John C. Wright (johncwright) wrote,
John C. Wright
johncwright

Heinlein was a Fascist?

I just finished rereading Robert A. Heinlein’s STARSHIP TROOPERS, and I was left with an odd question lingering. Blazoned on the cover of my paperback edition boast the words “controversial best seller!” Why is this book controversial?

Science Fiction is something like a game or thought-experiment played with the reader: the author invents a counterfactual premise but uses the props and setting of the real universe to make the counterfactual seem as likely as possible. The game is to draw out the real world consequences of the non-real premise. If there actually were invisible men, so asks H.G. Wells, would they not have to walk among us nude? Not for the science fiction writer is the magical invisibility that turns your clothing transparent but not what you pick up in your hand.

In the case of STARSHIP TROOPERS, the speculation is about futuristic infantry. What happens when the advances in technology give a single trooper the firepower of a modern platoon, or even a battalion? If a footsoldier has a tactical atom bomb in launcher, what kind of trooper, and what kind of warfare, would it have to be? What are the social implications? Who could be trusted with such firepower?

There is a second speculation: what if the franchise of the vote was limited to veterans? What kind of society would emerge?

For those of you who have not read it, STARSHIP TROOPERS concerns one Juan Rico, rich man’s son, who against his father’s wishes, and for somewhat frivolous reasons, joins the service of the Terran Federation.

The book opens with a battle scene of paratroopers dropping from orbit. The paratroopers wear strength-amplifying powered armor of a type now so typical in Tomorrowland that it has its own nickname in fandom (“mecha”) but was first introduced by this author in this novel. The enemy are called “skinnies” and not otherwise described, and one of their cities is raided by the troopers. The narrator helps retrieve a fallen comrade, who dies of his wounds.

In this future, the franchise of the vote is limited to veterans, or those who serve a term of some sort of public service, military or nonmilitary. The theory enunciated in the book is not that veterans are smarter or more disciplined than civilians, but merely that they have shown an ability to put the group above the self, and therefore can be trusted with the dangerous power of the vote. Rico joins because he wants to get the vote, or perhaps because he wants to impress a girl.

The book describes the rigorous training meted out to the future infantry, training in which casualties are expected. Corporal punishment by the lash is administered; capital punishment by the hangman. The whole philosophy and tone of the book is exceedingly grim, and betrays that unrealistic boyish delight boys have in realism. Over and over again, the book emphasizes the unglamorous and unheroic aspects of fighting men: to hunt for medals is dismissed as folly. The attitude here is that troopers should do their job, break things and kill the enemy when so ordered, keep your head down and your nose clean, come home safe and don’t be a hero. It is not a space opera. They’ve got no time for glory in the infantry.

The book describes the career of our young cap trooper in his unit. The causes of the war are never mentioned. The ultimate end of the war is never mentioned. These things do not concern the narrative, which is merely about the daily life of a trooper. For example, there is a fistfight in the washroom with an underling giving him disrespect. (This fight is no more alarming that a similar scene in FARMER IN THE SKY: merely boys settling things like men.) The washroom brawl is more important than the causes of the war to the younger trooper. He loses the brawl and wins the respect of the soldier who gets him into Officer’s Candidate Training School.

Eventually Juan Rico goes into OCS. That training is briefly described. The young officer in his first command leads a reconnaissance operation that goes south: he has to enter an underground lair of the Arachnids of Klendathu, the “Bugs”, and rescue his trapped sergeant. The sergeant is turns out to be his old teacher. In a final scene, the young officer meets his father, who as now also volunteered (the mother was a civilian causality of war when Buenos Aries is bombed) and the two are reconciled. In the last chapter we discover that Juan Rico is not White, but Filipino. The end.

Before going further, so as not to mislead the reader with this summary, I must mention the strangest feature of this book, and it is a feature seen in other Heinlein books. The book has characters that are non-characters. For example, the trooper who dies in chapter one, scene one, is given a name, but he might as well have been nameless, because he has no lines, no personality, and his wounds and death is not onstage. Imagine a character who appears for the space of six words: “Flores died on the way up.”

We will see these non-character characters appear in the book once or twice. They act as a placeholder merely to represent the emotional reaction that the reader is supposed to fill in.

The narrator’s best friend in school, the one he joined the Federal Service to impress, also dies, also offstage, also as non-character cipher. “Carl was killed when the Bugs smashed our research station on Pluto.” Nothing is described. Carl died on the way up.

Even major characters, such as the boy’s father and mother are sketched in with a paragraph or less of dialog. When the boy’s mother dies offstage, the reader does not even see the letter informing the narrator: and she does not get even as much time in the narrator’s reflection as Flores. “My mother had been in Buenos Aires when the Bugs smeared it.” Mom died on the way up.

The novel is also described as a polemical one. There are three scenes that are polemic: one takes place in philosophy class in the beginning, where the teacher, acting as the sockpuppet for Mr. Heinlein, says that violence shapes history. The second scene is during training, when the main character contemplates the capital punishment of a non-character character who killed another non-character character, a little girl who died of neglect during a botched kidnapping. The narrator reflects back to this same philosophy class, and hears corporal punishment justified, and the current juvenile justice system condemned. That occupies a chapter. The criminal and the victim are called by name exactly one time: his was Dillinger, and hers was something like Little Nell. Nothing is described. Little Nell died on the way up.

The third scene is during OCS, when the narrator is in class yet again, and this time he hears the justification for limiting the franchise to veterans, which is prefixed with a curt dismissal of the concept of natural rights.

And that’s the whole book. Three speeches, two battle scenes, a whipping, a fight in a washroom, an affirmation of capital punishment, a boy who learns to be a man and win his father’s respect. The whole thing is written in this terse and manly prose, with no emotion and no description. Please imagine Gary Cooper’s character Sherriff Kane from HIGH NOON narrating a war journal. “A man’s got to do, what a man’s got to do. Lassie died on the way up.”

There is nothing in particular that makes it stand out from any number of other war stories or coming-of-age stories, except the Heinlein touch of adding some iconoclastic jabs at the things Mid-Twentieth Century Americans take as sacred, such as a natural right to vote. Of course, this is no more astonishing or mind-boggling than Isaac Asimov describing a future Galactic Empire where only the Psychohistorians have a vote, or A.E. van Vogt or Ursula K. LeGuin describing a futuristic anarchy on Venus or Anarres where no one votes. So where is the controversy?

In my youth, I was dimly aware that there were somewhere in the dirty corners of the world, grass-smoking hippies and draft-dodgers who screamed in broken, slurping, incoherent sentences that Heinlein was a fascist, due solely to this book. I had blissfully assumed that no more attention was paid to these dead-eyed malcontents than to flat-earthers or UFO nuts: and that their use of the word “fascist” was merely verbal white-noise. They were the type who would call their toaster “fascist” if it blackened their pop-tart for breakfast.

Imagine my surprise to find writers I read and liked echoing this sentiment, indeed, to the point where it has become, if not the mainstream view, the view at least of the loyal opposition.

Let us examine some criticisms. (I will not quote sources. Please assume I came across real people who voiced or wrote these opinions. If you have had a like experience, you may believe me; if you have not, feel free to disbelieve.)

First, some say the book is not a juvenile.

I did not know in my youth that Scribner’s had actually refused the manuscript. It was meant to be the next volume in his highly successful line of Heinlein juveniles. It was picked up by Putnam, and won a Hugo, and remains in print from that day to this. I trust Scribner’s is satisfied with the decision to forgo the profits of their association with Heinlein in order to maintain their ideological purity—if that was what was behind the decision. I cannot see what else could have been.

Some say that Scribner’s rejected the manuscript due its violence: but with the book fresh in my memory (I just finished it this morning) it is startling how lacking in gore or bloodshed for a war story it is. No wounds are ever described. The violence is at the level of “We engaged the enemy,” or “I sprayed the Bugs with a hand-flamer and got out of there.” In sharp contrast, the book TREASURE ISLAND, which I just got done reading to my impressionable and sensitive children, has a scene where Blind Pew is trampled to death by horses, and Jim Hawkins shoots the drunken and bloodthirsty pirate Israel Hands in the face, as that scoundrel is climbing, knife ready, up the mast to slit his throat.


One More Step, Mr. Hands by N. C. Wyeth, 1911

Is there anything in this book that is not suited to a juvenile reader? I confess I cannot find it. The sexiest thing that happens is a chaste kiss with the bald but beautiful pilot Ibanez. The violence is less than that of TREASURE ISLAND. The story is a typical war tale of the type popular during and after World War Two, about a recruit who suffers rigorous training, and experiences the horror of combat, and emerges a man. It is not that different from SPACE CADET written by the same author, which tells of a youth getting trained in combat, or BETWEEN PLANETS, which has scenes of interplanetary war told from a infantry viewpoint.

Second, some say the book promotes fascism.

This criticism has to be broken into two questions. First, does the book depict a National Socialist or Mussolini-type political economy inside the book in a good light? In other words, is there a fascist state on stage, as there is, for example in Plato’s REPUBLIC, that is painted in flattering hues? This is asking if there is diegetic fascism; fascists inside the book.

Second, does the book (despite its background) glorify the military in such as fashion that it promotes fascism? This is asking if there is nondiegetic fascism; fascists outside the book, as for example in the writer or his supposed audience.

Fascism has four salient characteristics: 1. Fascism is economic socialism 2. Fascism is political totalitarianism 3. Fascism is Darwinian or Scientific racism 4. Fascism is populist regimentation of the civilian along military lines, with corresponding glorification of the military and contempt for democracy.

First question first. Is there fascism in the book?

The backdrop of the Terran Federation is not described directly. (Heinlein’s craft is that he never describes anything directly, he merely drops clues and lets the reader fill in the blanks.) Nevertheless, the society is clearly a constitutional democracy, merely one where the franchise is limited to veterans. Rico’s father is a wealthy businessman, and plans to send his son to Harvard. The taxes are light, and, at the beginning of the war, the economy is not on a wartime footing. If anything, the hive-mind of the Bugs is described as a “true communism” and is dismissed as unfit for human beings. There is nothing whatever in this book that promotes socialism, much less national socialism. The only “fascists” in the books are the Bugs, who are exterminated like, well, like Bugs.

Is the Terran Federation a totalitarianism? The question is stupid. The narrator’s main purpose in joining the infantry is to win the franchise to vote. You do not vote in Mussolini’s Italy, in Hitler’s Germany, or in Tojo’s Japan. The description of the unit chaplain indicates a freedom of religion is practiced. The right to free speech is mentioned by name.

The racial composition of the school and the infantry is as much as melting pot as the bridge of STAR TREK. Guessing from the names, we have a Turk, a Jap, a Georgian, a Spaniard, a Zulu and a German in the boot camp. Women serve as pilots, and are expressly said to be better than men at handling g-forces. Heinlein does not reveal his narrator is Filipino until the last page, and this, in 1959, is meant as a slap in the face to any people, such as in the Democrat-controlled Southern States, who favored the Jim Crow laws still on the books in those days.

If the military is glorified, all I can say is that none of the civilian characters in the book have been notified of it. In the first three chapters, no civilian character has anything but scorn, ranging from nonchalant distaste to deep contempt, for the military, freely expressed. For example, the doctor giving Juan Rico his medical check-up prior to service calls him an idiot for signing up. His roommate calls him a chump for getting assigned to the infantry. The father hates the notion of the son enlistment to the point where they are not speaking to each other. Now take the same characters expressing the same attitudes and put them in Germany 1939, badmouthing a young officer about to join the Luftwaffe or the S.S. – really? You think they would talk that way to his face?

Second question: even if there is no fascism inside the book, is the book meant to appeal to a fascist audience or promote fascism?

Again, keep in mind the four characteristics of fascism: socialism, totalitarianism, scientific racism, glorification of military government over democracy.

Nothing in the book even mentions economics, but the description matches a free market society, not a top-down regulation society. (Contrast this with the scene in the opening of FARMER IN THE SKY, where it is casually mentioned that the father and son track the calories consumed at breakfast, because there is food rationing; or contrast this with STARMAN JONES, where guild regulations prevent the main character from getting a job. Heinlein knew how to describe by hints top-down regulation societies, and there is no such hint here.)

The politics are positively and decidedly anti-totalitarian. The only totalitarians in the book are the Klendathu, who have a hive-mind.

Is the book racist? One critic said the book was racist on the grounds that the troopers who kill the Krauts in space call their foes by nicknames like “Bugs” and “Skinnies” which is just exactly the same in every way as calling blacks “niggers.” The idea that the troopers call their enemies “Bugs” because they look like Bugs and because saying “Pseudo-Arachnids of Klendathu ” is too long to say evidently did not occur to this critic. “Pseudo-Arachnids of Klendathu , Mr. Rico! Zillions of ‘em!”

Apparently during the war, if any man in the ranks called the enemy “Jerry” or “Kraut” or “Jap” or “Nip” — that was a sign, not of ferocity toward the enemy, but hatred toward his race.

Of course, we live in a day and age when to oppose socialized medicine is to be a racist; to oppose elimination of secret ballots in union votes is to be a racist; to oppose government take-over of the motor car industry is to be racist; to be in favor of not inciting race-hatred is racist; to be in favor of judging men by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin is racist; to be a fan of Thomas Sowell and Alan Keyes is racist; to be a polite non-rock-throwing tax-protestor is to be racist and to be a terrorist also. The word “racist” no longer has any meaning. Real Racists of the world should rejoice, because the boy has cried wolf so often, that you, you scum, the real wolves who actually do promote race-hatred, you will never be noticed, because the society will be so busy chasing down tax-protestors and anti-abortion groups as to have no time for you.

Does the book glorify the military? I suppose that depends on your definition of glory. The infantry life is described here as a thankless and dirty job performed by regular G.I.’s who just want to get the job done and grab a little sack time. Certainly the esprit de corps is glorified, perhaps more so than any science fiction book before it. The galactic battles of the space operas never paused to examine the life and times of a grunt soldier, a footslogger. When the Gray Lensman blows up the throne world of the Eeich by crushing it between two other planets, there is no scene of the infantrymen on shore leave whistling at girls and grousing about the sarge.

The book does heap contempt upon the self-indulgence to which Democracies are prone, particularly those democracies that chatter about rights and never meditate about duties, Democracies that ask what the government can do for them, but ask not what they can do for their government. This is about as controversial and fascist as the Federalist Papers by Jay, Madison and Hamilton.

On critic said that Heinlein has a “Fetishistic” obsession with describing military hardware. Others call war stories “Military Porn” — as if everything from the ILIAD on down was the product of a sexual neurosis. Even if it were true, it would tell you something about the sanity of the critic making the comment.

It is not true. The mechanism of the orbit-to-surface parachute drop is described, and the powered armor suits are described, but not even in as much detail as, for example, the description of Oscar the Spacesuit in HAVE SPACE SUIT, WILL TRAVEL. That is a handful of paragraphs out of the whole book.

Another critic said that the book was fascist on the grounds that the war was a war of extermination against the Bugs, and that the goal of the military forces was total genocide. This criticism was obviously meant for consumption by chumps who had not bothered to read the book. At no point are the war aims discussed; the book ends before the war does; and the last scene in the book concerns an attempt to capture the Brain bugs directing the Warrior bugs in order to establish communication and negotiation. (Why they cannot simply negotiate through the ‘Skinnies’ is never addressed). You do not bother establishing contact with races you mean to exterminate to the last larvae and egg.

Another critic said it was fascist on the grounds that the voter franchise was reserved to veterans. Well, there have been societies which demanded a universal draft of all militia-age citizens. Switzerland comes to mind. And societies where serving a term in the military was the only way to earn citizenship. Rome comes to mind. Germany, Italy and Japan, however, do not come to mind: restricting the voter franchise to veterans is not a feature of fascist political theory.

Another critic said it was fascist on the grounds that the government is run by the military. Also false, also meant for chumps who had not read the book. No one in the military can vote. In that sense, the United States and England (who do allow soldiers in uniform to vote) is more fascist than the Terran Federation. In the book, you get the right to vote only after your term is up.

Critics say it is fascist because there is corporal and capital punishment. This criticism can be admitted only if we extend the definition of the word ‘fascist’ to refer to every entity that ever used corporal or capital punishment for crimes. This would include, for example, the British Navy, the French Monarchy, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the Spanish Empire, the Republic of Venice, the Roman Republic, the Athenian Democracy, and, yes, everyone else you have ever heard of, including my kindergarten teacher Mrs. Otis. The Lewis and Clarke Expedition records a number of floggings in the first two years of the journey (1804-1805). In the 1850’s Commodore R. F. Stockton restricted flogging by legislation. In 1862 Congress finally abolished flogging entirely. Was the United States of America a fascist state up until 1862? One would think the date would be celebrated with some memorial, if that was the date we emerged from fascism and became a republic.

Many critics, perhaps most, call the book fascist because it is not sentimental toward criminals or enemies in war. There is not a single scene where, with the gallantry of knights, or of pagan heroes on the windy plains of Troy, the Bugs and the Cap Troopers exchange pleasantries, issue defiance, hear the heralds call out the terms of the combat, and spare the foe when he yields, selling him back to his kinfolk for ransom. There is not the slightest trace of chivalry in this book, not an iota. However, there is also not the slightest trace of chivalry in the critics who level these charges, nor in the social systems, laws, customs and hive-minds they evidently would prefer.

Many critics, perhaps most, call the book fascist because it does not call the military evil or unjust. Oddly enough, even thought the military is shown in STARSHIP TROOPERS to be inefficient, even clumsy (see the section, for example, about Operation Bughouse, where the Terrans almost lost the war) the military is never depicted as hateful.

So, in the final analysis, what is it about this unprepossessing book, written in a somewhat mechanical way, with perhaps more polemic than normal for a kid’s book, but not anything nearly of the rhetorical force of ATLAS SHUGGED or THE AMBER SPYGLASS. What is it that causes the critics to react with such burning, eye-squinting, tooth-clenching loathing?

I can only speculate. I provoked a similar reaction once from the Loathers, and their grasp of the facts was just as, ah, optional when it came to the criticisms leveled against me as against Mr. Heinlein. Without dwelling on the details in my case, let me just say that I eventually figured out that what my critics were complaining about was not their real complaint. You see, I come from a dimension, called reality, where words mean what they mean and words are used to convey information from one mind to another. The Loathers, as best I can tell, come from a different and horrible alien dimension where words mean precisely what they do not mean, and words are used as emotional indicators only, leaving the listener with the task of discovering what it is that the irrelevant stream of false-to-facts and logically-disconnected statements actually refer to.

I am exaggerating, but only a little. They are not from another dimension, but the Loathers are from a different moral framework. My moral code says dishonesty is wrong, both in thought and deed, and to be illogical is wrong, both formally and morally. Their moral code says reality is wrong, and that any statements conforming to reality are viciously cruel and unforgivable. They cannot actually come out and say what it is that provokes their tears and their ire, because to do so would be to refer to the thing that they cannot name. So they have to take some other thing, only tangentially related, and complain about that.

In Heinlein’s case, he “glorifies” the military about as much, and no more than, your average war story. It is about as “controversial” as saluting the flag. What he does not do is pretend that wars are always optional, always unnecessary, always the fault of the military, and always based on the stupidity, malice and misunderstanding of the benighted.

Instead Heinlein says war will be with us always; there will always be war and rumors of war. If you want peace, prepare for war. War cannot be solved by being nice to the enemy. War cannot be avoided by preemptive surrender. Such is the message in the book.

The yammerheads react to this kind of talk as a vampire to a crucifix. War holds up a bloodstained mirror of remarkable clarity showing that the self-centered self-esteem of the self-actualized professional narcissists cannot survive unless unselfish and average G.I. Joe’s place their bodies between their loved homes and war's desolation.

At least one critic scorned the notion of placing one's body between home and war's desolation. This critic I assume did not know he was not criticizing Heinlein, but was instead criticizing Francis Scott Key. This was either a foreigner, or a dolt who does not know the words to his own National Anthem. In any case, he was someone gripped with a neurotic loathing of the military.

What, then is the attitude of an ordinary man with ordinary, non-neurotic non-loathing toward the military that protects his life and liberty and property? What is a child supposed to learn is the proper and healthy emotional attitude toward soldiering?

I suggest the normal reaction to a war story is pity, respect, awe, and gratitude. Talking of such things in anything other than terse Gary Cooper like sentences does a disservice to the subject matter. Some things can only be spoken of briefly, lest they be dishonored by maudlin tones.

*     *     *

Let me close with a song by Frank Loesser and an anecdote from the war.

Oh, they've got no time for glory in the Infantry.
Oh, they've got no use for praises loudly sung.
But in every soldier's heart in all the Infantry
Shines the name, shines the name of Rodger Young.

Shines the name, Rodger Young!
Fought and died for the men he marched among.
To the everlasting glory of the Infantry.
Lives the story of Private Rodger Young.

Caught in ambush lay a company of riflemen
Just grenades against machine guns in the gloom.
Caught in ambush till this one of twenty riflemen
Volunteered, volunteered to meet his doom.

It was he who drew the fire of the enemy
That a company of men might live to fight.
And before the deadly fire of the enemy
Stood the man, stood the man we hail tonight.

On the island of New Georgia in the Solomons
Stands a simple wooden cross alone to tell.
That beneath the silent coral of the Solomons
Sleeps a man, sleeps a man remembered well.

Sleeps a man, Rodger Young!
Fought and died for the men he marched among.
In the everlasting spirit of the Infantry
Breathes the spirit of Private Rodger Young.

No, they've got no time for glory in the Infantry.
No, they've got no use for praises loudly sung.
But in every soldier's heart in all the Infantry
Shines the name, shines the name of Rodger Young.

Rodger Young was a reservist shipped out to the Pacific theater. He make the rank of sergeant, but asked to be busted back down to private because he was going deaf, and he was afraid he could not properly command man under him, and might cause their deaths. He was a short little man, less than 5’2” and wore thick eyeglasses. He refused the medical discharge which would have let him go home.

As a private, with his fellow reservists, his patrol walked into an ambush and was pinned down by machinegun fire.

This is an edited account of the action from the Military Times (http://www.homeofheroes.com/profiles/profiles_young.html)

Two soldiers fell dead in the initial volley, as the remaining eighteen men dug frantically for cover.

The lieutenant attempted a mass maneuver to remove his men from danger. It was an utter failure, and two more Americans fell to the deadly fire. All the sixteen survivors could do was press their bodies to the earth and pray. They were trapped from above, unable to move, and darkness would set in before long.

Sergeant Rigby did his best to rally his men, but it was heart-rending. "We walked right into a trap," he remembered. In the opening moments, four young men from his home-town area had fallen. Unlike the regular Army, when a National Guard unit goes into war, a company or a platoon is often heavily made up of a group of young men who all come from the same city or region.

As the young NCO struggled to carry out his orders: "We had been ordered to burn our rations when we were told to withdraw," he noticed movement from another of his hometown soldiers. It was his boyhood friend, Private Rodger Young.

"Rodger was bound and determined to get that Japanese machine gun. In his position he had to know he was going to get killed. When I gave the order to retreat, I saw one of the boys beside him poke him with a stick and tell him to draw back but he had his sight on that pillbox and started after it."

Inching forward, his rifle cradled in his arms, as Roger passed the lieutenant, the officer reached out to try and stop him by grabbing his leg. Roger shook himself free and pushed on. The Japanese saw the flicker of movement and loosed a volley of fire in that direction, one round singing the lieutenant's hand and causing him to pull it back. Rodger Young continued crawling forward.

"Come back here!" The Lieutenant shouted. "It's suicide." Private Young ignored the lieutenant's words. If someone didn't knock out that enemy gun, the entire patrol would probably die. "Come back Private Young....THAT'S an ORDER!" The lieutenant shouted again.

For a moment the young private paused, turned to look back at his lieutenant....and smiled. "I'm sorry sir," he said. Then he smiled again. "You know sir, I don't hear very well." And then Rodger Young turned away from his lieutenant to continue crawling forward.

Young was shot in the shoulder, rendering his arm useless. Leaving a trail of blood, he continued forward. He was raked with fire again along his side.

Five yards from the enemy position, Rodger Young had dropped into a depression in the ground deep enough to place him below the muzzle of the machinegun. Slowly, painfully, he used his good right hand to reach down and pull a grenade from his belt and raise it to his face. With his teeth he pulled the safety ring, released the lever and rose to his feet. The full force of the automatic weapon caught him full in the face. As his thick glasses imploded and his small body slumped to the ground, he mustered the strength to throw the grenade.

It was a throw that would have made any athlete proud, strong and true. It destroyed the enemy position and saved the lives of his comrades.

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