Tuan Jim is a regular reader, tipster, and commenter here at Gates of Vienna. He has written a guest-essay for us about Robert Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers and its applicability to issues that we discuss in this blog.
For those of you who saw the movie without reading the book: the film was a lousy adaptation of the novel, which is well worth reading.
Starship Troopers and Societal Collapse
by Tuan Jim
I’ve periodically jibed with the Baron over his — to my mind — seeming paranoia regarding an impending societal collapse and the obvious implications arising from that — not least because I work for the government in various capacities.
That said, I have given the idea a little more thought in recent months — examining what would be our options if — as the Baron has not hesitated to point out — our democratic experiment is irreversibly grinding to a halt. My thinking on these topics is generally spurred on by a somewhat overactive imagination — and it seems there are several possible outcomes. Which of these wind up the “winner” will be largely determined by the method in which this collapse takes place.
Obviously the worst of the worst (and consequently the least likely), would be a large-scale immediate breakdown of all services and social orders brought about by a full-scale nuclear exchange. A total simultaneous world-wide breakdown leading to a new dark age (literally and figuratively) has been described by many writers, including Walter Miller. In his novel A Canticle for Leibowitz he suggests that just as in the previous dark age, the Church might once again shelter and shepherd knowledge and learning for future generations.
More likely, however, I see a continuing downward spiral in Western culture and civilization — the economic consequences of which would also affect key Eastern allies such as Japan and South Korea to a lesser degree before a hot conflict actually breaks out between the West and a resurgent Chinese hegemony — and very likely with the involvement of the Islamic world to one degree or another.
Much of that second scenario was already posited by Robert Heinlein 50 years ago (1959) when he wrote his seminal military-political novel [treatise] Starship Troopers — although frankly the Islamic issue wasn’t rearing its head to any significant degree at the time, compared with the Communist threat which was present for the duration of the Cold War. Regardless, this piece of work is an eminently [re-]readable short novel that theorizes a post-collapse system of government able to survive and even thrive where others have all clearly failed.
Briefly, the system utilized in the setting of the novel — if you have any preconceptions stemming from the movie, I strongly urge you to set them aside and read the original source material — is a meritocracy. Only those individuals who have volunteered and served a term (or career) in the Federal Services are eligible to vote in elections and hold public office. “Non-citizens” are not otherwise discriminated against, but they have no say in political decisions. Although Heinlein has stated elsewhere that Federal Service includes non-military job options, the vast majority of actual references to it over the course of the novel would suggest otherwise (pdf). Simultaneously however, acting members of the military or Federal Service are not entitled to vote — they must complete their tour of duty before they are eligible to have any say in the way the government is run.
But before examining the system of government itself — arguments for and against it (which I hope to address in a future essay, although I’m including some links below for further reading) — it’s important to review the conditions and events that led to its implementation — and how eerily familiar they sound.
All quotations and page references are taken from the 1987 Ace Paperback edition. All italics are included in the original text.
In the context of the court martial and hanging of a recruit who went Absent Without Leave (AWOL) and murdered a child during basic training, the protagonist Juan Rico thinks back to his high school “History and Moral Philosophy” class. Let’s see how familiar this sounds in the context of “cultural enrichment”.
…Mr Dubois was talking about the disorders that preceded the breakup of the North American republic, back in the XXth century. According to him, there was a time just before they went down the drain when such crimes as Dillinger’s were as common as dogfights. The Terror had not just been in North America — Russia and the British Isles had it, too, as well as other places. But it reached its peak in North America shortly before things went to pieces.
“Law-abiding people,” Dubois had told us, “hardly dared go into a public park at night. To do so was to risk attack by wolf packs of children, armed with chains, knives, home-made guns, bludgeons…to be hurt at least, robbed most certainly, injured for life probably — or even killed. This went on for years… Murder, drug addiction, larceny, assault, and vandalism were commonplace. Nor were parks the only places — these things happened also on the street in daylight, on school grounds, even inside school buildings…”
I had tried to imagine such things happening in our schools. I simply couldn’t… “Mr. Dubois, didn’t they have police? Or courts?”
“They had many more police than we have. And more courts. All overworked.”
