Posts Tagged ‘Starship Troopers’

Wading through Twitter this morning, I came across Andrew Exum’s post on Harold Bloom’s dismissal of Robert Heinlein’s 1959 novel Starship Troopers, which appeared in The New Yorker.  Rolf Potts asked Bloom what he thinks of the novel’s inclusion in military reading lists, and the literary critic is less than impressed.

“I can’t take that seriously, I’m sorry,” he said. “I suppose it’s on the list because that’s the world we’re headed towards.”

The world, I can only assume, Bloom is referring to is a hyper-technological state of exception where franchise is linked to military service.  From orbit, soldiers in armored exoskeletons descend onto alien worlds and exterminate a largely nameless, faceless other who is posited as an existential threat to humanity.  From its Cold War context to the contemporary War on Terrorism, Starship Troopers has struck an alarming chord for many in the academic left for this very reason–the foreclosure of anti-war dissidence and the limitless weaponization of technology.  As much as its vision of the future frightens some, it seduces many more–not the least of which are the military and defense industry.  Space-bound light infantry in exoskeletons would seem to be the an answer to a logistical prayer at a time when Afghanistan–or other far-flung sites of foreign intervention–might as well be an alien planet and the fighting load of warfighters has not only crippled their ability to fight but also, in many cases, their bodies as chronic back injuries haunt them.

However, these nightmare and fantasy readings of Starship Troopers belie the importance of the novel as social commentary that is particularly relevant now given the sudden enthusiasm for military intervention in Libya.  First, the chasm between civilians who would ask the military to intervene and the military men and women who must bear the cost of such intervention presents an ethical breech within the democratic process.  Secondly, no matter how technology shapes the battlefield, war is fought and won by men (and women) on the ground.*

The first issue addresses the divide between those who have experienced war and those who have not.  In Starship Troopers, much of Heinlein’s social commentary comes through the character Mr. DuBois, a veteran and teacher of a class named “History and Moral Philosophy.”  Through him, Heinlein sets up his most controversial claim about the civilian-military divide–that citizenship should be reserved for those who have served in the military.  Detractors of the novel have linked this to a fascist impulse in which only those who desire violence are given a voice in the political process, but I have a different reading.  In class, DuBois asks what is the “moral difference” between a soldier and a civilian and Rico, the story’s protagonist, answers:

“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.” (Heinlein 24)

For Heinlein, this “personal responsibility” is linked not only to a willingness to assume the physical risks for political decisions but also an understanding of what those risks entail.  Throughout the novel, there is the sentiment that decision makers, participating citizens, and officers–leaders of the society–must understand the meaning of those risks through experience.  Citizens must have been soldiers; officers must first be enlisted.   Before one can send another off to die for whatever cause, one must have been so ordered.  The result is not a citizenry of hawks; rather, a citizenry who understand the inescapable violence of war.

This understanding of war’s violence is more important than ever, given fantasies old and new. With the ascendency of counterinsurgency theory in the popular imagination, there has been a proliferation of the misunderstanding that war has become a string of humanitarian acts like building schools and providing medical care like those described the now-fictional Three Cups of Tea.  Similarly, the technological abstraction of war has given an ignorant populace the idea that no-fly zones, drone strikes, and a host of half-measures can skirt the violence of war–or at least the worst of it–and restore order for those abused and disenfranchised.

These are not the fantasies of those who have fought the twenty-first century’s wars, but those who have seen their simulacra on cable news and Modern Warfare.   In a recent Small Wars Journal op-ed entitled “War by Any Other Name Is War,” Jason Whiteley–an Iraq veteran and author of the forthcoming Father of Money: Buying Peace in Baghdad–describes the disconnect between citizens and the soldiers:

Yet, American civilians are prepared to wave yellow ribbons and project support for soldiers while remaining comfortably ensconced in cozy lifestyles. In this way, American civilians can feel supportive of those who wage war on their behalf without personally experiencing the effects. […]  This disconnect can only create an aura of irresponsibility. As long as the troops are supported, why should we care about what they actually do? Consider that the average American consumes only a few minutes of news per day and that news tends to be sensational or highly anecdotal. Soldiers have missions that are routine and, hopefully, boring. Their day to day activity does not excite America.

