Starship Troopers: Some Thoughts

Warning: as writing goes, this is somewhat disjointed, because I cover a number of different aspects, sometimes without much segue.

I do not believe the Starship Troopers glorifies war. Or if it does, it does so in a good way, because it does not glorify senseless violence, but rather, to paraphrase the book itself, putting oneself between the violence of war and one’s home.

I do not know what Heinlein himself believed, or whether Rico’s opinions were really his. I imagine he agreed with a lot of Rico’s opinions, but perhaps not all; whether he really thought that limiting the voting franchise to military veterans was a good idea, in particular, is questionable. He probably did think that it was best for the individual to sacrifice themselves for the whole, which is a somewhat fascist notion, or rather, the fascists have such a notion (though it is worth noting that liberal democracies have had the same notion – including when said liberal democracies were forced to fight fascists).

Here is the thing: we evolved to sacrifice ourselves so our genes might continue. This is why people sacrifice themselves for their offspring (some other animals do so in even more spectacular fashions: see, for example, the spiders in which the male commits suicide, being eaten by his mate, so that his offspring have a better chance of survival). But thanks to our intellects, humans are in the rare (evolutionarily speaking) situation, in which we can die to try to promote the survival of our ideals. This is probably a by-product of the evolution of our intellect. Yet, it might end up being the key to the evolution of an intelligent species.

Rico is, of course, correct, that any group which limits its own reproduction, is going to be overrun by other groups that do not limit reproduction. The morality of how that reproduction is obtained is irrelevant. We see this now, with Western nations having low birthrates, and high numbers of non-Western migrants, causing a large demographic shift. Unfortunately, not only European genetics are thus being crowded out, but also Enlightenment ideals, as the people with the most reproduction belong to the most conservative, right-wing religious groups. If humanity ever achieved an equilibrium, it s still true that other species could throw this off with ease, should they exist, and should humans fail to reproduce rapidly.

Thus, Heinlein does not glorify war, though he does glorify the war, and perhaps rightly so: any group that wishes to survive, whether that group is defined by family ties, ideological ties, national ties, or some other kind, must face the possibility that they will be competing with another group that will refuse to be persuaded, and engage in what von Clausewitz called ‘the pursuit of policy by other means,’ i.e., war for survival.

The notion that the Terran Federation should never have any rebels strikes me as ridiculous, both on the face of it, and because his explanation is nonsensical: ‘A revolutionist has to be willing to fight and die – or he’s just a parlor pink. If you separate out the aggressive ones and make them the sheep dogs, the sheep will never give you trouble.’ But the Terrans do not do this. It does not seem, first of all, that a system could ever be created which would guarantee that this would be done, but secondly, since their system of Federal Service is entirely voluntary, there is no reason why an aggressive individual with revolutionary tendencies might not simply choose revolution over Federal Service. And in fact, there are doubtless many individuals who have the aggressiveness, but end up kicked out of Federal Service, and may feel themselves treated deeply unfairly, while also having strong political aspirations – Hendrick, for example, is just this type. Here, Heinlein appears to have created a rather unrealistic aspect of his world. Hendrick and his type would be prime candidates for rebels. Now, it may be that rebellion is impossible, because the Terran Federation controls all the weapons, but at the same time, an effective insurgency does not require parity of weapons; it requires only that the government be unwilling to engage in wholesale slaughter of civilians in order to put it down, together with a modicum of popular support.

This brings us to the next issue: the book intends to glorify the infantry, yet the MI really do not seem to be infantry. They use extraordinary amounts of equipment (namely, the powered suits), which functionally make them more of a mix of a tank and a ground attack helicopter, tactically speaking, mixed with a small amount of the additional flexibility that infantry have. Yet it seems incredible that the Terran Federation would not employ numerous less-well-equipped soldiers as grunts, with the MI retaining a role more that of support and special forces mixed into one. This is doubly perplexing, since the recruiters complain of having to find make-work for many of the volunteers: would not not make sense to send them as, if nothing else, canon fodder, given that the Federation has little concern over whether the volunteers survive Federal Service? Tactically, they could be very useful. We see, near the end of the book, how thinly spread the MI troopers are; numerous unsuited but armed troops could have easily made a big difference. Even today, tanks and helicopters and drones do not win wars; the lightly equipped grunt remains the focus of the battle (If you don’t believe me, you can ask Nicholas Moran).

In addition, the training of the MI seems absurd. They undergo a course with a 10% pass rate, which seems to rival the toughest special forces courses in the real world. Yet surely, to use a powered suit effectively, requires nothing more than what we would expect from a tanker or pilot today? Now, while these soldiers are required to have an high level of physical fitness, they are not held to nearly the standards of, say, a SEAL. The training may be more intended to psychologically weed out some of the recruits; if so, very well. But the weakness of the entire system (including that volunteers can quit service even if it is 30 seconds before a jump) is shown in the fact that the Federation spends much of the book losing the war, largely due to a lack of troops. History shows us that, while it may be nice to have only the most elite troops as soldiers, it is often more effective to bolster the numbers, especially when there are an excess of volunteers, and not enough jobs for them. Some motivated, though perhaps not quite so psychologically tough, individuals, who are required to serve their term once they sign on, might have proved decisive, or at least beneficial.

Finally, much is made of the low ratio of officers to enlisted men in the MI. But is this really the benefit that Rico thinks it is? He mentions officers having to take on multiple command roles as a matter of course; this is clearly not to anyone’s benefit, as an overworked officer is more likely to overlook things. Granting his complaints about the rest of the problems of having too many officers, in combat, command and control is important, and the lack of officers will be highly detrimental.

It is therefore my opinion that, on many levels, this book lacks a realistic picture of tactics and training.

Nonetheless, I love this book. It is unapologetic in portraying the spirit of camaraderie among the MI. It is also unapologetic in the notion that humans have a right to fight for their existence, even if that means destroying another species. Of course, cooperation might be the better option. But in this instance, it was not so far possible to even communicate with the Bugs.

In addition, even where I disagree with it, it raises very interesting questions to think about. Is there any advantage to ensuring that only those who understand the cost of freedom should be allowed to vote? The downside, of course, is that the book presents the advantages of such a system, but does not really engage in the debate over the disadvantages, including the very real likelihood, in my opinion, of a rebellion, as well as the problem that these oligarchs are likely to in reality vote for themselves to be made far better off than the other citizens. We know in our own system, thanks to the Princeton study, that even in our own system, with the voting franchise being widely distributed, that a small group of oligarchs have managed to usurp practical control, for their own gain. Is it really unreasonable to think that the Federal Service veterans would probably very quickly establish themselves as an upper caste, with all others relegated to lower castes?

Yet, it is nonetheless an instructive question to consider. Another interesting question is the role and form of punishment. Heinlein appears to be empirically wrong about humans not inherently having a ‘better nature,’ but correct that, unless circumstances are right, that nature will not be brought to the fore. We have an instinct for fairness and to some extent for pro-social behavior, but his criticism of avoiding punishing badly behaving children resulting in badly behaved adults has some validity, though he also ignores the role of positive reinforcement. Another valid question is why we reject the use of painful punishments. This is something which we have, in the US at least, been brought up to reject (at least when administered by the government), but as the book mentions, pain is our evolved way of being told that something is wrong. Would such punishment be effective? Could it ever be morally acceptable? We might conclude that the answer to both of these questions is ‘no,’ yet the role of good fiction is (apart from its primary role, to entertain), to encourage us to think about other perspectives.

Nonetheless, one feels that this book, as Jordan Vogt-Roberts said of his own movie, that it is ‘way better than it had any right to be.’ The unrealistic aspects of it should damn the book, yet they somehow fail to do so (and in fact, the book succeeds so much in being entertaining and thought-provoking, that I did not notice them very much until a second reading).

 

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