Starship Troopers

power armor

Starship Troopers is a military science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein, first published (in abridged form) as a serial in ‘The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction’ in 1959, published hardcover later that year. The first-person narrative is about a young soldier named Juan ‘Johnnie’ Rico and his exploits in the Mobile Infantry, a futuristic military unit equipped with powered armor.

Rico’s military career progresses from recruit to non-commissioned officer and finally to officer against the backdrop of an interstellar war between mankind and an arachnoid species known as ‘the Bugs.’ Through Rico’s eyes, Heinlein examines moral and philosophical aspects of suffrage, civic virtue, the necessities of war and capital punishment, and the nature of juvenile delinquency.

The novel has attracted controversy and criticism for its social and political themes, which some critics claim promote fascism and militarism. ‘Starship Troopers’ has been adapted into several films and games, with the most widely known being the 1997 film of the same name by Paul Verhoeven.

Heinlein graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1929, and served on active duty in the U.S. Navy for five years. He served on the then new aircraft carrier USS Lexington in 1931, and as a naval lieutenant aboard the destroyer USS Roper between 1933 and 1934, until he was forced to leave the Navy due to pulmonary tuberculosis. Heinlein never served in active combat while a Navy officer and he was a civilian during World War II doing research and development at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

According to Heinlein, his desire to write ‘Starship Troopers’ was sparked by the publication of a newspaper advertisement placed by the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy on April 5, 1958 calling for a unilateral suspension of nuclear weapon testing by the United States. In response, Robert and Virginia Heinlein created the small ‘Patrick Henry League’ in an attempt to create support for the U.S. nuclear testing program. During the unsuccessful campaign, Heinlein found himself under attack both from within and outside the science fiction community for his views. Starship Troopers may therefore be viewed as Heinlein both clarifying and defending his military and political views of the time.

Starship Troopers is a political essay as well as a novel. Large portions of the book take place in classrooms, with Rico and other characters engaged in debates with their History and Moral Philosophy teachers, who are often thought to be speaking in Heinlein’s voice. The overall theme of the book is that social responsibility requires being prepared to make individual sacrifice. Heinlein’s Terran Federation is a limited democracy with aspects of a meritocracy based on willingness to sacrifice in the common interest.

Suffrage belongs only to those willing to serve their society by at least two years of volunteer Federal Service – ‘the franchise is today limited to discharged veterans,’ (ch. XII), instead of anyone ‘…who is 18 years old and has a body temperature near 37 °C’ The Federation is required to find a place for anyone who desires to serve, regardless of his skill or aptitude (this also includes service ranging from teaching to dangerous non-military work such as serving as experimental medical test subjects).

There is an explicitly-made contrast to the democracies of the 20th century, which according to the novel, collapsed because ‘people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted… and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears.’ Indeed, Colonel Dubois criticizes as unrealistic the famous U.S. Declaration of Independence line concerning ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ No one can stop anyone from pursuing happiness, but life and liberty are said to exist only if they are deliberately sought and paid for.

Starship Troopers is also widely-regarded as a vehicle for Heinlein’s anti-communist views. Characters attack Karl Marx (a ‘pompous fraud’), the labor theory of value (‘All the work one cares to add will not turn a mud pie into an apple tart…’),[18] and Plato’s The Republic (‘ant-like communism’ and ‘weird in the extreme’).

The Korean War ended only five years before Heinlein began writing Starship Troopers, and the book makes several direct references to it, such as the claim that ‘no ‘Department of Defense’ ever won a war.’ Heinlein also refers to the American prisoners of war taken in that conflict, including the popular accusations of Communist brainwashing. After the Korean War ended, there were rumors that the Chinese and North Koreans continued to hold a large number of Americans.

Rico’s History and Moral Philosophy class at Officer Candidate School has a long discussion about whether it is moral to never leave a single man behind, even at the risk of starting a new war. Rico debates whether it was worth it to risk two nations’ futures over a single man who might not even deserve to live, but concludes it ‘doesn’t matter whether it’s a thousand – or just one, sir. You fight.’

In addition to Heinlein’s political views, Starship Troopers popularized a number of military concepts and innovations, some of which have inspired real life research. The novel’s most noted innovation is the powered armor exoskeletons used by the Mobile Infantry. These suits were controlled by the wearer’s own movements, but powerfully augmented a soldier’s strength, speed, weight carrying capacity (which allowed much heavier personal armament), jumping ability (including jet and rocket boost assistance), and provided the wearer with improved senses (infrared vision and night vision, radar, and amplified hearing), a completely self-contained personal environment including a drug-dispensing apparatus, sophisticated communications equipment, and tactical map displays. Their powered armor made the Mobile Infantry a hybrid between an infantry unit and an armored one.

Another concept the book pioneered was that of ‘space-borne infantry.’ The heavily mechanized units of M.I. troops were attached to interstellar troop transport spacecraft, which then delivered them to planetary target zones, by dropping groups of Mobile Infantrymen onto the planet surface from orbit via individual re-entry capsules. The uses for such a force—ranging from smash-and-burn raids, to surgical strikes, conventional infantry warfare, and holding beachheads—and the tactics that might be employed by such soldiers are described extensively within the novel.

The tactics, training, and many other aspects of this futuristic elite force are carefully detailed: everything from the function of the armored suits themselves, to the need for multiple variants of powered armor, to the training of personnel in both suit operations and the specialized unit tactics that would be needed, to the operational use of the suits in combat.

‘Starship Troopers’ is on the reading lists of the United States Marine Corps, and the United States Navy. When Heinlein wrote Starship Troopers the United States military was a largely conscripted force, with conscripts serving two year hitches. Today the U.S. military has incorporated many ideas similar to Heinlein’s concept of an all-volunteer, high-tech strike force

The main literary criticism against ‘Starship Troopers’ is that it is nothing more than a vehicle for Heinlein’s political views. Another complaint about the novel is that it is either inherently militaristic or pro-military. Another accusation is that the Terran Federation is a fascist society, and that Starship Troopers is therefore an endorsement of fascism.

The most visible proponent of these views is probably Paul Verhoeven, whose film version of Starship Troopers portrayed the Terran Federation’s personnel wearing uniforms strongly reminiscent of those worn by the Third Reich-era Wehrmacht; but Verhoeven admits that he never finished reading the actual book.

Most of the arguments for this view cite the idea that only veterans can vote and non-veterans lack full citizenship; moreover, only veterans are permitted to teach the course ‘History & Moral Philosophy,’ children are taught that moral arguments for the status quo are mathematically correct, and capital punishment is acceptable as a method to teach morality. Federal Service is not necessarily military, although it is suggested that a certain hardship and discipline is pervasive. According to science fiction author, Poul Anderson, Heinlein got the idea not from Nazi Germany or Sparta, but from Switzerland.

Defenders of the book usually point out that although the electoral franchise is limited, the government of the Terran Federation is democratically elected. There is freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of conscience. The political system described in the book is multiracial, multi-religious, and multi-ethnic. The protagonist Juan Rico is Filipino and others in his training group are American, Armenian, Japanese, German, Australian, and Turkish, or Arab, and one or two have recognizably Jewish last names.

More recently, the book has been analyzed as a utopia (in the sense of a society that does not, and cannot, exist), and that while Heinlein’s ideas sound plausible, they have never been put to the test and are, actually, impractical or utopian.

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