I don’t normally review fiction on this blog, but Starship Troopers is enough of a “novel of ideas” that this seemed the best venue to discuss it. Set aside all the scifi trappings, and the core of the book can be found in a later speech he gave which is sometimes reprinted under the title “The Pragmatics of Patriotism“. Because that speech was made much later when civilian-military relations were at a different point, the tone was more defensive, whereas a book published in the 50s might share Hans Morgenthau’s sense that WW2 vindicated cynical “realism” about the persistence of war over idealist pacifism. I noted when reviewing Morgenthau that the modern world actually does bear a lot of resemblance to that hoped for by idealists. Perhaps some kind of small military on the part of an economically dominant first-world will always be necessary to prevent anyone else from fulfilling a power-vacuum, but war between states (whether due to “dirt theory” or something else) seems to be on decline.

Part of the reason I read the book was getting into discussion of Paul Verhoeven’s film adaptation, and on the matrix of criticism for that I’d long been in the Roger Ebert quadrant. But one axis I couldn’t fully address at the time is whether the novel is fascistic. There has been much discussion recently of how one would define fascism and place Trump in relation to it, but I would think everyone can agree that one defining element of fascism is nationalism. Some now regard nationalism vs internationalism as the main defining axis of politics now, and in that respect the book takes an extreme degree of internationalism for granted. All the nations on earth, along with a number of off-world colonies, are depicted as united under one super-government with a common military. This could have been simply a future in which a fascist government simply expanded to dominate all of humanity, but this future society is explicitly composed of many nationalities, languages that some recruits only know how to speak rather than “Galactic English” (Johnny Rico reveals at the end that at home he speaks Tagalog), and religions including not only the familiar Abrahamic ones but also Gnostics. Particularly relevant at the time the book was published is that Rico’s boot camp includes recently defeated (in our timeline) enemies like Japanese & Germans, and that there are training camps in Siberia as well. In contrast to the film, there’s no rhetoric along the lines of “The only good bug is a dead bug”: the Mobile Infantry only gets used (rather than orbital bombardment) because if “war is politics by other means”, it is politically useful to aim at inducing others to come to favorable terms rather than trying to wipe them out (although Heinlein doesn’t devote too much space to the details of inter-species diplomacy). At the same time, war is contextualized along Darwinian lines in which groups expand at the expense of others and the extinction of humanity or bugs is raised as a possible & natural result of this conflict.

The most self-contradictory aspect of the novel is that morality (which in “blank slate” fashion is said to be something society teaches us rather than something inborn) is said to be based on individual self-preservation, yet the basis of the society’s franchise is the willingness of an individual to sacrifice their own interests (and if need be, their lives) for a larger society (with it suggested that morality can also be extended across species, although for practical reasons isn’t relevant yet). There is talk of logical deduction (a lot more of this book takes place in classrooms than you’d expect), but there’s no logical argument to square this circle. Instead there’s just the Darwinian logic that survival of the larger group requires that some take on this task. I suppose it’s not Heinlein’s fault that modern theories on “group selection” weren’t around, but it’s relevant enough it felt missing. When I had read a bit about the book I suggested that Ayn Rand might have been a better person than Verhoeven to directly critique Heinlein’s partial revival of Benjamin Constant’s “liberty of the ancients“* as an ideal (I haven’t actually read much she’s written herself, but Stirner would be too obscurantist). The protagonist of the story is rather purposefully made a mediocre & easily impressionable student who is not at arguing with his superiors (and lives in a society divided into advocates of the status quo & the relatively politically apathetic), so there’s not much of an argument against this society to serve even as a Devil’s Advocate. If the book is really juvenilia aimed at luring young boys who want adventure stories about space rangers vs aliens (the sort read by characters in the story itself) into imbibing the philosophy of civic duty, then perhaps that would be expected to be over their heads. But since I’m not a juvenile, it comes across as unconvincing.
*Civilians are stated to enjoy as much “liberty of the moderns” as any in history, but since that’s not the focus of the book there’s not much justification given for why we should expect that to be the case.

The one aspect of this system I do find interesting is the degree to which it is more cynical than the ancients or fascists. Much of the population is not expected to feel any sense of duty, so nothing is asked of them beyond paying taxes and following a purportedly minimal set of laws, with the condition that they cannot vote or hold office. As characters note, those most politically engaged & willing to engage in action for their beliefs are precisely those their system selects into its ranks, while the remainder are those most prone to voluntary servitude. However, there is a HUGE problem with this system: those currently in service (including career military, which Rico eventually chooses over merely serving until he reaches citizenship) are explicitly said to be forbid the franchise! Heinlein discusses how previous restrictions on the franchise had failed since so many people deemed them unjust, but he wrote before the 26th amendment was passed during the Vietnam war when there was much controversy over young people being drafted* without being able to vote on their fates. Even with only knowledge of history, Heinlein should have been aware that Greek city-states were relatively democratic because the average free man could serve (whether as hoplite or oarsmen), whereas medieval Europe had a warrior aristocracy of landed knights until pikemen (beginning in Switzerland) democratized war & thereby politics. Ancient Rome devolved intro praetorianism where power rested in those who could get the support of the army. How do you expect to get away with denying the vote to everyone serving without them simply seizing power? If the voting citizens are explicitly said to be no wiser than average and mostly without any combat experience, what’s to stop a Mussolini type from advocating a “trenchocracy” in which those who are battle-tested are deemed more virtuous & capable of wielding power? Heinlein is overly enamored of John Paul Jones’ argument that a naval ship fighting for republican freedom must be internally run in an authoritarian manner, and could have benefited from reading accounts of democratic pirate ships which were nevertheless able to follow a commander’s orders in battle. They don’t have to micro-manage themselves by voting on individual “drops”, having a republic rather than direct democracy means they can just vote for a Sky Marshall whom they trust to manage the war.
*This idealized military is explicitly said to consist entirely of volunteers, but it’s unclear how well having the smallest military relative to population in history works outside the context of peacetime when there’s a surplus of potential recruits to be weeded out with especially difficult & dangerous training. Volunteer armies are more common now, but Heinlein would have remembered wars requiring full-scale mobilization and given his broader perspective on war should have been accounted for them as a necessity at times.

Classroom civics aside, the scifi bits intended to bait juveniles like power armor & “neodogs” are actually rather cool. It is interesting to me that while Heinlein (and his wife Virginia, cited in the speech linked above) served in the peacetime Navy, he decided to write about infantry instead. This future infantry consists of a relatively small number of highly expensive, technologically sophisticated, high impact units widely spaced apart, which makes them closer to capital ships than cannon fodder. The navy gets a certain amount of space, and is interestingly depicted as mostly having shaved-headed women for pilots (like Carmen Diaz, part of Rico’s insufficiently thought out motivation for signing up), one of whom Heinlein could have made protagonist of such a book, but I guess they weren’t the target market. I do wonder what someone with actual experience as an infantryman (or even member of a tank crew, since that might be a better analogy) would think of this.

Having not read any of Heinlein’s full-length books, I had thought I might move on to works with a more individualist perspective like “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” to see if I could generate a Heinlein vs Heinlein political/philosophical debate, but if those are actually intended for a more sophisticated audience it might be tough to compare them. Alternatively, I could move on to Ursula Le Guin’s “The Dispossessed” or something else readers (if I still have them, given my inactivity) recommend.

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