Starship Troopers - A Summary


Posted on : 5/21/2015 10:27:00 PM | By : Dann | In : , ,

Finally done.  Over at John Scalzi's Whatever, there is a discussion that wandered into questions about Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers.  Part of the discussion was a question about how the government of that book came into being.  The answer isn't terribly long, but several aspects of the book need some introduction.

There are few thematic elements to understand.

1)  The government in SST was not "the military".  It was veterans of military service and other life risking government service.  Active military (and other government services) were banned from voting until they had completed their service.  That means the generals couldn't vote until they retired.  Only veterans of the military (and veterans of other government services) were eligible to vote and run for office.

2)  It wasn't just military service that made one eligible to vote.  There were other services that also involved a lesser degree of risk to one's life.  They all involved being subjected to harassment and general irritation by government agents (who as part of the various services, also couldn't vote until their term was completed or they retired).

3)  Anyone could volunteer.  Even someone that was a quadriplegic could volunteer for one of the services testing harsh environment survival gear.  In doing so they placed themselves at modest risk of injury or death, placed themselves subject to the caprices of superior officers, and demonstrated their willingness to accept responsibility of dying for the polity before acquiring the political authority of being able to vote as voting included the power/authority of killing citizens.

4)  SST presents the risky government service requirement for the franchise as a sort of poll tax.  The point is made that various other sorts of requirements had been tried.  (i.e. only landowners, only one race, only men, only people above a certain age)

5)  One of the big themes of SST is the balance between responsibility and authority.  He suggests that anytime someone is made responsible for something without being given an equal amount of authority (or vice versa) that bad governance is the inevitable result.  He also suggests that the same thing is true at the individual level.

A couple of modern examples:

In Wisconsin, there is a bill in their legislature that would mandate that the government prevent SNAP funds from being used to purchase certain foods.  The objective being to have those funds used to purchase the most amount of food (emphasizing beef/chicken over "luxury" foods like lobster) and to have that food be healthy (i.e. fresh veggies over potato chips).

In New York City, the government has enacted regulations banning the sales of "super sized" soft drinks due to concerns about excess soda consumption causing ill health conditions that would eventually be the responsibility of the city government.

In both cases, as the government is responsible for providing certain benefits, they are seeking the authority to ensure that those benefits are used properly.

Conversely, as the citizens receiving those benefits have the authority to compel their neighbors to fund those benefits via taxes, shouldn't they also have the responsibility to live in a manner that uses those benefits wisely?

None of the above should be taken as an endorsement one way or the other.  I'm just trying to convey the themes from SST accurately.

As suggested in #3 above, the political system was developed to maintain a balance between the extreme responsibility (dying for the polity) and the extreme authority (voting for policies that might kill someone).

6) It is asserted that civic behavior and/or civilized behavior has to be taught.  This feeds back into the responsibility/authority theme as people at one point abandon their responsibility to teach their children to behave appropriately.

There are extended discussions about how civic/civilized behavior concerned for a population larger than the local family/clan level is much harder to learn.  It is suggested that the society has developed a set of ethics that satisfies large and disparate groups of humans.  It is suggested that a similar set of ethics for dealing with aliens is being developed as well.

6A) Towards the objective of reinforcing civic/civilized behavior, corporal punishment...primarily used for most lesser offenses.  Punishments are conducted in public.  The general idea is that other animals...are pain averse.  Thus the caning provides a motivation to learn from past mistakes.

6B)  Capital punishment is the only punishment for serious offenses.  The "logic" being that a person that knowingly commits such an offense is a long term threat and needs to be eliminated.  A person that is "out of their mind" is similarly killed because if they were ever cured, then they wouldn't be able to live with themselves knowing how much they had hurt others.

7)  Nothing in the book suggests any sort of the various regimes that I have seen attributed to the book.  There appears to be some level of independent business ownership.  (The protagonist's father owns a business and was upset about some government regulation early on.)  There appears to be some level of social spending; whether it was more than we have now, less, or about the same isn't really covered.  It is entirely possible that some sort quasi socialist system is developed by these veterans of endured service.

Now why the heck am I writing all this?  Another guest, Lurkertype, over at Whatever asked the following.

Regarding Starship Troopers: how the heck did the military get all-powerful in the first place? Was it before or after Stalin’s Bugs attacked? And if before… then how the hell did that happen?!

The development of the fictional polity in SST occurred over a long period of time.  It is explained early on that western democracies eventually failed because extensive social programs gave individual citizens the authority to make demands on their fellow citizens without also requiring that they conduct themselves in a responsible manner.  This is coupled with a criminal system that didn't punish criminals and instead simply housed them for some period of time.  This may be criticized as being "soft on crime", but in keeping with the themes discussed above, the book suggests that such a system failed to create enough inconvenience/discomfort/pain for the guilty to associate their punishment as resulting from their deviant behavior.

The analogy of house training puppies is used in the book.

Due to the twin issues of social programs without responsibility and a criminal system that did not teach criminals to avoid similar behaviors in the future, society lost any sort of moral position to establish and maintain a government.  Governments crumbled.  Gangs of youths roamed and ruled the streets.

During the same period of time, a war is fought with China.  China wins and keeps our POWs.  The POWs either are released eventually or escape and most come home via other paths.

As society crumbles, these veterans begin to take charge of local governments.  They find that some of their fellow veterans are committing crimes.  As some of those crimes are serious enough to warrant the death penalty, these veterans decide that if a veteran is going to hang, then only veterans will have a role in handing down that sentence.  From that basic premise, the society builds a system of governance where only veterans of some sort of risky service will be allowed to vote, create, and enforce the law.

In the intervening years, military service isn't really all that hazardous.  While anyone can apply for "federal service", not that many do apply.  The franchise is widely perceived as being less valuable compared with other pursuits.

In fact, the Bug War begins while the protagonist is in boot camp and other training.  The human worlds are essentially at peace when he enters federal service.  The bugs attack and start the war while he is in training.  The "veterans only" government has been successfully in place for some time before he was born.

My comments.  While there are lots of plot points to discuss, there are a couple of spots that I want to cover.

The first is why this unusual system of government continues to exist in the book.  The justification is pretty slim and amounts to little more than "it exists because it works, if it didn't work something else would have replaced it".  That is just a bit hand waving.  It isn't really an explanation.

As a veteran, I recognize that veterans are on average generally better educated on governmental issues than the average non-veteran.  But veterans as individuals can believe in some pretty wonky things.  And of course, some veterans end up being criminals after they get out.

I have more than a little trouble believing that veterans of military service would provide a guaranteed better system of governance than that created by any other select group.

The second issue is capital punishment.  While it is embraced in the book, the book was written well before DNA testing, advanced forensics, and investigative journalism were able to demonstrate that many people on death row really were as innocent as they claimed.  I believe that Robert Heinlein was intelligent enough that he would have recanted his support for capital punishment in the face of so many outright innocent people being released from prison years....decades....after being originally sentenced.

I do find Starship Troopers to be a thought provoking tome that is worthy of anyone's time.  It isn't a guidebook for setting up a new polity.  But it does present some unique perspectives about the relationship between an individual and the larger society.