Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein

Starship TroopersWhy this book:  I lead a volunteer reading group for young men early in the pipeline to become SEALs or SWCCs (Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen). We pick relatively short books related to the profession they are entering, and we meet and discuss them.   I had read this book 20 years ago, and recalled that it might be good for young warriors.

Summary in 3 sentences:  It is a science fiction novel in which Heinlein builds an elite military commando unit well into the future, trained and ready to conduct strategic raids in an inter galactic war between the earth and creatures which would seek to destroy or subjugate earthlings. This future world serves merely as a backdrop for Heinlein to describe how he would build an elite warrior culture and train fighters to build a close-knit unit based on very challenging basic training, shared values, shared sacrifice, shared purpose and a willingness to put the mission and the group ahead of one’s personal comfort.  There are allusions to how 20th century America had imploded due to comfort, coddling, and weakness, but had evolved to a more primal physical and mentally tough culture, led by wise, focused and supremely dedicated military professionals who are ready to sacrifice themselves for  the future of their civilization.

My Impressions:  The book is written in the first person from the perspective of a young man living centuries into the future. The young man’s narrative begins when he was in High School, describes how he joins the military against the wishes of his father, then goes thru grueling boot camp and training, to become a lower enlisted, then a combat hardened NCO.  He is eventually asked to and agrees to go through the process to become a junior officer and then rises to become a ground force commander in the elite Mobile Infantry force that is fighting for the survival of earth’s civilization He struggles at each phase, several times wants to quit but doesn’t, and loses a number of his friends and comrades to training and battle deaths.

Heinlein draws on his experience with the Marines in WW2 and creates a unit which has elements of Marine Recon, US Army Rangers, and Navy SEALs. It is amusing to see Heinlein build into his future military culture anachronistic aspects of the military from his frame of reference – the 1940s an 1950s.   But the fundamentals of the culture of his elite Mobile Infantry forces resonates with the cultures of elite military forces from the Spartans all the way to today’s elite forces.  And the leadership and leader development protocols that the NCO’s and Officers demonstrate in this book serve as a great model today.

Starship Troopers makes some civil-military statements as well.  In the future world that Heinlein creates, only those who have served are allowed to vote.  Everyone is permitted to apply to serve, but there are character tests and other requirements that must be met for an individual to fulfill military service sufficiently to become a fully enfranchised citizen with the right to vote.  Those who choose not to spend the minimum 2 years in the military have all other rights of citizens, just not the right to vote.

The Mobile Infantry that our character Juan Rico was selected for is the most demanding of the various options; there are other less dangerous and less demanding military branches, just like in today’s military, and serving in one of those still grants the person full rights upon leaving the military. Those  still serving in the military do not have the right to vote.

There were numerous allusions to the virtues of the society and culture of that future time, over the weak culture of the 20th century –  when comfort was given priority over character and principle, when the culture was unwilling to take hard measures, and leaders defaulted to non-violent options in response to threats.  This was clearly the danger Heinlein’s saw facing America when he wrote the book.

Heinlein builds some diversity into the military of the future that didn’t exist in his day – women are serving in key positions and are well respected. Also the names and backgrounds of many of the soldiers, to include our protagonist, show that Heinlein envisioned a fully integrated force, without prejudice or distinction based on ethnic background, though I don’t recall reading of any African Americans in his novel.

Some of the interesting anachronisms in this book that show how much military culture has changed since Heinlein wrote Starship Troopers in the 1950s.

  • Heinlein had grown up with the genders socially separated, and in his book “ladies” were kept isolated from men, and Mobile Infantry troops guarded their quarters to protect them.  This was a great privilege because the MI troops could then see and even smell their perfume – privileges denied other military men.
  • Sanctuary Planet was where the troops got liberty and could blow off steam. The fights in the bars were reminiscent of 40s and 50s brawls between Marines and Navy personnel in the Philippines.  Also the boys amused themselves in the rows of “fleshpots” that lined the highway between the base and the town.
  • Corporal punishment was encouraged and endorsed. Also in the schools – in fact the  elimination of corporal punishment is alluded to as one of the indicators as to the beginning of the collapse of civilization in the 20th century.
  • Deaths in training were accepted as common place, as they were in the military in the 40s and 50s.  Training deaths are relatively infrequent today, and are considered a failure of leadership or of process.
  • They took horrendous losses on their combat missions – losses that we have not seen since WW2 and Korea.  In Heinlein’s book that was just part of the deal.  Elite units have never taken such losses in the recent wars, or even in Vietnam.
  • The enemy they were fighting resembled in many ways the Chinese as we viewed them in the Korean conflict – with masses of fighters who had no identity and were of little value to their leadership except as numbers – sent into battle to die – they had millions more.  Also the enemy’s mindless fanaticism reminded me a bit of ISIS today.
  • The cultural wall between officers and enlisted was very strict, and the privileges and distinctions that came with rank were much greater in Heinlein’s book than they are in today’s military.   This again reflects cultural changes that Heinlein would probably not approve, nor did he foresee.
  • A number of other little things that were part of the culture of the 40s and 50s that seem quaint today, like:  Sending a telegram, servants for the officers, NCOs having a fist fight to resolve an issue, playing parcheesi, social centers for soldiers on liberty with dances where they could meet nice girls, getting in trouble for not seating a lady officer.
  • I chuckled at some of the language of the 40s and 50s that also seems so quaint. For example, to die in battle is to “buy the farm,” “Shucks” “greasing for officer,”  “sack time,” “retarded” are just a few.

This was a fun book to read and I believe the character lessons his protagonist learns in the training and various challenges he overcomes are valid today.  The young officers and NCOs with whom I discussed this book found a lot that they recognized – the setting of inter-galactic warfare against insect-like enemies was not much of a distraction from the meat of what Heinlein was trying to impart.

About schoultz

CEO of Fifth Factor Leadership - Speaker, consultant, coach. Formerly Director, Master of Science in Global Leadership at University of San Diego; prior to that, 30 years in the Navy as a Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) officer.
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