Starship Trooper Was Never Fascist. Let’s Hope It’s Not Prophetic: Would You Like to Know More?
There are a nontrivial number of people online who love to throw the label, “fascist,” at everything from free market capitalism to red meat to lifting weights. Most serious people ignore the more outlandish claims, but it just so happens that one of my all-time favorite novels is a frequent target for this label, Robert A Heinlein’s, Starship Troopers.
On a purely surface reading, the confusion is understandable. Starship Troopers takes an almost unabashedly positive view of military service and veterans, and since it was written in the late 50s for an audience of boys in their teens, it is, even in my positively biased analysis, a very sanitized view of military service in any century. The foundation of the fictional Terran Federation (remember Earth was always Terra for a while in Sci Fi?) is that in order to vote or hold office, one must complete an honorable term of federal service, either in the military or in some other dangerous and/or challenging circumstance.
All adults who do not serve are taxpaying residents endowed with individual rights seemingly (text is vague) similar to those enshrined in our own Constitution, but no political power beyond the ability to voice their opinion without fear of reprisal. Although there are, explicitly, nonmilitary service options in the book, I do understand a deep objection to the theoretical disenfranchisement of millions of people who currently vote—or who at least have the right to vote.
The cult classic 1997 movie, which was originally titled Bug Hunt at Outpost 9 until the studio got the rights to adapt Starship Troopers, definitely contributes to the perception that novel is fascist. The director, Paul Verhoeven, hated the novel, did not finish it, and incorporated the elements of the book in a farcical, strawman fashion.
In one scene, one of the female Mobile Infantryman says she’s serving because it’s easier to get a permit to have children if she serves. There is NO indication of any such restriction in the book. In point of fact, humans reproducing rapidly is a key element of the Terran Federation’s strategy for ultimate survival.
It is at this point in the discussion that those who enjoy the movie are wont to accuse those of us who don’t of, “not getting the satire.” We got it. Trust me, we got it. It’s just not good.
The book, while definitely a product of its time and perhaps a little gee-whiz for modern audiences, still holds an immensely richer and more nuanced discussion of the rights and responsibilities of the citizen.
Plus, goddamn powered armor, and the arachnids wield laser weapons and have their own spaceships. They didn’t even get the part that would make a Starship Troopers movie visually exciting correct, the pathetic wretches. Imagine a division in War Machine’s armor from the MCU fighting laser-wielding arachnids and that’s a better approximation of what we should have seen.
A division in War Machine armor actually applying some sound tactics, to boot. I love Infinity War, but my inner monologue is always at war with itself when I watch it because I know any randomly selected infantry battalion of the United States Army or Marines, with a bit of arty and air support, would’ve done better at the Battle of Wakanda.
Achem. Sorry, where was I?
Getting back to the politics of Starship Troopers, there’s one key element that detractors of the book and enthusiasts of the movie often ignore. The veterans’ republic of the Terran Federation isn’t a traditional junta, nor is it the result of a standard military coup. The veterans’ republic depicted in Starship Troopers arises from the shattered remnants of governments torn apart by economic collapse and rampant crime and internal strife.
After the loss of a major war, disillusioned combat veterans in America and other countries tire of seeing their civilizations torn apart and decide to put an end to the chaos and violence after their governments collapse.
Those preconditions sound a little more realistic to me than they did when I read this book the first time as a eight year olds.
Having had to take control, the veterans evolve from informal vigilante committees into more permanent governing organizations. Wishing to avoid another collapse from the masses’ habit of, “voting for the impossible, and getting the tragically possible,” they decide to require anyone who would ever rule in the future to display evidence, not proof positive, as the text of the book itself admits, but still, evidence that the individual entrusted with political power over his fellow man might, just might use that power for the good of the Federation he or she was willing to die for instead of voting either narrow self-interest or glandular impulse.
Now, the civilian reading this could, justifiably, react, “screw you, just because I didn’t serve doesn’t mean I don’t care about the country!” I hear you, loud and clear. And, as even the book admits, a veteran is not statistically likely to be wiser than a civilian, nor is it assured that any given veteran may will actually display the civic virtue we would like in our elected officials. The proposed poll tax of Starship Troopers would be no airtight assurance of quality, merely an encouragement of a trend.
Soldiers and veterans reading Starship Troopers often react with what amounts to a smug or angry nod. I have not always been immune to this reaction myself. After all, we risk getting maimed or killed for pay that’s a pittance of what we can make in a civilian job. We spend years serving alongside men and women of every religious creed and ethnicity imaginable, forming bonds of professional respect and personal friendship without regard to those dividers. Service members experience what America is supposed to be, we experience her potential realized, even if only in a limited sense. It’s hardly a utopian experience, there are still awful, terrible people in the service, and working within a government bureaucracy is often its own special form of hell, but the people I served with will always matter to me. I think that’s why so many of us retain a deep love of our country, even when she disappoints us bitterly. So you might understand our frustration when we return from our service to find a country enamored with trivialities, divided over everything from the inane to the vital, and seemingly eager to chuck away the constitutionally enshrined rights we swore an oath to preserve for you.
Regardless, what fans and critics of the novel both seem to forget, is that Heinlein wasn’t advocating for a revolution to establish a Veteran’s Republic, he was describing what might come after the fall of our current representative democracies, which he describes with unabashed affection through the dialogue of Jean DuBois, Johnny Rico’s high school instructor of History & Moral Philosophy.
Starship Troopers posits a form of government which might be stable and provide for a degree of individual liberty greater than most, but it’s also a cautionary tale, a diagnosis of the ills that may yet do in the most enlightened, free forms of government every to manifest on this planet. And so I leave you with a quote from Lieutenant Colonel (ret.) DuBois:
“I told you that ‘juvenile delinquent’ is a contradiction in terms. ‘Delinquent’ means ‘failing in duty.’ But duty is an adult virtue—indeed a juvenile becomes an adult when, and only when, he acquires a knowledge of duty and embraces it as dearer than the self-love he was born with. There never was, there cannot be a ‘juvenile delinquent.’ But for every juvenile criminal there are always one or more adult delinquents—people of mature years who either do not know their duty, or who, knowing it, fail.”