Militarism and Robert A. Heinlein
From: "Jeremy & Amy Salome" (email@example.com)
To: "Richard Geib" (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Subject: "Starship Troopers" response
Date: Mon, 5 Jan 1998 15:25:52 -0600
I recently read the article on your web site about Robert Heinlein's novel Starship Troopers and I felt I had to put my two cents in. My first reaction after reading your opinion paper was to write a scathing letter of disapproval with no expectation of a kind reply. Fortunately I took the time to peruse your site for a short time first. My initial impression of a person who could be so wrong about my favorite author was none too flattering and my expectations for your site were low. As it turned out, I thoroughly enjoyed my time spent there and I'm sure I will visit again. It is the same love of knowledge and optimism about life that attracts me to Heinlein's work and to the contents of your web pages. The article about Starship Troopers led me to believe that it was your first Heinlein novel and, if so, you might not see the connection. I hope I can show it to you.
I was very surprised to see any of Heinlein's work described as showing "a severe and cynical air of wounded world weariness, as if life is a dreary and dangerous affair..." as that is the kind of attitude that almost always turns me away from a book immediately. To be fair, Starship Troopers is not a lighthearted novel, however, considering the subject matter I don't think it should have been. He is commenting on a war and an individual's responsibility in that war to protect the political arrangements he enjoys. In the story, Juan Rico sees and does horrible things. By not making this a story about inner turmoil of a soldier who has killed too often, Heinlein is making a point that is not very popular today: sometimes killing is justified and the killer has no need to feel guilty. As you know the enemy in the story showed no mercy toward mankind. Should mankind be gentle in its own defense? If you would be willing to kill to protect your loved ones from an armed attacker, shouldn't you also be willing to wage war on an enemy intent on harming many more than just your family and friends? I would answer "yes". Accepting responsibility for the future of your country (and therefore the future of all that is dear to you) while knowing that you live in a culture that encourages others to do the same, should inspire the very quality you find lacking. Hope.
Even more important however is your insinuation that Heinlein somehow espouses communism over democracy or Spartan ideology over Athens' "truth and beauty". My only argument against this claim is that in all of the thousands of pages of his fiction and non-fiction that I have read, I have never seen a single sentence that would lead me to believe he was anything but a staunch individualist with the utmost distrust for both collectivism and mindless power. A fine example is his novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. It is a tale of revolution against an unjust and oppressive government by a society of fierce individualists.
The best suggestion I can make, in the hopes of changing your mind about an author that is so dear to me, is to read more. Almost any book selected at random would, I'm sure, shed new light on Heinlein, as Starship Troopers isn't completely indicative of the rest of his work. I would suggest The Moon is a Harsh Mistress or Stranger in a Strange land to start, and the novels written toward the end of his life would best be left until you are hooked on Heinlein (if you ever are).
To clear up a few mistakes I noticed in your essay about Heinlein's life (I'm sure honest errors) go to www.ns.net/~gifford/rah_faq.htm#biography For a quote from Heinlein that I think will add an interesting facet to your knowledge of him go to http://husted.com/hgsf/heinlein.htm.
Once again, I truly enjoyed your web site and I hope you keep up the good work. I also hope I have been able to send you down a different path than you're used to find a new area of interest and a unique point of view on life that I find compelling and worthwhile.
Thank you also for being civil in your comments - many are the hostile e-mails I receive to which I pay hardly any attention. Anyone can yell and curse; not everyone can constructively criticize and offer insight. Consequently, I have given your e-mail considerable thought.
And I have found much merit in it. I have since surmised that Heinlein's "Starship Troopers" is not indicative of his larger philosophy; and many persons have already e-mailed to tell me that his later books are more profoundly thought out. Yet for better of for worse, "Starship Troopers" is Heinlein's one book which has attracted the attention of the general public. I read people who grew up in the Cold War mania of the 1950s (when my father was a teenager) talk about how influential the book was on their upbringing and it scares me. I felt obliged to treat that one book as it stands. In attacking its author, I am more attacking the ideas he presents. "Starship Troopers" is a novel about ideas.
I believe I was fair in upholding the honor of and importance of individuals who have chosen to devote their careers to military service and protection of the larger society from enemies internal and external. Nevertheless, I see the unpleasant smell of militarism in Heinlein's "Starship Troopers" - all the way for the offhand contempt for "decadent 20th century democracies" to the "better" way offered by the military mindset. In a democracy, it is dangerous when you have an alienated, isolated military that grows increasingly contemptuous of the society it protects - where the soldiers bitterly remark that their values are the values the country needs. In a liberal democracy like the United States, the role of a military is not to define society but defend it. Heinlein is playing with fire with his disquisitions about the "superiority" of the warrior caste as philosopher-kings. After reading the book, I could hardly let that go unchallenged.
The book moreover has almost no sense of humor and the society which produces the Federal Service and Mobil Infantry seems a dour and humorless one. I cannot remember one joke or instance of heartfelt humanity in the "Starship Troopers" that did not deal with being whipped in punishment, grieving for fallen comrades, or contemplating dropping out of boot camp. This all has the feel of Sparta to it, and the spirit of the society they had developed there. Look at the alternative in Athens, where (according to the historian Thucydides) the great democratic orator Pericles defined civic culture thusly:
"Our natural bravery springs from our way of life, not from the compulsion of laws...We are lovers of the beautiful, yet simple in our tastes, and we cultivate the arts without loss of manliness."An open society like that of Athens believes that it is the larger non-militarized society filled with art, love, and the searching after truth which produces strength and the greater public good. The philosophy of militarism argues that it are the traits of subservience, iron discipline, and a complete readiness for war and martial glory which gives society its worth and power. There is a basic philosophical disagreement here at play which cannot be so easily transcended. It has, in fact, dogged mankind for centuries.
I cannot so easily get around the arid detached tone in the book. I have read many stories which have dealt honestly and passionately about what it is like to fight for one's country in combat which have had the painful ring of truth with respect to sacrifice and service. "Starship Troopers" does not count among them. I would ask you one question: When you take away the military from the life of Johnny Rico, what is left to him? What else does he really have in his life? I doubt one will find such monotone characters in real life - even among the dullest soldiers, sailors and marines in the land.
I thank you for pointing out the short "This I Believe" essay by Heinlein. I feel more warmly towards the man hearing his voice in a different more human tone. I begin to wonder if he did not write "Starship Troopers" as an offhand critique of a society he loved in a cantankerous moment, giving rise to his darker suspicions and fears. I would prefer to hope so. Nevertheless, my many objections to the book stand as they are.
I hope this e-mail finds you and your wife well.
Very Truly Yours,
P.S. I have no beef with the idea that a soldier can "inspire hope" by "accepting responsibility for the future of your country" and defending home and loved ones. Legion are the brave warriors who have died to help keep us Americans free and I honor them accordingly. However, the basis of our civic culture comes not primarily from generals or admirals but from statesmen and thinkers from Pericles to Madison, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. Fight its enemies the United States has learned to do well; but its soldiers follow the orders of a civilian commander-in-chief and not vice versa. The importance of this, I believe, cannot be overestimated - even if Heinlein, in his "Starship Troopers," argues a different kind of Republic.