“I guess I don’t get it.” If a boy in our city had done anything half that bad… well, he and his father would have been flogged side by side. But such things just didn’t happen.
Mr. Dubois then demanded of me, “Define a ‘juvenile delinquent.’”
“Uh, one of those kids — the ones who used to beat up people.”
“Huh? But the book said —”
“My apologies. Your textbook does so state… ‘Juvenile delinquent’ is a contradiction in terms, one which gives a clue to their problem and their failure to solve it. Have you ever raised a puppy?”
– – – – – – – – –
“Did you housebreak him?”
“Err…yes, sir. Eventually.”…
“Ah, yes. When your puppy made mistakes, were you angry?”
“What? Why, he didn’t know any better; he was just a puppy.”
“What did you do?”
“Why, I scolded him and rubbed his nose in it and paddled him.”
“Surely he could not understand your words?”
“No, but he could tell I was sore at him!”
“But you just said that you were not angry.”
…“No, but I had to make him think I was. He had to learn, didn’t he?”
“Conceded. But, having made it clear to him that you disapproved, how could you be so cruel as to spank him as well? You said the poor beastie didn’t know that he was doing wrong. Yet you inflicted pain. Justify yourself! Or are you a sadist?”
…“Mr. Dubois, you have to! You scold him so that he knows he’s in trouble, you rub his nose in it so that he will know what trouble you mean, you paddle him so that he darn well won’t do it again — and you have to do it right away! It doesn’t do a bit of good to punish him later; you’ll just confuse him. Even so, he won’t learn from one lesson, so you watch and catch him again and paddle him still harder. Pretty soon he learns. But it’s a waste of breath just to scold him.”
…“Let’s get back to those juvenile criminals. The most vicious averaged somewhat younger than you here in this class… and they often started their lawless careers much younger. Let us never forget that puppy. These children were often caught; police arrested batches every day. Were they scolded? Yes, often scathingly. Were their noses rubbed in it? Rarely. News organs and officials usually kept their names secret — in many places the law so required for criminals under eighteen. Were they spanked? Indeed not! Many had never been spanked even as small children; there was a widespread belief that spanking, or any punishment involving pain, did a child permanent psychic damage.” [TJ: There is a bit of a distinction that we today should keep in mind where many of today’s young criminals may have been seriously abused vice disciplined by their families in one way or another.]
(I had reflected that my father must never have heard of that theory.)
“Corporal punishment in schools was forbidden by law,” he had gone on. “Flogging was lawful as a sentence of court only in one small province, Delaware [TJ: repealed in 1972.], and there only for a few crimes and was rarely invoked; it was regarded as ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’“ Dubois had mused aloud, “I do not understand objections to ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment. While a judge should be benevolent in purpose, his awards should cause the criminal to suffer, else there is no punishment — and pain is the basic mechanism built into us by millions of years of evolution which safeguards us by warning when something threatens our survival. Why should society refuse to use such a highly perfected survival mechanism? However, that period was loaded with pre-scientific pseudo-psychological nonsense.
“As for ‘unusual,’ punishment must be unusual or it serves no purpose.” He then pointed his stump at another boy. “What would happen if a puppy were spanked every hour?”
“Uh…probably drive him crazy!”
“Probably. It certainly will not teach him anything. How long has it been since the principal of this school last had to switch a pupil?”
“Uh, I’m not sure. About two years. The kid that swiped —”
“Never mind. Long enough. It means that such punishment is so unusual as to be significant, to deter, to instruct. Back to these young criminals — They probably were not spanked as babies; they certainly were not flogged for their crimes. The usual sequence was: for a first offense, a warning — a scolding, often without trial. After several offenses a sentence of confinement but with sentence suspended and the youngster placed on probation. A boy might be arrested many times and convicted several times before he was punished — and then it would merely be confinement, with others like him from whom he learned still more criminal habits. If he kept out of major trouble while confined, he could usually evade most of even that mild punishment, be given probation — ‘paroled’ in the jargon of the times.
