07 May 2013


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 53

What do you get when the seemingly opposed themes of In Space, No One Can Hear You Blog and May I Have Some Music? overlap? If I were a better blogger, you'd get a suggested soundtrack for Starship Troopers--but with nothing embedded, so you still wouldn't be able to hear it. =P 

I see that I didn't make any mention of how the Terran Federation moved from "peace" to a "state of emergency" and then onto war. I didn't notice it too closely myself. When I enrolled, it was "peace," the normal condition, at least so people think (who ever expects anything else?). Then, while I was at Currie, it became a "state of emergency" but I still didn't notice it, as what Corporal Bronski thought about my haircut, uniform, combat drill, and kit was much more important--and what Sergeant Zim thought about such matters was overwhelmingly important. In any case, "emergency" is still "peace."

"Peace" is a condition in which no civilian pays any attention to military casualties which do not achieve page-one, lead-story prominence--unless the civilian is a close relative of one of the casualties. But, if there ever was a time in history when "peace" meant that there was no fighting going on, I have been unable to find out about it. When I reported to my first outfit . . . the fighting had already been going on for several years . . .

It's not quite "We have always been at war with Eastasia"--but the blissful ignorance of civilians can be just as important to a war effort as their willing consumption of propaganda. Partly because these are virtually the same things. Not that anyone cares what civilians think . . .

Chapters 9 to 11

If any scene brings home how much Johnnie has changed since he made it through Basic training, it is the dock fight that was over before it began. Everything about the encounter with the merchant sailors, from Johnnie's impressions of them ("the right age to serve a term, only they weren't--long-haired and sloppy and kind of dirty-looking . . . the way I looked, I supposed, before I joined up") to how he and his buddies knock them out cold without even thinking about it, underlines the fact that he has left the civilian world behind forever.

It's akin to a profound religious conversion. Anyone who hasn't been through it will never understand. That includes the many who were called but not numbered among the few who were chosen. 

I do have one comment to make to any armchair strategist who has never made a drop. Yes, I agree that the Bugs' planet possibly could've been plastered by H-bombs until it was surfaced with radioactive glass. But would that have won the war? The Bugs are not like us. The Pseudo-Arachnids aren't even like spiders. They are arthropods who happen to look like a madman's conception of a giant, intelligent spider. But their organisation, psychological and economic, is more like that of ants and termites; they are communal entities, the ultimate dictatorship of the hive. Blasting the surface of their planet would have killed soldiers and workers; it would not have killed the brain caste and the queens--I doubt if anybody can be certain that even a direct hit with a burrowing H-rocket would kill a queen; we don't know how far down they are. Nor am I anxious to find out; none of those boys who went down those holes came up again.

Did the H-bomb reference remind you, too, of the unfortunate Hendrick? I think it was meant to! Even he will never understand because he never completed the baptism of Basic. And while this is common sense on one level, it is very cunning design on another. If you can fix it so that there will always be a divide between your troops and the people they are protecting, then you can guarantee that they will be as alien to each other as bugs are to men. And yes, you want that, because you want war.

I started playing around with religious language back there because that's my schitck, but I now see that the parallels are apt. George Orwell got it right: organised religion and organised military force have a freaking lot in common. (Even more than what organised religion and Apple have in common!) Take a quick look at the demographics of your army--and at the demographics of those civilians most supportive of any war effort. That there are no atheists in foxholes is just one part of the reality. You couldn't keep a True Believer out of a foxhole if you tried.

So how about those bugs?! When I read Johnnie's description, I thought it applied to several drawn-out armed conflicts that unfolded decades after Starship Troopers was published. It certainly satirises modern guerilla warfare perfectly--and maybe modern warfare in general. Long gone are the days when you could capture a city and say you won. Today, we go after the soldiers and workers because some damage is better than no damage, take heart that we are "learning to hurt them," and keep hoping we can hit the "brain caste"or the "queens." (Got to love that optimism! Or is the word "morale"?)