Instead, an uninformed and disinterested public continues to live through euphemisms created under the guise of humanitarianism and technological abstraction.  While warfighters may act as humanitarians, they know there is no non-violent war.  They have born the costs.

Here, we return to the question of Libya.  Whether or not we subscribe to Heinlein’s theories on citizenship, his notion of “moral responsibility” does warrant consideration.  The general public, familiar not with the violence of war but the narcissistic media in which they wallow, has seemingly been enticed by the so-called “Twitter and Facebook revolutions.”  War can be fought–so they think–with 140-character dribble rather than soldiers and revolutionaries.

This ignorance is why Starship Troopers is worth reading.  For all his jingoism, Heinlein does not let us forget that the violence of war is inescapable and soldiers on the ground will pay the costs.

Works Cited

Heinlein, Robert A. Starship Troopers. New York: Ace Books, 1987.

* – In its day, Heinlein’s was an oddly inclusive view of race and gender.  Women, for example, had faster reflexes, so they would be the fighter pilots of the future; men’s brute strength kept them as exclusive members of the infantry.


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Jeff Withington, posting at the US Naval Institute blog, shared an email exchange he had with Admiral Jim Stavridis on the value of an English major and the impact it has had on his life.  Admiral Stavridis also recommends a “must-read” list for midshipmen before receiving their commission. Well, I have one-upped the admiral.  In the fall, I will be offering an American literature course entitled “Survey of American Literature: Narratives of War, 1865-Present.”  You don’t even have to be a midshipman or an English major–only a student at the University of Florida.

“Narratives of War” will focus on novels, short stories, films, and memoir that deal with aspects of armed conflict since the end of the Civil War.  The course will encourage students to think critically about an number of issues including but not limited to post-traumatic stress disorder, women in the military, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” Arab-Americans after 9/11, Revolution in Military Affairs, and counterinsurgency.

My inspiration for the course was John Nagl’s characterization of American military culture as one of survival in the face of existential threats. That culture of survival permeates all of American culture including the struggles facing various waves of immigration, the GLBT community, and Arab Americans post-9/11. As diverse as America itself, our military faces many of these same challenges.

There are no shortage of texts, so it is inevitable that I will miss some here or there. My goal was to cover a wide swath of historical periods and genres. There may be some changes, but here it is as it stands today:

Week 1
Monday (8/24): Course overview and introductions; reading journal explained

Wednesday (8/26): American Civil War; Walt Whitman, selected poems

Friday (8/28): Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1-75)

Week 2
Monday (8/31): Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (76-152)

Wednesday (9/2): selection, Ambrose Bierce, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” “A Son of the Gods,” “One Officer, One Man,” and “One of the Missing” (Available at The Ambrose Bierce Project, http://www.ambrosebierce.org/works.html)

Friday (9/4): Spanish-American War; Rudyard Kipling, “The White Man’s Burden” [Available at http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~wldciv/world_civ_reader/world_civ_reader_2/kipling.html%5D; Mark Twain, “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” [Available at http://www.logosjournal.com/issue_4.3/twain.htm%5D

Week 3
Monday (9/7): No class

Wednesday (9/9): Stephen Crane, “The Open Boat” [Available at http://etext.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/CraOpen.html%5D

Friday (9/11): September 11th; Flight 93, directed by Peter Markle (in-class screening)

Week 4
Monday (9/14): 9/11 and Arab Americans; Randa Jarrar, “Lost in Freakin’ Yonkers” and “A Frame for the Sky” (course packet)

Wednesday (9/16): Introduction to Research Writing: Asking Questions and Finding Answers; Group Activity on Topics, Questions, and Problems

Friday (9/18): World War I; selection, Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (3 – 35) [course packet]

Week 5
Monday (9/21): Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (36 – 74) [course packet]

Wednesday (9/23): Ernest Hemingway, “Soldier’s Home”

Friday (9/25): Research Writing, continued: Sources and Citation

Week 6
Monday (9/28): World War II; Art Spiegelman, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (part 1)

Wednesday (9/30): Spiegelman, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (part 2)

