Heinlein Vs. Verhoeven

A Review of Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers

Periodically the discourse drifts back to discussion of a film or book that people have mostly forgotten, but its loyal fans are quick to appear out of the ether when it comes up again. Recently, the X crowd started in again on the film version of Starship Troopers (1997) directed by Paul Verhoeven. I like a lot of Verhoeven’s work and even in the movies that I don’t care for as much, there is usually something to compliment. 

The amusing part of the discussion of this film is that, judged by the intent of the director at least, Starship Troopers failed in its mission. Verhoeven wanted to write a satire that demonstrated the dangers of a military-industrial complex, a fascistic society oriented towards war, and to critique the meat grinder of modern forever wars. These are all legitimate critiques and I would say that this is not a bad goal. 

Why then did Paul Verhoeven, supposed master satirist, fail? His film is too on the nose. Among other things, he made the subjects of his satirical mockery too likable and he made the enemy too hateable. Showing an audience a future of human interstellar travel, a bunch of good-looking and seemingly well-adjusted young people going to fight against aggressive, animalistic bug monsters and expecting the audience to side with the bugs is not a safe bet. It turns out that many if not most fans who still regard the movie highly, consider it a straightforward action film and not as a clever subversive satire.

Cards on the table, I hate the movie. When it came out I was initially excited to see it. I saw a trailer for it when we went to see Star Trek: First Contact (1996) in the theater with my family. I was very young at the time. When it turned out to be rated R, my parents said they needed to see it first and when they did I got the thumbs down. So instead I read the book. Eventually, I saw the movie, but by then I was a fan of the book and if you are a person who has read it and seen it, you will recognize the conflict. Aside from a few character names, the presence of bug-like aliens, and a few plot points, there is virtually no similarity. Verhoeven infamously stated that he didn’t read the book except for a few pages (he said it was boring), he had a peon read it and summarize it for him. Verhoeven even said he set out to make a film that was such an affront to the book that fans of the book would be insulted by it. Robert Heinlein’s widow was so outraged at the final product that she got Robert’s name pulled from the credits. Verhoeven’s script was originally titled “Bug Hunt on Planet Nine” or “Bug War” depending on what reports you read. The Starship Troopers appellation was added later in the production to capitalize on the presence of some built-in fandom, however small.

While Verhoeven’s goal was to show the future dominated by a vaguely Aryan race of space Nazis, Heinlein (a US Navy veteran of WW2, by the way) did what he always does in his books. He told an interesting story with a science fiction setting while exploring ideas about technology, society, and culture. His society in the book is a multicultural one and, though taking on a modified form, still ultimately democratic. Heinlein’s stories are often lengthy thought experiments for ideas that he wanted to consider and breathe life into so they could, in turn, be considered by his readers. He didn’t always personally advocate for all these novel ideas in real life though. His best book, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966), explores libertarian governance and the idea of interplanetary economics as well as some weird ideas about marriage and civil justice set against the backdrop of a popular revolution of the citizenry of the Moon against the tyrannical and exploitative rule of the Earth. 

Starship Troopers is at its core a coming-of-age story about a boy who learns to be a man by finding himself in the military and having to grow and adapt in order to survive and thrive there. This is set against the backdrop of a society that limits the vote to those who have served a term of at least two years of federal service, a threat of alien attack and the advent of “Iron Man” style powered-armor weaponry and interstellar space flight. 

A Brief Plot Synopsis

Johnnie Rico is the protagonist of the story and when it begins he is completing high school. The Earth appears to mostly be under a single united government, The Terran Federation, which has expanded human civilization to other planets, though Rico is on Earth. In this society, people are split into two groups, citizens and civilians. While the differences are not explored in great detail, the one concrete difference is that citizens can vote and civilians cannot (this implies that citizens are able to be elected officials and civilians are not). Rico comes from a wealthy industrialist family, so it seems that Heinlein does not envision an economic distinction between the two classes. If anything the citizens are probably marginally lower class, economically at least. They are treated with a sort of patronizing pity for valuing the vote highly enough to set aside the pursuit of wealth in favor of wasting two or more years working for the government.

