Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers—A Critical Critique


The late science fiction author Robert Heinlein was noted for many things, and one of these is controversy. During his life he never shied away from contentious issues, rather he seems to have actively sought them out, both on and off the page. His writing was always provocative, and the most provocative example of this was his 1959 novel "Starship Troopers". The novel was written in a few weeks, prompted by left-wing lobbying for a ban on USA nuclear weapon testing. Heinlein, a strident conservative, vehemently disagreed with this proposal. While the meaning and import of the novel has been debated (it won the 1960 Hugo, and is still in print), the story conveys the author's conservative anguish on the perceived flaws of contemporary political and social life.

The novel depicts and praises a future government with a sharply limited voting franchise, lauds an authoritarian military, and strongly criticises popular democracy. Essentially, the novel endorses conservative, oligarchic government. Thus the novel has been called "fascist" by some, and has led Michael Moorcock to refer to the novel as "Starship Stormtroopers" and label Heinlein as "the authoritarian militarist".

Heinlein expounds his ideological beliefs against the background of an interstellar war, a war in which human soldiers fight an arachnoid species only ever referred to as "The Bugs", however, this "story", a standard science fiction adventure, is the mere illustrative backdrop for Heinlein's long, recurring discourses (much of this given in an actual classroom setting), which are the true purpose of the work. These lectures are intended to justify the society portrayed in the novel. Subtract this social commentary and the novel would be a novella, and most likely considered amongst Heinlein's lesser works. It is this commentary that generates the controversy, and most of the popularity of the work.

As told in the novel, the governmental system of "Starship Troopers" began in the aftermath of a largely un-described, terrestrial, global war ("at the end of the XXth century"), one consequence of which was the collapse of national governments. Into this power vacuum stepped disgruntled military veterans. These men were the only group who could "run things", they trusted only themselves, and were certainly not willing to allow "unprintable" civilians to interfere. This led to the eventual creation of "The Federation" where to vote and to be eligible for public office one must be a veteran of "Federal Service". In some nations "less than three per cent" of the population have served, but on the colony world of "Iskander" 80% are vets and thus voters.

Heinlein goes to great lengths to defend this restriction, but to make one point clear, if only a fraction of the adult population can vote then the government is not a democracy, it is an oligarchy. The rationale for this form of government is that only those who had demonstrated a willingness to lay down their lives to protect the state (also referred to as the "group") are able to vote responsibly, "control over the state to wager his own life—and lose it, if need be—to save the life of the state". Those who complete Federal Service are also described as fighters, those who do not are "sheep", "If you separate out the aggressive ones and make them the sheep dogs, the sheep will never give you trouble." This is considered to be "civic virtue". In other words you must be willing to to kill and to die for the state, in order to vote. Heinlein adds a little eastern sophistry to pseudo-validate this assertion "Yin and yang, perfect and equal".

To put this into context, Adolf Hitler, a wounded, decorated, and brave veteran of WWI, would be allowed to pursue a political career in the Federation, whereas a man by the name of Franklin Roosevelt would not.

To avoid the label of "militarist" or "fascist" Heinlein's advocates have correctly pointed out that there are non-military services which lead to the franchise, and that every citizen has the constitutional right to serve, regardless of physical disabilities, "Counting the fuzz on a caterpillar by touch, maybe.", as one Federal Service doctor states. The criterion given in the novel is that one must successfully complete an acknowledged form of hazardous public service. These are described as "non-combatant auxiliary services", whose veterans "have not been subjected to the full rigors of military discipline; they have merely been harried, overworked, and endangered". However, no details are given, apart from the exclusion of the "merchant ("long-haired and sloppy and kind of dirty looking") marine sailor" (which does seem a mildly hazardous occupation).

Even with this distinction drawn it is clear that the military is the most highly regarded form of Federal Service. Heinlein also makes it clear that military virtue is by far the greatest indicator of moral virtue. With this in mind, and with the few hints provided in the novel, we can infer that these unnamed "auxiliary services" are run along military lines with military discipline and indoctrination. Thus, to draw a distinction between a military and non-military path to political power is to draw a distinction where there is none. Juan Rico's training regiment began with 2009 men, out of which only 187 graduated. Federal Service requires that each volunteer be broken and humiliated in training, re-built as an obedient servant, and then face deadly danger or at least great difficulty, for a duty you are told is necessary.

