Robert A. Heinlein, Ideas, and the Ideal Polis

a discussion

Abraham Lincoln

E pluribus unum, Deo volente.

"No man is good enough to govern another man without that other's consent."
Abraham Lincoln

Date: Tue, 3 Mar 1998 06:59:29 GMT
From: DeltaNet Form Processor (
Subject: Feedback and or Questions

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Name="Brent Ziarney "
comments=" This is concerning Heinlein's Starship Troopers and the argument about its militaristic future. I've heard the argument against Heinlein for not having the more humane attributes of humanity in his book and I dismiss them because its a military book. I don't see the book as a call for revolution in our society, but more as a warning against the decadence that is rampant today that Heinlein was aware of even in the fifties. I believe Heinlein creating a veteran democracy wasn't because he thought only the military should be involved in government. I think he used the military because the soldier puts the good of society above his own personal safety. With the exception of police and fire services (still a service to the community), civilians don't spill their blood for the benifit of others. In another sense, they don't pay for the society they enjoy. Its been said that "What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly," a quote by Thomas Paine included, interestingly enough, from Starship Troopers. Heinlein's point is that political rights are best valued by those who have served to protect them with their lives. In effect, those who have earned and paid for their rights value them more than those who were given them with no cost. As a historical example, compare political involvement after the revolution to that today, and you can clearly see America's decline in political interest. Heinlein was aware of this truth, along with many veterans of yesterday and today. Honestly artists, politicians, businessmen, and others don't feel as strongly about freedom, democracy, and our society as much as a soldier who has put his/her life between their society and those who would harm it. And for the record, Heinlein had no experience being a foot soldier like Rico. As a former USAF Academy cadet, I know there is a big difference between being a an officer on a ship or plane and an infantryman. Also, serving on line duty for four years does not constitute a career officer. Granted, a Naval Academy education will most likely instill a militaristic nature, but those that think Heinlein was writing about his own experience in Starship Troopers is sadly mistaken. To conclude, Heinlein wasn't advocating a fascist state, he was merely offering that a decline in civic virtue could be corrected by reminding the "enfranchised" populace that society entails both freedom and responsibility.


Brent Ziarney"

How is life treating you?="Back in school, Air Force cadet. Life is good!"
Findout="Some damn search engine"

      Dear Brent,

      Many are the books which deal with the warrior that resound with humanity and complex characters of flesh and blood - starting with "The Iliad." "Starship Troopers" is not one of them, in my opinion. To write a book which is "military" does not excuse banality or two-dimensional characterization. Granted the book is more philosophical than "literary," but its defects remain. I hear that "Starship Troopers" is supposedly didactic in nature and written with the young in mind to encourage personal growth and responsibility; perhaps we should judge it on this level and be forgiving. Yet Heinlein opens many cans of worms which keep me from looking at the book so innocently.

      Heinlein tells us that only those who "have spilled their blood" can appreciate their freedom and responsibility it comes with and enjoy "all privileges of Federal citizenship." This is traditional Confucianism which tells us that only the scholars who pass extensive tests in government and philosophy can be trusted to govern virtuously. It is Marxist-Leninism preaching that only those who truly understand the materialist dialectic of capitalist society (ie. members of the "vanguard party") can be trusted to rule righteously - not the poor deluded man on the street which passes for the "common man." It is Plato claiming that only when we have philosopher/kings in power served by a specially-trained guardian class can justice reign in the world. It is Joseph de Maistre preaching the supremacy of the holy trinity of the Roman Catholic Church, the King, and the Public Executioner. To put it bluntly: Heinlein and his ideological allies believe that it are the few rather than the many who should be "enfranchised." You say the book is not a call for a revolution. But if what Heinlein posits is true then the philosophical basis for democracy in the United States and other countries is a sham, a fiction. It strikes at the very heart of the belief that democracy, a government of amateurs - of the people, by the people, and for the people - can work in reality and not perish from the earth.

      Heinlein is playing with fire here. You claim that Heinlein wrote the book as a warning for a society he saw descending into civic apathy. He obviously has a point; but I reject the facile argument that handing political power over to those who have served the State in some capacity would be an improvement. As worrisome as generalized political apathy is today, still more troubling is the prospect of an elite cadre of supracitizens who rule unaccountable to any electorate and who cannot be voted out of office. I think most wise a tension between elites and laymen in a structure of social and economic fluidity in an indirect democracy - the passions of the people tempered yet balanced in the political representatives who rule in their name.

