Review: Robert A. Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers”

by Miles Raymer


There are plenty of reasons why I should hate (or at least vehemently dislike) Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, but I was surprised by this novel’s ability to ingratiate itself to me despite propounding a set of perspectives and values that seem anathema to mine. I am neither a military enthusiast nor a scholar of war, so I doubted that a story so singularly focused on the minutiae of futuristic infantry operations would have much to offer me. I am, however, deeply interested in moral and political philosophy, and Heinlein included just enough of these subjects to keep my attention; a few of his ideas even recalibrated my own.

Before explaining why I think Starship Troopers is ultimately a worthwhile read, I’ll briefly mention the downsides of this short and imperfect novel. Heinlein can turn a phrase, but he’s not an artful or particularly creative writer. His gender politics are atrocious. Starship Troopers could fairly be accused of glorifying war and endorsing authoritarian governmental practices. But despite these qualities, or perhaps by virtue of them, Heinlein’s vision appealed to me in a way I didn’t expect. I became strangely sympathetic to his characterization of the military as a collectivist mechanism for the intelligent application of controlled force, as well as his arguments for service-based suffrage. I think a solid case can be made that any society in need of an army ought to shape it roughly according to Heinlein’s ideas.

The best parts of Starship Troopers take place not on the battlefield, but in classrooms and training grounds. Johnnie Rico, our protagonist, is forced by the mandates of the Terran Federation to take a History and Moral Philosophy course before graduating from high school and joining up with the Mobile Infantry (M.I.), a technologically and logistically advanced fighting force akin to the contemporary US Marine Corps. It is in this classroom, and during Rico’s later boot camp experiences, that Heinlein explicates the relationship between civil service, freedom, violence, and democracy. These sessions also provide Rico with justifications for the M.I.’s worldview.

One of the central tenets of the M.I. ethos is the assertion that violence is properly applied only in controlled, strategic ways. Rico’s boot camp instructor explains:

War is not violence and killing, pure and simple; war is controlled violence, for a purpose. The purpose of war is to support your government’s decisions by force. The purpose is never to kill the enemy just to be killing him…but to make him do what you want him to do. Not killing…but controlled and purposeful violence. (loc. 849)

I do not think this passage properly captures how war typically plays out in practice, and the instructor’s logic is certainly not ironclad. However, I do think viewing the army as a conduit for “controlled and purposeful violence” is an excellent description of how a military force ought to regard itself. Rico and his comrades’ efforts to to live up to this credo––to use their deadly talents only insofar as is deemed necessary––constitute examples of discipline and poise under pressure that are both entertaining and edifying.

Heinlein cleverly works the image of controlled force into the technical layouts of the suits used to enhance the M.I.’s fighting capabilities: “The suit has feedback, which causes it to match any motion you make, exactly––but with great force…force controlled without your having to think about it” (loc. 1388, emphasis his). Just as their suits respond to the troopers’ every move, the troopers train to respond as seamless, functional tools ready to carry out orders. I found this grand efficiency quite impressive––the selfless, ruthless methods the troopers use to push the limits not only of their capacity for compliance, but also their strength and endurance.

Another admirable idea is the M.I.’s foundational egalitarianism. Just like any military, the Federation maintains a strict hierarchy. But in the M.I., no one sends troopers to fight without strapping in and joining them:

The root of our morale is: ‘Everybody works, everybody fights.’ An M. I. doesn’t pull strings to get a soft, safe job; there aren’t any…All ‘soft, safe’ jobs are filled by civilians; that goldbricking private climbs into his capsule certain that everybody, from general to private, is doing it with him. Light-years away and on a different day, or maybe an hour or so later––no matter. What does matter is that everybody drops. (loc. 2849, emphasis his)

Because their job is to put their lives on the line, men in the M.I. represent the antithesis of ideological lip-service. What they say, they do, period. As an individual accustomed to spouting ideas and opinions without having to back them up with anything other than words, I have to admit that I’ve never even come close to achieving the correspondence between my words and actions that these fictional men appear to enjoy. With that kind of collective moxy and mutual dependence, even a military whose actions I condemned would deserve a certain degree of veneration.

The reward for such dedication to the Terran Federation is citizenship, including the right to vote. This right is not granted to mere civilians; in Heinlein’s future, suffrage is service-based. One needn’t join the military to gain citizenship, but anyone eager to participate in elections must serve a term of at least a few years, working in whatever way the government chooses after thorough physical and psychological evaluation. Comparing the Federation’s model to the “failed” and “unlimited” democracies of the past, another of Rico’s mentors states: “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. And that is the one practical difference” (loc. 2496).

It’s important to note that civilians are neither impoverished nor unfairly abused under Federation rule. Crime is virtually nonexistent (public corporal punishment for law-breaking is the norm), standards of living are high, commerce thrives, and in many ways civilians have much more freedom than citizens. Anyone wanting to vote is welcome to sign up and earn that privilege. But unless they’re willing to do so, they cannot help shape the future of their civilization. In the story, most civilians are largely unconcerned with their lack of suffrage rights; this might be surprising at first glance to 21st-century readers, but doesn’t actually seem too far off the mark if we consult the voter participation statistics of modern democracies.  Even as my solidly liberal background implores me to reject this “democratic” model out of hand, I can’t help admitting: this might be a damned good idea.

That’s not to say I buy Heinlein’s vision wholesale. I have serious reservations about the relevance and effectiveness of the Federation’s methods during periods of galactic peace. Taken outside the context of interstellar war, it would be hard to justify the maintenance of military personnel and a war economy so rigidly devoted to wiping out whole planets of enemy species. Additionally, in the few decades since this book’s original publication, advances in automation and AI have made it clear that flesh and blood combat (even with mech suits) is likely not the future of warfare. Without the need to sacrifice human bodies, what greater purpose would their indoctrination serve?

Quibbles aside, I must admit that Starship Troopers is the first text in a long time that made me question whether I truly believe anyone with a pulse deserves the right to vote. Perhaps that makes me naive, shortsighted, or priggish. I’m not sure. But the book has opened a new line of inquiry for me––something that certainly doesn’t happen every day. I don’t know if I’d be eager to join the Terran Federation, but I think such a society has a lot more to offer than most forms of authoritarianism, and even some democracies. Starship Troopers is a lively mixture of accurate observations, deceptive falsehoods, and wild aspirations, one whose charm resides in the queer resilience and authenticity of its “worst” ideas.

Rating: 7/10