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27 December 2006 Blog Home : December 2006 : Permalink

Analysing Starship Troopers?

Recently, there was a review of John Scalzi's books in the NYT where the reviewer compared Scalzi with Heinlein and raised the usual canard of Heinlein being militaristic, fascist, yadda yadda. The critical section (in re Heinlein rather than Scalzi) is:

...But Heinlein’s military sci-fi, particularly the book that practically invented the genre, “Starship Troopers,” has not aged well, to put it mildly.

First published in 1959, when America’s misadventure in Korea was over and its intervention in Vietnam was hardly a twinkle in John F. Kennedy’s eye, “Starship Troopers” tells of the education of a naïve young man who enlists in a futuristic infantry unit. Raised by his father to believe that the practice of war is obsolete, the immature soldier — and, by extension, the reader — is instructed through a series of deep space combat missions that war is not only unavoidable, it is vital and even noble. While peace, Heinlein writes, is merely “a condition in which no civilian pays any attention to military casualties,” war is what wins man his so-called unalienable rights and secures his liberty. The practice of war is as natural as voting; both are fundamental applications of force, “naked and raw, the Power of the Rods and the Ax.”

From here the book starts to get a little scary. Frame it as a cautionary tale if it helps you sleep better, but to a contemporary reader it is almost impossible to interpret the novel as anything other than an endorsement of fascism, from an era when the f-word wasn’t just a pejorative suffix to be attached to any philosophy you disagreed with. Taken literally — and there is no indication that Heinlein meant otherwise — “Starship Troopers” might be the least enticing recruitment tool since “Billy Budd.”

Mr Scalzi reports in a follow up post that many people have leapt into the fray about Heinlein and another linking to where Brad DeLong makes some interesting observations. Despite the fact that I think that claiming that Heinlein is a fascist is evidence of a lack of reading comprehension, I'm not going to do the ritual defense - Spider Robinson did it well 25 years ago - but I am going to use the Heinlein canard as a basis on which to ask what, exactly, is meant by Fascism? and why do, primarily, lefties get their undies in a twist when reading Starship troopers and other works of that sort?

First le me attack the idiotic reviewer. A willingness to defend oneself and ones own (be it family, tribe, country ...) is a survival characteristic. Except for when the pacifist is voluntarily defended by others (e.g. the Amish) no human culture has ever survived without an ability to protect itself against external threats and, for that matter, it is something exhibited throughout nature from ants to chimpanzees. War may or may not be noble but it is vital and is does win the soldier and those he is fighting for their liberty. The fact that the reviewer seems to share the views of Johnny Rico's father (and mother) is merely a sign that he has been as equally well defended by others. If you want a historical parallel for SST then I think you do better to go back to Rome, Athens, or possibly to the feudal middle ages. SST describes a government of limited fracnhise democracy where the right to vote is based on ones willingness to sign up for a term defending the system. This is no more fascist than 17th-19th century Anglo-american democracies were.

Now let me get on to Prof DeLong who expands and therby provides more grist to my mill. Prof DeLong says the story has four layers. The first is:

Johnny Rico's story: How a young, naive upper-class twit gets transformed into the human equivalent of a Bug warrior--someone who will fight bravely and fiercely without regard for his own probability of survival in the interest not of liberty, utopia, or justice, but of the biological expansion of the human race.

It seems to me that this is to fundamentally misunderstand the military and hence to be particularly common on the left. Firstly I'm not in the least bit convinced that Johnny is fighting for human expansion. He is fighting, rather, for human survival. It may be that humanity needs to expand to survive (certainly I am not alone in believing that humanity stands a better chane of survival if it has more than one planet where it can live) but the point about the bugs in Starship Troopers(SST) is that they are a race that is expanding and threatening humanity.

Secondly, soldiers (and other military personnel) don't tend to fight for abstract concepts, they fight for the group - their fellow squaddies - and for the honour of the flag. Said flag being typically the one of their regiment (or other relatively small group) rather than the one of their nation. Fighting for "the colours" or "the standard" has been common to disciplined militaries from at least Roman times and, as I seem to recall Pournelle getting one of his Frankenberg's Legion characters to say, non-military politicians always try to get rid of the apparet frippery of medals, flags etc. The politicians of surviving states never succeed.

The soldier fighting for the glory of his regiment is a staple of fiction partly because it is true but also because the concepts of loyalty and honour that are invoked are critical to any number of cooperative huma endeavours not just the military. Johnny Rico is merely another hero in this grand literary tradition that also stretches back to at least ancient Rome if not further.

