Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and the veneration of veterans

Starship Troopers still image
Starship Troopers elevates military veterans to demi-god status.

The election and inauguration of Donald Trump has left-leaning book lovers scrambling for analogous stories in fiction. Most have cited George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, both dystopian novels. A few have pointed to Robert A. Heinlein’s science fiction novel Starship Troopers, because of long-standing criticisms of what some believe is its fascist politics.

The 1959 novel, which won the prestigious Hugo Award and made into a 1997 movie, tells the story of Juan “Johnnie” Rico, a ne’er-do-well teenager who finds meaning and belonging in the “Mobile Infantry.” He goes off to fight in an interstellar war against the Arachnid creatures from the planet Klendathu. Rico goes from raw recruit to experienced sergeant to field-tested officer participating in a crucial battle to defeat the “bugs” and save Earth.

In Heinlein’s world, the combat veteran is the civic god incarnate.

The charges of fascism relate to the dominance of earth by a militarized government that places enormous prestige and civil power in the hands of military veterans. In Heinlein’s world, the combat veteran is the civic god incarnate. Only people who fought and bled understand the true meaning of freedom and the necessity of the voting franchise to sustain the public good, not just private interest.

To me, this echoes the 21st century American deification of the veteran. Americans have attempted to atone for the country’s first lost war—Vietnam—by raising veterans of that war and subsequent wars to the status of demi-gods. Serving members of the armed forces get similar treatment, demonstrated by elaborate ceremony at national sports events and holiday parades.

Veterans and veterans services are “sacred cows,” a phrase referring to divine objects that can’t be touched or criticized for fear of retribution from Heaven (or the media or at the polls). As part of society’s continuing penance for how some Vietnam vets were treated immediately after the war, politicians and opinion leaders are required to say a maudlin “thank you” to vets whenever and wherever encountered. The national government atones by offering vets a version of the “socialized medicine” and discounted education denied ordinary citizens. The culture once placed virgin women on a pedestal. Americans in the 21st century do it with veterans.

It doesn’t take much imagination to take this veneration a few steps further and give veterans disproportionate say in civil life compared to their mortal brothers and sisters, as Heinlein does. No one is suggesting that the asinine Trump Administration will propose something that Heinlein might praise, but if President Trump called on U.S. military veterans to defend his administration from his domestic enemies, and many answered the call, who knows what might ensue.

What do you think of Heinlein’s attitude toward vets?

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