Rico has been subtly but deeply affected by the instruction of one of his teachers, the prickly Mr. Dubois, who teaches a mandatory audit class called “History and Moral Philosophy.” This class is mandatory to take, but not to pass in order to graduate and must be taught by a citizen. Upon graduation and being influenced by friends, Rico agrees, without pausing to consider the consequences, to pursue citizenship by signing up for federal service. Rico is an average, unimpressive youth, and so he receives his last choice for service, the Mobile Infantry. In the process of training and serving in his role, he matures and finds that he is not merely acceptable as a soldier, but a rather good one. Ultimately rising through the ranks to become a mature mentor to younger soldiers like he used to be. During his time of service, the “bug war” starts and Rico and his compatriots are deployed to fight them. It is also revealed that “Johnnie” is actually “Juan” as he is Filipino. This surprise is typical of Heinlein, who seemed to enjoy these kinds of little character twists later in his works.

Throughout the book, Rico is confronted with a need to philosophically consider his situation and he realizes the depth of this intellectual upbringing and its effects on him. Periodically the book flashes back to classes with “Mr.” Dubois when Rico, who seemed quite mediocre and even apathetic at the time, struggles to understand the material and deal with the withering Socratic interrogation of the tough teacher, who, as it turns out is actually “Colonel” Dubois and was a veteran of the Mobile Infantry and a war hero. Rico is also deeply affected by mentors in training and later on by high-quality officers such as his first lieutenant, Rasczak, while serving in the war. Despite having no dialogue in the book, Lt. Raszcak clearly forms the young recruit’s views on what a virtuous and competent fighting man should be. In the film version, Mr. Dubois and Lieutenant Raszcak are conflated into a single character named Rasczak who is both his high school teacher and later in the movie, Rico’s first lieutenant. During the periodic flashbacks, Heinlein critiques the modern era by contrasting the society of Starship Troopers with the contemporary society of 1959 when Heinlein published it. His commentary reveals significant prescience about the decline of society as a result of unlimited enfranchisement, a limp-wristed criminal justice system and a bloated and inefficient military. 

Heinlein’s Big Ideas

Heinlein describes life in the mobile infantry which demonstrates his honorific in the sci-fi world of “The Grandmaster.” He practically invents the sub-genre of “military science fiction” with this book. Similar ideas are used in a book he wrote 11 years prior called “Space Cadet (1948)” Barring the presence of an alien enemy, it follows a very similar course of events and could be considered a practice run for Starship Troopers with fewer high-minded ideas. Starship Troopers is loaded with a very believable militarized vocabulary and Rico as the narrator to occasionally explain things to the reader. This would likely appeal to those who have a passing interest in real military culture or actual veterans or servicemen.

One of the core concepts Heinlein wants to explore in this work is the idea of society which is separated into those who value it highly and those who simply exist in it. The distinction he seeks to explain is his understanding of what “civic virtue” ought to be. While there is mention of other services that qualify, we are only shown those who are willing to bleed or have bled for society in actual fighting services. 

At some point before the start of this story, civilization had descended to a low point after another world war, and many drastic changes were needed for human society to continue and future cataclysm to be avoided. In the ensuing anarchy, military veterans took power as the only people willing and able to institute governance. Their influence grew as the ruled well and more people came to see the methods as an improvement. Corporal punishment was reintroduced. Education was reformed. And of course, the franchise was restricted to those who served in an approved federal service. While still a democratic society, the restriction on voting rights changes things for the better in Heinlein’s universe. Heinlein envisioned this system as a successful set of changes. People are generally happy with the state of affairs and this is not set up as a dystopian society. There are complainers, but no revolts. Even the civilians without franchise are not terribly concerned with the fact that they don’t have voting rights and seem pleased enough to leave the work of governance to others. Of course, only those who are enfranchised are eligible to become elected officials themselves and so policy is set by those who have served the body politic. 

Heinlein’s core concept is the question of if voting should be limited to a portion of society and if so, how do you limit it? In the world of Starship Troopers, Heinlein visualizes a world where society collapsed and was seized by the military and the veterans of the time and restructured. Ergo the vote was restricted to those who demonstrated seriousness in pursuing the governance of the society and were willing to pay, in blood or treasure forgone, to have a voice in the way it was run. In Heinlein’s world, active duty was not enfranchised, only honorably discharged veterans were finally awarded their voting privileges as a parting gift. 