Friday (10/2): Research Writing, continued: Claims and Support; for class discussion, watch the following WWII Disney Propaganda films: “The Spirit of ’43” [Available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oqMVpcbhpqw%5D, “Der Fuerher’s Face” [Available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mZiRiIpZVF4%5D, “Commando Duck” [Available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H81Nna8fo5g%5D

Week 7
Monday (10/5): Vietnam War; selection, Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

Wednesday (10/7): selected poems, Yusef Komunyakaa

Friday (10/9): Revolution in Military Affairs; selected military technology articles; Donald Rumsfeld, “Secretary Rumsfeld Speaks on ‘21st Century Transformation’ of U.S. Armed Forces,” US Department of Defense, January 31, 2002 [Available at http://www.defenselink.mil/speeches/speech.aspx?speechid=183%5D; John Nagl’s and Frederick Kagan’s responses in Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife [e-reserve] and Finding The Target: The Transformation of American Military Policy [e-reserve]

Week 8
Monday (10/12): Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers (1-75)

Wednesday (10/14): Heinlein, Starship Troopers (75-150)

Friday (10/16): No class

Week 9
Monday (10/19): Heinlein, Starship Troopers (150-225)

Wednesday (10/21): Heinlein, Starship Troopers (225-272)

Friday (10/23): 1991 Gulf War; Jean Baudrillard, “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place,” Jarhead [in-class screening]; Reading Response Paper due

Week 10
Monday (10/26): Don’t Ask Don’t Tell; selection, Gabe Hudson, Dear Mr. President; James J. Lindsay, Jerome Johnson, E.G. “Buck” Shuler Jr. and Joseph J. Went, “Gays and The Military: A Bad Fit,” The Washington Post, 15 April 2009, A19; Andrew Exum, “DADT and the Age Gap,” Abu Muqawama

Wednesday (10/28): The War in Afghanistan and the 2003 Iraq War; Colby Buzzell, My War: Killing Time in Iraq (1-75)

Friday (10/30): Buzzell, My War: Killing Time in Iraq (75-150)

Week 11
Monday (11/2): Buzzell, My War: Killing Time in Iraq (150-225)

Wednesday (11/4): Buzzell, My War: Killing Time in Iraq (225-300)

Friday (11/6): Buzzell, My War: Killing Time in Iraq (300-368)

Week 12
Monday (11/9): Women in the Military; Kayla Williams, Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army (1-75)

Wednesday (11/11): No class

Friday (11/13): Williams, Love My Rifle More Than You (75-150)

Week 13
Monday (11/16): Williams, Love My Rifle More Than You (150-225)

Wednesday (11/18):Williams, Love My Rifle More Than You (225-300)

Friday (11/20): Williams, Love My Rifle More Than You (300-320)

Week 14
Monday (11/23): Counterinsurgency; Spenser Ackerman, “Women Prominent in Defense Movement (Seventh in a Series: The Rise of the Counterinsurgents),” The Washington Independent; Research Paper (First Draft) due

Wednesday (11/25): Montgomery McFate, “The Military Utility of Understanding Adversary Culture”; Roberto J. González, “Towards mercenary anthropology? The new US Army counterinsurgency manual FM 3-24 and the military-anthropology complex”; Montgomery McFate, “Building Bridges or Burning Heretics?”

Friday (11/27): No class

Week 15
Monday (11/30): No class; student conferences (required)

Wednesday (12/2): No class; student conferences (required)

Friday (12/4): No class; student conferences (required)

Week 16:
Monday (12/7): Unmanned Systems; Sig Christenson, “Air Force looks to keep more pilots grounded,” MySA.com; David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum, “Death from above, outrage from below,” Eagle Eye, directed by DJ Caruso [in-class screening]

Wednesday (12/9): Conclusion; Research Paper (Final Draft) due

I will be interested to hear your feedback on the syllabus. If you are a student at UF, the course is AML2070: Section 1625. I would welcome any cadets or midshipmen from the ROTC program.

I may require a blogging component to students’ reading journal, because I am sure students will have some great perspectives not only on the works themselves but also the issues we will cover together.

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