“I know people who read interminably, book after book, from page to page, and yet I should not call them ‘well-read people.’ Of course they ‘know’ an immense amount; but their brain seems incapable of assorting and classifying the material, which they have gathered from books. They have not the faculty of distinguishing between what is useful and useless in a book.” ~Adolf Hitler
In the 1959 novel Starship Troopers, American author Robert A. Heinlein did, perhaps, what many would consider unthinkable at the time: he outlined in great detail his rationale for the merits of militarism as a key component of government, and partially also social, structure. He did this as an American at a time when the mortal enemy of the USA was the USSR, a country with – however crudely approximate – such a system. However, Heinlein was careful to distinguish his ideas from Soviet Communism and, in fact, wrote the book so as to give American society a vision of a powerful alternative to its then (and still) current mode of government, which was facing a very organized and dangerous foe. Critically, Heinlein’s vision does not call for an all around militarization of society, as some would think, rather it is militarism, according to Heinlein, that is best suited for shaping leaders and decision makers. Lastly, while Heinlein’s book is clearly from a bygone era, it was very forward thinking for its time and thus has aged quite well.
Introduction & Background
Starship Troopers was written at the height of the Cold War and, in fact, directly in response to US military policy. The US Government decided to support limited nuclear weapons testing in what eventually became the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 that was signed in the USSR. Heinlein, a dedicated anti-Communist, must have been closely following the political developments of this time, as this book was conceived and written in 1959 or within a year of when the notions that would go on to became the aforementioned treaty were first publicly discussed. The many political references in the book clearly place its creation middle of the 20th Century, however that was unavoidable. It also remains lightly amusing that characters do not discuss much beyond that period when they themselves are well into the 22nd Century!
Quirks aside, Heinlein makes his point and mainstream conservatism and liberalism aren’t too happy. He seems to please conservatives by calling Communism a “magnificent fraud” while calling Karl Marx a “pompous fraud,” seemingly keeping the same tone. Though he then launches six whole adjectives for Marx’s Das Kapital calling it “turgid, tortured, confused, and neurotic, unscientific, illogical” while conceding that it had a “glimmering of a very important truth” since it tried to discuss the concept of value, which is important. Heinlein just defines it much differently, yet still in rigid detail.
Conversely, Heinlein seems to please liberals by stating that “citizenship is an attitude, a state of mind, an emotive 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.” An apparently collectivist statement, however, as we shall see, what Heinlein really has in mind here is heroism, not an argument for a higher tax rate on the wealthy.
Finally, Heinlein implies that Communism is essentially bug-like in nature. The Terran Federation, the author’s imagined World State (another “liberal” thing), is fighting a war against a bug species and the book’s narrator laments that even if one Terran infantryman kills one thousand bugs before his own death, it’s a net victory for bugs since the “Bug commissars” use soldiers like the humans do ammo. He even, in a way, praises “just how efficient a total communism can be when used by a people actually adapted to it by evolution.” This mirrors a quote of Hitler’s as it was recalled in Memoirs of a Confidant by Otto Wagener: “Communism results in a welfare state where the standards are averaged downward.”  Here it’s downward the evolutionary path into an organism of pure survivalist function and lacking greater virtues and ideals.
Not quite conservative, not quite liberal, and a decent attempt at a wholesome imagining of a Third Way state. So how does Heinlein’s imagined society actually look? Let’s see.
Society & Economy
Perhaps contrary to popular notions, Heinlein’s Terran Federation is not a militarized society. He talks in depth about the military and it’s values, however the majority of people either don’t sign up for the military, and many that do opt out without a fuss – more on that later.
First things first, according to Terran Federation law, at 18 years of age a person is eligible for Federal Service and no one, not even traditionalist parents who have raised their kids on total obedience, can legally prevent them from signing up. Discouragement, however, is legal and protagonist and narrator Johnnie Rico’s father tries his best with this when his son raises interest in the military. First rather bluntly, “Son, are you out of your mind?” and then going to recall some childhood mischief of Johnnie’s – breaking an antique vase and then stealing a cigar; an expensive misdeed and then one that made Johnnie sick, the juxtaposition with military service tacitly states that is just a continuation, though now the potential ill effects are severe. Second via traditionalist appeal, Johnnie’s father states that “this family has stayed out of politics and cultivated its own garden for over a hundred years” and Johnnie has no reason to change that. Third by denouncing the Federal Service as a whole: “parasitism, pure and simple. A functionless organ, utterly obsolete, living on the taxpayers. A decidedly expensive way for inferior people who would otherwise be unemployed to live at public expense…” The military bashing can be loosely seen as “liberal” while the rest is seemingly “conservative” with its family values appeal and low view of taxes.
What’s more interesting, however, is the background information. Johnnie’s family hasn’t had a member who served in the military for more than a century, yet they are not out of favor with the government and ruling elite. They live an affluent life with a successful family business. There is no mention of them being coerced to run that business in a certain way, no mention of property being seized as a result of their anti-military stance or anything else, simply put they have been as free as they can hope to be. They may have paid more than desired in taxes, yet this hasn’t taken away from their affluence. In fact, as Johnnie’s officers’ academy instructor Major Reid later states, “many complain, but none rebel… laws are few, taxes are low” thereby echoing Johnnie’s father, who’s not entirely happy, yet also not totally unhappy – he complains about taxes, yet still pays them. Thereby, strongly suggesting that while life isn’t perfect, there is no oppression. This is right along Machiavelli’s tip to his proverbial Prince: the only thing people want from government is to not be oppressed.
Average voter turnouts in many democracies are often very low – well under 50% – even in elections for a president or prime minister. Thus, the Terran Federation’s strict limit on ballot box franchise is more of a difference on paper than in practice. And the opportunity to become a voter or office holder is open to all starting at the age of 18, just after “voluntary and difficult service so that he places the welfare of the group ahead of personal advantage.” Once, again we see a Third Way position with the “liberal” idea of group welfare mixed with the “conservative” virtue of military service and a “soldierly” attitude. That latter point is important as, according to Heinlein, “a soldier accepts personal responsibility for the safety of the body politic of which he is a member” and is ready to defend it with his life unlike the civilian. Heinlein also classes this as a “moral difference” thus suggesting that citizenship is not just a perk, nor is it a birthright. It is something else altogether – “citizenship is an attitude, a state of mind, an emotional conviction that the whole is greater than the part” – and this is only possible by those who have demonstrated, willingly, that they do not achieve goals solely for personal gain. Military service is difficult, however it may be quit at any time. Even before a combat drop during wartime. However, upon doing so, all authority that citizenship grants is not earned, since the subject has not demonstrated the ability to perform its duties. “Authority and responsibility must be equal” and thus permitting “irresponsible authority is to sow disaster,” aptly worded with an agrarian metaphor to boot.
Heinlein’s view of economics in this not ideal, but workable state of the Terran Federation also bears mention. He once again formulates a Third Position in a way that praises skillful work not stock market surges. Simply stated, “the Marxian [sic] definition of value is ridiculous. All the work one cares to add will not turn a mud pie into a tart,” which has no real value. Likewise, poor quality work can turn something good, such as “wholesome dough and fresh green apples, valuable already, into an inedible mess” also with no value. On the flip side, those same ingredients via skillful work can be turned into “a confection of greater value than a commonplace apple tart” with the same amount of effort as for a regular or mediocre tart. Thus, more skillful – and more efficient – work produces things of better use for the individual and for the community. The key is that the products are better not by simply the amount of work that went into them, rather also the quality and efficiency of that work.
Right on the next page, Heinlein (via his characters) states, “‘value’ has no meaning other than in relation to living beings. The value of a thing is always relative to a particular person” and by extension we could say to a particular community. Perhaps the most radical statement here is that “‘market value’ is a fiction, merely a rough guess at the average of personal values” and by our extension, also of community values if a whole state or realm is being considered. Essentially, if something has no use it has no value. Work that doesn’t create something useful is worthless (and unethical) work.
There is also a passionate take down of the saying “the best things in life are free,” which is called “utterly false” and “the tragic fallacy which brought on the decadence and collapse of the democracies of the twentieth century” since people believed voting will give them all they need.
This is Heinlein’s most direct statement against the society of his time (which continues until today) and aptly demonstrates that his ideas, as with most of this type, cannot be legislated into being. They required a whole new worldview – or Weltanschauung – and the realization that it starts very early, since “even the breath of life is purchased at birth only through gasping and pain.” Thus, our first experience in this world is really a struggle. With the collapse of liberal democracy (as the back story explains), the new society gasped into being and was made sure to never forget how it came to be and the fact that it had earned that position, it was not simply given. And the work put into it wasn’t simply hard and persistent toil, rather it was goal-oriented and purposeful, thus resulting in a stable and functioning state.
“It is out of the moral virtues of the people and not from their economic circumstances that a State is formed.” ~Adolf Hitler
State & Government
All of the public office holders and major decision makers in the Terran Federation have been through a voluntary and tough military service. The purpose of this is so that the decisions they make are for the many and not the few. The seed of that is in military philosophy where recruits are told, “your life belongs to your men and is not yours to throw away in a suicidal reach for glory.” Conversely, a soldier’s life isn’t their own to save either and must be expended if “the situation requires it,” which can only mean achieving a critical and greater goal, or saving more lives than one’s own. This very clearly is the source of the subsequent reflection “welfare of the group ahead of personal advantage.” It bears repeating that this is purely voluntary service with plenty of ways to legally get out of it. A soldier can “quit thirty seconds before a drop, lose his nerve and not get in the capsule and all that happens is that he is paid off and can never vote.” Heinlein states that higher virtues such as devotion and loyalty, if they are to be above the usual level of family or tribe requires “imagination that a man must develop himself; if he has them forced down him, he will vomit them out.”
The point of this is that if someone is given a lot of authority, they must have previously demonstrated, willingly, a high level of responsibility – “authority and responsibility must be equal” and this is explicitly stated as being for “moral reasons” in addition to practical implementation. Further according to Heinlein, authority and especially political authority, including the democratic franchise, is force. Since political authority is supreme, only those with equivalent responsibility must be allowed to wield its force. Anything else and there is imbalance and subsequent abuse of force, which essentially sums up human history and its war-prone tendencies where “violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than any other factor” and those who have not learned “this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedoms.”
This last point is essentially echoing the old Roman adage sic vis pacem para bellum – if you want peace prepare for war – Heinlein provides what was by his time, and definitely is now, a counter-intuitive solution to statehood and justice. In such a just state those who can declare war have been through the same trials as those who will go fight that war, thus will make decisions with more intuition and compassion and not for mercantile and materialistic means. In the Terran Federation, war is declared, at best, for moral reasons or, at the very least, is guided by those principles. Again speaking through one of his characters, Heinlein states that “war is not violence and killing, pure and simple; war is controlled violence to support your government’s decisions by force” and he explicitly adds that war is not just killing the enemy but making him “do what you want him to do” thereby strongly suggesting that the primary intended goal is a balance of force with an enemy and not their destruction, thereby the prevention of total destruction. And who can make such decisions? He who has gone through “voluntary and difficult service so that he places the welfare of the group ahead of personal advantage.” Heinlein uses the somewhat antiquated general “he” throughout much of the book, yet he clearly doesn’t exclude women from positions of authority as will be seen later.
Staying on the issue of power, yet stepping out of the military sphere, we can see a corresponding version of this idea in Heinlein’s view of technology; “the pursuit of science, despite its social benefits, is itself not a social virtue” and it is stated that those heavily involved with technological development often lack social responsibility. Mainly due to the fact that civilians are able to pursue science for their own ends, including profitable business, however this is then checked by the fact that these same civilians cannot wield political authority. Thus, the development and implementation of technology in the Terran Federation is suggested to be careful and purposeful, beyond mere profit. There are many cool sounding passages describing the military technology that the Mobile Infantry use, however each and everyone of these is then used in combat, there is a shortage of officers in the military (despite there being a war), and a general frugality and efficiency permeating through the Mobile Infantry and Navy is clearly conveyed – nothing is just there, useless things have been repurposed or recycled and the military is lean and very cohesive.
The human race in the world of Starship Troopers spans many planets beyond Earth. One of these planets, named Sanctuary, has a significant amount of wheat fields, and the native flora and fauna are fairly weak and under-developed from a lack of natural variety. This is explained by a lack of radiation as compared to Earth and so the primitive environment doesn’t offer many challenges to immune systems, which develop adequate for the planet, but stunted in comparison to other life-bearing planets. While certain Earth diseases are unheard of on Sanctuary, the people and whole environment, on there are at a biological standstill. Since evolutionary progress is slow and unseen day-to-day, and since the population is at an economic advantage due to very simple and high yield agriculture, they have slipped into complacence. The Earth wheat they plant easily pushes aside any native flora, thereby making it a low-labor/high-yield crop and thus very profitable – this could very well be Heinlein’s sly metaphor of colonialism. However, he also offers an interesting solution: “new blood added by immigration” as this will strengthen the people living there, and the implication is that this could also be done to the environment, so as to make a more solid stock of farmers in a healthier environment. This is a racialist and world-building endeavor and one that’s decidedly not for monetary profit, thus the humans are not easily motivated to do it, thereby dooming their subsequent generations to immune system frailty. Thus, the implication is that this group of people needs some of the aforementioned “higher virtues,” not just to survive, but to prevent the pain their subsequent generations will surely face.
Here we come to Heinlein’s view of ethnicity. As we have just seen, he gave an example of total isolationism, ethnic and even biological, with the flora and fauna of Sanctuary being of too few strands to develop like Earth. It seems to be an insular shtetl of a planet, and this in contrast to Earth. An early hint of Heinlein’s view is the main character’s name, which isn’t an Anglophone name as is common in Western fiction. Also, while only revealed roughly 4 pages before the end, Johnnie’s native language is Tagalog and this has implications for several scenes in the rest of the book; namely Johnnie’s interactions with his father must have been in Tagalog. Additionally, Johnnie’s hard as nails drill instructor, Sergeant Zim, states he didn’t speak much English when he first arrived at boot camp and adds that this is common for new recruits. Throughout the book, a very wide variety of names can be seen and while Heinlein doesn’t state it outright, however a multi-ethnic, mono-cultural, unitary, authoritarian realm with militarist tendencies has many precedents in the past.
A particular episode from chapter 5, which takes up most of the chapter, is often used to denounce the book and its message. In it, a soldier gets publicly whipped and then discharged from the army. Yet, going step by the step, it is apparent that the reason the soldier gets very harsh disciplinary action resulting in a discharge (therefore no chance to obtain citizenship) is because he talked himself into it. An officer only convenes a field court-martial after Hendrick, the soldier in question, freely admits to striking a superior – in fact, Hendrick was insisting on getting the Captain to “hear my side of it” during which he talked himself into a bind. The situation wouldn’t even have gone to the Captain if Hendrick hadn’t insisted on seeing an officer and it was then that he volunteered the information, thus effectively forcing the Captain to act on it, since enforcing rules of conduct is a big part of his job. And so what should have been a minor altercation between recruit and sergeant is taken to the most expedient conclusion higher up the chain of command, and it’s one that specifically prevented Hendrick from being executed. In the end, Captain Frankel essentially saved Hendrick’s life by only arranging a field court martial and not a general court martial. This episode takes up about 14 pages and Heinlein made it so elaborate in order to demonstrate the full range of motions pertaining to one incident that can occur in his fictional world. The scene echoes later when Johnnie also experiences a disciplining episode. Thus, far from being some sort of “fascist sadism,” it’s a key scene that shows Heinlein wasn’t just writing a rosy story – the harshness of a logical reality is there.
The corresponding scene to the military discipline episode is actually earlier, where we get some unexpected ease. In the Terran Federation military, mealtime is totally laid back. From the one scene, which takes place in a cafeteria we get the sense that the only rule is that meals have a time limit, however whatever is done during that time is up to the individual – eating, smoking, refilling on coffee or food – and that latter bit seems like the meal hall is a buffet with unlimited refills. And this is during boot camp where there’s “none of that nonsense some boarding schools have of making your life miserable at the table.” The point that both these scenes make is that Heinlein wasn’t interested in presented an idealized world, at least not totally idealized. He idealizes its philosophy and organization, however the way it’s shown to work is merely satisfactory – and it is this, which makes it so tangible and coldly logical.
“Unlimited possibilities are not suited to man; if they existed, his life would only dissolve in the boundless. To become strong, a man’s life needs the limitations ordained by duty and voluntarily accepted. The individual attains significance as a free spirit only by surrounding himself with these limitations and by determining for himself what his duty is.”
—————————————————————~I Ching, the Book of Changes
Between Realism and Idealism
According to Hitler, an ideal nation “represents a triumph over individualism, but not in the sense that the individual aptitude is stifled or the initiative of the individual is paralyzed; only in the sense that common interests stand above individual freedom and all individual initiative”  and this strongly reflects Heinlein’s statement (via his book’s characters) that the person who is fit for leadership is one who “places the welfare of the group ahead of personal advantage.” It is doubtful that Heinlein knew just how closely his ideals matched Hitler’s since it was Heinlein himself who created the “Space Nazis” canard with 1947’s Rocket Ship Galileo, thus he was as firmly aboard the propaganda train as most Americans of his time. That said, this is perhaps a strong indicator of Hitler’s universal ideals as someone totally separate from Hitler in everyway came to match those same ideals in what can only be a very compelling case of synchronicity. In Starship Troopers, Hitler gets one passing mention, a fairly neutral one, with juxtaposition next to Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington early in chapter 2.
Heinlein, while writing what is in many ways a bold story, is also severely weighed down by traditionalism and some contradictions. For example, the opening quote to chapter 3, where Johnnie Rico’s military training starts, reads: “He shall rule them with a rod of iron.” ~Revelations 2:25 (it’s actually Rev 2:27). On top of that, some translations of this verse read “shepherd them with an iron rod” where the verb difference reveals the very traditionalist roots of this mentality. A better version needs a few tweaks; perhaps, “He shall inspire them with a Cross of Iron.” There, much better! Throughout the book, there are many references to the Old Testament or Tanakh here and there, such as a commanding officer’s stateroom being called the “Holy of Holies,” as well as chapters 4 and 8 having traditionalist opening quotes.
In one scene this traditionalism goes so far that Heinlein apparently contradicts his own militarist stance by stating that officers’ mess hall etiquette demands that male officers seat the female officers – by pulling their chair out – and this in spite of the fact that women captain many Terran Federation Space Navy vessels. Thus, Heinlein gives women high-level military positions and even explains his reasoning with the science of reaction time (women thus make better pilots), yet at the same time places them in their traditional role of “ladies” to be escorted by “gentlemen.” The whole scene feels more part of a Victorian era drama than bold and forward thinking science fiction at a time when high-level command positions for women were almost unheard of.
This also indicates that while Heinlein was writing a daring book – pro-militarism, explicated Third Position, and overtly anti-racist in a time when “the land of the free” had traditionalist segregation across all strata of society – he is still anchored, at least partly, in a traditionalist reality and thus should be considered carefully.
Overall, the book Starship Troopers is hardly the images, situations, and ideas we’d expect from a militarist state considering how they are typically portrayed in the politically correct media. Firstly, we get conspicuous portrayals such as the Galactic Empire in Star Wars or the Helghan in the Killzone series, or autocratic states as just token evil bad guys, and though the expanded universe of each sheds some light on the “bad guy’s” perspective it still remains comfortably pro-democracy. Secondly, we have the politically correct, though fairly interesting, Star Trek that makes use of some of the same ideas as Heinlein (“the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”), yet heavily tones down the militarism to a please a democracy-satiated audience. And finally, there are portrayals that ridicule or satirize and the movie version of Starship Troopers went according to this route. Oddly, Paul Verhoeven, the director of the 1997 film adaption of Starship Troopers, stated back in 2016 that the book was “fascistic and militaristic” and that a new film version “going back to the novel would fit very much in a Trump Presidency.”  Yet, the obvious question is how could Trump, who had no prior experience or desire for civil service, ever pass the rigorous military training requirement? How could someone so hedonistic not quit boot camp, especially since in the book quitting is explicitly said to be easy so as to root out the not truly willing? In the movie version, military service is also a requirement for citizenship and therefore state leadership positions, thus it remains hard to imagine a flesh lump like Trump passing through successfully. The thing is, Trump would fit into the world of Starship Troopers, but as a civilian who runs a business, therefore can satisfy his urge for conspicuous wealth, though he would never get close to holding office and would be under the scrutiny of a militarist state, thus not likely to get very far in his shady endeavors and numerous corrupt business projects.
Verhoeven just bashes militarism as the rest of the politically correct media and everyone he finds too conservative for his tastes is a “fascist,” much like conservatives who call all those too liberal for their tastes “socialists.” It’s an endless loop of dogs each barking at and chasing a tail.
Heinlein actually grappled to present a rounded and applicable presentation of militarism. He tried to make it applicable to not just his then current American society, but also to a future and evolved America where previously divisive conventional boundaries have been largely overcome and an updated set of ideas that weeds out selfish profiteering from leadership has been implemented. And he did this by criticizing – heavily criticizing – the one thing both mainstream Right & Left are terrified of speaking out against: democracy. It is that which leads to problems; it is that which needs reform – according to Heinlein. Some would go even farther, however that discussion can be found in other writings. Starship Troopers is not perfect, however it’s well worth a closer and honest look from Third Position proponents.
“Only when the idealistic longing for independence is organized in such a way that it can fight for its ideal with military force, only then can the urgent wish of a people be transformed into a potent reality.” ~Adolf Hitler
Starship Troopers: Spaced Out Fascists – review of the 1997 movie
 Hitler: Memoirs of a Confidant (1985) by Otto Wagener, p. 115
 Hitler’s Revolution (2014) by Richard Tedor, p. 24
Translated from Der grossdeutsche Freiheitskampf Band II by Philipp Bouhler
 IndieWire, Paul Verhoeven Slams ‘Starship Troopers’ Remake, Says It’ll Be a Fascist Update Perfect for a Trump Presidency (November 16, 2016)