In presenting this justification for the Federation, Heinlein went to great lengths to contrast and delineate the faults of mass democracies. They failed because they were based upon the flawed notion of universal suffrage, thus people "vote for whatever they wanted", and "This was the tragic fallacy which brought on the decadence and collapse of the democracies of the twentieth century", "they paid for their folly". According to Heinlein the western democracies were to crumble due to the inherent weakness of character of the "hoi polli", who were greedy and short sighted, who had attained the vote without effort, who were incapable of appreciating its importance, and failed to use it responsibly, but only for their own, narrow self-interest, etc. An even worse offence of democracies was the lack of regard for the military by civilian "do gooders and well-meaning old Aunt Nellie", who believe "We've outgrown wars". What comes through in "Starship Troopers" is an entrenched disdain for liberal democracy, a contempt for the proletariat, and the use of the term "decadence".

"Decadence", is an ill-defined or perhaps, better, a catch-all term, widely and laughably used by conservative commentators to label the perceived ills of a liberal society. These ills revolve around a shift in political and economic power from the few to the many. This incorporates a regard and adherence to human rights, a greater participation by the entire population in the political process, and a more equitable distribution of wealth. Such social trends are anathema to conservatives. This "decadence" requires a "cure". This is invariably a more authoritarian government—and a war (or two) always helps.

Heinlein claims that his world avoided the fate of decadent democracies by enrolling only voters with "civic virtue", gained by military or ersatz military service. Yet, even in his own novel this seems a stretch. Juan Rico himself, the protagonist and hero of the novel, enlisted on a dare and joins the military arm of the Federation as his last choice. During his training he comes to view the military life as the best of all possible worlds, and in doing so separates himself from civilian life, but does this shift equate to a better understanding of society, or the opposite? Heinlein specifically states that veterans are not smarter or more knowledgeable. Rather, veterans had a disdainful view of civilians, inferior types, who just don't get it. They don't have the right stuff, they are like "beans", "you buy 'em as needed". Civilians can be "smart", but they do not have "fighting spirit".

In another context, a successful military commander Arthur Wessley, the Duke of Wellingon gave a different interpretation of military men. He said that British soldiers do no enlist for noble reasons but because of "bastards", "minor offences", or "drink". He goes on to call his men "scum of the earth—the mere scum of the earth". In a later war I can personally attest that at least some of the Austrailan personnel who volunteered early in WW2 did so to escape relationship and financial problems, with little understanding of what they were getting in to. It is also true, at least in peace time, that many people volunteer for the military simply for a job, certainly during times of high unemployment, or for other inducements. It is also a choice given to petty criminals.

There is no evidence that the people who successfully complete military service are in any way more ethical or demonstrate a greater willingness to sacrifice for others than any other group in the population. One could in fact argue the opposite. Military force, propaganda notwithstanding, is usually deployed for internal purposes—most military casualties are civilians, and most of these casualties are domestic civilians. Note the use of the military to suppress civilian revolts in the contemporary Middle East. The military and the police are controlled by the ruling class of the society, and are used to protect and extend the interests of that class against their enemies, who are usually their own citizens. Illustrative of this, a major and frequent use of troops is as strike-breakers, hardly the stirring stuff of military legend.

Military governments are no more than the usual, unimaginative, fascist state. Such governments quickly become self-serving and corrupt. The term decadence is better applied here than to a vibrant and successful democratic society. What is all too apparent in the novel is the unrealistic nature of the government and society portrayed. Heinlein was a frustrated soldier, one who wanted to, but never served in a military capacity. He paints an idealised, even dream like portrait of military life. Joe Haldeman, who did serve and who wrote "The Forever War" (1974), was critical of "Starship Troopers".


This contempt for democracy presented in the novel is the leitmotif of Heinlein's writing. At the time he wrote "Starship Troopers" Heinlein had predicted the "Crazy Years", a time in the near future when governments and society would collapse, and suffering and misery would ensue (a beloved state of affairs for hard-line conservatives). All due to too many "crazy" ideas taking place. The reality was the opposite of Heinlein's gloomy prediction. It was the autocratic and oligarchic governments that collapsed in the generation following his death, not the democratic. A generation after "Starship Troopers" was written the centre piece of conservative fears, the nation that was to overwhelm the decadent west, the oligarchic Soviet Union, had collapsed (if Heinlein had lived only three more years he would have seen this for himself), due to its inherent inefficiencies and abuse of power.

"Starship Troopers" paints a grim picture of democratic society, but Heinlein neglected to discuss the faults of oligarchies. Even a cursory examination of the historical record will reveal that oligarchies are not the paragons of selfless virtue that Heinlein dreams of, rather they are unimaginative and stagnant, their ruling class factionalised and bickering, and the needs of the population subjugated to the every increasing demands of the ruling class in their squabble for power and survival. Such a ruling class decks itself with elaborate uniforms and protocols, engages in trivial vanities, and possess a petty evil, which manifests as political assassination and intrigue. Soon enough, when its inherent flaws emerge, these governments launch or provoke a war in order to deflect internal criticism (the Argentian Junta and the Malvinas/Falklands, for exmaple). It is not the oligarchic and autocratic societies that produce the advances in human history, rather it is the democratic and open societies. From Athens to the Age of Enlightenment increases in human freedom have resulted in social and scientific progress.

Related to Heinlein's contempt for democracy, is his disregard for trade unions and his entire ignorance of the concept of "people power". No where in Heinlein's oeuvre is there a kind word for the organisations that protect workers against exploitation, rather the opposite. Also, the notion of citizens forming mass protests against, and driving out oppression, is no where to be found. This egalitarian social action by citizens, the "sheep" of the novel's universe, which accelerated the collapse of the SU, and brought peace to Yugoslavia in 2000, is non-existent in "Starship Troopers".

The depth of Heinlein's error is more than lack of political understanding. He fundamentally mis-understands human nature. In the novel Heinlein incorrectly states that humans have no innate moral conscience, that we are born without morals (very christian, but he does not go so far as to say we are born in sin). What ever morals we develop are created by indoctrination, and indoctrination by physical punishment is best:


" "You see, they assumed that Man has a moral instinct."
"Sir? But I thought—But he does! I have."
"No, my dear, you have a cultivated conscience, a most carefully trained one. Man has no moral instinct. He is not born with moral sense. You were not born with it, I was not—and a puppy has none. We acquire moral sense, when we do, through training, experience, and hard sweat of the mind." "


This fallacious belief is the core of the novel and the basis of the ideology it expresses. Heinlein believed that only a few can grasp the need to work for the common good. This is not correct, rather the reverse is true, ethical values are part of human nature. It is a core value of our humanity. Human beings are born with an innate moral sense. Humans are social animals, we, and our precursor species, have for millions of years survived because we could form societies, families, and work together as a community. To do this required the evolution of brain hardware that allowed, even compelled us to recognise the innate humanness of other people, certainly people close to us. The terms "empathy" and "conscience". We hurt when those close to us hurt. There are numerous presentations of this fact. For those interested in reading further I suggest the 2004 book "The Science of Good and Evil" by Michael Shermer.

The person Heinlein describes is a psychopath. A non-human creature born without a moral conscience that comprise approximately 1% of the population. These people are innately untrustworthy, deceitful, unreliable, and motivated only by their own self-interest. They are the bane of society and individuals.

With this understanding we can see the basic fallacy of "Starship Troopers". The credo of the novel derivies from a dangerously flawed mis-understanding of humanity. Heinlein believes that punishment, both corporal (public whipping), and capital punishment (public hanging) is necessary to create moral humans—though one could argue that if morality is created through fear and conditioning then it is not true morality. This approach to human education is false and dangerous. Physical punishment teaches little, it dumbs people down, making them unimaginative, prone to the use of violence, and blindly obedient to authority. Generally speaking, the more authortarian the society, the greater the value placed on physical punishment, both of children and adults.

In 1960 the extent of this understanding of humans was in its infancy. It could be said that therefore RAH cannot be condemned for this belief, however, if there was no evidience one way there is no evidience of the other. If RAH was unaware of scientific evidence of the basis of human motivation then he should not write about what he does not understand, or at least incorporate this doubt into his writing—but he does not.

To paraphrase Michael Moorcock I will refer to Heinlein's novel as "Starship Psychopaths".

Symptomatic of Heinlein's psychopathic view of humanity, there is Man's "manifest destiny" to colonise the stars. This notion is presented in only a few lines in the novel, but brief as this is, this single claim is what I find most objectionable. RAH outlines the future. The galaxy will be colonised by the strong—only those species that are worthy to survive will do so. This will be humanity, with the Federation military leading the way. Juan Rico spends time on the planet Sanctuary. It is an outstanding planet, a "potential utopia", and this makes it a useful example to expound his opinion on human destiny vis-a-vis the planet.

"... it will not be left in the possession of primitive life forms that failed to make the grade."

This is it, the strong take what they will, genocide is justified. Heinlein's proxy foresees the universe as dominated by humans. Those alien intelligences who accommodate themselves to this reality will survive, as human client states. Those who do not will be exterminated. This is the bleakest, most inhumane argument Heinlein puts forward in the novel.

This view of alien intelligence is rare in the science fiction world. It is true that generally SF authors place humans at or near the top of any hierarchy, but usually in a far more peaceful universe. Even the self-described libertarian Poul Anderson, in his future history (Polseotechnic League and Terran Empire), allowed low-tech autochthons to join in (even enlist) in human society. Arthur C. Clarke went so far as to see humanity as merely a stepping stone to a more advanced form of life. Not so Heinlein.

To achieve this goal of galactic domination, the Federation needs bodies, thus birth control in "Starship Troopers" is frowned upon: "Without debating the usefulness or morality of planned parenthood", "any breed which stops its own increase gets crowded out by breeds which expand.". The biblical injunction to "be fruitful and multiply" and rule over all of creation (to paraphrase) is the mandate of the Federation.

In this future version of manifest destiny humans breed without restriction, dominate or exterminate "inferior" species, and populate the galaxy in the "flicker of an eye". No hint that another species might have something to offer humans.

Reproduction raises the question of sex and love in the novel, which can be answered with none of one and little of the other. The point has been made by Moorcock and others that there is no love in "Starship Troopers". True. The closest we see is an unrequited adolescent crush by the protagonist, unrecognised by the female party, and a few paragraphs which tell the reader how good it is to look (no suggestion of touching) at women.

It might seem on the surface that Victorian era novels deal even more coyly with sex and love than does "Starship Troopers", but no. For example, H. Rider Haggard's "Alan Quartermaine" character falls passionately in love, without mention of sex, with his wife, and speaks of this love from time to time in the novels. It is a love that sweeps him away with its strength. Not so in "Starship Troopers". John Rico gazes at girls, but that is it. The idea of committment, family, love and passion are no where to be found. This can be interpreted as a Boys Own Adventure in space, but the novel is not a juvenile and was first published in "The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction", a magazine aimed at an adult audience. This sublimation can be seen as a subordination of human emotion away from civilian life and towards the military. The armed forces: "was my gang, I belonged. They were all the family I had left; they were the brothers I had never had, closer than Carl had ever been. If I left them, I'd be lost."

The "Bugs", the "arachnids"—the enemy—why are "we" fighting them? Why and how did the war start? A pertinent question when war is concerned, but one ignored in the novel. It is neither a question nor an issue. The war is here, we fight. The Bug War is a just war. Somehow I am reminded of "The Great War", World War One. Why again did ten million men have to die? At this point I cannot but think of the appallingly goofy 1998 movie "Starship Troopers". A journalist asks the movie Rico (transmogrified from a Philippino into a square jawed wasp), about bug breeding grounds, human colonisation, and suggests that humans might be partially responsible for the war! Immediately, Rico and his crew dismissively dismiss the journo's comments and aver the certainty of total victory.

Moorcock made the observation that the Bugs represent Heinlein's fears (and those of his fellow conservatives) of the proletarian masses and the faceless communist hordes. Perhaps an extreme view, but certainly the Bugs are a bespoke enemy. A blank background against which Heinlein's moral presentation is projected. I interpret the Bugs as the faceless paranoiac fears of many conservatives who see the universe as an innately hostile place, where there is always an enemy. In this I am reminded of a “Manifesto to the Civilized World”, signed by several hundred prominent Germans during WW1. This document justified German military aggression by warning about “Russian hordes,” “Mongols,” and “Negroes”, who had been “unleashed against the white race.” Such paranoia of the outsider is all too easily found in "Starship Troopers".

Without doubt "Starship Troopers" is a fascist novel. It describes the fascist state as its admirers believed it to be, however, I go one step further. It is a psychopathic novel—bleak, cold, and inhuman. A novel that depicts a fear filled universe from which the only salvation is the unquestioning embrace of authoritarianism. In this worldview genocide and endless warfare are implicitly justified to combat the perceived threat of strangers and the unknown. When reading "Starship Troopers" I was reminded of Norman Spinrad's "Iron Dream" (1972), an alternative universe novel within a novel "written" by an immigrant to the USA, one Adolf Hitler. Both share the same cold fatalism.

This review has assumed that the views expressed in the novel are the views of the author. In later years, when discussing this novel, Heinlein defended himself by stating that his characters spoke for themselves, yet Heinlein spoke for himself on many occasions. One of these occasions was his 1973 Forrestal Lecture Series speech on patriotism and duty entitled "The Pragmatics of Patriotism". In this speech Heinlein described the contemporary US military in much the same way he described the "Starship Troopers" military: it is the noblest calling, civilians are inferior, and "peaceniks" are bad. Similar views to this, expressed in different fashions are found throughout Heinlein's work.

One example of this, one which I found distasteful when I first read of it many years ago, and still do, is the murder of a man in Heinlein's novel "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" (1966). A group of emergency service personnel are practising the repair of an airlock on the Moon. A heckler is standing by criticising their work. When they finish their task they carry the man through the airlock onto the Luna surface where he dies the horrible death of asphyxiation. This cold murder is passed over briefly. Might makes right, don't criticise those in uniform.

This is the general view held by many far right conservatives of their own country, there obsessive patriotism, combined with a disdain for most members and institutions of that society. Heinlein distrusted democracy, civilian society as a whole, but had a near superstitious reverence for the United States.

The views expressed by Heinlein's protege Juan Rico are those held by the author.

The adoration given to this novel is fearful. It is on the recommended reading list of the US Marine Corp commandant (or something similar). I find this disturbing in the extreme. Like many such  approved works it teaches soldiers to alienate themselves from civilian society and to despise the democratic structure they are presumably there to defend. The novel is little more than an open endorsement of an oligarchic fascism. I would like to think that a report on the Nuremberg Trials, and something by Geoffrey Robinson would be on that reading list rather than Heinlein.

It has been claimed that "Starship Troopers" is a "libertarian" government. This based on the tiny hints that the government respects civil liberties and has little power. Not true, a libertarian government would not rely on a standing army, but on a militia, and enjoy a universal franchise, and certainly not praise unquestioning obedience to authority. "Starship Troopers" is a paternalistic society, hierarchical society.

Many have said "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely". This is an aphorism best kept in mind when reading the novel. A narrow elite, selected by military service, is the most indicative example of the harm of unbridled power. Every person living in a society has a part to play in that society, however small or large, and, equally, every person is affected by decisions made in that society, thus every person has a right to a say in the management of their society. Tyranny is the enemy of democracy.

Robert Heinlein disregards the founding fathers of his own homeland. These men were of the Age of Enlightenment, for all their flaws. They had seen the excesses and abuses of power brought about by the Kings of Europe. They knew of the autocratic state of Cromwell. They feared that General Washington would make himself king, and they were apprehensive about military power in general. These men believed that their new country should have no standing army, rather to rely on a militia of armed citizens.

"A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive, will not long be safe companions to liberty." James Madison.

"Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people." James Madison.

"Even when there is a necessity of the military power, within a land, a wise and prudent people will always have a watchful and jealous eye over it". Samuel Adams.


"Starship Troopers" is a direct attack on democracy, human rights, and personal freedom. Reading the book generates a shiver of cold fear and repulsion. It is the simple minded dream of an authoritarian, dysfunctional paranoia. Lastly, it is not a good novel.

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