This page was last updated on 4 July 2009.

Thoughts on Starship Troopers

Copyright 1997 - 2008 by Christopher Weuve (
Permission granted to copy and distribute at will for non-profit purposes provided the document -- including this notice -- is distributed intact.


Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers
Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers

  • Ten years after first creating this webpage, I get (on average) about an email a week about it. Most of those emails have been appreciative and/or thoughtful. A few have been hostile, and an even smaller number have been just plain weird. But I appreciate them all.
  • My apologies to everyone who sent me email to whom I have not responded. My goal is to respond to every email, but I have only met the goal haphazardly.
  • This is a work in progress.

SPOILER ALERT!! I have tried to keep the number of major book spoilers low, but there are a few big ones that are necessary to make the points I want to make. They are in the movie, though, so if you have seen the movie, you already know them. (If you haven't seen the movie, you should consider yourself to be very fortunate.)

Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers

Introduction and background

Since its debut in 1959, Robert Heinlein's novel Starship Troopers has been one of the most popular -- and controversial -- works of science fiction ever published. Written in a few weeks as a response to a proposed nuclear testing moratorium and other issues, it has been interpreted and misinterpreted, praised and excoriated. It recently generated hundreds of "reviews" on the website -- not bad for a book published 38 years previously!

Long on philosophical discussions about citizenship, government, and sociology, this is a book that can be read on several levels: classic coming of age story, political commentary, and science fiction adventure. It virtually defined the powered armor subgenre of military science fiction.

It also generated an awful lot of mail, most of it negative.

Lest anyone later accuse me of having a hidden agenda, let me make my agenda public at the outset: Starship Troopers might just be my favorite book of all time. This web page was inspired in large part by the degree of misinterpretation, false statement, and outright character assassination I have recently witnessed concerning Robert Heinlein in general and Starship Troopers in specific, ranging from people on the internet who obviously felt that they didn't have to read the book (or read it thoughtfully) before condemming it, to the hypocritical statements of those responsible for Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers.

For a specific example of such misinterpretation and falsehood, I recommend Don D'Ammassa's recent "review" of Starship Troopers printed in April 1998 issue of Science Fiction Chronicle. [D'Ammassa 1998: 48] Mr. D'Ammassa uses same tired old technique of making what he claims are statements of fact regarding the society described within the book which are simply not supported by the text, then condemning the book based on these inaccurate claims. (To see my letter to the editor of Science Fiction Chronicle, and any further details of the resulting corespondence between Mr. D'Ammassa and myself, please click here.)

I have no problems with people disliking or even condemning the book for its contents; it is a controversial work, and while I personally think that "polemic" is a little extreme, I can see why someone might describe it that way. What I do not accept, though, is condemning the book on the basis of willful ignorance or poor reading comprehension.

This is not to say that Starship Troopers doesn't have its flaws; it can be preachy and with a narrow focus, thus giving rise to the impression (incorrect, I believe) that Heinlein was only focused on the military. (More about this below.) To further complicate matters, Heinlein occasionally makes contradictory statements about the society portrayed in the book. While I disagree with Heinlein on a number of issues (including the one that prompted him to write the book in the first place), I do agree wholeheartedly with his take on citizenship; that with rights come responsibilities, and that many if not all of the major problems facing the western democracies today -- especially the United States -- are the result of people having forgotten that simple fact.

The Plot

The novel is told by Juan Rico, a young trooper in the Mobile Infantry, the Terran Federation Army's 22nd-century equivalent of the 82nd Airborne. Chapter 1 opens with a quick strike mission on a world of the Skinnies, the humanoid allies of the Federation's main foe, the insect-like Arachnids. The story then flashes back to Johnny's graduation from high school, and his decision -- on a whim, really -- to sign up for Federal Service over the objections of his wealthy industrialist father. After some aptitude testing and preliminary screening, young Johnny finds himself at a boot camp so rigorous only ten percent of the recruits finish basic training. He survives, is assigned to a unit, takes part in a few operations, almost gets killed, goes career, attends Officer Candidate School, is commissioned, and eventually commands his own unit. Interspersed through this are flashbacks to his high school History and Moral Philosophy course.

These flashbacks are not filler; indeed, in many ways they are the core of the book. For in the flashbacks we learn that in the Terran Federation of Johnny's day, the rights of a full Citizen (to vote, and hold public office) must be earned through some form of volunteer "military" service. Those residents who have not exercised their right to perform this Federal Service retain the other rights generally associated with a modern democracy (free speech, assembly, etc.), but they cannot vote. This structure arose ad hoc after the collapse of the 20th century western democracies, brought on by both social failures at home and defeat by the Chinese Hegemony overseas. This is a society where John Kennedy's "Ask not want your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country" isn't simply a musty old speech, but a core political philosophy.

Misperceptions and corrections

The recent release of Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers has led to a lot of online debate concerning the original book. Some of the participants have made cogent points based on a thorough understanding of both the book in specific and the military in general. Other people, though, have made the following comments.

Myth #1: "Robert Heinlein was a [pick one or more: fascist, chauvinist, communist, racist, right wing, authoritarian, libertarian, elitist, militarist, superpatriot, etc.]."

The options, of course, are all intended as pejoratives. In the context of Starship Troopers, such statements usually precede the speaker's attempt to paint the book in the terms of the alleged pejorative, i.e., "Heinlein was a fascist, so it's reasonable to assume that the Terran Federation in Starship Troopers is fascist, too." Suffice it to say that Spider Robinson (in his essay "Rah Rah R.A.H.!") has quite persuasively shown that anyone who can pigeonhole Robert Heinlein into one of those categories either has a serious reading comprehension problem or an axe to grind. [Robinson 1992:368-397]

Myth #2: "Robert Heinlein was advocating the society in Starship Troopers; the characters are expressing his opinions."

Tough call. Starship Troopers was written in response to real-world situations, and Heinlein certainly argued in defense of the book that the current method of awarding the franchise -- accidental birth in the country in question, followed by surviving long enough to reach the age of majority -- is, by itself, a somewhat haphazard way of guaranteeing that the enfranchised are prepared to exercise their privilege in a responsible manner.

On the other hand, he has also specifically stated (in private correspondence submitted to the Quotable Heinlein page) that his "fictional characters speak for themselves, not [Heinlein]."

Heinlein was against conscription, as he stated in the Guest of Honor speech at the XIXth World Science Fiction Convention:
I also think there are prices too high to pay to save the United States. Conscription is one of them. Conscription is slavery, and I don't think that any people or nation has a right to save itself at the price of slavery for anyone, no matter what name it is called. We have had the draft for twenty years now; I think this is shameful. If a country can't save itself through the volunteer service of its own free people, then I say: Let the damned thing go down the drain! [Heinlein 1961:245]
My belief is that Heinlein was interested in exploring the faults of current society rather than necessary proposing workable solutions; as such, I believe that the book is more about the rights and duties of citizenship than about how to set up a workable government. This is just my belief, however -- if someone has a solid quote from Heinlein on the subject, I would love to hear about it.

Myth #3: "The Terran Federation is a 'military dictatorship,' (i.e., militaristic) and 'the establishment has a vested interest in starting wars.'"

This claim is flawed on three levels: it assumes that the military is in charge of the government, it assumes that government is a dictatorship, and it assumes the government and people act in a warlike manner. None of these assumptions are supported by the evidence in the book.

The first assumption -- that the military is in charge of the government -- was addressed by Heinlein himself in Expanded Universe:
No military or civil servant can vote or hold office until after he is discharged and is again a civilian. The military tend to be despised by most civilians and this is made explicit. A career military man is most unlikely ever to vote or hold office; he is more likely to be dead -- and if he does live through it, he'll vote for the first time at 40 or older." [Heinlein 1980:398]
In short, there is no evidence within the book which indicates the government is run by the military, and a lot of evidence which contradicts this view, including an explicit statement by Sergeant Zim on the civil-military relationship. [Heinlein 1959:63]

Second, the government of the Terran Federation is hardly a dictatorship, even a civilian one. I have heard the dictatorship claim made on several occasions, yet seems to be totally without any support whatsoever. It seems to be based on the assumption that any limitation on the franchise is undemocratic, which is clearly without historical context. Every democracy, past or present, has put limits on the franchise. Ancient Athens, the Roman Republic, and Revolutionary America (to name but a few) limited the franchise to male free landowners of majority age -- distinctly less than half the population. Today, there are still limitations regarding birth, age, and civic status (i.e., criminal record) in every democracy on the planet, yet no one has made the argument that the United States, for example, is a dictatorship because 17-year-old convicted felons aren't allowed to vote. Heinlein's Federation is unique not in that it places restrictions on the franchise, but that full citizenship is determined by a conscious act (open to all), rather than an accident of birth. It is no different in theory than the process by which a foreign national becomes a naturalized American citizen, and in practice is much less restricted.

This system isn't portrayed as perfect, only workable. Saying "this system is flawed" to some degree begs the question of "what system isn't?" It is never claimed that the system was 100% perfect, only that, by and large, "it worked." The closest system to the one described in the book was part of a society that, in one form or another, lasted for a thousand years. (Roman society had some severe bad points; understanding the rights and duties of citizenship -- at least for the first 500 years or so -- was not one of them.)

Yes, there will be people who are going through the motions just to get the right to vote -- but they have to at least go through the motions, unlike the current system, where you just have to show up. That's why the system is stacked as much as possible to discourage people from signing up to begin with, and to make it easy for them to say "this ain't worth it" and quit -- which you could do at any time you were not in combat.

Yes, there is a problem with a system where the people who have the right to vote decide who gets to have the right to vote. Of course, this is always the case; we can only hope that our founding fathers establish a system where the rights of the minority are respected, and that the rest of us have the courage to live up to their ideals.

In short, the Terran Federation is consistently described as a representative democracy, where the only difference between those with full citizenship and those without is the right to vote and hold public office. One can certainly argue that, as a practical matter, such a state couldn't exist -- that it is portrayed as a democracy, though, is incontrovertible. For what it's worth, Poul Anderson -- a self-described libertarian -- reached the same conclusion:
I never joined in the idiot cries of "fascist!" It was plain that the society of Starship Troopers is, on balance, more free than ours today. I did wonder how stable its order of things would be, and expressed my doubts in public print as well as in the occasional letters we exchanged. Heinlein took no offense. After a little argument back and forth, we both fell into reminiscences of Switzerland, where he got the notion in the first place. [Anderson 1992:319]
Finally, it assumes that the populace behind the government is militaristic and the Terran Federation is warlike, a claim which is difficult if not impossible to support. It is clear from several statements in chapter 2, for example, that the Terran Federation is hard-pressed to find work for all the Federal Service enrollees. Emilio Rico, Johnny's father, refers to Federal Service as "parasitism, pure and simple. A functionless organ, utterly obsolete, living on the taxpayers." Why? "If there were a war, I'd be the first to cheer you on -- and put the business on a war footing. But there isn't, and praise God there never will be again. We've outgrown wars. This planet is now peaceful and happy and we enjoy good enough relations with other planets." [Heinlein 1959:24] It is clear that Emilio's attitude is not unique; the military is, in general, looked down upon, an attitude hardly consistent with a militaristic society. Compare and contrast that view with the Fascist states in World War II, which took militarism to impressive heights, or even with the current situation in America, where youth are encouraged by government-sponsored advertising to "Be All They Can Be" by enrolling in something that's "Not Just a Job; It's an Adventure."

Note also that the war, when it did come, took a long time to break into open hostilities -- hardly characteristic of an "establishment [that] has a vested interest in starting wars."

It is certainly the case that making some form of military service mandatory to become a public official will mean that all public officials will be experienced military men. This isn't an argument -- it's a tautology. There is no reason to think, though, that the situation presented to the vast majority of the citizens in the book -- two years of peacetime service -- is any more likely to make them militarists than it did the World War II generation in America. (Or presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush, or Bush.) Indeed, I would argue that military experience should be a requirement in civilian leaders; experience is the best way to understand both the abilities and limitations of the military, and any civilian who is going to take a role in deciding where and when and why to commit combat forces better damn well understand those limitations. [As a side note, am I the only one who finds it ironic that some people who don't trust the military suggest that the best way to prevent the military from running rampant is by ignorance on the part of civilian leaders? If only military leaders have military experience, how are the civilians expected to know when to believe them?] Anyone who thinks the military can successfully brainwash thinking people into mindless supporters hasn't talked to enough people with military experience.

As for the corollary argument -- "I wouldn't want the guys that I knew in the Army in charge" -- well, this book isn't about our military, nor our society, so drawing comparisons to the "guys I knew in the Army" is not necessarily relevant. Aside from the fact that the Terran Federation in general and the military in specific clearly take civics education a lot more seriously than late 20th century America does, its also clear that the incentive structure is different and the screening process more stringent.

Myth #4: "Federal Service in the Terran Federation requires that you join the military."

Some (usually detractors of the book) have argued that Federal Service consists exclusively of "military" jobs. Others (usually defenders of the book) argue that Federal Service is a broader concept, and that it includes what is traditionally known as the Civil Service in addition to the military.

The answer appears to lie somewhere in between. While Heinlein himself is often quoted for this latter point of view, James Gifford has argued very persuasively that whatever Heinlein's intentions, the book itself is fairly clear:
...the evidence in the text of Starship Troopers is overwhelmingly in favor of the "exclusively military and support" [interpretation of] Federal Service. The only contrary evidence is sparse, vague, and subject to varying interpretation...I believe that Heinlein's statement was for Federal Service to be only five percent military, and that in the haste and fury of writing it and due to the nature of the protagonist's service, the supporting statements were left out or inadvertently edited out. [Gifford 1996:11]
Gifford does an excellent job of supporting his case, and reconciling it with Heinlein's (demonstrably incorrect) statement that "In Starship Troopers it is stated flatly and more than once that nineteen out of twenty veterans are not military veterans...[but] "former members of federal civil service." [Heinlein 1980:397, emphasis in original]

I substantially agree with Gifford's conclusions about the nature of Federal Service, although I would add that there seems to be a willingness to invent "military support" duties as necessary to soak up applicants who are not qualified for more traditional military duties. Federal Service is a constitutionally guaranteed right, and as such, anyone who can understand the oath -- and isn't a convicted felon -- must be accepted, but what they do with you afterwards is less clear:
"But if you want to serve and I can't talk you out of it, then we have to take you, because that's your constitutional right. It says that everybody, male or female, should have his born right to pay his service and assume full citizenship -- but the facts are that we are getting hard pushed to find things for all the volunteers to do that aren't just glorified KP. You can't all be real military men; we don't need that many and most of the volunteers aren't number-one soldier material anyhow...[W]e've had to think up a whole list of dirty, nasty, dangerous jobs that the very least make them remember for the rest of their lives that their citizenship is valuable to them because they've paid a high price for it...A term of service is...either real military service, rough and dangerous even in peacetime...or a most unreasonable facsimile thereof." [Heinlein 1959:p.29-30]
Note that this is coming from Fleet Sergeant Ho, who mans the recruitment desk in the rotunda of the local Federal Building where Juan and his buddy Carl have gone to sign up. As such, part of his job is to discourage people from joining Federal Service by putting it in the worst possible light; he does not wear his prosthetic legs and arm while on duty for just that purpose. [Heinlein 1959:39] We learn from other parts of the book that the vast majority of the people who serve do not end up doing something terribly dangerous; most of them either are in non-combat arms (e.g., supply) or serve in combat branches during peacetime. The risk is still there, though, as we know that at least 13 people died during Johnny's training, not including the man executed for kidnapping and murder. [Heinlein 1959:129] We also know that this was not unusual, based on Johnny's statement that the two who died in the survival exercise "weren't the first to die in training; they weren't the last." [Heinlein 1959:59] The test remains, however: when you sign up, you don't know what branch you are going to get, you only know that there is a real possibility of getting something unpleasant and/or potentially life-threatening. You make your list of preferences, alright, but they are just that -- preferences. You could put down military intelligence and find yourself in a labor battalion in Antarctica instead.

Admittedly, though, this book does not present a complete picture; we don't know what Heinlein's society would have done with a Thoreau, for example, as we don't know if there were any activities which would have met his Federal Service requirement. I suspect there would be accomodation in there somewhere; many of the combat medics in World War II were conscientious objectors who refused to carry a gun, but who were nonetheless able to serve without compromising their ideals. The book has vague references to "labor battalions" and medical experiments, but these are often presented in a context that questions their real-world applicability. One could also make the case that of various non-law-enforcement rescue workers (e.g., firefighters) also demonstrate the requisite civic virtue, but they are not mentioned.

Myth #5: "If you 'fail' basic training, you are permanently relegated to non-citizen status. And, if you don't pass certain psychological tests along the way, you can be cashiered at any time, without explanation or appeal."

This is patently not the case -- in this instance, it is "stated flatly and more than once" that the only way you can be permanently prevented from getting full citizenship is through one of the following:
  • you aren't allowed to sign up because you are incapable of understanding the oath;
  • you aren't allowed to sign up because you have a criminal record;
  • you commit an offense sufficient to get you booted out;
  • you quit;
  • you die.
If you can't physically hack MI boot camp, for example, and decline a medical discharge, you are sent somewhere else -- in the case of one minor character, to the Navy, to be a cook on a troop transport. You don't have a choice where you are sent, but you don't have to accept a medical. Most of the 90% of Johnny's class who didn't finish basic training didn't flunk out, they quit.

As for the second assertion -- that there is a constant series of psychological tests designed to strip people of their citizenship -- this is incorrect. The only psychological testing in the entire book was the aptitude test administered at the very beginning, which was used to determine the duties for which a recruit might be suitable.

Myth #6: "Federation society is male-dominated (i.e., the overwhelmingly majority of voters are male), because 1) women can not volunteer for the Infantry or most other jobs described; and 2) there are no women officers outside of the Navy, since no one can become an officer unless he is combat veteran, and women can not be members of combat units."

This is, frankly, just plain incorrect, for a number of reasons.

First, there is at least one female non-Navy officer mentioned by name: Major Rojas, who we can infer is not a Navy officer by her rank. [Heinlein 1959:28]

Second, as explained before, Federal Service is quite explicitly stated as a constitutionally guaranteed right, and as such, anyone who can understand the oath -- and isn't a convicted felon -- must be accepted. [Heinlein 1959:29-30] Even if the assertion that women aren't allowed in combat units is correct (see below), the book is clear that the MI is only a small percentage of the total force in uniform, and that there are plenty of non-combat jobs available.

Third, there is no indication anywhere that women are not allowed to be members of combat units. We only see two examples of combat units in any detail, the Mobile Infantry and the Navy. The MI appears to be exclusively male, which is not hard to believe regarding a service which has a 90% attrition rate (187 of 2009 passed) before graduation from basic training. (I certainly couldn't pass this course.)

The Navy, on the other hand not only has female officers but is dominated by female officers -- almost all pilots are female, and as a result, the commanding officer on most starships (including every starship that we see in any detail in the book, all of which are combatants) is female. Johnny actually discusses this in some detail -- most troop transports are mixed ships (because drop and retrieval require the best pilots, and for reasons of trooper morale). In Johnny's apprentice cruise ship, the Tours, there were 15 Naval officers, eight female and seven male. [Heinlein 1959:204] Heinlein doesn't specify if there is another road to senior command other than the pilot track; while all of the commanding officers we see are female, it's possible there might be something equivalent to today's non-rated "flight officer" track, which in turn implies there might be the functional equivalent of the "Mission Commander"/"Plane Commander" roles we see in modern military aircraft. Either way, it's clear it's a female-dominated service.

Finally, no where in the book does it say that "no one can become an officer unless he is combat veteran." What it does say (as explained by Colonel Nielssen [Heinlein 1950:192]) is that this is the case in the Mobile Infantry, but the MI is specifically a combat branch. It is plausible that all combat arms might require that officer candidates be combat vets, if possible, but this is by no means demonstrated for other branches of the Army, let alone the Navy, which might view a pilot rating as a more important. In any event, there is no reason to assume that combat vet status is required for officers in non-combat services such as logistics, medical, etc..

Overall, we see only two branches in any detail, the Mobile Infantry and the Navy. Our picture of the Navy is focused solely at the ship level. We do not see the rest of the Army in any detail, so we do not know anything about the gender of its officers overall, nor do we see any evidence that the Army is bigger than the Navy. The closest thing to specific information we have is that 40% of the Federal Service personnel assigned to the planet Sanctuary are female, and that it is a major base intended to be a combat operations center in the event Luna Base and Earth itself are taken out of the fight. [Heinlein 1959:155-157] We don't know how many of the women there are officers, of course, nor what the split is between Army and Navy personnel, nor whether the population is representative of the military as a whole.

There are also no male Naval officers commanding ships; does this mean that there are no male Navy officers? (We actually know that this isn't the case, as the only Sky Marshalls referred to in the novel are male, and we know that one of the prerequisites for the rank is commanding a capital ship.) There are no non-MI Army enlisted men in the novel; does this mean that the other branches of the Army don't have enlisted men? The only non-MI Army officers specifically mentioned are the previously-discussed Major Rojas; Major Weiss, a psychologist and former K-9 officer [Heinlein 1959:38]; Major Landry, a combat engineer [Heinlein 1959:235]; and the Special Talents (which are attached to Logistics and Communications) [Heinlein 1959: 209]; does this mean that only those branches have officers?

The standard that unless a group is specifically mentioned in the novel it doesn't exist would suggest that the Army has no personnel staff, no medics, no ordnance staff (except in the MI), no mechanics (except in the MI), no administrators (except in the MI), etc.. By this standard, I should be able to examine the gender of the 82nd Airborne and conclude that, because there are no women in that unit, that the US Army has no female soldiers.

Like I said, we don't see any of the other branches in any detail. We do know, however, that the MI is especially demanding, and that it is only a part of the Army. We also know that the Navy seems to have no problem putting women in command of vessels, both large and small, engaged in combat operations, nor to assign them to combat vessels as enlisted ratings. [Heinlein 1959:203] Given that the Federation military as a whole seems to have no problems with women in combat, and that we have only seen a small part of the Army, I would argue that it is VERY clear that the Terran Federation is a meritocracy, pure and simple, with the only requirements for a job being the physical and mental ability to do that job; the burden of proof should be on anyone who would suggest otherwise.

Finally, even if the original assertion (women can not volunteer for the Infantry or most other jobs described, and there are no women officers outside of the Navy, since no one can become an officer unless he is combat veteran, and women can not be members of combat units) were true, this does not lead one to the conclusion that the overwhelming majority of the Federation electorate is male. The normal course of events for the men in the book is to sign up for a single term of a couple of years to get the franchise, and spend it doing whatever "hard, dirty work" may be required. Furthermore, they do this work as an enlisted man, not an officer; in the MI table of organization, theoretically 5 percent of the manpower is officers, with the actual number being closer to 3 percent. There is no reason to believe that women would be any less willing to follow this course than the men described in the book. We do know that the percentage of citizens (i.e., those who have completed their Federal Service) varies from less than 3 percent on Earth to over 80% on Iskander. [Heinlein 1959:182] I somehow doubt that the population of Iskander is 80% male.

Myth #7: "The society Heinlein described was racist and sexist, as exemplified by the lack of non-white and female characters in the Mobile Infantry."

I've heard this one on several occasions, usually by people who have made it clear (through other comments) that they have an axe to grind about Heinlein in general. I'm always puzzled given that:
  1. The lead character is Filipino. (Rico says quite specifically at the end of the next-to-last chapter that Tagalog is his native tongue.);
  2. There is a lot of ethnic diversity, as witnessed by the variety of names. In addition, of the soldiers with whom Rico trained and served, there are specific background references to those of Finnish, Turkish, German, Latino, Indian, Arab, Spanish, Argentinean, and Japanese ethnicity. Sergeant Zim, Johnny's lead drill sergeant and a major character, comments that he did not speak English when he arrived at boot camp, and that this is not an unusual occurrence;
  3. Almost all pilots are female, because they are far and away more capable than men at doing the job. As a result, the senior officer on most starships (including every starship that we see in any detail) is female.
All of this was written by Heinlein in a time when large parts of the US still had "Coloreds Only" water fountains and female cadets were not allowed at the service academies.

Some people may miss this diversity because Heinlein doesn't make a big deal about ethnicity -- most of the time it's simply a reference to someone's name or hometown, mentioned in passing. It's clearly there, though, and indicates that while Federal Service might be mono-cultural (as, it could be argued, all successfully integrated institutions -- especially military organizations -- must be) it is multi-ethnic. It is VERY clear that the Terran Federation is meritocracy, pure and simple -- the only requirements for a job are the physical and mental ability to do that job.

As for the lack of female MIs, given the rigors of the training process, I don't this any more surprising than the dearth of male pilots. Just as men are not physically suited for the combat job of space pilot, there are no female MIs because it is a specific type of combat job for which women are not physically well suited -- the job is so demanding in physical categories that men excel at compared to women that 90% of the men flunk out of or quit basic training, and is simply too physically demanding for women.

Myth #8: "The soldiers in Starship Troopers are discouraged from 'thinking for themselves.'"

In most of the cases where this claim has been made, what the person really meant by "thinking for oneself" was something more like "being free to spout the latest bit of politically correct tripe without anyone asking that it be supported with either reason or evidence." In that case, then I would agree that the thinking for oneself is not encouraged. As someone who attended Catholic School (where I was required to take a Government class that, unlike History and Moral Philosophy, was graded) and who worked (briefly) in the Pentagon's Psychological Operations Directorate, I have at least a little idea what brainwashing looks like. The level of indoctrination is no more than one sees in an average Catholic school religion course -- were you ARE graded and where deviation from the accepted norm is punished. The flaw here, in my mind at least, is that Heinlein uses straw men. In all the examples of the high school History and Moral Philosophy course, we see people mouthing such idiocies as "violence never solved anything" -- which, of course, the student was unable to support.

Second, for a "military dictatorship" which engages in "brainwashing," the Terran Federation seems remarkably loose in how it approaches training. Questions of superior officers -- both in training and out -- are encouraged, provided it is in the proper time and place, i.e., not in the middle of a firefight. In History and Moral Philosophy (especially the OCS version), glib generalizations by the students are generally answered with a request for a reasoned answer with supporting proof -- hardly a catechism, let alone "brainwashing."

This view is supported throughout the entire book. Rico's training emphasizes teaching creative thinking skills, not only in improvising weapons and in tactics, but also in discussing why the Mobile Infantry fights. The overall level of brainwashing is no more so than in any other military institution, and probably less than in most. The Terran Federation military's mandate isn't to create cannon fodder -- it is to create citizen-soldiers, with a heavy emphasis on the word "citizen."

In addition, the Mobile Infantry is reminiscent of the US Marine Corps -- under-staffed and under-equipped, forced to do more with less. Such forces generally rely on esprit de corps and creativity -- creativity with regard to both individual officers and enlisted men (i.e., initiative) and willingness to debate new tactical ideas. In other words, teaching your people to be automatons is not an option.

[An example of this, told to me by a friend who works has worked with the Marines: A Marine 3-star general is talking to a bunch of noncoms -- "he has more stars than they have stripes." The general is suggesting that what the Marine infantry forces really need is a little monocular telescope that is attached to their helmet, and which can be swung down in front of one eye. "Wouldn't that be a great idea?", the general says. "No, sir!" comes the response. Initially the general is somewhat taken aback, but after trying to convince these corporals a little more, "No, sir!" comes the response again, and eventually they succeed in convincing the general that the scope wouldn't be useful to them. Not only was the general not unhappy by this display of courage and initiative, he was pleased that these young men half his age were willing to stand up to him -- which, incidentally, is why I heard about this, as the general has proudly told the story on several occasions.]

Myth #9: "The section with Ted Hendrick's court-martial shows the injustice of the entire system."

Actually, more than anything else it demonstrates that there is a time to argue your case and a time to shut up. The scene is thus: While still at boot camp, Johnny is on temporary light duty attached to the battalion commander's office. Sergeant Zim comes in, sporting the signs of a developing black eye. With him is Ted Hendrick (another recruit) and two guards. Hendrick had disobeyed an order to "freeze" (take cover and don't move until released) and had refused administrative discipline, insisting on seeing the battalion commander, Captain Frankel. Zim relays the incident to Frankel (leaving out all mention of the source of the black eye), who then hands out his own administrative punishment. Hendrick protests the fairness of the punishment, and says:
"Uh...well, we were ordered to freeze and I hit the dirt and I found I was on this anthill. So I got to my knees, to move over a couple of feet, and I was hit from behind and knocked flat and he [Zim] yelled at me -- and I bounced up and popped him one and he --..."
At this point Frankel interrupts him -- " commander?" -- and before Johnny knows it, a field court-martial is convened, the evidence is heard, and Hendrick is sentenced to ten lashes and a Bad Conduct Discharge. [Heinlein 1959:70-71, emphasis and ellipses in original.]

This scene is often a source of contention, both because of the "harsh" treatment that Hendrick received, and because, as one person put it, "it is clear that Hendrick avoided the gallows only because the field court didn't have the jurisdiction to assign greater punishment."

Let's start with the first point -- the harshness of Ted Hendrick's punishment. Sergeant Zim and Captain Frankel did everything in their power to handle the situation without resorting to a court-martial. Up until the point that Hendrick stated in a room full of witnesses that he had committed a capital offense, he could have accepted the administrative punishment or simply quit. Instead, he (a) refused administrative discipline assigned by Zim and insisted on seeing the battalion commander; (b) refused the disciplinary action ordered by the battalion commander; (c) admitted in a room full of witnesses to striking a superior; and (d) when given an opportunity to recant, failed to do so.

At that point, Frankel had four options:

First, Frankel could have ignored the outburst. Hendrick wouldn't have suffered, but Frankel would have been derelict in his duty, both for failing to enforce the regulation and for sending a message indicating that it was okay to strike superior officers. Furthermore, if word got out that he had ignored the incident, Frankel (and possibly Zim) would probably face a general court-martial for dereliction of duty, and Hendrick would probably be tried by a general military court, which would have the power to hang him for his crime.

Second, Frankel could simply have let Hendrick quit at that point. (Note that Hendrick hadn't expressed any interests in quitting until after he admitted striking Zim.) This would have all the negative consequences of the first option, except that Hendrick would probably not have to accept responsibility for his own actions.

Third, Frankel could have remanded him to a regular military court for a general court-martial. As stated by the presiding officer of the field court, if Frankel had done so Hendrick would doubtless have been executed.

Finally, Frankel could do what he did do -- convene a field court-martial proceeding against Hendrick, specifically because the field court did NOT have the jurisdiction to do anything worse than give him lashes and kick him out. Frankel then chewed Zim out for allowing it to happen in the first place.

Up until the point where Hendrick opened his big mouth in a room full of witnesses, the only crime that he had committed was to disobey a "freeze" order. When he stated that he had struck Zim, that became the issue which needed to be handled. Even then, the officer sitting as the court -- Lieutenant Spieksma -- was looking for loopholes:
Do you want to tell the court anything about it? Any circumstances which you think might possible affect the evidence already given? Or anything that might lessen the original offense? Such things as being ill, or under drugs or medication. You are not under oath at this point; you may say anything at all which you think might help you. [Heinlein 1959:75; emphasis mine]
Okay, so given the possible outcomes in the situation as described, then perhaps this was the best that could have happened. What about the charge that the entire idea that this was a capital offense is lunacy? Many people view the mere idea of sentencing a man to hang because he threw a punch as disproportionate at best and barbaric at worst.

Most of these people have little or no experience with the military, either personally or through study. If they did, they would have a better understanding of exactly how difficult it can be to enforce military discipline in the field. It is not natural for a person to willingly move forward into a combat zone -- millions of years of evolutionary programming must be overcome in order to get someone to move into such a dangerous environment. Tensions run high, and in the confusion of combat, "accidents" can happen -- officers can and have been killed by their own men, with more frequency than is generally discussed. This is why military discipline in the field can be harsh -- because the alternative is a total breakdown of authority.

Ted Hendrick was a volunteer, not a conscript; he had, of his own free will, agreed to abide by the regulations of the Army. He could, at any time up to the moment that he admitted striking Zim, have said "I quit" and walked away a free man. Or he could have simply shut up. He didn't do either of these things.

Instead, after violating a lawful order, Ted Hendrick then committed a capital offense by striking a superior. Not a fellow recruit, not a civilian, not someone under him -- a superior officer. To make matters worse, he was in the field at the time. "Practice field," some will say. Doesn't matter -- military discipline in the field is that hard to maintain, and if it is not enforced rigidly in situations where it is not a matter of life and death, it will be unenforceable in situations where it is a matter of life and death.

Hendrick knew it was a hanging offense, because the regulations covering it were read to him every Sunday morning. Yet, despite this, he got off with ten lashes and a B.C.D.. So why didn't they go ahead and execute him? Because the system was designed to prevent that from happening. This is for a couple of reasons.

First, the instructors, like the recruits, are citizen-soldiers. They are there because they want to be there. They did not have to -- and would not want to -- enforce their will through terror. It is clear that if Captain Frankel, Sergeant Zim, or any of the other instructors who witnessed the altercation had wanted Ted Hendrick to hang, he would have.

But they didn't want him to hang, and Zim and Frankel were doing everything they could to see that didn't happen:
"What do you think I was afraid of from the moment I saw you come in here sporting a shiner? I did my best to brush it off with administrative punishment and the young fool wouldn't let well enough alone. But I never thought he would be crazy enough to blurt it out that he hung one on you -- he's stupid; you should have eased him out of the outfit weeks ago...instead of nursing him along until he got into trouble. But blurt it out he did, to me, in front of witnesses, forcing me to take official notice of it -- and that licked us." [Heinlein 1959:81, emphasis and ellipses in original]
Second, hanging him would have served no purpose. The article against striking a superior officer (Article 9080) wasn't designed for the purpose of finding excuses to kill people -- it was designed for the purposes of ensuring discipline in the field. Justice was adequately served by the punishment that Hendrick received, and extra vigilance on the part of the instructors would teach those who didn't learn the lesson strongly enough:
"This weary mess isn't all loss; any regiment of boots needs a stern lesson in the meaning of nine-oh-eight-oh, as we both know. They haven't yet learned to think, they won't read, and they rarely listen -- but they can see...and young Hendrick's misfortune may save one of his mates, some day, from swinging by the neck until he's dead, dead, dead. [Heinlein 1959:83, emphasis and ellipses in original]
Finally, each and every instructor there, from lowest corporal to the Commanding General of the Training and Discipline command, was at one time a recruit. They understand the temptations and stresses that recruits are under, and they understand that it is incumbent upon them that such incidents never be allowed to happen -- and they are trained to prevent them, and deal with them should the need arise. I strongly suspect that field court-martials in such situations are standard operating procedure. (Indeed, that's true of our military today.)

Frankel and Zim both thought that Hendrick's true crime was being too stupid to keep his mouth shut -- and that the true blame for the situation rested with Sergeant Zim, whose job it was to see it coming and stop it before it happened. Hendrick, however, committed that act, and had to take responsibility for his actions.

Now, I have heard some people make much of the fact that Sergeant Zim and Captain Frankel "admitted that Hendrick doesn't deserve it," and that "Hendrick was punished because of Zim's failure." This is missing the point, in that it assumes that the punishment was assigned unfairly, when that is anything but the case. Zim and Frankel conclude that Hendrick didn't deserve the punishment, not because he didn't do the crime, but because Zim failed in his task of preventing such an incident from occurring. Zim's failure was analogous to an inner city high school counselor who, in the end, is unable to prevent one of his at-risk students from commiting a felony. Not punishing Hendrick for striking a superior officer would have Hendrick accept no responsibility for his own actions.

So what is this book about, really?

Here is my take:

Starship Troopers isn't really a book about the military, being a soldier, or even government; it's a book about civic virtue, and what distinguishes a citizen -- in the sense of one who recognizes that with rights come responsibilities, and that the two are proportional -- from a non-citizen. The military is a good model for this discussion, because it involves (at least theoretically and, I think, usually in practice, at least in the US) a relatively straightforward instance of consciously placing the interests of your society above your own personal interests.

Does that invalidate the example of a public health worker who, through selfless devotion and long hours (but no actual physical danger) discovers a cure for cancer? Of course not; that person is (probably) a true humanitarian, a good member of society, and may have other characteristics that mark a citizen. Then why require Federal Service? Because the decision to say "I will place myself at personal risk" it is a test, an example of someone putting not just their "money where their mouth is," but potentially their life as well. Everything else being equal, a person who meets this requirement is more likely to have the characteristics that define a good citizen than someone who was not willing to serve. [On the other hand, as a friend pointed out to me when he read this section, in the United States "the US Public Health Service is one of the seven uniformed Federal services (the uniform looks almost identical to the Navy, although the commander -- the Surgeon-General -- has an Army-style rank), and its members serve under military discipline, shop in PXs, and in time of war operate as part of the Department of Defense." Whether there is a Terran Federation equivalent, though, we don't know.]

Many have described the book as being simplistic. To the degree that it is simplistic, that's because its intended audience -- 12-to-14-year-old boys -- generally haven't read Plato, More, etc., by that point in their lives, and probably aren't interest in reading them, either. I don't think this is a fatal flaw for adults -- I'm in my 40s, and when I reread it recently, I was struck by how much the book still has to offer.

It is, however, contradictory and confusing in places. For example, Rico's father states that war is very rare, yet the MI requires officers to be combat vets, which implies that war is not rare; Heinlein's statement that a career military man is more likely to die than to finish his term also indicates that service might involve more combat than Mr. Rico's statement would lead you to believe. I suspect that the OCS combat prerequisite might be the preferred policy, but one which is not always able to be followed.

Another example of this type of confusion lies in Heinlein's various statements about the relationship between the MI as a branch and the Amy as a whole. Unless specifically referring to a non-MI branch, Heinlein tends to use "Army" and "Mobile Infantry" interchangeably. Of course, this might simply be parochialism on the part of the narrator, in much the way that submariners refer to there being two types of ships, "submarines" and "targets."

Overall, this confusion both arises from and is negated by, in my mind at least, the argument that the it isn't really about the military. The details of the MI are not the point that Heinlein was trying to make; they are means to an end, not the end itself.

A quick note

I get a steady stream of emails from people who are trying to "explain" the movie to me. Fine, I get it -- you like the movie. But please don't assume that because I don't it means I don't "get" it. Actually, I do get it. I understand exactly what the filmmakers were trying to accomplish and why, and I even applaud their motives. What I vehemently disagree with is their methods, as explained below.

Also, I know about Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles, and have even seen a few episodes. It appears to be much better than the live-action movies, but I haven't seen enough of it to have formed a complete opinion.

I always like getting email about this webpage, but please, if you are going to email me about the movie -- READ and UNDERSTAND this section first.

Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers

In November 1997, TriStar and Touchstone Pictures released Starship Troopers, which was billed as the movie version of Heinlein's book of the same name. Directed by Paul Verhoeven, produced by Alan Marshall and Jon Davison, and written by Ed Neumeier, it opened to harsh criticism from Heinlein fans concerning their "interpretation" of Heinlein's work. I agree with most -- if not quite all -- of that criticism. Below is my thoughts on the movie, both as a translation of the book, and in its own right.

Note that I will refer to the movie as Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers and the book simply as Starship Troopers. This is for two reasons. First, some method of differentiating the two is essential to avoid confusion, and since the book came first, it seems fitting to differentiate them in this way. Second, the movie is the vision of Paul Verhoeven and his clique and not the original work; Paul Verhoeven, Jon Davison, and Ed Neumeier's Twisted Parody of a Book They Claim They Liked But Have Done Everything to Befoul is simply too long for casual use. [grin]

As a translation of the book

As you might have guessed from my introduction, I do not think that Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers is an accurate rendition of the book. Verhoeven has said in interviews that he had not read the book ahead of time (so as to not contaminate "his vision" or some such), and this statement, at least, is consistent with all of the evidence. Surprisingly, Ed Neumeier and Jon Davison claim to be Starship Trooper fans of long standing, which is, at worst, so incredulous as to cast into doubt anything else they have to say, and at best reminiscent of a comment by Mr. Dubois's in Johnny's History and Moral Philosophy course: "One can lead a child to knowledge but one cannot make him think." [Heinlein 1959:26].

The differences between Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers and Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers can be grouped into two major categories: material and philosophical.

Material differences

Materially, there are several ways in which Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers is an inaccurate rendition of Starship Troopers. First, and most noticeable to anyone who has read the book, is the total absence of powered armor. Verhoeven et al claim that it was left out of the $100 million movie because it would have been too expensive, and because they were unable to "do it right." So, instead of battlesuited MIs dropping from orbit, we have fairly conventionally equipped soldiers landed in contraptions that look an awful lot like freight containers.

Second, great liberties have been taken with the characterizations. Pivotal characters have been left out, unimportant characters have been "promoted" to star status, and new characters have been added. With the possible exception of the recruiting sergeant in the Federal building -- a role diminished in the movie to about three lines of dialogue -- none of the characters are recognizable as their book counterparts.

Third, the plot has been totally rewritten, so much so that only a few scenes here and there are reminiscent of the book, and in most cases even those scenes have been substantially reworked.

Overall, though, I am going to go on record -- against the vast majority of the Heinlein fans who have expressed outrage against the movie -- and say that these changes do not matter. Sure, I would love to have seen troopers with powered armor in a one-for-one translation of the book, but I understand why that couldn't happen. Different media have different strengths and weaknesses, and Starship Troopers, as written, makes a better book than it would a movie. Heck, one of the major surprises in the book -- that the fleet sergeant who captures the brain Bug during Johnny's OCS tour is Sergeant Zim -- works only because Heinlein doesn't tell us it's Zim until after the battle is over.

Philosophical differences

The differences that I think are important, on the other hand -- the differences which turn it from the same story told in a different medium into the book's Evil Twin (tm) -- are philosophical in nature, and are numerous and profound. The group making this movie clearly had their own agenda, and being faithful to their source was not part of it.

To begin with, while the Terran Federation in Starship Troopers is specifically stated to be a representative democracy, Ed Neumeier decided to make the government into a fascist state. This was not "doing justice to the author," no matter how many times Neumeier and Davison repeat this absurd claim. [Persons 1997; Sammon 1997; Warren 1997]

Second, the book was multi-racial, but not so the movie: all the non-anglo characters from the book have been replaced by characters who look like they stepped out of the Aryan edition of GQ.

Third, there is real element of sadism present in the movie which simply isn't present in the book. There are two examples which seemed especially clear.

The first took place on the first day of boot camp. Sergeant Zim starts things out by asking the assembled recruits if any of them think they can beat him in a fight. One recruit, a good ol' boy named Breckinridge, accepts the challenge. In the process of sparing, Breckinridge is injured.

As presented in the book, the injury is clearly an accident:
The big recruit was sitting on the ground, holding his left wrist in his right hand. He didn't say anything.
Zim bent over him. "Broken?"
"Reckon it might be...suh."
"I'm sorry, you hurried me a little. Do you know where the dispensary is? Never mind -- Jones! Take Breckinridge over to the dispensary." As they left, Zim slapped him on the right shoulder and said quietly, "Let's try it again in a month or so. I'll show you what happened." [Heinlein 1959:44, ellipse in original]

The same scene in Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers plays out very differently. Zim has Breckenridge pinned by his arm, and he deliberately breaks the recruit's wrist.

The second scene takes place sometime later. Zim and the recruits are practicing with throwing knives, when one of the recruits asks "what possible use" is learning how to use throwing knives when "one professor type can do so much more just by pushing a button?" In the book, Zim responds (in part):
"If you wanted to teach a baby a lesson, would you cut its head off? Of course not. You'd paddle it. There can be circumstances when it's just as foolish to hit an enemy city with an H-bomb as it would be to spank a baby with an axe. War is not violence and killing, pure and simple; war is controlled violence, for a purpose. The purpose of war is to support your government's decisions by force. The purpose is never to kill the enemy just to be killing him...but to make him do what you want to do. Not killing...but controlled and purposeful violence. But it's not your business or mine to decide the purpose of the control. It's never a soldier's business to decide when or where or how -- or why -- he fights; that belongs to the statesmen and the generals. The statesmen decide why and how much; the generals take it from there and tell us where and when and how. We supply the violence; other people -- 'older and wiser heads,' as they say -- supply the control. Which is as it should be." [Heinlein 1959:63, emphasis and ellipses in original]
Notice the salient points of Zim's response: While surprised that the recruit doesn't know the answer at this stage in his training, he does not discourage the recruit from asking questions or thinking -- he treats it as a serious and reasonable question, which deserves a comprehensive, thoughtful, and respectful response about the role of civilian control of the military, and the necessity for the military to train for something less than all-out high-tech warfare.

In Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers, on the other hand, Zim tells the recruit to put his hand flat against a nearby vertical surface, and with a deft throw of the knife pins the recruit's hand in place. While the recruit is screaming with pain, the knife sticking out of the back of his hand, Zim laughs and says something to the effect of "because that professor type can't push that button if there is a knife sticking out of it!"

These are not the only examples, merely the ones that stick out in my mind as scenes originating in the book that were twisted beyond recognition. There are many other examples, but they are more subtle -- and more pervasive. One of the overriding themes in Starship Troopers, for example, is that MIs take care of their own, and will always attempt to make a pickup on a wounded comrade. Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers, on the other hand, substitutes a Kevorkian ethic: when his platoon sergeant is carried off to a ledge a short distance away by a flying Bug, the lieutenant in charge grabs a sniper rifle. Rather than shooting the Bug and attempting a rescue, however, he shoots the sergeant, adding piously, "I would expect any of you to do the same for me." I guess the lieutenant didn't want to be saddled with a wounded trooper.

Some have tried to argue that, being a satire, this is all in service of the larger goal; that the overall effect serves to undermine the twisted lessons in these scenes, thereby reinforcing the original ideals. I'm skeptical; given Verhoeven's low opinion of science fiction (documented elsewhere), I find it hard to believe that he thinks he's doing anything so subtle. But then again, I will be the first to admit that my appreciation fades out somewhere on the parody/satire border.

In the first version of this web page, I concluded this section with the comment that "Heinlein must be turning over in his grave." Recently, though, it was pointed out to me that there was one area where Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers might actually be faithful to Heinlein's original: its treatment of women. In this movie, women and men appear to participate -- in sports, in academic work, and in the military -- on an equal footing. This is to be commended, even if it illustrates exactly how far short the movie falls in most other ways.

As a movie in its own right

So, it's clear I don't think a lot of Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers as a movie rendition of Heinlein's classic. Let's assume for a minute, though, that Neumeier and Davison's original assumption -- that the movie rights to Heinlein's book were not available -- was correct and they went with their original idea, a project called Bug Hunt. Assuming no relationship with Starship Troopers, was Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers a movie worth seeing?

Maybe. At a dollar theater. If the only alternative on television was reruns of Who's the Boss?. For, not only is Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers a terrible rendition of Heinlein's book, it has a lot of problems as a movie itself.

First, if Paul Verhoeven learned anything during his stint in the Dutch marines, exposure to Hollywood has since leached it from his mind. Verhoeven et al decided to leave out the powered armor, turning the MI into a fairly conventional force, recognizable to any member of today's armed forces -- except of, course, for the complete lack of artillery, mechanized transport, armored fighting vehicles, squad-level automatic weapons and indirect fire weapons such as mortars, other squad-level support systems, or combat medical units. Tactics consist of running towards the enemy in a big mob, running away from the enemy in a big mob, and walking from point A to point B in a big mob. (I especially like the scene where the MIs form a big circle around a Bug, with fellow troopers in their line of fire, and shoot at the Bug in the center -- I guess they are not as picky about friendly fire casualties in the 22nd century.) A supposedly elite unit, the MIs would have a hard time defeating a unit of Campfire Girls, let alone the Bugs.

Second, the Navy isn't any smarter -- they appear to be fundamentally incapable of preventing their ships from running into each other. On more than one occasion we see ships packed in such tight formations that when a ship is hit and falls out of its assigned spot, the result is the space fleet equivalent of a multi-car pileup. Wet Navy folk are traditionally very concerned with running their ships into things -- especially each other -- and spend a lot of time practicing so that it doesn't happen. It still occasionally does happen, but they take great pains to minimize the likelihood, in part by spreading the formation out sufficiently. I can't think of any reason why their 22nd century space Navy descendants would view things any differently. Depicting them in a formation guaranteed to cause collisions is, at best, sloppy and lazy, and at worst stupid in the extreme.

Note that there was a scene in the book where there was a collision of this sort, but it occurred when a highly complex, over-ambitious maneuver, attempted to gain the advantage of surprise, went awry. Verhoeven's Navy, on the other hand, was engaged in a maneuver about as complicated as a lane change.

Between the Navy and the Army, I spent the entire movie thinking that if this is the best the Federation can do, the Bugs deserve to win.

Third, the characters engage in the sort of showboating that would get real military personnel court-martialed in a heartbeat. I am thinking specifically of Carmen's little shuttle trip inside the framework of the ring station; it was a neat effect in Return of the Jedi flick, but even a fantasy like Jedi portrayed it as a dangerous move undertaken in desperation, rather than something to be done because you were feeling especially perky that day.

Finally, the movie exhibited the usual contempt for even the rudiments of science in which Hollywood in general and Verhoeven in particular specialize. For example, we have a ship on patrol that encounters an asteroid moving so slowly that the ship is able to survive a glancing impact from said rock, yet moments later the rock is billions of miles away and annihilating Buenos Aires. Perhaps the rock really was moving at billions of miles per second, and the ship was simply made out of the same material as the small escape capsule which later in the film nose-dived into a rock wall and simply punched through it like it was paper.

Overall, with the cute little propaganda clips and SS uniforms, Verhoeven appears to have thought he was making a satire. In reality, though, it was closer to a comedy. I, for one, was laughing at him, not with him.

Perhaps surprisingly, the fact that this movie is so bad doesn't bother me much, either. Of course I would have preferred to see something that at least accurately captured the spirit of Heinlein's book or, failing that, wasn't insulting to both the original work and the audience; given both Verhoeven's past efforts and the traditional fate of science fiction in Hollywood, however, we could hardly have expected anything different than what we got. I expected garbage, so I wasn't surprised when I got it.

More importantly, though, even though Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers is tripe, I think it may still be a "win" for fans of the book. Why? Because Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers appears to be selling a lot of copies of Starship Troopers. After seeing the movie a couple of weeks after it came out, I went looking for a couple of copies of the book to give to friends who hadn't yet read it. Over the course of three days I visited three uberbookstores, one regular mall bookstore, and two used bookstores, and I found precisely ONE copy of the book. Even a year later copies of the book were hard to find in used book stores.

I personally think it fitting the movie tanked (although I recognize the danger to the genre; Hollywood is too dumb to understand the difference between a science fiction movie losing money because it is science fiction, and a science fiction movie losing money because the people responsible made a bad movie), but I take some solace in knowing that a lot of people discovered -- or re-discovered -- Heinlein's book as a result. My prediction when I first wrote this page in 2008 was that that "ten years from now, Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers will be a minor footnote in film history (as Vehoeven himself might be -- ever seen Showgirls?), but that Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers will still be going strong."

So, what does bother me about this movie?

The Big Lie

"The great mass of people...will more easily
fall victim to a big lie than to a small one."
Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf

In the case of Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers, the Big Lie is best stated by Verhoeven himself:
The philosophy of Heinlein is certainly in the movie. Whether I adhere to that society myself is something else, but it is the philosophy of the world he described, and we took that from his book. [Warren 1997, p.23]
This is a theme that we see repeated time and again, both by those who made the movie, and some of the writers (such as Dan Persons, Paul Sammon, and Bill Warren) who have written about it: that the sadistic, fascist society in the movie is a Polaroid snapshot of the world Heinlein described, that faithfulness to the first grand master of science fiction was their overriding concern. This is, without question, a bald-faced lie, as the society described bears only the most superficial resemblance to the society described by Heinlein, and philosophically it is its antithesis. Equating the two is the equivalent of saying that, because both countries periodically have "elections," that the United States and the People's Republic of China are both democracies. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Despite tagging this "the big lie," please note that I am not claiming that any of the people responsible for this film (Neumeier, Verheoven, Marshall, or Davison) are Nazis -- they aren't. Neumeier and Verhoeven come from countries that saw the horrors of the Third Reich up close and, in Verhoeven's case, within his own lifetime; their agenda, if anything, is anti-fascist in nature. What I am accusing them -- and the industry writers who are aiding them, by printing their ridiculous claims unchallenged and making similar statements on their own -- of is repeating a patent falsehood with the hope that, if reiterated enough times, people might begin to believe it. Whether they now believe their own propaganda, I won't hazard to guess.


Anderson, Poul. 1992: "RAH: A Memoir." Printed in Requiem and Tributes to the Grand Master

D'Ammassa, Don, "Don D'Ammassa's Critical Mass" Science Fiction Chronicle, April 1998.

Gifford, James. 1996: The Nature of "Federal Service" in Robert A. Heinlein's "Starship Troopers". [Available from] The rest of Gifford's Robert A. Heinlein Home Page is pretty good as well.

Heinlein, Robert. 1959: Starship Troopers.[Ace movie edition, 1997]

Heinlein, Robert. 1961: Guest of Honor Speech at the XIXth World Science Fiction Convention, Seattle. Printed in Requiem and Tributes to the Grand Master

Heinlein, Robert. 1980: Expanded Universe.

Heinlein, Robert. 1989: Grumbles from the Grave.

Persons, Dan 1997: "Bug Hunt: Starship Troopers," Cinefantastique, December.

Robinson, Spider. 1992: "Rah Rah R.A.H.!" Printed in Requiem and Tributes to the Grand Master

Sammon, Paul M. 1997: The Making of Starship Troopers.

Warren, Bill. 1997: Starship Troopers: The Official Movie Magazine.

Thoughtful feedback (even negative feedback, as long as it's constructive) on this page would be most appreciated. Let me know what you think. Special thanks to those who have already sent me their comments -- I appreciate it! (I try to respond to each one, but I will admit to a less-than-perfect record.)

Also, sometime ago I recall reading part of an article in a science fiction magazine slamming Starship Troopers with some of the criticisms reported above. The article was by James Van Hise, he of "cheap Star Trek fan book" fame. If anyone has a citation -- or better yet, is willing to send me a copy -- I would appreciate it.