Throughout American history, the vote has been restricted to certain sets of the population based on a number of different statuses such as real property ownership, sex, or even church membership. Even today certain parts of the population do not get to vote. Citizenship, while not that hard to obtain, is still a barrier to voting rights. Felons in most places lose their right to vote. And, of course, those under eighteen years of age cannot vote yet. I am not a veteran, I would not advocate for a world where only veterans or others who have “served” at the federal level should be the only ones who get to vote. A plot point of the book is that the entire world is subject to the governance of the military and therefore must endure whatever consequences that the military brings upon them. The “bugs” are not an animalistic civilization; they have achieved interstellar travel, after all. So after initiating the war with them, the bugs manage to find out where the human homeworld is and wipe out several major cities. If civilians had any say in government, what would the response have been to that kind of devastation? Heinlein makes the subtle point that in spite of the losses, the military has the discipline to see the mission through. They conclude in their black-and-white worldview that it is either humanity or the bugs. It is up to the reader to judge if that is the right call or not.

Heinlein appears to reject the idea that military men and veterans are smarter. In fact, he narrates a very prescient fictional event called the “Revolt of the Scientists.” This fictional revolt failed because, according to Heinlein’s character, Major Reid:

“[L]et the intelligent elite run things and you’ll have a utopia. It fell flat on its foolish face of course. Because the pursuit of science, despite its social benefits, is itself not a social virtue; its practitioners can be men so self-centered as to be lacking in social responsibility.”

Contemporary people can sympathize with this assessment of modern technocrats. He continues:

“We have had enough guesses; I’ll state the obvious: Under our system, every voter and officeholder is a man who has demonstrated through voluntary and difficult service that he places the welfare of the group ahead of personal advantage.”

One of Heinlein’s well-crafted exchanges between the young student protagonist and Mr. Dubois actually made the leap from the book to the screenplay: 

He suddenly pointed his stump at me. “You. What is the moral difference, if any, between the soldier and the civilian?”

“The difference,” I answered carefully, “lies in the field of civic virtue. A soldier accepts personal responsibility for the safety of the body politic of which he is a member, defending it, if need be, with his life. The civilian does not.”

“The exact words of the book,” he said scornfully. “But do you understand it? Do you believe it?”

Mr. Dubois’s voice intrudes periodically into Johnnie’s thoughts as he encounters crossroads in his life imparting residual wisdom:

I could hear Colonel Dubois in my mind: “Citizenship is an attitude, a state of mind, an emotional conviction that the whole is greater than the part…and that the part should be humbly proud to sacrifice itself that the whole may live.”

Almost without exception, the characters that are meant by Heinlein to be considered noble and admirable are men of strong conviction and extensive experience who have devoted themselves to understanding the philosophy of civic virtue as a necessary byway to overall excellence. Men of war need a reason to fight. Rico begins the story directionless and aloof. He grows to care about the mobile infantry as a sort of proxy family and he cares more about his comrades in arms than himself. This newfound sense of purpose eventually extends to a love of humanity as a whole as Rico matures and develops as a man. Through ongoing training and education and much exposure to the school of hard knocks, he develops the virtue needed to be trusted as a voting member of a body politic even as that final goal becomes less and less important to his character. 

Bug-like aliens are a rather hackneyed premise in science fiction. It’s an often lazy way of differentiating alien hive minds from human ones. It is a frightening concept for a human to lose all sense of individuality. Heinlein however gets some credit for choosing bug aliens on the basis that one of his themes in Starship Troopers is about finding the balance of individualism and the correct relationship to society. Also, as an early adopter (1959), the alien-bug trope wasn’t as worn out then. The bugs have no individuality, they are entirely the tools of the “state.”

“We were learning, expensively, just how efficient a total communism can be when used by a people actually adapted to it by evolution; the Bug commissars didn’t care any more about expending soldiers than we cared about expending ammo.” 

