14 May 2013


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 54

It would have been so wonderful to have ended the Starship Troopers readalong yesterday, which was, for me, Election Day. But despite a weekend of reading, rereading and brainstorming, this post refused to be either forced out early or backdated. Besides, I've been so wrapped up in the spirited discussion from Meeting 53 that it was harder than usual to make this one its own separate entity.

Now I'd like to thank Belfry Bat, Bob, Darwin, Dauvit, LTG, and Sheila for helping this readalong be as fantastic as it has been, and for making the theme In Space, No One Can Hear You Blog an irony rather than a self-fulfilling prophecy. My life is less lonely because of you!

So let's get on with it now, aye? =)

"Mr. Salomon, can you give me a reason--not historical nor theoretical but practical--why the franchise is today limited to discharged veterans?"

"Uh, because they are picked men, sir. Smarter."

posterous . . . Service men are not brighter than civilians. In many cases, civilians are much more intelligent . . ."

. . . "Uh, service men are disciplined, sir."

Major Reid was gentle with him. "Sorry. An appealing theory not backed up by facts. You and I are not permitted to vote as long as we remain in the Service, nor is it verifiable that military discipline makes a man self-disciplined once he is out; the crime rate of veterans is much like that of civilians. And you have forgotten that in peacetime most veterans come from non-combatant auxiliary services and have not been subjected to the rigours of full military discipline . . ."

I may have quit reading for several days after getting to Chapter 12, because it was "just" History and Moral Philosophy again . . . but when I got back to the text and finished the chapter, I was flat out impressed at the answer to Major Reid's question. In an ideal world, it really would make sense . . .

Chapters 12 to 14

Believe it or not, before I got to Chapter 13 and the mission on Planet P, I had the impression that Starship Troopers was an anti-war satire in a future dystopia! (Cue canned laughter.) Of course, the opposite is true: the Terran Federation is Heinlein's version of an Utopia, with its military as the most idealised segment of the population.

And of course, the M.I. is the most idealised division of the military.

. . . The M.I. has the lowest percentage of officers in any army of record and this factor is just part of the M.I.'s unique "divisional wedge." "D.W." is military jargon, but the idea is simple: If you have 10,000 soldiers, how many fight? And how many just peel potatoes, drive lorries, count graves, and shuffle papers?

In the M.I., 10,000 men fight.

As Darwin pointed out in the previous meeting's combox, "Heinlein portrays combat soldiers as being the only ones who really fully understand reality." And well, that's only logical if your premise is that "more-or-less constant war is . . . the natural state of things." Basically, the closer you get to actual combat, the more you just get it. (The gnosis is gnarly.)

It's worth saying that this is an opinion that the rest of the military do not share. The Navy, in particular, find the M.I. totally obsolete. But as Johnnie points out, the rank of Sky Marshall requires a man to have commanded both an Army regiment and a Navy ship. (There's little doubt, is there, that if the novel went on a bit longer, Johnnie would have been ordained into this higher position as well?)

At the very end, we learn something unexpected--and maybe a bit odd--about the protagonist we thought we knew so well . . .

Big ships--the new Valley Forge and the new Ypres, Marathon, El Alamein, Iwo, Gallipoli, Leyte, Marne, Tours, Gettysburg, Hastings, Alamo, Waterloo--all places where mud feet had made their names to shine.

Little ships, the ones named for foot sloggers:
Horatius, Alvin York, Swamp Fox, the Rog herself, bless her heart, Colonel Bowie, Devereux, Vercingetorix, Sandino, Aubrey Cousens, Kamehameha, Audie Murphy, Xenophon, Aguinaldo--

I said, "There ought to be one named Magsaysay."

Recognise any of the names? I know I felt my face glow when I read "Leyte" . . . but I wished that "Aguinaldo" had been "Del Pilar" instead. And yes, there ought to have been one named Magsaysay. And a big ship named Corregidor.

Just a few hours ago, at the water cooler, I had the chance to chat with a colleague who has read a good bit of Heinlein and other SF writers. I asked him why Johnnie's nationality would have been a significant detail, and he said (as I remember it) . . .

"Remember that Starship Troopers was written in the 1950s. At the time, relations between the US and the Philippines were excellent. It was right after World War II, when Philippine Scouts had fought and died alongside American G.I.s, as part of the USAFFE. We were their Little Brown Brothers, their allies in the new war against Communism--what Heinlein depicted as the 'hive mind.' They loved us and we loved them . . . but at the same time, the idea of a Filipino officer commanding American soldiers was unheard of. Making Johnnie Rico turn out to be Filipino was a very progressive move."

So now you know why Johnnie is my cousin.

A final word . . . What I never expected Starship Troopers to be was emotional and heartwarming. But it is, isn't it? And the really interesting part is where all the warm snugglies get to come from. Heinlein totally skips the battle in which Johnnie earns his commission, jumping ahead to his return to the Rodger Young as a second lieutenant. Then he fills in the details the way dominoes fall, and we see a greater design. For Johnnie's achievement isn't merely a personal milestone, but a transformation that affects his entire platoon, including his relationship with his father, the ripple effect reaching the very ends of the army. It is made possible by no less than communion--and I can see why the Terran Federation's military culture insists that only those who have lived this mystery have any business casting ballots.

Remember Lieutenant Rasczak and how much his men loved him, because he loved them first? That's Johnnie now. And dagnabbit, I think I love him, too.

What are your thoughts on Chapters 12 to 14?

1. What do you think of the argument for making suffrage a privilege of honourably discharged veterans?
2. Given how dystopian our own world is becoming, would you be willing to live in Heinlein's utopia instead?
3. Membership in the Mystical Body aside, have you ever felt a sense of communion from being part of a cohesive group?

Image Source: Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein


Belfry Bat said...

1) War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend...; apologies to Mr. Heinlein for the most unfair juxtaposition, but it's not really about being fair, is it? Or, in other words, thank ye good fighting men indeed for keeping me alive long enough to raise the crops that keep you alive and the boys and girls you'll (maybe) win the hearts of and building the churches that you stand in front of. Keep it real, sure, but keep it real, too.

2) No.

3) Tricky... there's my family, of course; we're pretty cohesive in our own way... so, maybe? Other than that, I kinda don't know... not really, I'm afraid. But we're young yet!

Melanie Bettinelli said...

It's been ages since I read this one, but I loved it when I was younger.

I'm going to skip the first two questions for now. It's too late to be coherent enough. But as for #3... my university experience was an experience of a kind of communion. And I still feel it with those who've graduated from UD, even if I've never met them in person.

Enbrethiliel said...


Bat -- Just making more conversation now . . . Would you make the vote a privilege of any group?

Melanie -- You may remember that Johnnie said something similar about soldiers who had been through Basic training at Camp Arthur Currie! =) Unfortunately, I never got that sense of communion--what we might call "school spirit"--from any school I attended. =(

Belfry Bat said...

Hmmm... your question, En, is getting close to a temptation I much indulged in my more-extreme youth, to order all the world as I would...

Of course, I realized soon after posting it that the quote I pulled is set in a Kingdom, though the finer details of its inner ordering is left to imagination; and, before its King finaly ascends to the throne, his Steward makes a point of asking all present for their consent: "shall he... ?"

I think the best answer I can find for you is a made-up reply to the ancient "quis custos custodiet?": let him govern who can well govern himself, himself at least.

Sheila said...

1. Here's where it shows that I haven't read the book ... I still can't fathom a good reason for limiting suffrage like that.

2. No.

3. Yes. It was the worm on the hook. People say, "How could you put up with all that? Didn't you see it was all nonsense?"

And the answer is, I guess I kind of did know. But I was part of something for the first time in my life; I wasn't about to jeopardize that for anything. There isn't a single one of those girls I wouldn't go running to across a crowded room, ten years later; there wasn't one, back then, that I didn't know for her voice or her shoes or her walk. When I was kicked out, I remember lying awake in bed, saying their names to myself, fearful I should forget one of them who had been closer to me and been through more with me than any member of my family.

I guess that's kind of a heavy answer, huh? Sadly our modern world is so disconnected that this sort of communion is rare, and when it appears, it's a drug to hook us into someone else's design. When I read about life in small, medieval villages (or Iron Age villages or Neolithic villages or whatever), what strikes me most is the communion. They have customs that are all alike for everyone; they would live and die with those same people their whole lives. And their festivals were bonding moments, complete with ritual and drink and song and dance ... all the things that help us to forget the self and forge a bigger group. You don't get that kind of communion by staying sober and in command of your full rational faculties. Ever notice how you share so many more secrets at a sleepover, in the middle of the night when you're barely awake? Same concept.

I can't tell you if that level of self-forgetfulness, of subsuming oneself to the group identity, is good or bad for the soul. But I can tell you it's addictive.

Enbrethiliel said...


Bat -- It's interesting to wonder what would have happened if the majority of those present had said, "Nay!" =P

But the really interesting implication is that in this case, "suffrage" is also limited to a specific group: those who were alive and present at the "election" of their leader. It's not just a vote for a short period of time, but a vote for all the generations to follow--and not just for one man, but for all his descendants. It's very random and arbitrary, not to mention far removed from Heinlein's rational vision, but I find I like it even more. =)

Sheila -- Basically, Heinlein's thesis is that the best voters are those who have learned to put the good of the collective over the good of the individual--even to the point of sacrificing their own lives. (The "No greater love . . ." quotation is an epigraph to one of the chapters.) Theoretically, since it is so easy to sign up for the military in his world, anyone can earn the privilege of voting without ever having to see combat or to buy too much into the groupthink. It's a lot like going to university in our world: the assumption is that people are somehow lacking if they don't have a university education. This isn't true, of course, and I would oppose the limiting of suffrage to those with university degrees.

I think that some level of communion is a real emotional and spiritual need. It's just too bad when this is filled by the wrong things--or worse, tapped by those who want to use communion as a means to another end. But all my experiences of it have been rather fleeting: a gymnastics team bonding in class but never hanging out outside of it . . . a summer class putting together a musical theatre production and then not bothering to stay in contact after the final curtain . . . an extended family coming together for someone's wedding and then forgetting promises to stay in touch as soon as the bride and groom are out of sight . . . that sort of thing. And yes, I feel impoverished, even malnourished, by this lack. Which is one reason my answer to question #2 leans closer to Yea than to Nay. =P But even I see enough to know that I'm just chasing that addictive high . . .

Dauvit Balfour said...

Now I wish I had jumped into the discussion on 53, but I haven't the energy to catch up and wade in, and besides the iron is probably cool, or something.

1) If it lead to an aversion toward war, then I suppose I could see it, but it seems that in both our world and Heinlein's that is not and would not be the case. Also, if I may twist a quote to my own ends "the power to vote is the power to destroy". So... is suffrage, universal or limited, ever a good thing?

2) Well, star travel would be pretty cool, and I'd love to play with the suits, so that part of me that wishes I got to play with today's Cool Military Toys would probably be up for it. And the part of me that doesn't regard voting as some lovely, idyllic, necessarily beautiful thing might not care if I didn't get citizenship. Hypothetical yes, then?

3) Theater and sports provide a bit of that, but as you pointed out those don't extend outside the activity, and often dissolve upon consummation, so aren't real communion, though the memory of the temporary union may be strong.

College is a stronger example, especially within a program of study, because there is that sense of "we were there, too". There is a shared experience that can provide a bond across time.

A problem that I often have is that I know half-communions are imperfect images or revelations of longing for perfection or something like that, but that perfection is so beyond my ken that I cannot extrapolate, see only that imperfection seems to be imperfect and must be discarded. And then the whole point of these imperfections, which is that they point us to something, becomes lost.

Enbrethiliel said...


I am currently not a registered voter and never plan to be, but I think that some version of suffrage is necessary in any society. The very decision to identify as a member of a certain society is a kind of vote. What happens from there is where it gets complicated.

Another fictional model worth looking at is from The Probability Broach by L. Neil Smith. (What's with all these libertarians dominating the suffrage debate???) In that world, pretty much anyone can vote (including some sentient apes and dolphins!) or be a representative in a congress. It would take too long to explain the intricacies of it, but the most radical part is that only a unanimous vote is allowed to change anything.

CforC said...

If I may drop in (though without a powered suit) exactly five months after the page was published...

Absolutely unexpected thoughts again, both by JMJ and the posters. Honestly, maybe I ought to save these pages on my hard disk...especially because googling "shredded cheddar" doesn't really help find it. ;-)

Indeed, the "Moral Philosophy" part may be the best part of the book...the training and action scenes are found elsewhere in the SF universe, but Heinlein did better than that, even if, as I said in a previous comment, his whole expose is a bitter reaction to the world's state of affairs in the 1950s.

Yes, the idea that you have to earn the right to vote! What you have to work for, you won't misuse, or so RAH thought. But he has a more pragmatic rationale, too, no? If I'm not mistaken, at one point he explains how the average performance of the discharged veteran, even if he casts a completely misjudged vote, is better than that of a non-citizen, the difference being that the former served the society. Difficult to refute!

Still, RAH, probably understandably, only went so far with his political analysis. The mere right to vote, earned or given, is but a fraction of the mechanics of a society. The political process can be set up that voting is meaningless...or that it decides upon too much. Again, RAH was writing out of near-disgust (or maybe not even near)...if I met him today, if it wasn't disrespectful, I might tell him to cheer up a bit. ;-)

Enbrethiliel said...


All friendly, thoughtful comments are always welcome, C! =)

Aside from US involvement in the Korean War, which you brought up in your previous comment elsewhere, what other events or attitudes from the 1950s would you say Heinlein was reacting to?

The only other argument I've heard for the limiting of suffrage which has made sense to me is that only land owners should be allowed to vote, because only they are used to considering the long-term consequences of anything. Anyone who wants a say can try to acquire his own land, just as anyone in the Terran Federation may enlist in the military--without the catch that a war may drag on for one's entire life. (That bit is so ripe for satire that it was what misled me into thinking that Starship Troopers was anti-war!)

You make a good point about the power of votes being a function of the political system. What I did not mention in the main post is that I did not vote on election day because I am not registered to vote and never will be. I simply don't think that votes count for much in Philippine politics and I'm not a huge fan of exercises in futility.

CforC said...

Hmmm I think I was mentioning the rise of China rather than the Korean War...also the rise of communism (remember the USSR came out of WW2 stronger), though in the book there exists a Russo-Anglo-American alliance in WW3. There is a page or two on juvenile delinquency, handling street violence (Rico and other cadets get attacked), but I can't claim to know remotely enough about (RAH's view of) the 1950s to distinguish pure reactionary writing to what could have been RAH in a bad mood that day.

Ah yes, land owners who vote, early USA...even if it did work then, the amount of social groups who can be thought capable of thinking long-term (if that's really such a fool-proof criterion, which I doubt) has vastly expanded since then. How about...geologists? ;-)

Sorry to hear voting is futile down there...but isn't abstaining an expression of one's political will as well, even if unintended?

Enbrethiliel said...


I'm sorry for forgetting what you said last time. It's hard to keep all these discussions straight!

If I remember correctly, the idea of limiting suffrage to landowners wasn't meant to be "full-proof" (at least not in the sense that you seem to be getting at). I think that even the US Founding Fathers knew that any idiot could buy a plot of land. =P But this limitation reflected their original agrarian values and acted as a sort of protective fence around the same. I think they should have crowned a king when they had the chance, but that's a whole other alternate timeline!

Anyway, so what would you say to the "If you don't vote, you can't complain" crowd?

CforC said...

It's even harder to keep the discussion straight when the participants (well, one in particular) are irregular with their posts. Apologies again for not adhering to the read along paradigm here...

Hmmm, one can, and perhaps should, complain if one does not vote. Voting is not the sole contribution of a citizen. I pay taxes, ergo I complain! Which brings us back to the founding of the USA again - "taxation without representation", which is Fancy for the right to complain if taxed.

Interesting that the Leyte made your face glow...it being the largest naval battle with the US as one of the major participants, I wasn't surprised to see it on RAH's list. Perhaps equally unsurprisingly, none of the names in the book are Soviet or Chinese. Maybe have a vote on the favorite ST ship name, or propose more new ones? ;-)