Starship Troopers


Robert Heinlein was truly gifted, but it doesn't take a genius to see that Starship Troopers, first published in 1959, is a handbook for the present.

We see it in the constant stream of patriotic, flame-fanning war news from all of the competing U.S. networks, the visions of "success" and "achievement" and "progress." We see simple heroes made of our soldiers, cameras cradling their young faces, and rolling their comments of "I'm proud of what we are doing here" and "It's the right thing for America."

Like little children stomping insects in the movie version, recruiting for war with, "If you do your part, we'll do our part!"

In Heinlein's novel, the lesson of boot camp is "Might makes right." I don't think George W. Bush learned that in the Texas National Guard, but he clearly picked it up somewhere. Certainly Don Rumsfeld, with his reputation for verbal as well as sometimes physical intimidation of compatriots as well as adversaries, understands this.

More than that, Rumsfeld embraces the second lesson of Heinlein's boot camp — that morality is the result of training for instant unthinking obedience, the "unquestioned hierarchy of authority." His rage at his commanders and even retired generals consistently exceeds his rage at Saddam, and even the evasive bin Laden.

Private First Class Jessica Lynch of Palestine, West Virginia — is the latest citizen and hero. Her survival amongst the arachnid horde, and her gallant rescue by fellow troopers, is a befitting story for the folks back home. We don't need to know that her rescue was the result of an Iraqi medical worker expressing humanity and courage. We will probably never consider that her survival probably had much to do with the power of God and her home town of Palestine, in a foreign country that values both concepts.

The path to citizenship — concretely through military service — is a key theme in Heinlein's novel. “Citizenship is an attitude, a state of mind, an emotional conviction that the whole is greater than the part . . . and that the part should be humbly proud to sacrifice itself that the whole may live.”

This, of course, is precisely how the arachnid enemy in Heinlein's imaginative universe functions. Centered on a hidden, physically weak and uncourageous yet ominously powerful giant insect brain (Saddam, maybe bin Laden? Perle-Cheney-Wolfowitz perhaps?), it remotely directs the actions of a million machine-like bugs of destruction.

Trooper-style citizenship — as Heinlein satirizes — is a condition that sounds free and honorable but is actually impossible to exercise with free will or honor. A recent article on posthumous citizenship for some non-American soldiers speaks volumes when it notes that the citizenship is not real or practical, but symbolic. It suggests citizenship may be most meaningful to the dead, the static, the non-thinking.

Heinlein's citizenship is granted for soldiers who have made it through boot camp, where they have learned not to question authority, to follow all orders from above instantly and exactly, and who have no other allegiance than to the all-wise central state. It is a Rumsfeldian vision of citizenship. It is a citizenship where each moral compass is not individually discovered, tested and mapped, but instead simply imprinted. It must be because "Man has no moral instinct."

If we are witnessing a Starship Troopers moment, as it seems with our long buildup and current possibly endless prosecution of Operation Iraqi Freedom, our soldiers may indeed become "citizens."

Their experiences ought to be highly informative and educational to the masterminds of war and conquest and propaganda in Washington and New York, who incidentally never served in wartime, and in almost all cases have never worn a uniform, nor are parents of children who have ever or will ever wear a uniform.

Civil servants, of course, who are neither civil nor serve.

Heinlein showed a clear preference that service to state be military service in uniform, and through this experience, governing is improved. The soldier who sacrifices everything for his country as the only truly qualified citizen is also a literary device.

Bush and Rumsfeld have reacted to criticism and evaluation of their agendas and strategies from retired military officers with, "They have no right!" This, unfortunately, is not a literary device — they actually believe it.

Bush and Rumsfeld probably haven't had a lot of time to read books, and perhaps science fiction or societal dystopianism isn't their thing, what with all the war planning they've been doing.

For the rest of us citizens, denizens, residents and lovers of liberty, Heinlein's fascistic fantasy can help explain the present, and possibly the future.

April 9, 2003


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