Starship Troopers (1959)
Robert A. Heinlein
New York, Ace Books; ISBN: 0-441-78358-9; Pages: 208
Review © 2003 Branislav L. SlantchevMy first reading of the classic (and, let's face it, controversial) novel was about a decade ago. I had read only two Heinlein books before that and I must say that Starship Troopers was probably responsible for converting me into a Heinlein fan for life. I found the book oddly reflective of much of my own thinking at the time and that made it resonate ever so thoroughly. It also helped that it mixed Heinlein's philosophical musings with a straightforward adventure romp. I remember feeling a distinct loss when the book ended.
Then came Paul Verhoeven's film with the same title, and I enjoyed it thoroughly although it gave a polar opposite treatment of all the themes in Heinlein's novel. That's why I will never call the film an "adaptation." It is not. It is Verhoeven's own take on what violence leads to in human affairs. It is quite interesting to see how two people can take the same material and essentially make use of the same story to argue two wildly divergent points. I do talk about this in the review of the film, so will not be spending any more time on it here.
Two days ago, I re-read the book and found, to my great surprise and infinite delight, that I disagreed with its main themes as thoroughly as I agreed with them ten years ago. I say "surprised" because indeed I was. Upon this reading I could not bring myself to believe that Heinlein was arguing all this with a straight face. But he does, there's no question about it: there are pages upon pages of text that do not advance the plot in any way and can serve no other purpose but to expostulate the author's views. Such a complete reversal was a surprise. I also say "delight" because it is usually impossible to tell whether all those years are leaving any mark on one's thinking. The changes are usually so gradual, subtle, and cumulative, that one is seldom aware that there have been any at all. But this is fresh evidence that I am no longer the 20-year old I was back then. Time will tell whether this is for better or worse even though I'd rather that it did not if it were for worse.
The story of the novel is told by Juan Rico, a Filipino (on p. 205 he mentions that his native tongue is Tagalog), who happens to be the only son in a wealthy family. Following high-school graduation, he volunteers for Federal Service, for "no less than two years and as much longer as may be required by the needs of the Service." His non too-impressive record in the hard sciences but good performance in physical extracurricular activities makes him suitable for only one thing, the lowest of the low, the Mobile Infantry, the future equivalent of the Marines.
He goes through boot camp which, from what I've heard, shares intimate detail with boot camps of today. The sergeants are tough but fair, the officers are like steel in velvet gloves. There's a lot of shouting, grueling training, and not a few accidents with recruits, including deaths. If anyone doubts the plausibility of such intense preparation, one should take a look at how the Soviets trained their military intelligence officers (GRU). Rico nearly quits when a letter from his high-school teacher of History and Moral Philosophy. But he stays on and then the Bugs hit Buenos Aires and the war is on. There really isn't that much description of the war itself. Heinlein concentrates on M.I.'s experiences, in and out of combat, and Rico's decision to try to become a commissioned officer. That is, to go career. Eventually he wins the honor, becomes an officer, and leads his people into battle.
The novel is not as linear as my summary makes it out to be. For example, it opens with an exhilarating raid in the world of the Skinnies, the humanoid allies of the Arachnids who later turn coat and join the humans in their fight against the insect-like other aliens. It is perhaps the strongest proof that the book is not really about an interstellar war the Bugs and their allies that Arachnids and Skinnies appear so sporadically, and always as a backdrop to Rico's experiences.
Here's my take on several issues in ST:
- Violence is the ultima ratio for all species, result of unquenchable instinct for survival. Or, as the Romans said, "if you want peace, prepare for war." So true... and pacifists be damned.
- Citizenship (the right to vote) is a franchise that is earned by serving in the Federal Service. Non-citizens enjoy all other rights and privileges of life except the right to vote. Military personnel cannot vote while on active duty, only following retirement.
- The Federal Service is 95% non-military (that is, a huge bureaucracy), only a small percentage go into its military branches, and of these, and even smaller percentage sees active combat.
