Hyperpat\’s HyperDay

SF, science, and daily living

Fascism and Starship Troopers, Once More

Posted by hyperpat on December 28, 2006

This is part two of my comments about David Itzkoff’s ‘review‘ of John Scalzi’s works.

In the second paragraph of this, while talking about Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, he makes the following statement: “but to a contemporary reader it is almost impossible to interpret the novel as anything other than an endorsement of fascism, from an era when the f-word wasn’t just a pejorative suffix to be attached to any philosophy you disagreed with”.

Really? Let’s look at the definition of fascism and see if there is anything in Starship Troopers that fits that definition: a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition (Merriam Webster).

Let’s take these pieces one at a time.

A dictatorial leader – nope, don’t find one in the book. The society Heinlein envisioned still had elections (yes, only veterans could vote, but they were still elections), still had courts, still had law making bodies.

Exalts race over individual – a very specific no. Heinlein makes a point that anyone, regardless of race, creed, political affiliation, or any other characteristic (including being blind and disabled) were treated identically within the military, and that everyone could join if they so desired.

Exalt nation over individual – a qualified yes to this one. Heinlein made the very specific point that the individual, as a member of a society that provides him benefits, owes that society a debt and a duty to help serve that society. In fact, it’s the lynch pin of his envisioned world, as he felt that only by balancing the power represented by the vote with the individual’s acceptance of responsibility towards the society could the malaise of the average voter of today voting for bread and circuses be prevented. Though it’s not in the book (apparently cut during his editing of it), Heinlein in later interviews also indicated that not just military service would do to qualify for the vote, but other service to the community would fulfill the requirement, such as things like the Peace Corps, as long as such service demanded real commitment by the individual. In other words, even conscientious objectors could qualify.

Severe economic and social regimentation: nope, not here either. Juan Rico’s father certainly had the liberty to conduct his business as he saw fit, and only complained about new government tolls and requirements when they were deep into a war footing. Regimentation? Don’t think so, when the local town punks think it might be great fun to mix it up with a few ‘low-life’ soldiers.

Forcible suppression of opposition: not there, though the general political landscape outside of the military was not greatly detailed. There was some commentary about how little political unrest there was in this society, attributed to having all the ‘wolves’ be part of the decision making process, but not because the government actively suppressed all opposition.

So the fact is the actual contents of the book do not support Mr. Itzkoff’s statement.

Now the movie version is a different matter – and I have exactly the same objections to that movie as to Mr. Itzkoff’s statement. Quite frankly, that movie was a travesty, completely mis-representing the philosophy Heinlein was trying to present. Given Mr. Itzkoff’s statement, I wonder if he’s actually read the book, or only seen the movie.

Now, on the other hand, Heinlein did do a bit to glorify the military. The service he shows is efficient (in fact, Heinlein shows specific methods of improving the head-to-tail ratio that normally plagues military organizations), it has an officer corps trained not just by military academies but by actual experience in the field (something not true of our current military, where 90 day wonders are all too prevalent), and it’s training courses are meant to train not just interchangeable bodies but to educate the minds of the soldiers in why they fight. Then he cheated a bit by concentrating only on those soldiers who see direct front line action, and he set up a war scenario where diplomacy was impossible and our species survival was at stake, thereby hiding the fact that the decision to wage war, and how to wage it, is not an all-or-nothing proposition.

But it should also be remembered that Heinlein was a graduate of Annapolis, and duty, honor, and patriotism were hallmarks deeply engraved in the man. This book was a response to what he saw as a dangerous trend within American society, the ‘better Red than dead’ faction. Heinlein did not serve actively in the military in WWII, as he was medically discharged in 1934 with tuberculosis, but he did serve in the fashion he was allowed, working on high-altitude pressure suit research and other avionic work. But he certainly knew and detested everything about the Hitlerian regime.

Finally, Mr. Itzkoff makes another statement that is foolish on its face: ” “Starship Troopers” might be the least enticing recruitment tool since “Billy Budd.”” It might surprise him to know that this book has been on the recommended reading list of all the service academies – and I really don’t think it would have been placed there if it was a poor recruitment tool. And personally, I enlisted in the Air Force in 1968, when Vietnam was really warming up, and quite a few of my friends were figuring out every possible way to avoid the draft – something that Heinlein was absolutely against, as exactly the kind of slavery that a fascist state could demand. A good portion of the reason I did so was the influence of this book.

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16 Responses to “Fascism and Starship Troopers, Once More”

  1. caveblogem said

    It is astonishing how often Heinlein is misunderstood. Itzkoff cites “The Cat Who Walks Through Walls” and “Stranger in a Strange Land” as two Heinlein books he really likes, and that says a great deal about him, too. I’ve read almost everything Heinlein ever wrote, even visiting the archives at UCSC to scrounge for morsels that weren’t placed under a 70-year-do-not-disturb lock and key, and these works don’t really stand out all that much. Much better are many of his early short stories, as well as “Starship Troopers,” and “Waldo and Magic Incorporated.” Better still is “Friday” and possibly “The Number of the Beast.” It’s probably just laziness. The ones he mentions are the famous ones and the more recent one that he remembers.

  2. hyperpat said

    Heinlein has always seemed to act like a lightning rod, both for those who agree with him and those who don’t. Of course, some of what Heinlein put out there was deliberately intended to provoke controversy, to force the reader to think outside his own little cocoon.

    Like you, I’ve read all his published works, though I haven’t been over to UCSC (though I don’t know why, it’s only 30 miles away), and there are some viewpoints he expressed that I don’t agree with, along with a larger number that I find make very good sense. But the major item I’ve noticed with most of his detractors is that they refuse to read him closely, that they read him through the prism of their own biases, and having rational discussions with such individuals is almost impossible. Heinlein had some faults as a writer (what author doesn’t?), but his real problems are almost never the subject of his detractor’s diatribes, but the focus is almost invariably on Heinlein’s social and political ideas.

    My own personal favorites of his are The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and Time Enough for Love. Coming up on the outside as I get older is Job: A Comedy of Justice. A lot of his early stuff I think is fairly standard (at least at today’s level of SF competence – they were quite a bit better than the average at the time they were first published), and he did have a few real ‘clunkers’ out of that time frame (most notably The Sixth Column).

  3. caveblogem said

    You are right, of course, about him being a lightning rod. Libertarians are often like that because people mostly see things as republican v. democrat, and libertarians agree with a little of both. They don’t like the moralistic bent of the republicans; they don’t like the economic/social policies of the Democrats. So people tend to turn to them when they agree, only to feel betrayed when they don’t. Like when Heinlein had all those problems with leftists after the publication of Stranger in a Strange Land who couldn’t understand that “free love” didn’t equal “free lunch.”

    That day I posted the comment above I was having trouble thinking of my favorites, or thinking at all, really. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is right there at the top for me as well. Puppet Masters is, too. Hard to find any I really don’t like, there are probably five or so, like I Will Fear No Evil. I have really tried to like Job: A Comedy of Justice. Raised as an agnostic, though, it just doesn’t pull on any of my strings.

    I don’t think Heinlein ever liked Sixth Column either. Seems to me he refused for a while to publish it because John Campbell gave the ideas to him and they just didn’t make sense to Heinlein’s keen mind.

    Last time I was at UCSC it really wasn’t worth the trip. There was very little there that the Trustees allowed people access to. There were a few stories that were written during that interesting period when we had the bomb and the Soviets did not, stories intended to scare people out of their complacency (which world events did soon after they were written). UCSC didn’t allow people to photocopy anything, so I had to focus on the project at hand, which was a school paper.

  4. Herbesse said

    Will this make my Fascism stocks on trendio rise? http://www.trendio.com/word.php?language=en&wordid=2190

  5. Peter said

    I just stumbled on this site, but I am sure you are well aware of it already:

    http://www.heinleincentennial.com/

    Quite an interesting site.

  6. hyperpat said

    As a Heinlein Society member, I’ve been kept abreast of the plans for all of this.

  7. “But the major item I’ve noticed with most of his detractors is that they refuse to read him closely, that they read him through the prism of their own biases, and having rational discussions with such individuals is almost impossible. ”

    I need to comment on this a little. Actually, IMO, one of Heinlein’s very distinct styles was to write in such a way that the reader was forced to come at the books from his own perspective. You referred to this when talking about his sparse descriptions. This has the effect that you mentioned when a careless reader encounters Heinlein as you said, but it also provides the basis for forcing the thoughtful reader to look beyond simple appearances and examine his own prejudices. At least, that has been my experience since I first read him in 1953.

  8. hyperpat said

    I certainly agree that Heinlein forced his readers to look at things from wherever they were coming from, and figure out if their own assumptions/biases/opinions were valid. Often this was accomplished by making statements or describing situations that were different from most commonly held opinions about what was right, proper, or possible. As an example, for those who think monogamous marriages are the only possible way humans can structure the male/female relationship, Heinlein’s detailing of not only other possible structures, but what advantages such structures would have would come as something of a shock.

    But what I was complaining about was those readers who don’t actually look at what Heinlein really said. Heinlein did not say “Government is highest thing you must pay fealty to” (far from it), but way too many people reading Starship Troopers seem to gather that impression.

  9. Oh, I agree. That’s why I used the term ‘careless reader’.

    In the following articles
    http://dwrighsr.tripod.com/heinlein/RatAnarch/

    I wrote what I considered Heinlein actually was saying, not “Government is highest thing you must pay fealty to” but that one can recognize that one’s own self-interest can depend on the preservation of higher levels simple self-preservation, even to the level of nation or species.

  10. hyperpat said

    An excellent article, sir!

  11. Chauncey Maddren said

    Patrick – I agree wholeheartedly with your criticism of Itzkoff’s unfortunate labeling of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers as “an endorsement of fascism.” I remember hearing similar statements when the movie first came out. Heinlein’s novel is anything but. Fascism takes hold when the citizens of a nation relinquish their active involvement in the affairs of their own government in favor of less complicated ideas and actions spoon fed to them by their leaders. Starship Troopers is another variation on a common theme for Heinlein: responsibility of the individual to the society in which he lives. Though military service is not compulsory in Starship Troopers, it is highly respected and valued by the society, because it is in this way that an individual expresses his active involvement in the society/nation in which he lives. I see Starship Troopers, in part, as Heinlein’s ode to the members of the military who have fought for our country.

    Fighting for that which one believes in is a very important concept in Heinlein’s works. I’m reminded of the character of John Lyle in If This Goes On (from The Past Through Tomorrow stories). When the story begins, he is a member in the military forces of the theocratic dictatorship of the Prophet (an obvious fascist state that fits your dictionary definition perfectly). When he realizes that he is on the wrong side, he turns and fights in army of the resistance. Interestingly, much of his contribution to the resistance is not on the front lines but in desk work and logistical support.

    I think the movie version of Starship Troopers has contributed to the misunderstanding of the novel. (I, too, wonder if some people ever read the book.) Paul Verhoven obviously had his own ax to grind when he directed the film. I think Verhoven was trying to make a point similar to Heinlein’s. In his own way, he wanted to expostulate on the dangers of our self-absorbed society, in which citizens accept the propaganda of their government without examining it more closely, thus leading to fascism. (Any contemporary examples come to mind?) His attempt, however, is much less successful. It is shallow and barely scratches the surface in favor of cute-ness and showy action sequences.

    It is unfortunate that people have misjudged Heinlein’s intent in this case. But, to those of us who have read more that just one of his books, it is very clear.

  12. hyperpat said

    Looking at the movie in isolation, totally divorced from the book, it probably can be taken as a warning against a militarily dominated society. But my objection to it is that it can’t be seen in isolation, that people who see it (who haven’t read the book) will automatically assume that this is what the book says, a great disservice to what Heinlein was trying to say.

    My two sons saw it before reading the book, and they liked the movie, thinking it was a pretty good action/adventure flick, and both kind of blew off the philosophic/political implications of the depicted society. Later, I finally convinced my eldest to read the book. He ended up using about twenty quotes from the book for a debate about political philosophy in his history class (which his side won), and totally changed his opinion of the movie to be very similar to mine. But most people will never read the book (though there were certainly some drawn to it that would never otherwise have looked at it without the influence of the movie), and in their minds Heinlein and fascism will be inextricably linked.

  13. Chauncey Maddren said

    Certainly the publishers do nothing to point out discrepancies between the book and the movie. (e.g., covers of the paperback editions featuring pictures of actors from the movie) Its bad for business. I’m just hoping that people will be more critical of what they see, hear and read. I guess, like Heinlein, I’m an optimist in that way.

  14. Justin said

    Figures you’re an old geezer. The only people who buys in are the same people who yell at kids on street corners.

    • hyperpat said

      ‘Fraid I don’t yell at kids on street corners. And I bought into the concepts of this book when I was 16, not exactly an ‘old geezer’.

      Your response is, unfortunately, an example of exactly the type of thinking that Heinlein railed against throughout his life: don’t look at the actual issues, instead, attack the messenger, because that’s much easier to do. Obviously you categorize ‘old geezers’ as hard line conservatives who resent any change in their cocoon life style. This old geezer, it might surprise you to learn, is extremely liberal on many social issues, such as abortion, polygamy/polyandry, same-sex marriage, assisted suicide, and many others. Categorizing people based on any one characteristic is fraught with peril, almost invariably leading to incorrect assumptions about those individuals, and easily leading to prejudice, unjustified ‘class’ distinctions, and fear and hate of anything ‘other’.

  15. [...] controversy has been raging (and I mean raging) ever since the book was first published almost 50 years ago, helped along by its prominent [...]

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