“Liberty is never unalienable; it must be redeemed regularly with the blood of patriots or it always vanishes.” So quotes Colonel Dubois, outlining the major theme of Heinlen’s controversial novel, Starship Troopers.
Its protagonist is Johnnie Rico, a young man who signs up to join the armed forces in an intergalactic space war. The first part of the book focuses on his training and background, while the second part delves more into the underlying themes of Heinlen’s world.
One of the primary themes is duty. In Starship Troopers, duty comes before rights. How else could you explain restricting the franchise to veterans? That’s right: only those in the Federal Service can vote. Or hold public office. Everyone else in the citizenry has basic rights, except for these.
The rationale is that soldiers, or people in the Federal Service have demonstrated their right to the franchise by placing their country before themselves. In order to have an active role in the political process, you have to prove you’re a patriot. You have to show that you are “loyal enough” to what your country stands for, in order to participate in it.
And what’s the best way to do this: by fighting in a war. In Starship Troopers, the enemy is an insectoid alien life form that the soldiers continuously refer to as bugs. The goal of war is not to completely destroy the enemy, but to subjugate and demoralize him. The first chapter paints a pretty brutal picture of this. Soldiers go through a town, burning everything in sight. It’s pretty much a scorched earth policy.
In the book, the enemy is seen as inferior and subhuman. They are primitive alien beings, but at the same time, strangely complex. People have labeled Heinlen’s book as fascist because of this, even going so far to compare it to Nazi propaganda. The director of the movie even took this stance, which is why it had a much more deprecating, satirical tone.
In the movie the army is lampooned as being overly right-wing, pro-fascist, and savagely jingoistic. They are caricatures of Heinlen’s actual world. But in the books they’re a reality.
The philosophy of Starship Troopers is played out through re-occurring flashbacks of dialogues between Rico and his high school History and Moral Philosophy teacher, Colonel Dubois.
According to Dubois the reason that previous societies and democracies fell was that they glorified the rights of man, instead of duty. They upheld life and liberty as an inborn right without teaching people the obligation that comes with it. People were simply “given” rights, without responsibility.
Crime and punishment is also a theme. One of the reasons that the old democracies (including our current American one) failed, according to Colonel Dubois, is that we were too soft on crime. We outlawed corporal punishment in classrooms, stopped beating our children, and took a more rehabilitating approach towards crime. Ergo, incarceration.
But in the world of Starship Troopers, pain is the perfect survival tool, not rehabilitation. Dubois uses the example of the dog to defend corporal punishment. A dog has to be spanked in order to learn his manners. And so do offenders, so to speak. We may rail against “cruel and unusual punishment”. But punishment must be “unusual” otherwise it serves no purpose.
In Starship Troopers, that is accomplished through public flogging. The idea is basically that the pain and humiliation of being whipped in front of your peers serves to deter you from future crimes. As an effect: morality is learned, by the sword. You won’t rescind, for fear of “cruel and unusual punishment”. You’ll know your obligation now. And know it well.
If you want something as basic as human rights, you should have to sweat and bleed and toil for it. Older societies didn’t realize that. They took a coddling approach to civilians, putting their “rights” into handouts, instead of duty. And that’s why they fell.
In Starship Troopers, nothing is given. It is only gained. With maximum effort. Always. You should not have entitlements. You should struggle for them. Even if society can help you. Morality hinges on one common theme: duty.