But this model of the enemy just begs the question of how the characters are even sure that such castes and queens exist. Is this actual intelligence (from the Skinnies?!?!) or just the best deduction they have? Or perhaps . . . is it projection?

And of course, by "the characters," I mean we.

What are your thoughts on Chapters 9 to 11?

1. Is the divide between soldier and civilian a necessary evil or a root of greater evil?
2. How anti-war do you feel right now?

Image Source: Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein


Darwin said...

Okay, I'm not remembering chapter numbers, so I'm not totally clear if you finished yet or not. I remember the last couple chapters were really long. I ended up reading through to the end on Sunday.

This section got us more of the long lecture sections that drive me up the wall in this book. I got pretty near to chucking it with the officer school section. Here we were, back in History & Moral Philosophy again.

But then we get back to the real science fiction, and it's interesting. Before and after officer school I was enjoying the sections where he was talking about the bug war. Not just as action (though it was decent in that respect) but in the true alien-ness of these creatures. I was half-reminded of Orson Scott Card's novel Ender's Game in which humans are fighting an all-out war against a hive-based insect-like race. There there's a very humanistic sort of ending in which at the last minute, as humans are about to cause the extinction of the bugs, the main character and the aliens come to realize they're both really persons and the main character becomes dedicated to making sure that the bugs aren't driven totally extinct. Human and bugs can love each other after all. Heinlein is not a humanist. Either the bugs can back off, return prisoners, make peace and agree to give humans their space, or they can get wiped out. There's no real sitting around wondering how the bugs thing. Indeed, it remains unclear if they think, because from the author's point of view, it's doesn't really matter. In Heinlein's world, humans are great because they're simply the toughest mofos in the galaxy.

I kind of feel like I should be put off by all this, but reading it at the moment, that wasn't my reaction. I'd been spending the past week in a dragged out Facebook skirmish with an acquaintance from when I was a kid, who was kind of taking the view that having kids was irresponsible and humans are a cancer on the earth. So as I read the last chapter, honestly, I was feeling kind of misty eyed on behalf of those boys willing to put on their armored suits and go burn down some bugs in order to allow humanity to keep on going. Heinlein's vision is kind of dark, but I was just so gratified to be surrounded by a bunch of tough MIs who thought humanity was worth saving.

(BTW, this week's cover is the one that I have.)

Enbrethiliel said...


I have three more chapters to go, but I just got started on them. I think I'll be able to reply to your comment more intelligently after I'm done; but so far, yes, I'm bogged down in another classroom scene and it feels a bit tedious after all the smooth plotting we've just had. I liked seeing how Johnnie wandered onto the career path that was the obvious choice to everyone but him (and well, me) even more than I liked watching him, several chapters ago, blunder into enlisting.

love the girls said...

Darwin writes : "I was feeling kind of misty eyed on behalf of those boys willing to put on their armored suits and go burn down some bugs in order to allow humanity to keep on going."

Misty eyed is a good term for it.

I think I'll go up to Boulder with placards that say "Humans are a disease, kill me", and see if I can get anyone to wear them on the mall.

love the girls said...

"Is the divide between soldier and civilian a necessary evil or a root of greater evil"

What comes across is that while there is a marked division, there remains a communion.

Because the division or separation is not so much from civilians and civil social life, as it is from the women.

In one of my favorite lectures, Thomas Fleming cites a letter of confederate soldier who upon spending time with some young women finally understands what he is fighting for.


That citation came to mind when our hero of the story cites the same reason. A reason he perhaps would not have come to if he was not separated from the women so as to more appreciate them.

Enbrethiliel said...


That didn't come across to me at all! In fact, I find the degree to which soldiers are made to feel different from civilians to be almost cult-like.

love the girls said...

Cult-like insofar as cult is to inculcate. The division is more of the nature of the kind of bonding that is typical of men in any kind of team action.

At the beginning of the story, our hero, (I don't remember his name), when describing those he knows he gives special attention to the babe who joins the military and later tracks him down for a date.

When he describes life in the military the separation or division that they are willing to stand all day for to overcome is the glimpse of a pretty skirt.

Enbrethiliel said...


That bonding happens naturally in such cases, I don't dispute. I'm saying that the infantrymen are deliberately being groomed to have an Us-vs-Them mentality even toward civilians. I think I'd still be able to say this even if there were women in the M.I.

love the girls said...

Enbrethiliel writes : "I'm saying that the infantrymen are deliberately being groomed to have an Us-vs-Them mentality even toward civilians."

Not Us-vs-Them, but instead We-are no longer-Them. At least for a while.

Because the entire reason for joining is to return to civilization as full citizens.

Perhaps what does happen, although the book does not discuss it, is that those who become full citizens are sufficiently changed so that society is no longer a unity, but stratified.

Enbrethiliel said...


It may be worth mentioning that when I wrote this post and all my replies to you, I was not thinking only of the characters in the novel, but of all the trained soldiers who have ever existed, in both real life and fiction. (In particular, I had a very specific veteran in mind. He is fond of telling stories of his military experiences, and is always sure to ram home the point at the end that no civilian will EVER understand. And yet he persists in telling those stories to civilians.)

So my question about whether a divide between soldier and civilian is a necessary evil or a root of greater evil is not just with respect to the world of Starship Troopers, but with respect to any situation in which: a) the military has to be a specialised segment of the population; and b) the infantry has to be a specialised segment of the military. I'm still asking with Hendrick why an infantry with bombs and flamethrowers have to spread terror among workers when H-bombs exist. And I find Zim's answer that it is not a soldier's job to wonder about the rationale behind his orders to be quite chilling, if only because that is how Bug soldiers must think when they receive their orders from the "brain caste."

How about if I put it this way . . . Is having a "brain caste" a necessary evil or a root of greater evil?

Sheila said...

Ooh, I definitely see your point, E. Just this past few days I've been in a debate with a Marine. We were talking about being kind to public sinners, but he still had to get in there and say that if I've never been in battle, I can't understand anything. It's even worse when we're actually talking about something remotely related to the military, like whether this or that war is a good idea. I am constantly being told by soldiers or wives and kids of soldiers that I can't *possibly* have a valid opinion on anything unless I've been there, or unless my husband or father has been there.

I might be tempted by this approach if I weren't actually a Navy brat myself. But if I say, "Well, my father is the in the military too, and I still disagree" -- that's when things get cultish. As "one of us," I'm supposed to think like "us" too, and when I don't, I become The Enemy. And yet I can hardly blame them for their groupthink when I know what basic training entails. It's actually eerily similar to my own "cult" initiation.

I 100% agree that separating the soldiers so far from everyone else is the problem. I actually believe that if a nation doesn't want to go to war badly enough that it can rustle up an all-volunteer army, it has no business going to war at all. If "the war effort" is undermined by accurate reporting or Wikileaks or draft riots, then we shouldn't be at war. I actually wonder if having a standing army at all is a big problem. The US was intended to rely on its militia alone, and if we'd stuck to that, would we be in the same mess today?

love the girls said...

Enbrethiliel writes : "It may be worth mentioning that when I wrote this post and all my replies to you, I was not thinking only of the characters in the novel, but of all the trained soldiers who have ever existed"

I was looking at the book, but if we expand to actual trained soldiers who have ever existed, the best parallel are the non citizen Romans Legionnaires who gained citizenship through their 25 years of service.

I don't recall ever reading of Roman Legionnaires suffering an us versus them relationship with Roman citizens. or with civilians. But I do remember reading the opposite.

love the girls said...

I wonder if the difference is that Roman Legionnaires tended to settle in the lands they occupied and intermarried with the local populace.

Enbrethiliel said...


Sheila -- Yes, that's it. Obviously, every group that must work together benefits from the kind of cohesion that comes from having trained together, whether we call it "bonding" or "groupthink." But I think that when you turn combat into an elite, specialised skill, the cohesion among those who make the cut results in a very specific mentality. To them, you're either part of the group, or you're not. This is a desirable trait on the battlefield, but not in other contexts. Yet what the trained soldier may end up doing in those other contexts is seeing everyone he interacts with as either a buddy or an enemy. And that's not reality.

LTG -- I'm sorry if I seem to be moving the goal posts by adding new information that wasn't in the original post, but some things I thought were very clear in it obviously weren't, so now I must keep making amends.

Essentially, I became very suspicious of Basic training after reading Johnnie's description of it as "too scheduled, too intellectual, too efficiently and impersonally organised . . . planned like surgery for purposes as unimpassioned as unimpassioned as those of the surgeon." They aren't simply being trained to use "dangerous weapons;" they are being trained to be "dangerous men." (Add a few more SF elements and you have the premise of Universal Soldier, which replaces the "brainwashing" of training with outright genetic enhancement.) And the problem, as Sheila and I have observed, is when such men don't stop being "dangerous" even when they're no longer on the battlefield.

In the world of Starship Troopers, I suppose that isn't much of a problem because everyone already accepts that only veterans have the right to vote. This is where I think the parallel with the Roman Auxilia breaks down. A non-citizen could earn citizenship by serving with them for twenty-five years, but freed slaves earned the same privilege immediately. And so did the children of both groups, without having to do anything. Plus (but this is where I go out on a limb), I think the Roman army's training was "primitive" enough to be about the use of dangerous weapons rather than the forming of dangerous men.

But in our current world, "dangerous men" return to a society in which they are considered the equals of civilians and the paradigm of battle cannot be applied to day-to-day interactions. It can't be an easy transition, and I don't know if the military helps them with it. Apparently, they're just expected to deal with it.

Sheila said...

It's worthwhile to do some research on this topic, if you haven't. You would learn about PTSD, obviously, but also the rash of veteran suicides, substance abuse, and occasionally domestic or other violence. Here, at least, there's no real support when they come back. I follow this stuff and it's extremely depressing. You also see it with wartime atrocities, like taking pictures with severed heads or urinating on corpses.

Up until WWII, most soldiers didn't actually kill anyone. It was discovered that the majority of soldiers either didn't shoot or deliberately missed. There's just such a visceral response to killing someone. The US military decided to solve this problem around the time of Vietnam by using human-looking dummies for target practice, and soon nearly every soldier was willing to target an actual human.

It worked, but at the cost of a great violence to the human psyche. I don't think it's wise at all for a large subset of the population to be trained killers.

And yet so many people will tell you that they sent their son off to join the army to "make a man of him."

love the girls said...

Obviously there is overwhelming empirical evidence that, modern soldiers do have trouble readjusting, and there is an us-versus-them mentality and so forth.

And just as obvious, Heinlein does intend to use his writing as social commentary.

The problem is that the system he sets up is flawed if the intent is to parallel the us-versus-them.

On the other hand, as you point out, the parallel of removal of human dignity by both bugs and men is revealing by using the bugs as parallel.

The inhumanity of modern warfare may include the destruction of the soldier's own humanity, but Heilien's message appears to much more of the one and not so much of the latter.

In fact, if there is a latter message it is that even a good system like the Roman Legion one would likewise result in modern total war methods.

As for Legionnaires being "primitive", they were to the contrary perhaps the best trained men who ever lived. Which is why it was considered undeniable proof that Christ rose for the Dead.

Or to use fiction, in De Wohl's The Spear, do you remember the cavalry scene where it speaks of the assembly acting in perfect unison as a single man?

Enbrethiliel said...


Sheila -- I have had those issues in mind as well, but didn't mention them because, unlike you, I haven't done real research into them. But you make another good point I hadn't considered.

Something else I've been chewing over lately is the recruitment of teenagers to work in some very high-pressure jobs. I don't mean the infantry; I mean the pop music industry. =P We all know how many young celebrities are left psychologically stunted by their experiences in the spotlight, and it doesn't seem too unreasonable for music moguls to wait until artists are in their early twenties before signing them. But music moguls rarely do that. It's partly because teenagers are very marketable, but I think the real reason is that teenagers are very impressionable. They will do what they are told.

There, too, you have a kind of parody of maturity. Young celebrities certainly work very hard, earn enough money to support their parents and siblings, and carry real responsibilities on their shoulders. But how many "has-beens" have trouble getting on with their lives after their time in the limelight has ended? That is the real litmus test.

LTG -- I finally finished reading Starship Troopers a few hours ago and was surprised that it turned out to be pro-military after all. Until this point in our discussion, I really had the impression that Heinlein was very sneakily anti-war. But apparently, what freaks me out the most about military culture is precisely what he chooses to idealise!

So while you're correct that the point I'm making is not at all what Heinlein intended, I don't think I'm totally off base. His message comes across very clearly; I just disagree with it. You also hit the nail on the head about the implication that even good systems would eventually turn bad. The more complex war becomes, the more specialised soldiers must be: this is a chicken-and-egg relationship.

By the way, when I called the Roman army "primitive," I was being ironic. I think something is wrong with "advanced" training methods, don't I? A "primitive" army would be nice. A militia even nicer. The point is that it was not meant as an insult, so relax. =)

And sorry, but I haven't read or even heard of The Spear. Was droppig it into the discussion your way of saying you have never watched or heard of Universal Soldier? LOL! Don't worry, though. You didn't miss much. =P

love the girls said...

I cited The Spear because I thought it was commonly read by Catholics, especially someone like yourself who I assume has read everything under the sun.

And feel free to insult the Roman Legionnaires, they're big boys and can handle it, besides, they're all dead and beyond caring.

And if Heinlien is not anti total war, I don't know what his message is.

Belfry Bat said...

I never even heard of The Spear untill this conversation; though I'm hardly as voracious a reader as I was fifteen years ago...

Enbrethiliel said...


If I am ever in the mood for some religious fiction, I might put up a Quo Vadis vs. The Spear poll for the "Two or Three" Book Club.

Darwin said...

I don't think what's being shown is so much an us vs. them between M.I. and civilians, as that Heinlein portrays combat soldiers as being the only ones who really fully understand reality.

Note, for instance, that Johnnie and his dad are only fully united and understanding of each other when they're both in the military. Before, when they were just members of the same family, they were kind of distant. But now they're both M.I. and they are finally close.

Also, while the whole History & Moral Philosophy class thing is seemingly just a way for Heinlein to spout off his philosophy, I think it's also highly significant that only veterans are allowed to teach the class. In Heinlein's view, it's only veterans who fully understand reality, morality and history -- and the reason is because in Heinlein's view the use of violence to defend society is an essential experience for having a fully understanding of society and civilization. It's as if people who haven't risked their lives for society are missing a sense or a limb in Heinlein's estimation.

Sheila said...

I violently -- no pun intended -- disagree with that estimation, if that's indeed what Heinlein thinks.

Nobody has a monopoly on understanding society. Firefighters, police officers, and salmon fishermen all risk their lives, and though that gives them some claim to *respect,* it doesn't actually give them privileged *wisdom.* I tend to think that, since I am raising small members of society, I have in some sense a special vantage point. But what about those who tend the spirits of society -- priests, ministers, therapists?

Society is a pretty big thing to wrap your mind around, and we all have blind spots. But the blind spots veterans have can be as huge or huger than the blind spots civilians have.

Belfry Bat said...

OK, obviously, I haven't read the book at all, but what with the weirdness of setting and all that I've gleaned from this series of posts, and in particular how this last thread of comments is running, it seems reasonable to me to ask whether Heinlein has pulled a Winston-In-1984? Is there reason to believe that Heinlein believes, or wants us to believe, what is taught in H&MP or what Johnnie ends up telling us?

I'd gathered from the two Heinleins I have read (Job and The Cat that Walked Through Walls) that he was something of an Ayn Rand libertarian with a penchent for writing highschool-boy fantasy. From that angle, a love affair with constant total war would be... not entirely incongruous, but still rather weird.

Darwin said...

Obviously, I could be wrong -- I've read a half dozen Heinlein novels some of which I like very much, but I've by no means read all his stuff and I'm no expert -- but my impression is that Heinlein is a fairly straight forward writer when it comes to trying to express his philosophy. And while Starship Troopers is philosophically one of his more over-the-top books, that's in part because (by his own account) it was the one with which he thought he could start "being serious" about getting his ideas across. (Of course, then he got really "serious" and his books became nearly incoherant, so take that for what you will.)

So yeah, I think he does mean the militarism seriously. (I don't agree with what he's got to say, but I think he does really mean it.)

One shade that's probably important to get right: I don't think that Heinlein is so much advocating constant total war as saying that he thinks more-or-less constant war is pretty much inevitable, that's it's the natural state of things.

To my mind, possibly the best discussion of Heinlein's thinking and the progress of his fiction is Alexei Panshin's Heinlein in Dimension which is apparently available free online:


He writes about Starship Troopers in this section:


And I think he sums up a lot of Heinlein's philosophy with:

"Man is a wild animal, the roughest, meanest critter in this neck of the universe. Cross him at your peril."

While it may not seem entirely like it from this chapter in isolation, Panshin was a big Heinlein fan, though he saw him as a writer with serious flaws. And in both my appreciation of Heinlein's writing and his flaws, I'd agree fairly closely with Panshin's assessment.

Enbrethiliel said...


Having finally finished the novel, I agree with Darwin that Heinlein is idealising military experience in exactly that way. And I totally see the appeal: if I lived in the Terran Federation, there's a good chance I would have signed up as well and be drilling into my children the desire to do so, too. Military service in Starship Troopers is a lot like university in our world--lectures included! =P

At the same time, I share Sheila's concern that any group might seriously believe it has a monopoly on wisdom, whether it is the military or university graduates. When I brought up the veteran I used to know, it was out of frustration that the moral of his (very educational) stories was, "You'll never really understand if you only get it secondhand." (Then again, perhaps his objective was not to share wisdom, but to recruit new initiates?)

It's true that experience is often the best teacher, but I don't think that those who lack it, for whatever reason, are totally hopeless.

Finally, to address Bat's question, I concur with Darwin's analysis of Heinlein's writing. War is totally inevitable, so learning how to deal with it is how boys become men. (And how girls become women, of course. Or as Mr. Rogers might say, how girls become ladies. On the other hand, we have Johnnie describing his Navy pilot girlfriend as a fellow "fighting man." Details, details!) Which brings me right back to that "Us vs. Them" interpretation. If you think that war is the natural state of things, then you just may divide the world into comrades-at-arms, enemies, and civilians of varying degrees of silliness, as a matter of course.

love the girls said...

Ayn Rand? Interest, that would make the teacher the superman protagonist. And the soldiers the the lesser creatures who recognize the perfection of the supermen in their battle against the moochers.

Enbrethiliel said...


Nearly everyone who has discussed Starship Troopers with me has got around to bringing up Ayn Rand, and I can see the similarities as well. =) I hope I understood you correctly and will consider that angle further.

Darwin said...

Rand gets brought up because she's an unattractive libertarian, and Heinlein is too in his was, however I think there is a key difference: Rand praised individual self interest as the highest good. But her self-interested "makers" are kind of like Heinlein's self-interested civilians. From Rand's point of view, the decision of Rico's father to give away all the wealth he earned from his company and enlist in the infantry instead is downright crazy.

Heinlein seems to consider a certain kind of self sacrifice as the highest good -- a self sacrifice on behalf of the species and society. However, he's arrogant enough about it (with the way that the MI looks down on civilians) that it ends up feeling a bit like Rand's arrogance.