Starship Troopers Essay, Research Paper
“The historians can’t seem to settle whether to call this one “The Third Space War” (or the fourth), or whether “The First Interstellar War” fits it better. We just call it “The Bug War.” Everything up to then and still later were just incidents, patrols or police actions. However, you are just as dead if you buy the farm in an incident as you are if you buy it in a declared war.”
Welcome to the 22nd century as depicted by Robert Heinlein in his book Starship Troopers. Around 1987, the Russo-Anglo-American Alliance went to war against the Chinese Hegemony. The result of this was the destruction of society as we know it. What grew out of the ashes and rubble was a governing body entitled the “Terran Federation.” The federation is a united Earth that now stands together as one.
As we can see from the opening statement, Earth is now at war with a race of giant bugs called Arachnids (deadly, man-sized spiders). We are witness to all of this through the point of view of Juan “Johnny” Rico, a member of the mobile infantry. The story opens with a guerrilla- strike against a Skinnie (the humanoid allies of the bugs) settlement. This introduces the methods used by Heinlein’s futuristic army. Soldiers don powered armor capable of carrying tremendous loads and jumping city blocks. These warriors also have an arsenal ranging from hand held flame throwers to rockets tipped with nuclear warheads.
At the conclusion of the mission, we flashback a few years to the time of Johnny’s graduation from high school. It is here that we are presented with the idea of Federal Service. Many debates continue to rage nearly fifty years after the book was published, concerning specific details of it. However, what is certain is that federal service is much like the armed forces of today. Upon one’s eighteenth birthday they are given the opportunity to enlist and serve a term of no less than two years. As Johnny himself says, “It’s the first completely free choice anybody gets (and maybe his last) . . . he or she can volunteer and nobody else has any say in the matter.” (Heinlein 22) The reward for serving is very simple. A person is given the title of citizen and they are given the right to vote. Therefore, the only people in society who have a true say are those who have completed their term of service.
Much of the debates mentioned earlier center around this aspect of Heinlein’s society. Many find it to be a fascist/military dictatorship while others feel it is merely a meritocracy. We will depart from this for the time being so that we may continue on with the book summary.
Johnny’s father is outraged at the thought of his son attempting to gain citizenship. He feels that living as a civilian is the best thing for everyone. After all, civilians are entitled to the same rights as citizens except they lack the right to vote. This disgruntled opinion is expressed when Johnny’s father says, “So what is this so called Federal Service? Parasitism, pure and simple. A functionless organ, utterly obsolete, living on the taxpayers. A decidedly expensive way for inferior people who otherwise would be unemployed to live at public expense for a term of years, then give themselves airs for the rest of their lives.” (Heinlein 24)
Despite his father’s efforts to dissuade him, Johnny travels to the federal building and enlists. The Fleet Sergeant in charge of the recruiting office does everything he can to discourage Johnny from enlisting. The government does not believe in allowing anyone to serve unless he is fully committed as well as capable. After listening to the Sergeant’s stories about recruits having to test experimental survival suits on Titan or living in a science colony in Antarctica, Johnny still decides to enlist. Tests of all kinds ensue and when all is said and done, he is assigned to the mobile infantry.
From here, the story consumes nearly half the book by describing Johnny’s experiences with boot camp at Camp Arthur Currie in Northern Canada. Along the way, Heinlein provides us with a continuous view of this futuristic society. The majority of this comes from Johnny’s reflections toward his high school class, History and Moral Philosophy taught by a Mr. Dubois. History and Moral Philosophy is a required class for all students, but the grade one receives is irrelevant. It is impossible to flunk. Mr. Dubois presents many of the controversial issues that have caused such heated debates, as mentioned earlier. The first time we encounter him, Mr. Dubois is teaching his class the importance of military force throughout our world’s history. One of his female students insists that “violence never solves anything.” Mr. Dubois argues that one should conjure up images of Napoleon, Hitler, the Dodo bird and goes on to state that, “Violence, naked force has settled more issues in history than any other factor . . . Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedom.” (Heinlein 26)
Several weeks later, Johnny is still fighting his way through the rigors of boot camp when we encounter the judicial side of the federation. Administrative punishment, as well as capital punishment, are both accepted and commonly used. Johnny himself is flogged five times for needlessly placing one of the soldiers under his command in danger. We are also witness to the execution of a deserter, that while AWOL, killed a baby girl. The reasoning behind the use of these very controversial tools are once again explained by Mr. Dubois. In yet another one of Johnny’s reflections, we find that the society we live in today is looked down upon. The notion that all men have natural rights and that punishments can be “cruel and unusual” is incomprehensible to everyone. Mr. Dubios states that none of the citizens of this flawed culture had an understanding of duty:
“Junior hoodlums . . . were symptoms of a greater sickness, their citizens glorified their mythology of rights’ . . . and lost track of their duties. No nation, so constituted, can endure.” (Heinlein 120)
Time passes very quickly for the remainder of boot camp. Johnny soon graduates and finds himself placed in an actual combat unit. Upon arriving at his assigned company, he finds that this “bug war” has been going on for several years. However, a recent attack by the bugs that resulted in the total annihilation of Buenos Aires, has caused an outcry for revenge among the public. The first battle or “drop” for Johnny is Operation Bughouse. It is an all out strike against the bug world of Klendathu, designed to bring the enemy to his knees. Sadly, things quickly turn into “Operation Madhouse” and the federation’s forces are decimated. Everything that could go wrong, does and the war is nearly lost.
Johnny is one of the lucky few that survives the eighty percent casualty rates. The rest of his company is not nearly as fortunate and he is reassigned to Rasczak’s Roughnecks on board the ship Rodger Young. Johnny quickly forms a tight bond with his new unit and makes even more drops. After witnessing all the death and carnage that comes with war, he matures and develops into a battle hardened veteran. Because of this, Johnny decides to make an officer out of himself and leaves the Roughnecks for Officer Candidate School.
Far away from the battlefields, he learns the intricacies of commanding fellow soldiers, and he is also exposed to more lessons in History & Moral Philosophy. Heinlein provides us with
new information concerning how the society arose to its current stature and on what its values or beliefs are based upon. The majority of this will be touched on later.
Near the end of his training, Johnny is shipped out to a combat unit where he receives on the job training, so to speak. Coincidentally, his leadership trial comes at the same time as a major push against the bug enemy. These final few chapters are rather irrelevant when it comes to the overall meaning, so I will refrain from summarizing them in depth. I will merely state that Johnny does an adequate job for his first command (one of the soldiers under him happened to be his former drill sergeant back in boot camp) but he does make his fair share of mistakes as well. He actually becomes a casualty himself but soon he is back in OCS school and finishes the rest of his training.
The final chapter ends with Johnny in charge of his own company, Rico’s Roughnecks. He and his men are preparing to launch for the final battle against the familiar world of Klendathu. It is time for the federation and the mobile infantry to bring things to the end. The final line sums up Heinlein’s true feelings by simply stating, “To the everlasting glory of the Infantry.”
With the summary out of the way, it is now time to examine all the ideas that Mr. Heinlein has set forth. The first issue to examine is what the federation is based upon. As stated earlier, this information comes out of Johnny’s OCS training. The teacher, Major Reid, begins the lesson by asking his class why the federation’s system of government works better than any that has come before them. Many of the students put forward the idea that veterans are somehow smarter than an average civilian, thus they have a wiser voting class. Major Reid quickly pronounces this idea to be preposterous. He states that in many cases, civilians are actually far smarter than the typical soldier. Major Reid slowly begins to piece things together and suddenly we arrive at the conclusion that veterans understand their responsibilities.
“Under our system every voter and officeholder is a man who has demonstrated through voluntary and difficult service that he places the welfare of the group ahead of personal advantage.” (Heinlein 182)
What Major Reid is saying here is that although a veteran may not be as intelligent as one who has not served, he/she understands the importance of voting and the authority that will come from it. Heinlein goes on to state that this was the major reason for the downfall of our society. The majority of those who voted in these so called unlimited democracies do not understand the full weight of their decisions. What Mr. Heinlein brings to our attention is nothing new. The idea that our country has irresponsible voters that take for granted their ability to decide their fate is a problem that plagues us every election. We need but look toward this year’s election with the whirl-wind controversy that surrounded Florida. When we have thousands upon thousands of votes thrown out because of an inability to vote properly, it is hard to argue against the author’s point.
However, the key issue here is that we entrust all people with the right to vote merely because they are born in this country or they have passed a citizenship test and meet an arbitrary age requirement. What Heinlein is saying, and what I agree with, is that this is a terribly flawed system. We live in a world where people are terribly selfish and intrinsically focused. Many people vote for those who will make things better not for the country, but for themselves. Everyone is focused on what is troubling them, and lose track of the overall picture.
When we vote we do not just do it for ourselves, but for our nation and generations to come. Your vote is for your child, or your brother, or your neighbor down the street or even
someone who lives halfway across the country that you have never met before. Sadly, this is
never thought about when we cast our votes each year. We lose sight of just what our vote entails, and that lack of judgement is what may ultimately bring us down.
Within Heinlein’s futuristic society, this flaw was finally recognized. As it turns out, a small group of Scottish veterans united shortly after the great war and began to form their own sense of order out of the chaos of collapsed governments. The group didn’t let anyone in their ranks unless they were veterans and several generations later the federation became the society that Johnny lives in. Thus we can go back to Major Reid’s quote that was presented earlier and see that veterans of federal service have proven that they deserve the right to vote. Serving one’s country (or in this case the world) instills a general set of beliefs and values in one that will not be forgotten. One understands that proper authority, teamwork, and the fulfillment of assigned responsibilities are essential if progress is to be made and things accomplished.
The fact that military veterans are the ones who vote does not make it a military dictatorship. This argument, mentioned near the beginning of the summary, has very little merit. These citizens are no longer in the service of the federation. It is clearly stated that all those who vote must have completed their enlistment period. A person still finishing up their term has not earned anything. Even if they resign a day prior to being discharged, they receive none of the benefits entitled to a veteran. They must have completed the requirement. As a result of this, the government is clearly not controlled by the military.
With that said, we can also see that there is no evidence of a dictatorship or of fascism. These two forms of government involve complete control of a society, both its social and economic aspects. In the federation, everyone is born as a civilian and that aspect of society is fairly reminiscent of a capitalistic, free-market society. The only aspect of society that is
controlled is that of voting. But, it is not a restricted part of society. Everyone is entitled to the right as long as they have proven themselves worthy.
This can be seen as Heinlein’s main theme throughout the book, but many underlying thoughts are very important as well. Next on the list is the idea of unalienable rights. Through Mr. Dubois, Heinlein expresses his belief that we are not granted anything in life. Everything must be earned in some fashion or another. That which we receive too easily will be seen as cheap and will not be valued. What we must sweat and toil and fight for is what is most valuable to us. Because our society does not acknowledge this fact, Heinlein presents us with the frightening possibility that we will inevitably collapse someday. Our democracies of today and the ideas of political correctness have allowed many to skirt the ideas of authority and responsibility. These people must have an excuse for everything, and few step up to face the consequences of their actions.
As Mr. Dubois points out, we believe in the idea of juvenile delinquents yet we never treated them as such. He offers forth the idea of house breaking a new pup. When the animal makes a mistake, you “scold him, rub his nose in it, and paddle him” so that he will learn from his errors. If he does it again, you repeat those actions again until he learns.
Taking this example and placing it into our judicial system we can clearly see its flaws. Instead of punishing juveniles who have committed crimes, we slap them on the wrist and increase the repercussions at an astonishingly small rate for each crime thereafter. Then one day the juvenile becomes an adult as a result of a magical maturation simply because he is now eighteen years old.
If one were to use this system of punishment on a dog during its house training phase, we would only cause him to become terribly confused. Before, he could make the mistake and get away with little to no penalty, but now it is full grown and deserves the harshest sentence that we can give. One can clearly see all the errors in this system. If we would never dare try this on our pets, then why on earth do we attempt to use it on our children?
The last idea for analysis is derived from the issue of responsibility as well as our judicial system: Cruel and unusual punishment. Mr. Dubois again argues Heinlein’s beliefs when he states, “I do not understand objections to cruel and unusual punishment. While a judge should be benevolent in purpose, his awards should cause the criminal to suffer, else there is no punishment.” (Heinlein 11)
In our society today we have the idea that one should not harm another engraved into our heads from the day of our birth. Because of this we find it against our belief system to make another suffer more than is necessary. What then do we do with those that have no respect for this belief? How should those that violate this basic code be dealt with? What justice is to be done in letting one off who has caused another so much pain without bearing the consequences? These are questions that are never discussed. We simply assume that criminals should be treated as equal members of society. Heinlein would have us believe that the Social Contract should be valued, and anyone who violates this agreement should be treated as an enemy of society.
As for the unusual aspect of punishment, we lose sight of the fact that punishment must be unusual. Much like the book itself states, what good it is it to use the same manners of discipline over and over again, on a continual basis. Something that becomes routine will no longer be effective. It will lose any possibility of having a deterrent effect, thus losing its purpose.
Both administrative and capital punishment fulfill the needs of the society in Starship Troopers. These two punishments are carried out very rarely, yet so publicly that everyone is affected by it and recidivism rates are non-existent. As Johnny himself states, “You don’t forget it.” (Heinlein 107) Perhaps it is time for our society to wake up and accept the responsibilities in a striking new way.
In closing, Robert Heinlein has presented us with an extraordinary look at not only the flaws of our society, but also the ways from which we can improve. Needless to say, many will find this book a misguiding, fascist (as has already been pointed out), pro-military look at life that merely glorifies war and doesn’t show it’s dark side. I argue that this could not be further from the truth. If we would simply open our eyes and not be afraid of finding out that we may actually be wrong, it is amazing what we might find. Heinlein is very straight forward in his beliefs and it is true that he feels the military is a valuable asset of our society, but this does not undermine the value of his statements. I can only hope that his prophecies of our democratic society collapsing because of its own blind beliefs will refrain from coming about. We are our own worst enemy.