24 May The movie was better than the book.
i wrote the essay below over 15 years ago, in 1998, in defense of the then recently released in theaters feature film “Starship Troopers” by Paul Verhoeven which i viewed then and now as a hilarious but frightening send up of america’s increasing militarism and slide into fascism and a police state. the film was written by ed neumeier who also wrote the first Robocop film, another great satire on similar subject matter and a jab at verhoeven’s american movie going audience itself. both film’s still hold up and it looks like i was sadly correct in ’98 in noting america’s constant need for a new enemy/other to sustain our insanely high military budget, very little of which going to the soldiers themselves who have to fight the wars. We did find that eternal enemy other only three years later in the War on Terror, started roughly in 2001 after the brutal attack on the world trade center in new york by what we used to call “hijackers” that we fought then as the criminals they were rather than as “the terrorists” who morphed quickly off the dull, dumbass tongue of my fellow texan, the former president turned watercolorist, george w. bush, into “the bad guys” on every major media outlet in america, even pbs, a term that would confirm the worst of verhoeven’s satire and my writing below. i posted this essay because i just saw an article from only a few months ago, November 2013 by a Calum Marsh in the magazine The Atlantic where apparently they agree with my conclusions now though pretty much no one did when i first wrote this analysis of Heinlin’s book and Verhoven’s film, again, back in 1998. i was living in a dilapidated trailer at the time, dead ass broke, surrounded by 324 barking stray dogs, and i never would have guessed that paul verhoeven and i would have the same book publisher one day,15 years later, with Seven Stories Press in new york…
“Just Kids Fighting Bugs” by J.R. Helton in 1998, Olmos, Texas
Among literary circles, or any portion of the public that is still partial to reading books, it is not uncommon to hear the phrase “the book was better than the movie” especially when the book is the favored medium. In this instance, the phrase may for once be reversed in a comparison of the late, science fiction king, Robert Heinlein’s 1959 novel Starship Troopers and Paul Verhoeven’s fairly recent film version of the same title penned by screenwriter Ed Neumeier. In the current “unsure” post-cold war era, as the United States frantically casts about for new enemies in its continuing efforts to sustain, if not increase, the insanely massive military budget on either a destabilizing missile defense, or just the basic new planes, tanks, guns, and “smart” bombs, the question of just who are we fighting now, and why, should more than ever arise and thus prompts another look perhaps at both these works.
Verhoeven’s film version of Starship Troopers, much like the novel, appears to be a standard, action-packed, space/war story on its surface. Indeed, much like the book can be viewed, in light of its almost juvenile, young male fascination with guns and gadgets and weapons, the film was marketed for the theater and for video sales in the same way: as a standard action story with no mention, or even a hint of any underlying satire or irony. Regardless of Verhoeven’s previous or subsequent hits or misses (“Showgirls” certainly comes to mind, where he managed to make massive nudity boring), a serious examination of this particular film reveals an extremely dark and accurate satire on the director’s part at his American audience’s expense, a satire that succeeds so thoroughly on an audience already so indoctrinated by prevailing American attitudes, assumptions, and influences, that it is hardly noticed by most who view the film. Heinlein’s book though, only functions on the surface level of promoting violence as the sole and most effective means for conflict resolution.
Heinlein, in the process of lauding the military in Starship Troopers, has created a fascist state that insists upon military enlistment in order to become a true citizen. There is no hint of irony in Heinlein’s patriarchal, militaristic world mentally occupied, for the most part, by teenage boys and tough guys playing at the all too serious, state sanctioned and sponsored game of death. Heinlein makes his John Wayne “Sands of Iowa Jima” patriotic message quite clear in the book’s dedication (in all capitals no less), “TO ALL SERGEANTS ANYWHERE WHO HAVE LEARNED TO MAKE MEN OUT OF BOYS” promoting the idea then that it is only war that can facilitate the male maturation process. In Heinlein’s world, the best one can do is to act and not think, to sacrifice one’s life, to be a non-questioning individual, much like the narrator, who says of being in the mobile infantry “I’m not a genius, I’m an M.I….When the government sends me, I go” (Heinlein 78). Unlike the novel, “Starship Troopers” the film, actually works on two levels: as a violent, commercial, action picture of war that appeals to young teenage boys, a large segment of the American movie-going population (if not reading public), and also, most importantly, as a critique of war in general and the techniques used by the state to foster the appropriate attitudes and feelings that bring a society to a war-mongering state. To be even more specific, Verhoeven has made a film that is an indictment of America’s ever-growing fascist, ultra-nationalistic, and militaristic tendencies and obsessions. Heinlein, on the other hand, is nothing but a cheerleader and carny barker for those same tendencies.
