Starship Troopers (1959) by Robert A. Heinlein & The Forever War (1974) by Joe W. Haldeman
Written fifteen years apart, either side of the Vietnam War, these two award-winning novels both follow the adventures of infantrymen in an interstellar war as Earth fights for her survival against an implacable alien foe. But the two works could not be more different.
Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, filmed ten years ago, describes a society set some centuries in the future where only those who satisfactorily complete a minimum two-year term of Federal Service are eligible to vote. The story is narrated by trooper Johnny Rico and follows his progress from enlistment, through training at Camp Arthur Currie (named for the Canadian WW1 general) and subsequent officer training, to his eventual command of a platoon. During his training, war breaks out between Earth and an arthropod life form known as the Bugs. Earth is raided and Buenos Aires is destroyed.
Starship Troopers is not a fast-paced action adventure, but if you have any interest in politics, sociology and social issues, then irrespective of your views, then this controversial book is compulsive reading.
Throughout the novel, Rico frequently recalls the words of his History and Moral Philosophy teachers, Lt-Col. Dubois and Major Reid, and through these recollections, we learn something of how the society in which he lives came into existence, and of the political philosophy which underlies it. In the later years of the Twentieth Century, law and order began to break down all over the world. People dared not venture into public places such as parks after dark. To do so was to risk attack by wolf-packs of delinquent children, armed to the teeth with chains, knives and even home-made firearms. Drug-addiction, vandalism, burglary and violent crime had become commonplace. Even school grounds and buildings provided no refuge from the mayhem. These details sounds particularly jarring now. Remember, Heinlein was writing almost half a century ago.
The 1987 war in which the USA, the Soviet Union and the UK joined forces against the Chinese Hegemony provided the catalyst that led to the birth of the Terran Federation. The Treaty of New Delhi brought about an end to the fighting, but it ignored prisoners of war, with the result that over one hundred thousand British POWS were not released. Many eventually escaped and made their way home, only to find they had no jobs to go to. With national governments collapsing, disaffected war veterans moved in to fill the power vacuum. The first actual take-over occurred in Aberdeen, where a group of veterans got together to form a vigilante committee to stop rioting and looting. They hanged a few people, including two veterans, and decided not to allow anybody but veterans to serve on their committee.
Within a couple of generations, what had started as an emergency measure had become constitutional practice. The franchise is restricted to those who have done their Federal Service because only they, through voluntary and difficult service, have proved that they place the welfare of the group above personal advantage.
In one lecture on the late Twentieth Century, Colonel Dubois gives us an insight into the philosophy that now informs the political life of the Federation. Just as a dog should be beaten in order to house train it, so should juvenile offenders be flogged to teach them right from wrong. He rails on about social workers, the lenient treatment dished out to juvenile offenders, and how do-gooders saw to it that corporal punishment in schools was outlawed. “I do not understand objections to cruel and unusual punishment”, he muses. “Man has no moral instinct”, he states. He claims that a human being has no natural rights of any nature and finally goes on to take a swipe at the “unalienable rights” of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Predictably, Heinlein has been accused of glorifying war and his Terran Federation described as fascist or at best a society along the lines of Plato’s Republic. While Starship Troopers is first and foremost a science fiction novel, is it also a political manifesto? Does it reflect the views of its author?, or is it a “dystopia” along the lines of Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four or Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day, to take three of the best examples of this sub-genre.
Novels about dystopic societies generally feature a disaffected lead character and some sort of mind control, be it the Thought Police of Nineteen Eighty-four or the tranquillising drugs of Levin’s novel. But Heinlein’s society is free of the latter. The freedom of speech is guaranteed. Johnny Rico, while not entirely uncritical of the society in which he lives, can hardly be described as a dissident and portrays it in a largely positive light.
In all matters other than the franchise, non-citizens, such as Rico’s own parents, enjoy equal status with citizens. Rico’s parents, for example, are well off. Though corporal and capital punishment are available to the judiciary, they are rarely necessary, as crime rates are low.
Federal Service itself is comparatively enlightened. Nobody has to join a fighting service, even in time of war (Heinlein strongly opposed conscription). You can quit at any time (even prior to going into combat!) and lose nothing except the possibility of earning your franchise (there are no second chances – fair enough). Even deserters are not actively pursued (though why anybody deserts in preference to resigning is not made clear).