“This incredible sequence could go on for years while his crimes increased in frequency and viciousness, with no punishment whatever save rare dull-but-comfortable confinements. Then suddenly, usually by law on his eighteenth birthday, this so-called ‘juvenile delinquent’ becomes an adult criminal — and sometimes would up in only weeks or months in a death cell awaiting execution for murder. You—”
He had singled me out again. “Suppose you merely scolded your puppy, never punished him, let him go on making messes in the house…and occasionally locked him up in an outbuilding but soon let him back into the house with a warning not to do it again. Then one day you notice that he his now a grown dog and still not housebroken — whereupon you whip out a gun and shoot him dead. Comment, please?”
“Why…that’s the craziest way to raise a dog I ever heard of!”
“I agree. Or a child. Whose fault would it be?”
“Uh…why, mine, I guess.”
“Again I agree. But I’m not guessing.”
“Mr. Dubois,” a girl blurted out, “but why? Why didn’t they spank little kids when they needed it and use a good dose of the strap on any older ones who deserved it — the sort of lesson they wouldn’t forget! I mean ones who did things really bad. Why not?”
“I don’t know,” he had answered grimly, “except that the time-tested method of instilling social virtue and respect for law in the minds of the young did not appeal to a pre-scientific pseudo-professional class who called themselves ‘social workers’ or sometimes ‘child psychologists.’ It was too simple for them, apparently, since anybody could do it, using only the patience and firmness needed in training a puppy. I have sometimes wondered if they cherished a vested interest in disorder — but that is unlikely; adults almost always act from conscious ‘higher motives’ no matter what their behavior.”
“But — good heavens!” the girl answered. “I didn’t like being spanked any more than any kid does, but when I needed it, my mama delivered. The only time I ever got a switching in school I got another one when I got home — and that was years and years ago. I don’t ever expect to be hauled up in front of a judge and sentenced to a flogging; you behave yourself and such things don’t happen. I don’t see anything wrong with our system; it’s a lot better than not being able to walk outdoors for fear of your life — what that’s horrible!“
“I agree. Young lady, the tragic wrongness of what those well-meaning people did, contrasted with what they thought they were doing, goes very deep. They had no scientific theory of morals. They did have a theory of morals and they tried to live by it (I should not have sneered at their motives), but their theory was wrong — half of it fuzzy-headed wishful thinking, half of it rationalized charlatanry. The more earnest they were, the farther it led them astray. You see, they assumed that Man has a moral instinct.”
“Sir? I thought — But he does! I have.”
“No, my dear, you have a cultivated conscience, a most carefully trained one. Man has no moral instinct. He is not born with moral sense. You were not born with it, I was not — and a puppy has none. We acquire moral sense, when we do, through training, experience, and hard sweat of the mind. These unfortunate juvenile criminals were born with none, even as you and I, and they had no chance to acquire any; their experiences did not permit it. What is ‘moral sense’? It is an elaboration of the instinct to survive. The instinct to survive is human nature itself, and every aspect of our personalities derives from it. Anything that conflicts with the survival instinct acts sooner or later to eliminate the individual and thereby fails to show up in future generations…
“But the instinct to survive,” he had gone on, “can be cultivated into motivations more subtle and much more complex than the blind, brute urge of the individual to stay alive. Young lady, what you miscalled your ‘moral instinct’ was the instilling in you by your elders of the truth that your survival can have stronger imperatives than that of your own personal survival. Survival of your family, for example. Of your children, when you have them. Of your nation, if you struggle that high up the scale. And so on up. A scientifically verifiable theory of morals must be rooted in the individual’s instinct to survive — and nowhere else! — and must correctly describe the hierarchy of survival, note the motivations at each level, and resolve all conflicts.
“These juvenile criminals hit a low level. Born with only the instinct for survival, the highest morality they achieved was a shaky loyalty to a peer group, a street gang. But the do-gooders attempted to ‘appeal to their better natures,’ to ‘reach them,’ to ‘spark their moral sense.’ Tosh! They had no ‘better natures’; experience taught them that what they were doing was a way to survive. The puppy never got his spanking; therefore what he did with pleasure and success must be ‘moral.’
“The basis of all morality is duty, a concept with the same relation to group that self-interest has to individual. Nobody preached duty to these kids in a way they could understand — that is, with a spanking. But the society they were in told them endlessly about their ‘rights.’
“The results should have been predictable, since a human being has no natural rights of any nature.”
