Starship troopers (Robert A. Heinlein, 1959)

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Starship troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein (1959)

Score: Don’t waste your time with this pile of nonsense.

You’ve probably heard a lot about this book, and most of what you’ve heard is very likely true. It’s been described as a book-long recruitment poster, and I would call it a novelised rant about what’s wrong with the world and what would an everyman (namely, Robert Heinlein) do to fix it. I can picture him drinking his coffee in the morning, reading the newspaper, shaking his head, ranting about it for a good half an hour to the barista and then going home and writing this.

In the world of Starship Troopers franchise is not universal, it’s gained by being a war veteran. Yes, that’s the whole point of the book, describing how much better the world would be if this were true. There is no plot, no character development, no nothing. It just follows the career of Johnny Rico, the heir of a wealthy family, in the Mobile Infantry, where he gets to wear the coolest servo-armor ever and to kill giant, sentient spiders with a flamethrower. It even goes out of its way in ridiculous manners just to have an excuse to have Johnny listen to filibusters on why the world is so much better now that only war veterans get to vote. He could have, you know, used third-person narrative, instead of first-person.

So since there is no plot or characters to comment on, let’s comment the only actual content of the book: why Heinlein thinks only war veterans should vote and why he believes physical punishment would end juvenile delinquency (seriously).

“‘What is the moral difference, if any, between the soldier and the civilian?’ ‘The difference’, I answered carefully, ‘lies in the field of civic virtue. A soldier accepts personal responsibility for the safety of the body politic of which he is a member, defending it, if need be, with his life. The civilian does not’.”

This is a really old problem, should everyone be able to vote? Should everyone’s vote have the same weight? I don’t feel like answering these questions, but if only certain people should be allowed to vote I’m quite sure that soldiers like the ones in this book aren’t the ones more entitled to it, and the next quote tells you why:

War is not violence and killing, pure and simple; war is controlled violence, for a purpose. The purpose of war is to support your government’s decisions by force. The purpose is never to kill the enemy just to be killing him … but to make him do what you want him to do. Not killing … but controlled and purposeful violence. But it’s not your business or mine to decide the purpose or the control. It’s never a soldier’s business to decide when or where or how—or why—he fights; that belongs to the statesmen and the generals. The statesmen decide why and how much; the generals take it from there and tell us where and when and how. We supply the violence; other people —‚older and wiser heads,’ as they say —supply the control.

So I’m willing to kill just because I’m commanded to, and I don’t even care why because other people make those decisions. And I call that my moral virtue. Sweet.

But why are soldiers the vessel of moral virtue? Let’s find out:

Of course, the Marxian definition of value is ridiculous. All the work one cares to add will not turn a mud pie into an apple tart; it remains a mud pie, value zero. By corollary, unskillful work can easily subtract value; an untalented cook can turn wholesome dough and fresh green apples, valuable already, into an inedible mess, value zero. Conversely, a great chef can fashion of those same materials a confection of greater value than a commonplace apple tart, with no more effort than an ordinary cook uses to prepare an ordinary sweet.

You can agree with this or not, but pay close attention and you’ll see it contradicts the following idea:

This very personal relationship, ‚value,’ has two factors for a human being: first, what he can do with a thing, its use to him … and second, what he must do to get it, its cost to him. There is an old song which asserts that ‚the best things in life are free.’ Not true! Utterly false! This was the tragic fallacy which brought on the decadence and collapse of the democracies of the twentieth century; those noble experiments failed because the people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted … and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears. „Nothing of value is free. Even the breath of life is purchased at birth only through gasping effort and pain.“ He had been still looking at me and added, „If you boys and girls had to sweat for your toys the way a newly born baby has to struggle to live you would be happier … and much richer. As it is, with some of you, I pity the poverty of your wealth. 

The best things in life are beyond money; their price is agony and sweat and devotion … and the price demanded for the most precious of all things in life is life itself—ultimate cost for perfect value…

One of my favourite professors back when I studied philosophy, Mr. Tomás Pollán, had this theory about what he called “sacrificial mentality” (mentalidad sacrificial), which said that human beings tend to think of happiness and suffering as a product and a currency, respectively. If you want to be happy, or enjoy a pleasure, you will have to pay for it by suffering later, and contrariwise: if you suffer long enough you will eventually be happy, go to heaven, and so on. Virtually every religion works basically because of this principle, and a lot of human constructs and ways of thinking, as well. You can see both ideas here: in the Marxian definition of value that Heinlein scorns, the reasoning is, if I put effort in this product, it must be valuable, onlybecause I put effort into it. Heinlein correctly criticises this idea in the fragment, but then goes on to apply exactly the same principle on his own idea: voting, sovereignty, is definitely a good thing, so it must be worth something, namely, blood, sweat and tears. It’s exactly the same reasoning, and if it’s wrong in one case it must be in the other, too. Some good things in life are free, and sometimes people are good for no reason.

So what does Heinlein have to say about morality?

No, my dear, you have a cultivated conscience, a most carefully trained one. Man has no moral instinct. He is not born with moral sense. You were not born with it, I was not—and a puppy has none. We acquire moral sense, when we do, through training, experience, and hard sweat of the mind.”

And how to we do that? Brace yourselves:

‘Juvenile delinquent’ is a contradiction in terms, one which gives a clue to their problem and their failure to solve it. Have you ever raised a puppy?“
„Yes, sir.“
„Did you housebreak him?“
„Err … yes, sir. Eventually.“ It was my slowness in this that caused my mother to rule that dogs must stay out of the house.
„Ah, yes. When your puppy made mistakes, were you angry?“
„What? Why, he didn’t know any better; he was just a puppy.
„What did you do?“
„Why, I scolded him and rubbed his nose in it and paddled him.“
„Surely he could not understand your words?“
„No, but he could tell I was sore at him!“
„But you just said that you were not angry.“
Mr. Dubois had an infuriating way of getting a person mixed up. „No, but I had to make him think I was. He had to learn, didn’t he?“
„Conceded. But, having made it clear to him that you disapproved, how could you be so cruel as to spank him as well? You said the poor beastie didn’t know that he was doing wrong. Yet you indicted pain. Justify yourself! Or are you a sadist?

This passage is longer and juicier, but basically it says, in a very Socratic way, that children should be raised and disciplined the same way dogs are. We might as well take our children to poo in the park and slap them with a rolled newspaper across the nose when they misbehave. He is perfectly convinced that if people were flogged when they shoplifted, shoplifting would stop altogether. He calls it moral sense, I call it being afraid of beatings.

And the festival goes on:

…Ah, yes, the ‚unalienable rights.’ Each year someone quotes that magnificent poetry. Life? What ‚right’ to life has a man who is drowning in the Pacific? The ocean will not hearken to his cries. What ‚right’ to life has a man who must die if he is to save his children? If he chooses to save his own life, does he do so as a matter of ‚right’? If two men are starving and cannibalism is the only alternative to death, which man’s right is ‚unalienable’? And is it ‚right’? As to liberty, the heroes who signed that great document pledged themselves to buy liberty with their lives. Liberty is never unalienable; it must be redeemed regularly with the blood of patriots or it always vanishes. Of all the so-called ‚natural human rights’ that have ever been invented, liberty is least likely to be cheap and is never free of cost.

Yeah, just because accidents happen and people may choose to give their life for others there is no right to life and I can kill whomever I feel like killing.

There are many, many more batshit crazy passages I highlighted while reading but I don’t want to be boring. Let me just finish with this:

The practical reason for continuing our system is the same as the practical reason for continuing anything: It works satisfactorily.

Now here are we with still another system … and our system works quite well. Many complain but none rebel; personal freedom for all is greatest in history, laws are few, taxes are low, living standards are as high as productivity permits, crime is at its lowest ebb. Why? Not because our voters are smarter than other people; we’ve disposed of that argument. Mr. Tammany can you tell us why our system works better than any used by our ancestors…

Yeah, it works in a fictitious world that you invented, Mr. Heinlein.

To sum it up, don’t waste your time with this if you’re not in the mood for absurd ramblings like those above.

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