by Robert A. Heinlein
"There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy."
The Myth of Sisyphus
"Of arms and man I sing..."
Virgil's "The Aeneid"
I recently picked up a copy of Robert Heinlein's "Starship Troopers" with the highest of expectations. Already almost 40 years old, the book was supposedly a classic of hard science fiction, albeit a controversial one. Mixing philosophy with political ideas in a futurist society at war with humanity at war with an alien species... how unique! I bought the book and read the book slowly so as to capture the tone well. Drinking in Heinlein's concept of human nature and an idealized future society, it took me three days to finish his treatise-cum-novella.
And it was nothing like I expected. I have since heard the book and its message described as fascistic, provocative, irresponsible, unpalatable. This it may well be. Yet I found reading his book to be an amazingly sobering and dispiriting affair. One can really drink up the spirit of a man in reading his prose, and I fear Heinlein to be not someone with whom I want to share a beer or be friends. I read later that he was a career military officer who developed tuberculosis and was invalided out of the fleet to a literary career. There hangs about this book a severe and cynical air of wounded world-weariness, as if life is a dreary and dangerous affair requiring toughness and discipline to survive. He nearly models Sparta in his apotheosis of rigorous military training as necessary for the formation of good character in a person. His anger and disdain for modern liberal democracy is strong. The dispiriting part is that Heinlein is consistent and correct in his powerful arguments - it is impossible to dismiss him, even if he gores the sacred cows of our age.
Heinlein's 22nd century earth is at war with an arachnid "bug" race from another galaxy. "They are tough and we are tough and only one of us will win and the other gets wiped out," explains Heinlein's protagonist Johnny Rico of the rugged Mobil Infantry, illuminating well the state of mind of the war between Japan and the United States during World War II, as well as the barely restrained ferocity of the Cold War afterwards. Rico's old high school teacher plays the stand-in for Heinlein's philosophy of an "improved" future society which emerges after following the "decadence and collapse of the democracies of the 20th century" after which the surviving veterans take over. Heinlein pays unconvincing lip service to the idea of a free society where civic service is voluntary and civil liberties are respected, but the soul of his argument lies in the military and the service of the State. The formation of young men and women does not take place primarily in schools, families, churches, sporting teams, universities, or love affairs. In Heinlein's idealized future, this takes place in boot camp.
Fully half the book takes place during Rico's basic training into the Mobil Infantry where he and his fellow recruits are humiliated, broken-down, and re-made into selfless members of an elite military unit. Potential soldiers learn that life is about duty, serving the collective, sacrifice, and punishment; perhaps echoing his own days as a midshipman at the U.S Naval Academy and later as a junior officer serving aboard the aircraft carrier USS Lexington, happiness is simply getting enough sleep. He is the very embodiment of Aeschylus when he said that we must suffer, suffer into truth. To a point, who can argue with that? To become a man takes learning and growing and suffering; it does not happen overnight. Who can argue that ultimately in our mature incarnations we must live for other people? And who can argue with the assertion that in democracies citizens with little invested in the system often make unwise and poorly-informed decisions when voting? So many who live irresponsible lives? Look at the drug problem in the United States, for example. Everywhere we look we see chaos, lack of order - the "degeneracy" Heinlein vigorously disdains. Look at the poverty, ignorance, and violence seen in the major American cities! In contrast, the global society into which Rico is born only lets those who have "placed the welfare of the group ahead of personal advantage" become citizens and vote. In other words, it are only the soldiers and others who have put their lives on the line who can vote and be trusted to do so wisely. Consequently, society is better arranged while peace and prosperity rule the day. The military caste are the Brahmins of Heinlein's ideal society; there is an offhand contempt for everyone else.
In the story, there is not one love affair worth mentioning. Sexuality and the need of human beings for love never moves beyond the adolescent. There is a nascent love story presented, but it is callow and undeveloped - no more mature than the high school age of the individuals portrayed. Characters can have crushes on each other, but the dark primal sexual needs and pleasures of adult life are totally absent (making the Heinlein's world less believable); I bet even many real life teenagers have love lives more rich than anything seen in "Starship Troopers." We have no idea about the art, music, recreation, romance, food, or larger non-military society of earth in the 22nd century. We have only the most unconvincing portrayal of the future family with a reconciliation taking place between Rico and his father in combat of all places. The story is bare, the prose sparing, the universe permanently hostile, the tone as severe and harsh as the future war being described. Suffering and death are never far from mind, and outside of duty and service not much is important. When Rico's mother is killed in the destruction of Buenos Aires, he does not seem overly grieved (When my mother died, I was sunk for months! In real life, such losses shape a person forever and never stray far from their consciousness.). To those whose sense of humanity and humanism is radiant and vibrant, Heinlein's "Starship Troopers" is like a dive into a freezing lake. What about those whose imaginations open up for them the universe of love, art?
Military service can be an admirable and vitally important profession in which a person can serve their fellow man. What society can afford not to have its guardians and warriors? When has there not been some aggressor or criminal which needed to be fought? But what about the heroes of the mind and the spirit? What about those heroes who give inspiration to fallible persons prone to despair? What about the battle between good and evil which rages inside everyone of us everyday? The struggle to find meaning in a life worth living? I would argue they are at least as important to a society worth living in. Who among us in the dark of a long night has not contemplated suicide? Who will make the argument in Heinlein's world not to do so? In my opinion, Heinlein's world is one in which I daresay not many people would like to live - where suicide might even be understandable! Our world - for all its barbarity, "decadence," hatred, chaos - is also one with art, love, and, most importantly, hope. We might live in a "hard cold world" where "life sucks and then you die," as one hears cynically stated in the streets. But that is not all that it is! Not by a long shot! And I would argue that point until I am blue in the face! Of all the evils - disease, cruelty, poverty, death - which Zeus placed in Pandora's box, he did place one good thing lastly without which life is unbearable: hope.