However, this lack of individualism ultimately leads to the downfall of the bugs as it is individual creativity that allows the soldiers and strategic leadership of the humans to adapt and invent new, more effective tactics. Heinlein has some subtle commentary in the book on the flaws of central planning and communism. The hive minds of the bugs are eventually successfully isolated and targeted and the book ends implying that the Terran Federation has turned the tide of the war. Victory in the war is not the point of the book however as it is the story of men and not of the war itself.

The book and Verhoeven’s version of the film differ not merely in the usual ways but in some of the more significant thematic ways that can offset the entire message of a work of literature. An example of this is that Heinlein and Verhoeven both had Johnnie Rico’s wealthy father initially disapproving of his joining the Mobile Infantry. However, in the book version, in one of Heinlein’s slightly less believable twists, Rico’s father joins up and they cross paths as infantrymen. Johnnie and his father even end up in the same unit with the father serving as his platoon sergeant. In both versions, Rico’s mother was killed in a bug attack on Buenos Aires. In the book, this frees his father up to join which is something it turns out he always wanted to do too. In the movie version, Rico’s father was also killed in the attack. This gives Rico a simplistic revenge motive for wanting to kill bugs, but it takes away from Heinlein’s intent to show that the example of Johnnie joining up and taking a stand inspired his own father to confront his previous weakness and join up too. In the movie, the father who learns to love the military is out, but the father who hates the military stays in. 

In Verhoeven’s film, the presence of the darkly humorous propaganda element seems to show the desperation of the regime to cajole and deceive soldiers into joining the eternal meat grinder of a forever war, making promises of citizenship and pleading for new recruits, even brainwashing children with pro-war messaging. Meanwhile, in Heinlein’s version, there was no recruiting. Those seeking to join up were actively discouraged and quitting was easy and cost-free. The Mobile Infantry was an all-volunteer fighting force and anyone who wanted to could leave without consequence and it was very hard to get through training. In Heinlein’s book, moral degeneracy was not tolerated in the service and was harshly punished including with death. This underscores Heinlein’s vision for a military that was highly virtuous and sought to defend the civic body even from abuses by itself.  

Another interesting choice for Verhoeven was the adjustment of the Mobile Infantry to a co-ed fighting force. In Heinlein’s book, most female military members joined the Navy. Heinlein asserts that in the future it has been discovered that females have natural advantages that allow them to be better at piloting spacecraft in most cases. There is actually debate about this in current year, but it is one of the things Heinlein added to his universe and it serves as a minor plot point. In Verhoeven’s version, men and women appear to be mostly interchangeable. An odd choice for a man trying to smear the Terrain Federation as the space fascists. Heinlein understood that an infantry force needed to be male and it is so obvious as to be never brought up other than the simple fact that all the Mobile Infantry soldiers in the book are males. Verhoeven probably considered himself very progressive at the time for including women as the combat equals of men, but he may have accidentally exposed his progressive views as degenerate when he depicted his evil space empire as one that sends women to fight on the bloody front lines.

Verhoeven’s cynicism overwhelms what should be an inspiring final few moments showing the steadfastness of fighting men trying to protect the body politic. In Heinlein’s book, Rico has achieved the rank of a junior officer, with his father as his platoon sergeant. His final words are encouragement that the mission they are undertaking was a strike on the bug homeworld that was a prisoner rescue operation. He encouraged his men that if they were captured, humans would come to rescue their own: 

“Another bug hunt, boys. This one is a little different, as you know. Since they still hold prisoners of ours, we can’t use a nova bomb on Klandathu–so this time we go down, stand on it, hold, take it away from them. The boat won’t be down to retrieve us; instead it’ll fetch more ammo and rations. If you’re taken prisoner, keep your chin up and follow the rules–because you’ve got the whole outfit behind you, you’ve got the whole Federation behind you; we’ll come and get you. That’s what the boys from the Swamp Fox and the Montgomery have been depending on. Those who are still alive are waiting, knowing that we will show up. And here we are. Now we go get ‘em.”

Meanwhile in Verhoeven’s version Rico has turned into a pitiless tyrant who threatens his hilariously youthful new recruits that “if you don’t do your job, I’ll kill you myself.” He learned this directly from the aforementioned movie version of Lt. Raszcak. The mission is not one of rescue, but of death, Verhoeven trying to emphasize the bloodthirstiness of the Mobile Infantry and the human race. The line delivery sounds really cool on film, but anyone who has ever been in a fighting service knows that you can only get away with saying things like this if it is actually well-known you would lay down your life for your people to save them. In other words, no competent officer would lead a newly formed platoon this way.

