A Propagandized View of War

A viewer asked me about Starship Troopers on Saturday’s stream. I’ve done several videos on the book and movie, and written at least one article about it, but it keeps coming up. That’s probably the power of Heinlein’s ideas, but again, I want to push back a bit.

Before that, let me sum up:

  1. Starship Troopers (the book) is known for its ideas. There’s not much story there, and I don’t care for it as a result. It’s not a great story by Heinlein.
  2. Lots of the ideas are in pop culture, primarily “power armor” and the “bug hunt.” But the political ideas are what seem to gain the most attention in right wing circles.
  3. I don’t think the political ideas are good.
  4. I don’t like Paul Verhoven’s movie “adaptation” except as a satire of the book, which many movie fans are unaware of.

I’m coming around to an understanding that the appeal of the political ideas in Starship Troopers is reliant on a heavily propagandized view of war—one in which “we” are the “good guys,” and the others are the “bad guys,” and that the actions of the good guys in war are virtuous or at least justified. I’ve heard it argued that such a black and white view of conflict is necessary for morale, and I agree. It would be hard to get soldiers to do the business of war, which is risky on the one hand and morally difficult on the other, if they don’t believe that their country is in the right.

However, we have the advantage of perspective, information, and separation from certain conflicts to know that this view, while useful during the conflict, is not a realistic portrayal of the complicated process that is warfare. Consider that in World War II, the allies had concentration camps as well as the axis powers. That includes the United States.

At this point, the idea of government (or military, a wing of the government) service being linked to citizenship means that people who refused to participate in the forced relocation and in some cases enslavement of minorities would be politically disenfranchised, while concentration camp guards would be guaranteed citizenship.

The idea that those who are politically enfranchised know the meaning of risk and sacrifice is enticing, but it is ignorant of the realities of war, which (if a war is to be won) involves killing lots of people and subjecting many more to misery. It presupposes that the government and its actions are both already just, and yet Heinlein presents his ideas as solutions to political problems of the post-war west, its political corruption, and its large welfare states. The idea that service to a corrupt, evil state would produce a virtuous body politic is a non-sequitur.

So once again where “service guarantees citizenship” is necessary, it is undesirable, and where it is possibly beneficial, it is unnecessary.

I’ll also add that rule by the military is nothing historically unique. It was, in fact, the norm for most of human history. All the major forms of government prior to the enlightenment were based on military leadership because war was what Sun Tzu called, “The highest affair of state.” Kings ruled because they commanded the military. Feudalism, both in its European and Japanese variants, was an organization of military force. The Roman Empire began with war (Romulus was even a descendant of Mars), was ruled by kings, its Republic was based around waging war (consul was an elected military position), and during the imperial period, its various emperors were, first and foremost, the leaders of the military and frequently died in battle.

With that in mind, while a return to a form of government where the risk-takers and violence-dealers are the “First Citizens” could be beneficial to the decadent post-war order, Heinlein’s view of the military is modern, that is, it is of a bureaucratic, mechanized army fielded by a large, totalitarian government where loyalty is the first and most important virtue rewarded. “Loyalty” would of course include fighting and dying where the military leadership said or killing whomever they deemed worthy of death.

It would also include firing on rebellious citizens—so have a care!

This is to say nothing ill against my friends and family who are vets, but our perspective with the World Wars and its belligerents should inform us that other conflicts, of which we do not yet have perspective and for which there is a need for propaganda for the purposes of morale, are likely to be just as complicated and morally grey. The persuasions of the common soldier don’t change the nature of war.

“Service guarantees citizenship” only works if the only goal is the continuation of the state with no other moral considerations at all.

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  1. Good article. I’ve long been fascinated with Starship Troopers since I was a teenager. My thoughts about it have changed as I’ve grown up. But something always bothered me about the Terran Federation. It is all so clinical, so mechanistic. The future humanity that Heinlein portrays is a very sterile, globalized society that never seemed like an appealing place to live.

    It is a complex book, there are a lot of things to analyze that I think most people overlook, like his portrayal of relationships in the book or that he states that all wars are the result of population growth.

    It is a lot of fun on the surface with power armor and the space Arachnids (which are much more interesting in the book than the movie) but the politics are not that admirable when you really break it down.

    • All those details play more to my point – the book is really about the ideas and not the story per se. And there is definitely a lot there. I might go back and re-read it some time just to do a bit more dissection as an older man.

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