The novel tries to justify war and emphasise the honourable traditions of the fighting services. But it does not glorify war as such.
The novel is clearly in favour of the society it describes, though whether Heinlein himself was remains an open question.
The problem with Heinlein’s vision of the society of the Terran Federation is that it is idealistic and romanticised. The reality I fear would be very different. To illustrate the point, I have no doubt it would have been possible around 1930 to have written a novel painting a very attractive picture of life under a National Socialist government.
Messrs. Dubois and Reid would probably disagree, but the assertion that Man has no moral instincts is utter nonsense. “Moral instinct” is that instinct which goes beyond the needs of the self, in other words altruism. Dubois implies that altruism is the product of an advanced human society: purely something that man has invented. But this is not the case. Though the subject of altruism in the (non-human) animal kingdom is a complex subject, beyond the scope of this article, biologists do not doubt that it exists.
Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 movie is a straightforward action film that bears very little resemblance to Heinlein’s novel. The Terran Federation is portrayed as being openly fascist, with military officers wearing Nazi-style uniforms. Whether this is intended as a satire on militarism or even a attack on the book’s original values is not clear, but as Verhoeven allegedly failed to even finish reading it, the latter is unlikely.
Starship Troopers is on the reading lists of the US Army, Navy and Marine Corps.
In contrast to Starship Troopers, The Forever War is a strongly anti-war polemic. Drawing on Haldeman’s experiences in the Vietnam War, it follows the progress of trooper William Mandella from his conscription in 1996 to the birth of his son in 3143, during which time he has aged less than a decade due to the effects of relativity. The war is seen through Mandella’s jaundiced eyes in the dry conversational style that is Haldeman’s trademark.
Discovered in 1985, the collapsar jump has made interstellar travel possible via a network of black holes, the nearest of which, Stargate, is conveniently located half a light year from Earth. But when a colonising vessel is destroyed in the vicinity of Aldebaran, blame falls on an enigmatic alien race known as the Taurans. Colonial ships are henceforth accompanied by warships, and indeed the latter are frequently sent out alone. Finally, it is decided to garrison the “portal planets” of the nearer collapsars, and an elite group of infantry, chosen for their physical and intellectual prowess, are conscripted and sent off to engage the Taurans in ground action.
The only way Mandella and his lover Marygay Potter can get back to Earth is at the end of a combat tour – but because the effects of relativity, while they will only age a couple of years, decades or even centuries could have passed on Earth. By the time Mandella returns to Earth, it has become so alien that he and Marygay both re-enlist. There are two versions of the mid-section of The Forever War, describing Mandella’s brief stay on Earth. The original was rejected as being too downbeat, but it has been re-instated in the recently released “author’s cut” version of the novel.
Haldeman’s conception of army life in the late Twentieth Century is percipient inasmuch that he anticipates women fighting alongside men, but the institutionalised “free love”, where troopers are paired off by rota each night, now seems very dated. Haldeman has also been accused of homophobia in describing a society in which homosexuality is encouraged to cut down the birth rate, and the uneasiness felt by the few remaining heterosexuals. But the novel should be viewed in the context of the time it was written and not be berated by “political correctness” enthusiasts.
Haldeman set the novel’s beginning in the late Twentieth Century to allow officers and NCOs in the book to be Vietnam veterans; he admits “most people realise we didn’t get into an interstellar war in 1996” and even in the 1970s the time scale seemed rather implausible.
Haldeman finally bowed to public pressure to write a sequel to The Forever War, entitled Forever Free, though sadly it failed to live up to the original.
Starship Troopers and The Forever War are products of very different times. Starship Troopers has been described as a “cold war paranoia” novel but although the anti-communist line isn’t entirely absent, this novel isn’t about the Cold War; it is more inspired by America’s role in World War II. While few will dispute that this was a just conflict, fewer still will not agree that Vietnam was – prior to the Iraq War – the greatest foreign policy disaster in US history. After World War II, America’s fighting men were feted as heroes; by contrast those who served their country with equal courage in Vietnam (including Haldeman) were treated as an embarrassment. It is hardly surprising that while Heinlein’s novel is idealistic, Haldeman’s is cynical, highlighting the stupidity and utter futility of war.
© Christopher Seddon 2008