      Heinlein - in the voice of high school civics teacher Mr. Dubois - takes the side of the classic anti-democrats Plato and Lycurgus, various Popes and Imams, 20th century Marxist and Fascist despots and others in the ancient dialogue between those who believe the truth lies with the few against the many. The essential heart of Heinlein's argument resides in teacher Mr. Dubois's belief that the average student in his class is rather a waste of his and everybody else's time and effort (ie. requiring the guidance of those more "enlightened"). It is a slippery argument, and ultimately the only defense of authoritarian/totalitarian government. I, also a teacher, agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson to the contrary: "Do you know the secret of the true scholar? In every man there is something wherein I may learn of him; and in that I am his pupil." And there is something which even the most lowly members of society can offer the commonweal, should they wish to make the effort.

      Ideas are important, and they reverberate with dramatic and often unforeseen consequences in the real world outside literature and philosophy - look at all the bloodshed and misery caused by the pamphlet "The Communist Manifesto" or biography "Mein Kampf!" It is this which moved me to post my comments on the World Wide Web. I obviously do not side with Heinlein here. And I stand by how I see it.

      I hope this message finds you well in your studies at the University of Arizona.

      Very Truly Yours,

      Richard Geib

P.S. You claim that political rights are best valued by those who have served to protect them with their lives. This might often be the case, but I do not agree this is universally so. I doubt not that I could find many veterans who were drafted, fought in the army, and still care little about politics or the Constitution. And I hardly think - in comparison to the other colonial leaders - Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, or John Adams any less passionately devoted to the Republic they helped to create, even as those three statesmen served not one day on the battlefield with the revolutionary armies. I would argue that what is important is the content of the person's character and devotion to serving their fellow man; and this cannot be accurately gauged by a litmus test so crude as to whether on not someone has served in the government.

Date: Tue, 3 Mar 1998 17:33:50 -0700 (MST)
From: Brent (
To: Richard Geib (
Subject: 2nd Thoughts

Dear Richard,

Thank you so very much for responding to me so quickly! I am surprised and deeply honored to be given such attention from you. Reflecting on what you have written, what is on your page, and other opinions I have received, I have changed the way I see Starship Troopers, and I would like to share with you some of my new thoughts.

I agree with most all of what you say. I believe and will continue to believe democracy is the best form of human government possible. Heinlein also agrees, but adds the stipulation that one must serve before he/she can participate. This is much like the Roman republic. My history and philosophy knowledge is minimal compared to yours so forgive me for my mistakes, but voters had to own property to be enfranchised during the republic. They must have had a stake in society in order to govern it. So I think comparing Heinlein's military democracy (to be honest, I like the term citizen democracy from the movie as more in line with Heinlein's true motives) to fascism is a knee jerk negative reaction that can cloak the true purpose of the citizen rule to be known by a cloud of negativeconnotations. But like I said before, Heinlein did not intend to say only the military should run a society. I think he meant that only people who hold the society more important than their own life should be given the privelege of directing the society. So, his military democracy relies on the heart condition and moral integrity of the person more than whether or not he has served. He uses the military to be the way to enfranchisement only because he saw the military as the only profession that proves service to society before self only a consistent basis. The problem is that this is a generalization, and generalizations are never wholly true and are universally unjust. Like you point out, many civilians are aware of their responsibility of stewardship and many veterans couldn't care less about politics. Jefferson, Adams, and Madison were great examples of this. They did not spill blood for the nation, but make no mistake, they staked their lives on faith in what they believed. The British would have hung them all for sedition. I think that adequately proves they put their society above themselves. I agree wholeheartedly, as I'm sure Heinlein would, with you that military service is a poor litmus test for a person's character. However, you cannot deny the military is one of the largest bastions of patriotic feeling. No one is not changed after military service. It gives people the opportunity to see the outside world and realize our political freedoms are not shared by others. It explains that our rights are not guaranteed, but they are "given by God and defended by man." The military can form the foundation of good citizenship, and is in fact stated in Air Force ROTC's mission " To produce leaders for the Air Force and build better citizens for America." Heinlein apparently saw the military as a great teacher of character. If he hadn't he wouldn't have placed it so highly in Starship Troopers. However, that doesn't mean Heinlein would have approved of this future like Marx welcomed his Communist Manifesto's future. I think Heinlein just came up with a solution to a problem in America that would make a good book and went along with it. Starship Troopers is very militaristic, but doesn't really place society on its ear. Anyone who advocates this military democracy is not very smart and I don't want to serve with him or her. In any case, I'm sure you'll join me as I hope the veteran democracy stays in the pages on that book where it belongs.