Final Verdict

By Verhoeven’s own admission, he didn’t understand or even know the source material. He in fact set out to undermine Heinlein’s goals of showing the virtues that can be attained through self-sacrifice, service and discipline. Verhoeven didn’t even bother to address Heinlein’s core theme of civic virtue and what form it takes, offering only a single brief scene about the value of citizenship. While I think that the movie wasn’t good, because of its pitiful mockery of the book, many people do like it (sufficient numbers to spawn a slew of garbage-tier, direct-to-video detritus). Verhoeven’s high-minded artistic facade is also undermined by a gratuitous co-ed shower scene which it turns out he had been trying to get past censors for years in his various films. Perhaps this sheds more light on his choice to include women as members of the Mobile Infantry. By 1997 our society had finally degenerated enough for him to get away with it. 

A mix of people seem to value the movie for different reasons. Either they agree with Verhoeven’s satirical message of the dangers of the military-industrial-fascist complex, or they intentionally miss his message and take the movie as a simple sci-fi action film where good guys try to kill aggressive bug aliens (the original trailer marketed the movie this way because movie studios used to know their audience). Hilariously, the ones who do buy into Verhoevan’s message seem to be quite offended if you don’t.

Meanwhile, Robert Heinlein’s original dedication is to “‘Sarge’ Arthur George Smith– Soldier, Citizen, Scientist, and to all sergeants anywhere who have learned to make men out of boys.” He regularly references real veterans and heroes, especially Rodger Young, who won a Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously, for charging a machine gun nest and saving his squad in WW2. Heinlein’s work stands morally in a different league from Verhoeven’s adaptation. 

If you must watch the movie, I would encourage you to do it in spite of Verhoeven’s goals and to view it as a story about humanity surviving and overcoming the attacks of an ugly, aggressive, sub-human monster horde. But it would be a better use of your time to simply read the book. It is downright enjoyable and while it will not ascend to the Western Canon as a timeless classic, it deals well with serious ideas. One of Heinlein’s strengths is the ability to use a light touch with concepts his stories contain. One can never be really sure exactly what the author himself believed from merely reading his fiction. His stories are an invitation to consider ideas and they are packaged in well-written and entertaining events and characters. 

Image Credit: Unsplash

Print article

Share This

Terry Gant

Terry Gant is a Great Books teacher and amateur strength coach at Highland Rim Academy, program administrator for Daniel 1 Academy, co-host of the podcast Script v. Manuscript and the Managing Editor at American Reformer. He lives with his wife and children in the Highland Rim of Tennessee. He is on Twitter/X @scriptmanuscr1

2 thoughts on “Heinlein Vs. Verhoeven

  1. Excellent piece. I read Heinen’s book this summer of 1976 when I was 13 years old, and it was the first science-fiction novel I ever read, and it made me a lifelong devotee of Heinlein and of the genre. The one Cribble I have is that you may have missed an important nuance. Citizens are allowed to vote if they volunteer for government service, but it is not always our necessarily military service. The government sends you where they think you will be useful. The point is you put your life in your fate in the hands of the government and agreed to serve no matter where you are sent. Johnny Rico‘s friend Carl is sent to a scientific research station on Pluto, but it’s killed in a bug raid on the solar system. Johnnie makes the point that no matter where you sent you were still in danger, in wartime it’s not just the mobile infantry, but everyone who is in danger from the bugs. I’ve never seen the entire movie, I have only seen clips. The cynicism is indeed ugly the mixing of male and female soldiers seems to be derived from the book, The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, which was also a cynical response to Heinlein’s novel, from a Vietnam war era perspective.

  2. I’ve read the book countless times since my pre-teens and regularly recommend it to young men (and not so young men). The film is trash and shouldn’t even be named in relation to the novel, as Heinlein’s widow rightly understood. ST may never be regarded as one of the great novels of the 20th century, but it is far more morally and philosophically provocative and insightful than most of the entire on such a list. Buy copies, give them away, and discuss the ideas with young men.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *