It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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Jackboots in Space


I’ve always believed that Paul Verhoeven’s response to Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers was the only sane one. He made a satire of it. (He also never bothered to finish reading it either, which is probably even more sane.) I saw nothing wrong in holding this opinion even though I’d never read the novel myself.

Recently, however, I decided I was being unfair, if not hypocritical. I “knew” the book was crypto-fascist, despite every mention of it on the tinterweb claiming that it isn’t.

Well, I’ve now read it. And…

Starship Troopers isn’t even a novel. It’s a lesson in military operations and Heinlein’s crypto-fascist politics wrapped in the thinnest of stories. Rico is a stand-in for the dumb reader, who is lectured in every chapter on how fair and democratic is the Federation, and how effective a military force is the Mobile Infantry. We know this because we’re told it. Repeatedly.

The plot, such as it is: Johnny Rico graduates from high school, and follows a friend into Federal Service. He is assigned to the Mobile Infantry. Earth goes to war against the Bugs. Rico fights a number of battles and rises up the ranks.

That’s it.

Military sf Starship Troopers almost certainly is. But does that make it crypto-fascist? Let’s examine the evidence (all page numbers and quotations from the 1998 NEL film tie-in paperback).

Exhibit 1:
Only veterans of the Federal Service of the Terran Federation have the vote. Heinlein apologists claim that Federal Service is not necessarily military, but this is not true. When Rico signs up, and is given a physical, the doctor says to him:

“No offense. But military service is for ants … And for what? A purely nominal political privilege that pays not one centavo and that most of them aren’t competent to use wisely anyhow.” (pp 32)

Further, the recruiting sergeant on duty when Rico signs up has no legs and only one arm. Because, he explains:

“… suppose we do make a soldier out of you. Take a look at me – this is what you may buy… If you don’t buy the whole farm and cause your folks to receive a ‘deeply regret’ telegram.” (pp 30)

Exhibit 2:
According to Heinlein, spanking produces well-mannered moral children. After a page or two discussion on the best way to raise puppies – when they make mistakes, scold them, rub their noses in it, and spank them – Rico’s “History & Moral Philosophy” teacher, Mr DuBois, explains that the same methodology should be applied to children. Because not doing this led to the lawlessness of the Twentieth Century:

“Back to these young criminals – They were probably not spanked as babies; they certainly were not flogged for their crimes … This incredible sequence could go on for years while his crimes increased in frequency and visciousness…” (pp 101)

Exhibit 3:
Heinlein directly references fascism. Once again, Rico – and thus the reader – is being lectured in “History & Moral Philosophy”. During this, the instructor explains the actual meaning of the vote:

“Force, if you will! – the franchise is force, naked and raw, the Power of the Rods and the Ax.” (pp 155)

The Rods and the Axe, of course, is the fasces, the word from which Mussolini derived the term fascism.

Exhibit 4:
Any society which is authoritarian, elitist, militarist and nationalist fits the characteristics of a fascist state. The Terran Federation as described in Starship Troopers certainly meets that description. As Mussolini himself said, “Anti-individualistic, the fascist conception of life stresses the importance of the State and accepts the individual only insofar as his interests coincide with those of the State, which stands for the conscience and the universal will of man as a historic entity.” True, Rico is in the military and at war, and so his interests are firmly aligned – by training and indoctrination – along the lines demanded by the Terran Federation. But that continues to hold true should he leave the Mobile Infantry, because only someone who has served is part of the political process.

It’s been said that just because Heinlein posits a fascist state in Starship Troopers that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s his own personal politics. For most novels and novelists, this is certainly true – Robert Harris, for example, wrote Fatherland, set in an Europe in which Germany won WWII, but that doesn’t make him a Nazi. But in Fatherland‘s case, Nazi Europe was the setting for the plot. Starship Troopers is not a story, it’s a poorly-disguised lecture. Which suggests to me that Heinlein adheres to the politics described in Starship Troopers.

I have now read Starship Troopers. My opinion on its politics remains unchanged. Paul Verhoeven’s film adaptation< is greatly superior to the book.

4 thoughts on “Jackboots in Space

  1. Agree 100% – that film managed to successfully annoy all the right people. I think the spanking lecture was the point at which I threw the book across the room in disgust. I felt like I was stuck in a lift with Normal Tebbit.

  2. Hi Ian—A while ago I thought of trying once again to read that so-called novel. Thanks for preventing me from wasting my time and possibly damaging my mind. The chances of the latter happenning were, however, always quite small. Given all that you quote, I am sure that I would have stopped as soon as I saw what was going on. How can one read it otherwise. Those quotes are fully explicit! Around 1990 I read that this crap was required reading in at least one US high school, I think in New Jersey. I reacted violently then ans more so right now. There's only one thing you did not get right, and that's the official concept of a Fascist State. You did not mention that it is a "corporate" state, with the closest of relations between industry and government. I'm no sociologist or political scientist, so I know no further details. Do keep up the good work.

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