Prof Delong says the second layer is:

The historians and moral philosophers: the military of Sergeant Zim and Colonel DuBois, who seem to me to be, well, fascist in the technical sense of the term. The German philosopher Ernst Nolte's classic Fascism in Its Epoch (and he should know: he's a somewhat creepy character himself) set out four key characteristics of fascism:

  1. strong belief that--through social darwinism--morality is ultimately tied to blood and race, understood as descent and genetic relationship;
  2. strong rejection of the classical "liberal" belief that individuals have rights that any legitimate state is bound to respect;
  3. an assertion, in its place, that what individuals have are duties to the state, seen as the decision-making organ of the race; and
  4. a strong fear of Marxist communism, and a willingness to use communism's weapons--suspension of parliamentary democracy, mass propaganda, rallies, street violence, and so forth--to combat it.

The sympathetically-drawn teachers in the military preach the first three of these at great length in the novel, and otherwise remind me of dear little Ellen May Ngwethu (from The Cassini Division).

Here is where I begin to wonder if I'm reading the same book. I don't see any mention what so ever of point 1. Au contraire the point of the government in SST is than anyone shall have the opportunity to serve in the military and achieve the right to vote or rule. The sins (or virtues) of the fathers are most emphatically not visited on the sons (or daughters) in this world. Point 2 I grant in part: depending on what you consider as rights, the government in SST may indeed reject a large number of rights. Point 3 is utter bollocks. Individuals have no duties to the state at all unless they decide they wish to vote and hence enter the military.

The third layer is:

The authorial persona, the narrative voice, who adopts the same point of view as do the historians and moral philosophers, and adds on the fourth of Nolte's key characteristics of fascism--the strong fear of Marxist communism, and an eagerness to use its very own weapons (suspension of parliamentary democracy, mass propaganda, rallies, street violence, and so forth) to combat communism. Consider the fear of the Bugs as a mighty adversary ("we were learning, expensively, just how efficient a total communism can be when used by a people actually adapted to it by evolution" (p. 152)). Consider the invented historical background of the novel, in which the twentieth-century United States collapsed because of its excessive solicitude for individual rights and its worship of the words of Thomas Jefferson and was replaced by the "veterans' government" that made no claim to derive its powers from the consent of the governed. Thus the authorial persona is "fascist"--where "fascism" is not just an insult, but is a descriptive label for a certain viewpoint that has been tragically common in twentieth-century politics.

This is even worse. The statement that the narrator adops Nolte's point 4 is not flat out wrong. In SST there clearly is a parliamentary democracy of some sort, what there isn't is a universal franchise. Critically, unlike any limited franchise democracy in human history, anyone can become a voter simply by serving a term in the military. Neither Fascist nor Communist regimes have any real parliamentary democracies. There may possibly be propaganda, although if what is being referred to is the teaching of "History and Moral Philosophy" then it is clearly very ineffective propaganda that does not require the student to memorize it. There are no rallies as far as can be ascertained and while things may have changed we are told specifically that the first veteran groups formed to prevent random disorder so it seems unlikely that they would inflict it.

Secondly the comment about communism is clearly intended to be a humorous quip - to me it sounds just like the sort of black humour that soldiers ahve indulged in since Troy. Thirdly the statement "was replaced by the "veterans' government" that made no claim to derive its powers from the consent of the governed" is only partially true. The government form was clearly founded with the passive consent of the governed because otherwise it could not have been founded by a handful of verterans. Furthermore we are explicitly told that the proportions of voters varies between states with some having up to 80%. In the ones where the percentage is lower it seems clear that the non vioting population could almost certainly either engage in a coup or choose to convince the voters to extend the vote just as happened in the progressive extension of the franchise in the 19th and early 20th century. The fact that we are told that neither has been attemoted indicates that the fictional non-voting population is not particularly concerned by their loss.

Delong's fourth stage looks at Heinlein rather than the book:

Robert Heinlein, who wrote Starship Troopers at the same stage in his career where he also wrote The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and A Stranger in a Strange Land.

I'm not sure I understand what point he is trying to make here. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is libertarian capitalist, Stranger is more socially libertarian than political. Neither is fascist nor resembles SST. I assume what he means is that, whether or not SST is fascist, Heinlein clearly wasn't. I agree with the conclusion.

It seems to me that people dislike SST because it states a couple of unpleasant truths. The most critical one is that it stresses not rights but responsibilities and relatedly that you have to earn responsiblities. It seems to me that the left mistakes duties for responsibilities. They probably do this deliberately because they dislike the idea that responsibilities should exist but the result is that they intentionally blur the difference between rights, duties, and responsibilities. They also dislike the truth that all democracies rest on the back of their military. The military acts as a guardian of democracy from external threat but it also voluntarily permits civillian control - but it can always overthrow the government if it feels like it. In much of the world, when the civilian politicans screw up it is the military that removes the scum bag and then steps aside to let the population gets another go at chosing. The fact that the militaries from Turkey to Chile to Thailand to Fiji do step aside after stepping in seems surprising to some people. What seems even more surprising is that usually the military coup is actually popular.

But the fact that Heinlein presented a tale that points out the vulnerability of current democracy to overthrow by force doesn't make him a fascist and doesn't even make the replacement regime fascist, totalitarian or anything else.

I despise l'Escroc and Vile Pin