Verhoeven has given his audience a number of seemingly quite obvious “clues” as to what his picture is really about, but, unfortunately, these indicators may only be apparent to those left in America who are not completely within the throes of prevailing, mainstream opinion and culture. That today’s culture mimics the same stereotypical 1950’s culture within which Heinlein was immersed, is an even further irony. Indeed, Heinlein’s book could be seen as a thinly veiled pamphlet for the ultra-conservative, reactionary, and oppressive ideas and practices of the fifties. His rallying cries for more violence and discipline as the sole answer for society’s ills are obvious, shrill, and quite simplistic. One of the most laughable scenes on page 89 of the novel finds the narrator learning from his teacher about solving the problems of crime and juvenile delinquency in an analogy on house training a puppy, the argument, in short, that all society needs to do, in its schools, businesses, homes, prisons, military, and elsewhere, to change behavior, to direct behavior, is to give the individual(s) a good paddling. Using his own ridiculous analogy on the best method to housetrain pets, one can easily destroy his basic arguments on the use of consistent force as it does not actually work best to rub the animal’s nose in its own feces and whip it, but to simply let the animal outside whenever it eats, as much as possible when it first enters the particular home, to establish the outdoors as a place to go. A beating only confuses the beast which is performing an unavoidable bodily function. In other words, be smarter than the animal, use intelligence, not violence, something Heinlein has spent two hundred pages telling us not to do. One can see the same calls for more violence and punishment in our own American prisons which, when implemented, have had no effect on the rise in crime or juvenile delinquency in this real world.
Conversely, much like his excellent satire on a totalitarian system of law enforcement run by a large, cynical company seeking profit and power, “Robocop” (also written by Ed Neumeier), “Starship Troopers” is intelligent in its satire and is full of the same ironic ideas and the same type of “ultra-violence” that we first viewed in now tame films like “A Clockwork Orange” (another film, incidentally, which critiqued a repressive and uncaring social system that did not work.) One could even say that in “Starship Troopers” we have the exact same futuristic society that Verhoeven and Neumeier envisioned in “Robocop” only now we’ve gone further into the future and both men are concentrating on what the military would be like in such a society. Again, all of this is a commentary, in the end, on America’s own violent culture. The director, in many instances, is just taking the world that he sees around him in the US and increasing the level of cynical intention and control, to an often horrifying, and yet darkly humorous degree. In Heinlein’s novel, there is no such critique, but rather promotion of the central ideas that Verhoeven lampoons, the same ideas that lead to Vietnam or any other number of post-World War Two conflicts, or invasions, in America’s fanatical fight against communism. It could easily be seen that the “bug” enemy in Heinlein’s book is representative of communism as they are even described of exhibiting “total communism” in their behavior (Heinlein 120). But unlike us (Americans) those commie bugs (Russians, Viet Cong, Sandanistas, etc.) are not human, they don’t protect their own, go back after their own on the battlefield like we do, another jingoistic fallacy in a long line spewed from Heinlein’s red, white, and blue pen.
In Verhoeven’s satirical film on American violence and law enforcement, “Robocop” we had humorous clips of commercials, gigantic, gas-guzzling cars, of lying, propaganda-churning anchor persons with smiles on their faces, viciously satirical news stories that appear in a flash that tell us something about the world we are seeing. For instance, in one background news story, we hear the anchor person casually mention that four or five former presidents were all killed simultaneously that day by a “miss-fire” from a laser from a space satellite, as though this were nothing particularly amazing or frightening. We also see a seemingly insane homeless man on the street rambling about how truly vicious this world is. In “Starship Troopers” we have the director, again, playing with his audience’s sensibilities of what they are normally force-fed through their televisions and all mass media, but in this case, he has created an alternate framing device as well. There are still the television reporters serving as a Greek chorus making commentary for us, telling us about the film and themselves by what they choose to tell us, but we also have an overall superstructure of what is basically a giant training film for the military. The film is similar to Heinlein’s novel in this respect, promoting the whole training process and the idea of training young men to kill and die as the most worthwhile means to manhood. In the novel in fact, it is the only way to be a man as we learn again and again, the point brought home sloppily and sappily when the young narrator’s own father joins the military finally to, as he says “prove to myself that I was a man. Not just a producing, consuming economic animal…but a man” (135). Never mind where this leaves women in this world, what is most frightening is that Heinlein belittles those who serve society in any other way except to fight. Civilians are viewed and referred to in a derogatory fashion throughout the book. They are not true citizens. This view that promotes violence by the state and always assumes the state is correct in directing violence is an attitude the Nazis would have found heartening.
In the film, there is a sardonic criticism of this fascist worldview. We often find ourselves watching what is called “The Federal Network”, a corporate/state-controlled source of information in the form of a type of computerized interactive TV, a media outlet that is already a part of US society now and one which is growing every day, that is, the now burgeoning and seemingly indispensable Internet of 1998. We will be told some information on “The Federal Network” and we will see selections, just like the Internet, where we can click on and go to different topics, topics the federal government would like us to see. We are constantly being asked “Would you like to know more?” and then someone, Verhoeven, clicks on another topic and the film moves on, an excellent device for narrative movement as well as social commentary. Like the novel would have it, the subjects of the film’s Federal Network are, of course, all concerning war or war related efforts, for that is the type of totalitarian society we have in both stories. Unlike the novel’s self-deluding wall of belief in hierarchical order, there are brief moments of insight into the exact extent and Orwellian price of totalitarianism in the film. For instance, one black and hilarious segment shows us just how justice works in the future as we hear the announcer on the Federal Network saying, “A murderer was caught today and sentenced to death, execution at six PM, all networks”. We see there are no more messy juries, or troublesome lawyers, or defendant rights, you are caught, declared guilty and summarily executed (and it’s surely no accident the actor playing that condemned murderer is the film’s screenwriter, Ed Neumeier).
Inalienable rights are also ridiculed in the book by Heinlein’s mouthpiece Mr. Dubois, the war veteran and teacher of History and Moral Philosophy as he says “a human being has no natural rights of any nature” and then goes on with elementary school logic to try and destroy the idea of man’s right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” simply by saying the world is a tough place with a lot of mean people out there and bad situations (Heinlein 93). Apparently, only spilling “the blood of patriots” will allow any of these rights to occur (93). One wonders then how the invasion of Vietnam and subsequent slaughter of millions or the support of ex-Somazista soldiers under the name of “Contras” executing acts of terrorism or the brutal murders of defenseless nuns in El Salvador allows one to be happy or free. Without the looming specter of the ever-present “other” coming to kill us every day, in this case communism (or evil Bugs), every last bit of logic in Heinlein’s dog-eat-dog world falls apart (and never mind an examination of the veracity of that perceived communist threat of our past and what it allowed).
Another chilling, but funny, and significant scene in the film, shows soldiers giving little children gigantic high-powered machine guns to play with, laughing at the children as they fight over the weapons then doling out handfuls of bullets to the eager children as though they were pieces of candy. This is a telling detail, for what Verhoeven has created here is a cinematic depiction of a society completely based upon violence. This is the same type of violence based world that Heinlein endorses for our young as we follow the adventures of the narrator, Johnnie Rico, becoming a true citizen and soldier, a professional killer ready to die for his country, that is, die at the direction of those civilians who direct the affairs of state, fascinated with weaponry and the expedition of self-assured will.
Because so much of our own society is based upon violence and violent images, Americans hardly notice it anymore. Gun ownership is promoted and even encouraged by our political leaders, many of whom will not pass legislation on limiting the accessibility of high-powered assault weapons. It is a fact that our own NRA makes the exact same efforts that we see in Verhoeven’s satirical scene, with its big eagle mascot, to indoctrinate children into the world of weaponry, the same purpose, one could prove, of Heinlein’s so-called literary efforts. Whole pages are devoted to a little boy’s fascination with guns and armor as though they were toys, almost entirely defusing their deadly utilitarian purpose. Furthermore, the fact that Heinlein is actually reflecting an imperialistic offensive, in the name of defense against communism, in promoting the prevailing American dogma of his time, he serves, in the end, more as propagandist than novelist.
Verhoeven, the director, is artistically able to have his cake and eat it too with his own American audience. Reared as it is upon violence, the American audience can’t help but be drawn into this vicious world, so much like its own. Verhoeven himself states the significance of his representation of this fascist society in relation to his American audience, as well as the fact that much of his satire may be lost. He still wants his core audience of teenagers for the film’s commercial aspects, he cannot, will not be allowed to forget his corporate source of funding as he duly notes in an interview on the “Mr.Showbiz” web page, stating that the film is on one level “just about kids fighting giant bugs.” But Verhoeven also states in the same interview that “Starship Troopers” is saying, is asking, “Are you aware that fascism is also a little bit happening in your society? And perhaps, in a way, that’s not so obvious to you?” Heinlein, to the exact opposite, seems completely unaware of any fascist tendencies in his work.
Perhaps the best and most damning proof of this assertion is Heinlein’s own admission in the “This I Believe” speech he wrote in 1952 which was delivered by his wife at NASA in 1988 after the author’s death (magicdragon.com). In the posthumous speech, Heinlein lays bare his dangerous, but naive, view of the world, the world of the conqueror, the superpower that the United States was then, and remains now. There are cracks or seams in this perfect white world though, where no right exists but that given by might. Heinlein says he believes in his kindly Norman Rockwell neighbors, ol’ “Father Mike” an ol “Doc” just around the corner, both of them always willing to lend a hand. He believes in his “townspeople” so much that any of them “will feed you if you go to their door and say your hungry.” It’s a volunteer world with everybody pitching in on their own to help out their buddy rather than the government doing so. Heinlein is apparently living in an idyllic place where there is no crime or gunplay or neighbors who wouldn’t open the door if you were being stabbed to death on their front porch, in other words, nowhere near some of the real neighborhoods that exist in America, then and now. But most importantly, like the blindly following characters of his book, he believes in his country, no matter what, a devoted citizen, like Johnny Rico and Wayne, to the state. As he says, “I believe in—I am proud to belong to–the U.S.” Like so many of his views, one sees this as an absolute, that it assumes, and asserts throughout the novel, to question the actions of one’s country in the process of service, to actively be involved in a democratic process, is somehow unpatriotic. One must follow unquestioningly, or not at all.
Again with Heinlein, there is the incredible and dangerous naiveté that flows from unconditional obedience as he says of the U.S. (in what must be one of the greatest understatements in history) “Despite shortcomings from lynchings to bad faith in high places, our nation has had the most decent and kindly internal practices and foreign policies to be found anywhere in history” First of all, one can think of five other nations without even trying that have been kinder to their neighbors in the past one hundred years than the United States. But the real questions one has to ask are what the students shot at Kent State might have thought of this “kindness,” or the hundreds of thousands killed in Vietnam, the tens of thousands killed in Nicaragua, or those people tortured by dictators in Guatemala or Chile by dictators and armies we have supported and trained abroad and here in Georgia at the School of Americas (facts, unfortunately, not just liberal humanitarian assertions as Heinlein might counter), the list that still goes on, from the Americas, to Africa and the Middle East.