I dare to hope my descendents will not be hopping around hostile planets in powered suits dropping thermonuclear weapons onto alien creatures; that homo sapiens will be as cruel and violent a species in the future as they are presently is a concept almost enough to kill hope. I would kill if I have to; but I will live for my fellow man and woman and the good I can find in them. If a person would teach us how to fight and die, let them also teach us how to live! Is belonging to a military unit enough to live for? Does a United States Marine not need a family, God, love? Not the two dimensional ones presented by Heinlein, but characters and emotions as complex and rich as those in real life! Police officers - who live surrounded by abnormally high levels of violence and death - have long had rates of suicide far in excess of that of the general population. Combat dehumanizes and demeans; it hardens our hearts to the suffering of others and brutalizes our natures. Few are the persons not profoundly affected by first-hand acquaintance with the red scourge of war... "see where the the Victor-victim bleeds."
The real life "warriors" I have known are all more multi-faceted than anyone we meet in "Starship Troopers." And the ones I know who have killed are much more ambivalent about having done so. Heinlein takes us through basic training in realistic detail like the professional soldier he once was. We should demand the same honesty when it comes to the killing of other living creatures. Heinlein makes it easy for himself in making his adversaries "bugs" which apparently do not have minds or souls of their own; killing them seems no different than stepping on ants. But we can at least identify with the "skinnies" that Rico terrorizes at the beginning of the book. He surprises a large number of them hiding in a building and throws a bomb into it to disperse them and destroy the building. What about the effect on the soul of a man after so much violence? The killing itself is one thing. How you process it and how afterward it changes you on the inside is quite another. About this, Heinlein is silent.
We can go watch "Star Wars" or "Robocop" if we want to watch nonsensical science fiction which entertains. Heinlein tells stories in a very different vein and uses fantastic foreign settings to tell a realistic story with implications for us today like Ray Bradbury, Gene Roddenbury, or Arthur Clarke in the very best tradition of science fiction. Consistent and sobering as is Heinlein's story of people and politics, I find it to be unacceptable and unrewarding. The book is dangerous not for what it says, in my opinion. It is dangerous for what it fails to say. Heinlein apotheosizes the Sgt. Zim who would carefully mold out of a collection of callow boys hardly out of adolescence an effective combat unit; yet not one officer comissioned or otherwise in the heat of war to exemplify the far more subtle leadership skill of inspiring courage and ferocity of spirit in combat soldiers without allowing it to degenerate into hardness, brutality, and finally, atrocity. An officer who would save his soldier's lives but lose their souls? This is an important question in an era when we hung the most heinous generals of the Third Reich. All history is military conflict. Romans. Something remains. "Starship Troopers" clearly should be read with special caution by the young at risk of being seduced by the sirens' song of Heinlein and his futuristic wars and rumors of war. It is not true that pain, punishment, and service are the cornerstones of the ideal civilization.
I say this to the young: Look deep inside yourself and tell me if you don't see more than what Heinlein offers as possibilities. I say it again: He (or she) who would teach you to fight and die should also teach you how to live! Where is the joy in the world of the Mobil Infantry of the Federal Service? Compare that with the complex and sympathetic world of the brotherhood of the United States Army during the Vietnam War in Nicholas Proffitt's "Gardens of Stone!" Which world would you rather live in? Which story smacks more of the truth of war and its effect on warriors? Which speaks more directly to your soul?
A modern day exponent of Sparta in an age where such an argument is not often heard, Heinlein's powerful ideology deserves more serious attention and respect than it scornfully receives today - let us not forget that in their long internecine struggle, it was Sparta which emerged victorious over the Athens we more naturally identify with today (I can almost hear Heinlein reminding me of this). Nevertheless, I will cast my lot, live my life, do my work, and employ my pen in the service of Athens and her humanistic vision of Truth and Beauty.
One might argue that life is a Darwinian struggle for survival where the strong survive and the weak are destroyed. In his day, Heinlein might well have pointed to the Soviet Marxist-Leninists or ChiComs poised to destroy the tottering and "degenerate" liberal democracies. Yet four decades later liberal democracy is stronger than ever, and the Soviet Union has been relegated to the dustbin of history and the Chinese are "communist" in name only. I would tell Heinstein the most potent weapons a liberal democracy has are its open way of life and vibrant and humanistic culture (ie. having a culture and way of life worth fighting and dying for). The United States, Japan, Great Britain, Germany, France, Canada... all the "decadent democracies of the 20th century" are hardly on the verge of collapse presently as they prepare to enter the 21st century - to borrow from Twain, reports of their deaths are exaggerated.
November 5, 1997
Militarism and the man and author Robert A. Heinlein
"My first reaction after reading your opinion paper
was to write a scathing letter of disapproval with no expectation of a kind reply."
Citizenship and American DemocracyRobert A. Heinlein, Ideas, and the Ideal Polis
"I am distressed by your comments on Robert Heinlein's "Starship Troopers."
"This is concerning Heinlein's Starship Troopers and the argument about its militaristic future." Greed and the rule of the Mob
"In practical truth, I favour 'benign dictatorship'. Damn right."