the whole. I tend to agree with Heinlein here. As Machiavelli stated in Chapter XIV of the Prince:

“A prince ought to have no other aim or thought, nor select anything else for his study, than war and its rules and discipline; for this is the sole art that belongs to him who rules, and it is of such force that it not only upholds those who are born princes, but it often enables men to rise from a private station to that rank.”

War is the most serious state a commonwealth can find itself in, and by implication, anybody not willing to pay that price to preserve the commonwealth and the rights it confers should not be allowed the privilege to vote. In Heinlein’s world, the Federation is divided into two classes: (1) citizens and (2) civilians. Rico recites from the text book definition of both a citizen and a civilian: “A citizen accepts personal responsibility for the safety of the body politic, defending it with his life, a civilian does not.” In the Federation, no disapproval is expressed towards being a civilian. The military, despite being misunderstood and at times attacked by the civilian press, still looks to the larger picture (i.e. protecting the human race). Rico, after months of intense training, has this to say about being a citizen:

“A citizen has the courage to make the safety of the human race their personal responsibility.”

Protecting humanity and the concomitant responsibility are what separates the citizen from the civilian. In the Navy and M.I. most noncombatant roles are supplied by civilians, such as doctors, logistics etc, with the rationale being that it frees more citizens for fighting.

The citizen is a volunteer; there is no conscription in the Federation. The Federation cannot turn down an application for citizenship, which often leads to people of mental or physical inaptitude being given make-work jobs. If someone serves a two-year stint, one is granted the franchise; that is, unless the cadet seeks to go career in which case he must serve twenty years before gaining the franchise. In order to weed out the true citizens from adventures and dreamers, the recruiting office gives volunteers every reason to quit. Applicants are given a forty-eight hour window after signing up to think it over and quit. If one decides to quit, nothing happens; you just won’t be able to receive the franchise. At anytime during training one can leave for any reason, with the same results. The only time that is impossible is if one is in the process of being court-marshaled or being tried for some offense. Most non-capital offenses are punished by flogging, and capital offenses by hanging.

Rico at one point reflects on deserters, that is, deserters during peace time. He argues that if a man does not want to be an M.I. then he does not want that man in the M.I. at all, for that man will be unreliable when under fire. From reading Heinlein’s description of the all-volunteer citizenry as well as the ease with which one could bail out, I am tempted to think that the M.I. was based in part on the laws of warfare found in the Old Testament. In fact, Judges 7:2-7 is quoted as a heading to Chapter 4, that being the story of Gideon and God removing the men whose heart was not in the fight. While every able bodied man is required to train for war in the OT[1], there were four means by which a man could opt out of battle. First he constructs a house[2], second plants a vineyard[3], third betroths a woman[4], and four is faint of heart[5]. While I don’t know of any direct evidence that Heinlein was inspired by God’s Law in Deuteronomy 20, it does seem to have merit.

Total Depravity

Mr. Dubois argues that man has no innate moral sense and must be instructed as a child to behave in an ethical manner. This is highlighted by the discussion of feral children that terrorized the twentieth century democracies. In fact, the chapter to which this discussion takes place opens with the famous quote from Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go, And when he is old he will not depart from it.” While I do not agree that man has no innate moral sense (that would contradict Romans 2:15), Heinlein is substantially correct in his bleak view of man in his natural state. Devoid of spiritual reform and influence, only the fear of force will compel men to “be” good. Devoid of spiritual instruction, Glaucon and Heinlein are right, which is why with death of Christianity in the United States and a simultaneous death of corporal punishment, crime and murder are running out of control, increasingly among the youth.

Heinlein argues that morality must be instilled via corporal punishment in children. A little girl in the History and Moral Philosophy class, aghast at the behavior of the feral children, states that she would have been whooped for such behavior. To instill obedience, public floggings were regular in the Federation. Capital crimes were punished by hanging.

Life as an M.I

Heinlein, a veteran himself, paints a picture of military life that is both harsh and compassionate at the same time. When Rico is sent to boot camp, he and his mates are ‘tyrannized’ by the ever watchful Zim. Zim is complete hard-case. He talks trash, fights hard, and never lets up. Everybody under him loathes him, but he is there to weed out the weak and unqualified from the bunch. As we see when he tries to cover up being assaulted by one of his own cadets, Zim seeks to smooth things over despite his shiner, but the offending cadet’s big mouth gets him discharged after a series of lashings. A death penalty was avoided in part due to Zim’s own failure in the incident. Because Zim developed an affection for him, he began to get soft on the cadet. Zim was thoroughly chewed about by Colonel Frankel for his negligence, but denies Zim his quest for transfer.  A further level of humanizing Zim occurs when Rico realizes that Zim was a former mate of Dr. Dubois. It is clear throughout Starship Troopers that the colonels and sergeants are not cruel for the sake of being sadistic, but are so in order to toughen the men up, and even develop affection for them. We see when Rasczak, captain of the Roughnecks, his second-in-command Captain Jelal exercises gentle discipline when reprimanding a cadet by reminding him of what Rasczak would have wanted. As Rico is transferred from outfit to outfit, he develops new friendships, friendships built on a shared experience of boot camp and fighting side by side against the Bugs.

Conclusion

Starship Troopers is a rich piece of science fiction. It covers the nature of war, citizenship, ethics, and the comradery of soldiers. It takes a blunt and grim, but in my judgment, largely accurate view of society in which harsh justice is meted out to children and delinquents in order to reform bad moral behavior. Like Rico, I agree that the hanged rapists won’t rape any more little girls. This strict law-and-order society works. Unlike the diseased and egotistical world we live in today, Heinlein’s society places a premium on discipline, honor, and sacrifice without any endorsement of authoritarianism, despotism, or systematic injustice. The main qualms that I have with Starship Troopers is its binary Darwinian view of life and struggle, personified in the extreme example of the Bugs. With the Bugs, it is of course impossible to reason with them, but in reality no such threats exist. With humans being rational animals, peaceful coexistence is possible, as is attested to by the many human alternatives to violence such as arbitration, commerce, law etc. Yet, in total, Starship Troopers is truly one of the greatest pieces of science fiction, not only for its unique military content, but its memorable characters and insightful political philosophy.

[1] Numbers 1:3

[2]Deuteronomy 20:5

[3]Deuteronomy 20:6

[4]Deuteronomy 20:7

[5]Deuteronomy 20:8

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