- One is free to quit at any time during his/her service except in active combat. There are no penalties for quitting except forfeiting forever the right to become a citizen. Desertion in non-combat situations is punishable with flogging (if the deserter ever surrenders, there's no effort to hunt him/her down). Other "crash landing" offences (murder, etc.) are punishable with death by hanging.
- Society is pretty quiet, the life is apparently prosperous, and there is no handicap in not being a citizen (e.g. Rico's family is rich, he's going to Harvard) except one's own conscience.
- Did Heinlein glorify the military? You bet he did. He was inordinately proud of his family's long record of service and was very bitter that his own poor health resulted in him getting discharged from the Navy. See his notes to that effect in Expanded Universe. He had a special soft spot for the Poor Bloody Infantry that offers so little glamour but that is the one branch he deemed crucially important in warfare.
- The government in ST is militaristic/fascist. Blatantly untrue. On p. 143 is states plainly that "in peacetime
most veterans come from non-combat auxiliary services." And "veteran" means simply someone who has gone through
the service. The Federal Service is not fascist either because there is no dictator in whom all authority is
centralized (the Sky Marshal can be replaced), there is voting, and (apparently) a free market economy. The Terran
Federation is a republic, one with a democratic form of government where the right to vote is a privilege that is
earned by service.
Amusingly, Heinlein's insistence that active military personnel cannot vote because if they could, "the idiots might vote not to make a drop" (p. 129) contradicts his main premise. First, it displays an utter lack of faith in human beings and their capability to put themselves in harm's way for some abstract ideal. Whether humans are like that or not is irrelevant. Heinlein's basic idea is that the Service makes them learn to be that way. But apparently not while they are in it, only ex post. Second, it betrays a naive and romantic view of voting --- that it is meaningful and decisive. Who cares if a platoon votes not to drop? There will be plenty of veterans out of harms way that would outvote them, if necessary. And the platoon cannot disobey orders in combat, democracy or not.
- Everything in ST is based on Heinlein's idea of a "scientific theory of morals" (p. 94), by which he presumably
means something with mathematical proofs and statistical analyses. He is right about people not being born
with a moral instinct: it is the ultimate achievement of civilization that can cause a man to willingly lay down
his life for something outside his immediate family. Animals usually protect their young, but this is mere survival
instinct. Dying for King, God, or Country, on the other hand, is a distinctly human uniqueness. But is it moral?
Heinlein says that as long as it furthers the survival of the individual, it is (95). Now, survival of the individual can be more subtle than brute force, and (it seems) may be extended to the polity, nation, globe, perhaps the galaxy. In a way, fighting for one's nation, far from being some abstract patriotic duty, is really an elaborate mechanism to ensure one's survival. A citizen understands this complex duty, a civilian does not. And herein lies Heinlein's error, for "the nation" is a cultural artifact (heck "culture" is entirely man-made). One may well survive better by ditching an existing "nation" or "regime" and opting for something else. Did Heinlein forget about the American Revolution, he so lovingly refers to in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress? Did he forget that the basic liberty of each individual must be to choose his own government? It is naive to think that votes can always do that. Is it any less moral to fight a government one believes is wrong? I don't think so. Patriotism is a "virtue" instilled by propaganda. Ultimately, everyone only has his own conscience as arbiter. Survival is not moral, dying for something one believes in, is. But who's to say what these beliefs must be?
In Heinlein's world, the Federal Service (and its propaganda arm in History and Moral Philosophy) basically brainwashes all future citizens so they are "appropriate" for the system. This is perhaps why society is so remarkably stable, life easy and almost crime-free. The guys in charge are all the same. But there's another word for that: stale. Any government that lasts too long will degenerate into tyranny. I realize that I am getting perilously close to arguing the virtues of war, but this is not what I have in mind. Simply that security is always purchased at a price: the liquidation of malcontents. But looking back on history (always a dangerous thing to do), it seems that malcontents are the engines of progress. People's dissatisfaction with the extant is what drives them to look for better ways. A perfect changeless society is a dead society. I wonder what Heinlein would think of a Federal Service under communism.
