War Stories

Starship Troopers
Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988)
Berkeley Publishing Group, 1991, orig. G P Putnam's Sons, 1959

Robert Heinlein is dead. He cannot well defend himself against what people say about him, nor what people do with his work. He's been crucified for not being a modern liberal and beatified for it. He wrote much of his early work to appeal to the publishers of "Boys' Life" magazine, a periodical published by the Boy Scouts of America and intended to be read by boys between the ages of eight and eighteen, and to USAn Librarians, who were looking for exciting children's fiction. Podkayne of Mars, first published in 1963 was the last of his books written expressly to this audience.

Starship Troopers was first published in 1959, by G P Putnam's Sons, and published at least twice after that. Evidently Heinlein had a winner with this one, a winner that has words like "controversial" printed in the jacket blurb these days. The book is really two books combined. One is a military adventure story, quite short, set about the life of a young man who does his growing up while fighting a war. The other book is Heinlein's vision of a better world, a kind of "if I were king" meditation. This is the part that makes the book controversial for some people.

Juan Rico joins the army, almost by accident. Heinlein describes a society where diversity consists of recognizing a person's ethnic background, but everyone speaks English in the army. Women are allowed in the military, but there are no women to fight by Juan's side. Military service is not compulsory, but only by serving a "term" can a civilian earn his "franchise," become a full citizen with the right to vote.

The book starts with a battle, from which a flashback describes how Juan got into the Mobile Infantry. This battle is routine. The rest of the battles that are described, Juan's first after boot camp, and Juan's last before getting his commission, are not routine. The first battle in the book is against the "skinnies," humanoids the grievance against whom is never actually described in the book. The battles in the remainder of the book are against the "bugs," creatures that resemble man-sized spiders and live in hives like ants or termites. The Mobile Infantry wears powered armor, capable of leaping over entire city blocks, and uses weapons that range from "hand-held flamers" to missiles tipped with tactical nuclear warheads.

All of this might make a hell of a movie, and perhaps it will. The movie is due to be released in two weeks, and I'm writing this book review with an eye on what the movie would have to show if it were to truly convey Heinlein's ideas.

Heinlein, like many people even today, based his theories of human behavior on a "common sense" model of the family. This model consists of a strict parent, who is the final authority in all things, supported but not outranked by the other parent, and on whom the remaining members of the family depend. The leader's authority entails responsibility for the family's welfare, a responsibility that is carried out by giving rewards and dealing punishments. George Lakoff discusses this folk model in Moral Politics.

This model is Heinlein's template for "How things Ought to Be." The reader follows Juan Rico, in a Bildungsroman of sorts, as Juan learns how his world works.

Juan's family is not the moral base of his existence. Heinlein describes a father who has abdicated his authority over his wife, and who values the hierarchy of authority so little that he offers Juan a position of authority without making him earn it. In Heinlein's world, Juan's father has no legitimate authority, and Juan cannot accept this father as his leader. Instead he follows the guidance of his history teacher, Mr Dubois.

Mr Dubois teaches "History and Moral Philosophy." We meet him as he lays the groundwork for Juan's first lesson about his world, "Might Makes Right." This aphorism is not how most people see the lesson that Mr Dubois teaches: moral strength, he says, is reflected in physical strength, and physical weakness is a sign of moral weakness. Everyone is responsible to defend themselves against agressors to show their moral strength, and using physical force is morally acceptable because it succeeds only against a moral inferior.

The lesson is illustrated to Juan during boot camp. His drill instructor, sergeant Zim, is unbeatable. He can beat a man bigger than him, or two men at the same time. The implication is clear: as the recruits' leader, he is morally superior over them all. When one of the recruits does manage to hit him, it is only because Zim wasn't paying attention. Zim's superior points out to him that it wasn't the recruit's accomplishment, it was Zim's failure.

The next lesson about Heinlein's world illustrates the unquestioned hierarchy of authority. There is always a good reason for the orders that leaders give. Juan learns to carry them out without hesitation, no matter what the consequences. The episode that lead to sergeant Zim getting hit started with a recruit who didn't want to lie in an ant hill. Juan learns a second lesson when he is caught disobeying instructions during simulated combat, which earns him a flogging.

Swift punishment for disobedience is a central tenet to Heinlein's world. This point is made repeatedly. Juan watches a fellow recruit get court martialed in under an hour, and flogged and sent home by the end of the day. His own discipline is equally swift. When a deserter gets caught and is accused of murder, the court martial and execution happen in the same day. The reason for this swiftness, explains Juan's teacher, is that people do not have an instinct for moral behavior, so they have to be taught, much as one trains a puppy to be house broken.

Juan's father figure, Mr Dubois the history teacher stays in the picture during boot camp. He provides Juan with the encouragement that keeps him from going home, and Juan learns that Mr Dubois was once a Mobile Infantryman himself. Like "father," like "son." Heinlein underscores the role that Mr Dubois plays as Juan's legitimate authority figure.

Next Heinlein illustrates the responsibility entailed by the authority invested in the leader. Juan is shown meticulously the hierarchy of responsibility. He fights alongside his mates. Everyone fights. When he is promoted, he helps retrieve injured members of his group. Eventually he enters Officer Candidate School, where the ultimate extent of this responsibility is drummed into him.

It does not matter if one life or a thousand lives are at stake, a leader must risk everything to carry out his responsibility towards them. Heinlein puts this in sharp contrast with the inhuman behavior of the "bugs" who will not risk a single warrior to rescue any number of fellow warriors, and who would sacrifice the defenseless workers without hesitation for even a minor objective. In Juan Rico's world a leader who fails his responsibility is given the most severe punishment possible.

Mr Dubois reappears at the end of Juan's time in Officer Candidate School, not in person, but again by writing a letter. He is even more clearly Juan's kindred, and wants Juan to inherit his cadet pips. His reappearance again validates Juan's progress, and reasserts his role as Juan's legitimate authority.

Juan meets his father at this point. In a meeting that is more reminiscent of two friends meeting, than of a father and son meeting after a long time apart, Heinlein shows that the relationship between Juan and his father is one where Juan has earned legitimate authority, while his father is only now starting. Juan's father, who just enlisted, is going to start exactly where we first met Juan.

Heinlein does not allow the reader to witness a final victory over the "bugs." These are the externalized manifestations of the dangers that threaten in Heinlein's world when the moral authority model is not strictly followed. They arise as a consequence of moral weakness, and since moral weakness is always a threat, Heinlein will not allow the "bugs" to fade out of the picture.

This story is certainly not the first story based on this form of moral conservatism which made it to the big screen. Most prominent in recent years is another science fiction film, "Star Wars." The progression of "Star Wars"'s hero Luke Skywalker to his final position of authority in "The Return of the Jedi" parallels that of Juan Rico to an amazing degree. Whether or not George Lucas ever read Starship Troopers, the conceptual model on which moral conservatism is based makes these parallels inevitable.

The remaining question is if the movie, ostensibly based on the book, can deliver this message as "Star Wars" did. Heinlein's narrative style, gripping in action, deteriorates terribly in those places where he makes his message clear. He becomes didactic, ranting on for pages at a time. The difficulty this sets to the screenwriter is obvious. Translating Heinlein's rants directly would spell the death of the movie: the message must be contained in the action.

While I personally find moral conservatism an unacceptable world view, I am admittedly interested to find out if Heinlein's book in fact made it to the silver screen, or if the movie will be just another space opera, with the title stolen from a dead big name author.

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