Brent Ziarney

      Dear Brent,

      I hardly think Rome and Roman society the exemplar with which we would wish to mold America today. And when Heinlein paints an artistic and philosophical portrait of an idealized society founded on service to a romanticized super-efficient State, he verges dangerously close to fascism, in my opinion. Look at how the fascist armies of Nazi Germany co-opted the symbol of the Roman eagle as the standard behind which unstoppable conquerors might march. Look at how Mussolini ostentatiously sought to build a fascist Italy ready to return to the civic glory of its ancient Roman martial past. It is all about symbolism.

      I go to Amazon and read the reviews by readers of "Starship Troopers" and my heart sinks right through my shoes. This appears to be one of those books that - literary and stylistic shortcomings notwithstanding - genuinely speaks to people. Look at some of the following quotes:

"Read the book, joined the Airborne. This one line summary says it all."

"For the record as well, I'm 100% in favor of the society Heinlein portrays in this book."

"Bottom line, the book was not only a great read, but helped mold some political ideas that have lasted (in this reader) over 25 years."

"The perfect ten for me. It stayed there (at the top of SciFi) for 30+ years (since I discovered Heinlein after coming to the US from Communist Yugoslavia). The book is NOT for wimps and those who do not allow thinking and exploration of ideas and possibilities."

"This is one of the great books of all time. The key philosophy here is not about the military, the military is a tool to illustrate that concept, which is: The power of enfranchisement should be held by responsible people who have demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice their own welfare for the welfare of their society. Not a whole lot of people willing to do that today. I spent 10 years in the US Army, heavily due to this book."

and then, frighteningly:

"Honestly one of the best books I've read - period, Starship Troopers is an absolutely wonderful book about battle, maturity, responsibility, and might... this is a futuristic work in an ideal totalitarian society. And if you have a problem with totalitarianism, wait until I'm King."

      These testimonials/epiphanies - from average persons probably not possessing extensive backgrounds in political philosophy - are most revealing; in drawing us into his seductive vision of an idealized future, Heinlein changes how we view our present political arrangement - a "degenerate democracy," as he calls it. A book like this is dangerous because it are the mythmakers who shape our opinions, not the politicians. Homer knew this, as did Virgil. Hitler and his lieutenants in the Third Reich learned to practice it with singular virtuosity.

      Heinlein takes his kernels of truth and rams them down our throat with his vision of a "better" society and "improved" citizenry. Sober analysis and historical perspective beg to be introduced if we hope to delve more closely to the truth of the matter; and it is this which led me to inveigh so passionately against the ideas Heinlein presents in "Starship Troopers." I do believe that Heinlein places society as we know it (and hopefully will more fully realize it in the future) on its ear. In promoting the virtues of civic involvement and personal responsibility, Heinlein obviously desires to combat the evils of political apathy and anti-social behavior. Yet he in effect attacks the roots of American self-government through universal suffrage established (and then only partially realized) through the blood and sacrifice of massive civil war. Heinlein would kill the patient to cure the disease! I find it particularly instructive to observe how Abraham Lincoln summed up antebellum American democracy where millions found themselves legally disenfranchised with neither rights not access to political power: "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy."

      Heinlein might argue that non-citizen members of his future society would enjoy full civil rights, save the vote. I would counter that political freedom without access to political power is a crock, a farce - a bomb waiting to explode. Heinlein might argue that democratic liberalism is and has always been an organized hypocrisy doomed to failure - a fairy tale; and he might argue that malcontents in his rationally correct-thinking efficient society could be kept in line by the whip ("the ultimate punishment," he praises its mighty efficaciousness). I would counter that no amount of whipping can subjugate a person indefinitely, and that if a government treats a person like a slave that person most likely will act as such and no better. Heinlein might argue that his society would be so well run that popular discontent against the government would fail to materialize. I see few historical examples to back up such a rosy prediction for civil peace among an often fractious mankind; and I rather strongly suspect ever greater oppression and cruelty would be the result. As Montaigne reminds us soberly, "Man is neither angel nor brute, and the unfortunate thing is that he who would act the angel acts the brute." In focusing almost entirely on the military, Heinlein appears not to have taken the time to think through the implications of what he espouses for the rest of society.

      Please excuse my ardor, but this book has brought up a passion in me which simmers. The most hopeful comment I read from the Amazon reviews was the following from someone who described himself as a career officer in the Marine Corps:

"I believe this book should be on everyone's 'must read' list, because even if you disagree with it, it might just make you think... because diversity and conflict is not only what started, but what maintains the greatest country on earth."

      Brent, I very much enjoyed your comments; I found reading such intelligent writing from so young a man to be most agreeable. There is a nuanced reasoning and healthy idealism in you that speaks well of the ROTC programs which can produce citizen-soldiers to moderate the sometimes overweening zeal of professional warriors from the service academies. Be well.

      Very Truly Yours,