- Heinlein considers duty more important than rights. However contrary this runs to American culture, I
will probably have to agree, to a point. The problem with duty is that someone gets to define it, while rights
can be defined in absolute terms. For example, Heinlein argues that there is no such thing as "juvenile
delinquents" because someone who does not understand duty cannot be guilty of failing to abide by the rules. In
fact, these delinquents are actually their parents' and teachers' fault because the latter have not succeeded
in instructing them properly (see long discussion on pp. 92-96).
In all this, crime is treated as a matter of personal choice and it is argued that if criminals understood their duty properly, they would cease to be criminals. Putting aside mental illness, Heinlein has a formidable task in front of him if he is going to persuade me that there is no social basis to crime. Sure, for some people crime simply pays better. But for many others, it is the only way of life. Crime does not reflect just personal failings, but the total failure of society in the sense that it has provided a context that makes crime preferable. This is a far cry from saying that proper education would rid us of criminals. This is saying that no matter how much education one has or does not have, if crime pays better, individuals will engage in it. And too often, it is the government's own incompetence that creates this context. Punishing a criminal is the same as punishing a merchant who has made a profit. It's what they do. Remove the "market for crime" and criminals will disappear. Forget re-education, it's stupid.
But of course, it is probably impossible to remove the market for crime. However, it can be drastically reduced, and not by having arms, or a larger police force. American people possess arms, American cities have the largest police forces in the world, American prisons hold the largest populations... and yet violent crime in Europe is but a fraction of crime in America. I don't have the solution, but only a hunch that force, retribution, and deterrence may have very little to do with that. Violence does solve everything, but usually quite inefficiently.
I also have to point out that Heinlein is inconsistent too in his description of how Federal Service would ensure responsible citizens. On p. 144 he says, "under our system every voter and officeholder is a man who has demonstrated through voluntary and difficult service that he places the welfare of the group ahead of personal advantage." On the next page he says, "we have democracy unlimited by race, color, creed, birth, wealth, sex, or conviction, and anyone may win sovereign power by a usually short and not too arduous term of service." But he can't have it both ways. Either it's "short and not too arduous" in which case it's difficult to see how it demonstrates anything about one's placement of own's welfare (and, given that 95% of FS seem paper pushers and "auxiliary services", I don't see how service demonstrates anything at all except for combat veterans). Or it is not, in which case people who don't have the physical stamina cannot be citizens. In other words, it's a rule by the meanest, and most aggressive. Or so it appears.
- Two amusing facts. (1) Women do not appear to serve in M.I. although they do make the best pilots. This is interesting because of Heinlein's usually more advanced treatment of women and because Verhoeven obviously made the M.I. totally sex-blind. (2) Rico only goes to accompany Carl when the latter is about to enroll and then decides to enroll as well on the spur of the moment. When he is asked for his birth certificate, he immediately produces one. Is that something everyone casually carries around?
The other part of the book is a basic growing up story, in which Rico goes from clueless high-school senior to a seasoned veteran and responsible adult. In fact, he apparently comes to understand that getting out after two years and being a citizen is not what citizenship really is all about. Even though it would mean that he won't be voting any time soon (and so ostensibly he would be denied the one thing citizenship gives that non-citizens lack), he goes career. In other words, the internal sense of duty and obligation has conquered the external trappings of privilege. Whether one agrees with the substance of Rico's conviction, the basic idea of forsaking the obvious apparent for the unseen real holds. No wonder Rico's father was so proud of him. I choked with tears when I read the scene of their quick chance meeting.
Here are some favorite quotes from this book:
- Happiness consists in getting enough sleep (44).
- Liberty is never unalienable; it must be redeemed regularly with the blood of patriots (96, a variant, of course, of Jefferson's "Tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots").
- Everything of any importance is founded on mathematics (204).
August 14, 2003