Mr. Dubois had paused. Somebody took the bait. “Sir? How about ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’?”
“Ah, yes, the ‘unalienable rights.’ Each year someone quotes that magnificent poetry. Life? What ‘right’ to life has a man who is drowning in the Pacific? The ocean will not hearken to his cries. What ‘right’ to life has a man who must die if he is to save his children? If he chooses to save his own life, does he do so as a matter of ‘right’? If two men are starving and cannibalism is the only alternative to death, which man’s right is ‘unalienable’? And is it ‘right’? As to liberty, the heroes who signed the great document pledged themselves to buy liberty with their lives. Liberty is never unalienable; it must be redeemed regularly with the blood of patriots or it always vanishes. Of all the so-called natural human rights that have ever been invented, liberty is least likely to be cheap and is never free of cost.
“The third ‘right’? — the ‘pursuit of happiness’? It is indeed unalienable but it is not a right; it is simply a universal condition which tyrants cannot take away nor patriots restore. Cast me into a dungeon, burn me at the stake, crown me king of kings, I can ‘pursue happiness’ as long as my brain lives — but neither gods nor saints, wise men nor subtle drugs, can insure that I will catch it.”
Mr Dubois then turned to me. “I told you that ‘juvenile delinquent’ is a contradiction in terms. ‘Delinquent’ means ‘failing in duty.’ But duty is an adult virtue — indeed a juvenile becomes an adult when, and only when, he acquires a knowledge of duty and embraces it as dearer than the self-love he was born with. There never was, there cannot be, a ‘juvenile delinquent.’ But for every juvenile criminal there are always one or more adult delinquents — people of mature years who either do not know their duty, or who knowing it, fail.
“And that was the soft spot which destroyed what was in many ways an admirable culture. The junior hoodlums who roamed their streets were symptoms of a greater sickness; their citizens (all of them counted as such) glorified their mythology of ‘rights’…and lost track of their duties. No nation, so constituted, can endure.” [Pages 90-96]
An earlier, shorter passage deconstructs the Marxist theory of value and ends with the following note:
“If you can’t listen, perhaps you can tell the class whether ‘value’ is a relative or an absolute?”
…“An absolute,” I answered, guessing.
“Wrong,” he said coldly. “‘Value’ has no meaning other than in relation to living beings. The value of a thing is always relative to a particular person, is completely personal and different in quantity for each living human — ‘market value’ is a fiction, merely a rough guess at the average of personal values, all of which must be quantitatively different or trade would be impossible.”…
“This very personal relationship, ‘value,’ has two factors for a human being: first, what he can do with a thing, its use to him… and second, what he must do to get it, its cost to him. There is an old song which asserts ‘the best things in life are free.’ Not true! Utterly false! This was the tragic fallacy which brought on decadence and collapse of the democracies of the twentieth century; those noble experiments failed because the people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted…and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears.
“Nothing of value is free. Even the breath of life is purchased at birth only through gasping effort and pain.”
“I fancy that the poet who wrote that song meant to imply that the best things in life must be purchased other than with money — which is true — just as the literal meaning of his words is false. The best things in life are beyond money; their price is agony and sweat and devotion… and the price demanded for the most precious of all things in life is life itself — ultimate cost for perfect value.” [Pages 75-76]
These two passages were chosen simply for their focus on what Heinlein [fore?]saw as a negative aspect of Western society writ large — particularly in our modern Western democracies — and the possible implications for the failure of society in general.
It is my intention to investigate some of the passages regarding the collapse itself and why the new system mentioned above was chosen — and perhaps a fuller examination of the nature of the military service itself. For the moment however, I’ve included a few reading references below that people might be interested in examining.
I don’t necessarily agree with everything in the novel itself although I agree with a number of the ideas and theories that it posits and within the context of society today, many of his ideas are at least worthy of discussion — which was largely the intent behind Heinlein’s original writing.
Other recommended reading:
- ChrisW’s Starship Troopers page
- “The Nature of ‘Federal Service’ in Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers” (pdf)
- Starship Troopers: The PITFCS Debate
- Wikipedia Page for Starship Troopers
Afterword from the Baron: For another fascinating future scenario, this one about the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse, read Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold.