This legendary 1959 novel holds up reasonably well as work of military SF, but falls short as an example libertarian philosophy. Heinlein enjoys a vaunted reputation as a liberty oriented philosopher, but this book’s message of maximizing liberty and moral virtue through voluntary military service is flawed and rife with mixed messages. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that there’s very little about this book that’s truly libertarian.
The book tells the story of Johnnie Rico, an upper middle-class kid who chooses military service over an opportunity to work the family business. Despite his father’s protests, he opts to enlist in the military to fulfill the sense of duty that was imparted to him by his professor of History and Moral Philosophy, Mr. Dubois. Through a first person point of view, we follow Johnnie’s evolution from his lessons in Moral Philosophy to the punishing ordeal of basic training to his subsequent service on the front lines of The Great Bug War.
As many others have written, it’s difficult to view a society which places military service as a prerequisite for voting as one which would ultimately maximize individual liberty and moral virtue. Between the twin sanction of corporal punishment and servitude to law celebrated as the cornerstones of an allegedly civilized society, the world of Starship Troopers can only be viewed as a deeply sadistic and fascistic society. Paul Verhoeven may have been criticized for omitting many of Heinlein’s philosophical musings in his 1997 cinematic adaptation, but if anything, he just took the book to its logical conclusion.
Philosophically, there are many places where the book goes off the rails.
The book’s most chilling theme is the full throated endorsement of corporal punishment. Given Heinlein’s apparent earnestness in crafting a liberty oriented editorial, this aspect alone is completely contrary to any serious argument for liberty. It’s undoubtedly a product of Heinlein’s proximity to his own military service and perhaps his own childhood, but when one considers Heinlein’s keen intellect and obvious affinity for human freedom, it’s strange that he would promote this line of thinking. It suggests an absence of faith in humanity to generate morality through non-violent, rational thought.
This theme is undoubtedly tied to his astonishing rejection of any concept of natural rights. In a key exchange between Johnnie and Mr. Dubois, Heinlein openly denigrates the idea of natural rights.
He even extends this idea so far as to basically reject the idea of freedom of speech. Not only does he casually mention censorship of soldier’s mail during spaceflight, one particularly chilling scene describes a group of infantry getting tazed for having a debate which gets a little too heated.
At its core, the book is essentially attempting to endorse some form of militaristic minarchism, but it’s ultimately deeply nationalistic and collectivist. Since he very clearly acknowledges state power as a monopoly on the usage of force, he sees those who serve in the military as best suited to use the power judiciously. Subsequently, they are the only people permitted to vote. While I’m willing to chalk this up to his residual feelings of goodwill towards his own service, it’s another odd artistic choice given the fact that he touches on the concept of economic freedom. He extols the virtues of limited government and low taxation and does a nice little demolition job on the Marxist Labor Theory of Value. However, he ignores the extraordinary cost of maintaining an interstellar fighting force through compulsory taxation. It also strains the imagination that such a sophisticated military could be kept strictly voluntary without a very heavy handed propaganda campaign or without violent crackdowns when a majority of the population isn’t even voting. If anything, the inclusion of propaganda is one great improvements Paul Verhoeven made on this story when translating to cinema.
Heinlein’s outlook on gender is very egalitarian and, in this book at least, is the kind of treatment that one assumes that even feminists would cheer. He pushes the limits of imagination once again by presenting a military population that’s 40% female and mysteriously free of assault or harassment. He balances it out with a surprising bit of insight about female pilots. He posits the idea of females as the best pilots of spacecraft; a speculation that was perhaps ahead of its time. Despite this potential bit of prescience, the number of women who presently serve as military pilots is nowhere what he portrays in the book.
When evaluated from the point of view of pure storytelling and SF militarism, it mostly succeeds at the former but falls short in the latter. Sure, there were aliens, different planets and spacecraft which could traverse interstellar distances. But the SF actually felt subordinate to the philosophical exposition and some rather turgid rhapsodizing over the dignity of military life and the intricacies of military hierarchy. The descriptions of Mobile Infantry battle armor were cool and helped ground the story in the future, but I was hoping for just a little bit more actual warfare. If you’re going to exalt the extraordinary bravery of the soldier, give me a little bit more action.
Shortcomings aside, this book is a worthwhile read and its controversial reputation is fully earned. The amount of satisfaction you get from it will depend largely through which lens you view it.