And when was slavery and lynching a mere “shortcoming”? Surely, it wasn’t to the black man at the other end of the rope, nor was it merely so to his family who watched him swing and die, nor were the racist institutional policies originating from slavery or those individuals and groups responsible for said lynchings and public hatred, a mere shortcoming. Obviously, in a non-questioning society, Heinlein would have us shut up or look the other way at such social injustices, much like white culture tried to do in the fifties and sixties when African Americans stood up to be further fire-hosed and beaten until democracy was enacted and something was finally done; or really, the process of righting, a centuries long wrong, had only just begun. To add even further insult to injury, when Heinlein states in “This I Believe” “that almost all politicians are honest” implying we should blindly trust them, he doesn’t just sound naive, he sounds like a cardboard-cutout idiot. Indeed, like the film lampoons, Heinlein himself and his characters are two dimensional, gee-whiz, 1950’s types. Unfortunately though, their actions are predicated upon the use of force, and thus, they are Ozzie and Harriet with machine guns and atom bombs, perfect and deadly, blissfully unaware of any decay in their system, or viciously denying it, that McCarthy was waging a war against freedom of speech and choice, that black people were being physically or economically lynched. In keeping with this theme, all of Verhoeven’s lead actors and actresses are indeed beautiful, self-assured, seemingly wholesome white people, the future leaders of their country, as Heinlein would surely have them be, which makes their rule all the more frightening.
In the end though, the joke is upon the American movie-going society, as it is with the book, for enjoying the violence of both works at all. And what moves deeper than any joke is the satire on our own militaristic, “us versus them” tendencies as Americans. As said, what we are seeing in Verhoeven’s work is a training film in many ways, a self-contained system of well-formed lies, a recruitment film, as the narrator says “Join the mobile infantry and save the world.” The most horrific truths though lie behind those who are waging these seemingly endless wars, the recruiters themselves. The main message then of the film lies within the words and actions of one of the older members of the cast of characters (for most characters in “Starship Troopers’ are young kids, fresh out of high school), the history teacher and veteran Mr. Rasczak, (played by the actor Michael Ironsides) or Lieutenant Rasczak, as he is later called. The teacher is based upon the teacher of Moral History and Philosophy in Heinlein’s novel, Mr.Dubois, who is, as said, is the pulpit and preacher for most of Heinlein’s supposedly moral philosophical views. The teacher is missing an arm (as are many individuals missing limbs in the film, one enduring real result of endless war) and he serves the same purpose in both stories, as inspiration and role model for the film’s main character, the novel’s narrator, the handsome rich kid, Johnny Rico. Johnny is a cliché character here, a two dimensional fifties stereotype like most everyone else in the film. We have the beautiful, intelligent, but wily and ambitious seductress, whom Johnny is in love with, Carmen Ibanez. Carmen seems to be above Johnny in brains and power and plays him off another suitor throughout the film. There is Johnny’s and Carmen’s friend Carl, who is a nerdy, brainy type who has powers of ESP and no real girlfriend. And there is Dizzy, a beautiful but tough almost Tom-boyish young woman who is truly in love with Johnny in a way Carmen isn’t. Their relationships play out in convenient, coincidental and obvious B-movie fashion but that works entirely to Verhoeven’s advantage in sending a frightening message by the film’s end. But, a serious look at the words of the history teacher is necessary here before we can fully understand that final message.
In that telling classroom scene from the film, Rasczak spouts some of Heinlein’s (or Mr. Dubois’) exact words, but as they are now couched in Verhoeven’s ironic world it gives them extra layers of meaning. “Let’s sum up,” he says, “this year we explored the failure of democracy, how the social scientists brought our world to the brink of chaos…we talked about the veterans, how they took control and imposed the stability that has lasted for generations since.” Like any totalitarian society, order and a rigid, ruthless hierarchy are essential to maintain submission and obedience. Obviously, the military runs this society and therefore everything we see is a reflection of their mindset; facts and ideas are presented to us via the Federal Network (or with Heinlein, the same perspective via the heavily indoctrinated Johnny), formed and distorted by this mindset. This fascist state operates quite simply then upon one principle: the use of force to obtain their goals. Force is everything, the history teacher is telling his students, but it is under the guise of choice. “When you vote,” he says, “you’re using force” but, only citizens who serve the state can vote. And the only political choices they have seem to be military officers. The idea of citizenship is very important in relation to the film and the novel. Johnny Rico’s desire to be a citizen drives all of his actions as does his love for Carmen and the need to be near her, but the latter, more human drive, is only in the film. The love he feels for Carmen is above his desire for citizenship at the film’s beginning but sadly, at its end, we see Johnny is a true “citizen,” as are his friends. Because there are no female/male (or healthy male/male) themes of love or emotion in the novel, the sadness at its loss is never an option in Heinlein’s stale world of military camaraderie. In fact, there is only masochistic content in the homo-erotic, pseudo love relationships between males in the book where signs of affection or admiration are intimately intertwined with physical discipline and punishment, a good “paddling” or “flogging” being a sole sign of affection.
We further learn in the history class scenes in both the film and book that to be a citizen of the state (much like a Roman citizen) is to enjoy certain privileges, but in order to be a citizen one has to “serve”, i.e. fight in the military. This is the ultimate “Catch-22” situation, because, as we shall see, when you serve, your chances of dying a violent death are indeed quite high. Johnny is enthralled though with the challenge of being a citizen and what that represents, unquestioning loyalty and service to the state that will test his mettle as a real man. “Do you really believe in it?” his teacher asks him, and, in the film Johnny has to say he doesn’t know. The young woman in love with him, Dizzy, doesn’t know either it seems. “Diz” is in many ways the one last representative of humanity in this film, of real compassion. Even though she is as tough, or tougher, than the men (for women are on an equal footing in Verhoeven’s future, whereas they get only begrudging acceptance as good pilots if they appear at all in the book) Diz genuinely loves Johnny and will do anything to be near him. When she dies in battle, almost at the film’s end, after finally consummating her love for Johnny in one brief affair the night before, her loss is the end of any other route than that of subservience to the state, at least in symbolic terms, for it is love that drove Diz to Johnny, and love that drove Johnny to join the mobile infantry for Carmen. All of that love will crumble as mere child’s play by the film’s end. Love is not even an option in Heinlein’s world, dominated as it is by physical force.
As the history teacher Mr. Rasczak (mimicking Dubois) says, “Naked Force has resolved more issues throughout history than any other factor…” He even makes mention of the fact that “the founding fathers of Hiroshima” can say nothing now on the pages of history because they are all dead (the US, of course, having killed them in an action whose necessity is still being debated in real time). The winners write history in Verhoeven’s and Heinlein’s worlds and in our own, and we are seeing the results in this classroom at the beginning of this film and in Dubois’ words. These kids are all being brainwashed, indoctrinated in their classes. In the film, even biology is taught by a veteran and the kids dissect “bugs” to learn about their enemy, the “other” of this film, the “Arachnids” a race of insect-like creatures that everyone hates as much as the Nazis hated the Jews. Johnny’s parents, mere civilians but members of the upper class are furious at their son’s being influenced by Rasczak (Dubois). Johnny’s father even says in both works, “There should be a law against using schools as recruiting grounds” but there isn’t, and that is exactly where any totalitarian state will go looking for new young minds to mold. Johnny’s parents want him to go to Harvard and a life of privilege, but Johnny is a fighter, a football star, and he wants the challenge of being a citizen that Rasczak has instilled in his mind. It is indeed ironic and symbolic as well that Johnny is a football hero in the film, for this world of war is like a big American football game in the minds of most of its inhabitants. Verhoeven even devotes screen time to a futuristic depiction of “the big game” where Johnny makes the final touch down and gets the girl. Rasczak later gives his men footballs and kegs of beer at a party he throws one night after a horribly violent battle. Rasczak (as both the field Lieutenant in the book and as Dubois) runs a platoon of super tough soldiers called Rasczak’s Roughnecks which even sounds like a school football team, something Heinlein further pushes with other death squads with seemingly innocuous, juvenile names like “Jelly’s Jaguars”. It is no great jump of meaning then, to see the connection between America’s own fascination with sports, especially football, and the notions of force and conflict and societal diversion that surround the game. It’s truly laughable in fact, in the film, when Rasczak brings out the kegs and footballs as a simplistic reward for these soldiers, considering the carnage they’ve just witnessed and that they will probably endure the same violent ends themselves the next day. In the book, Johnny and his fellow soldiers are equally pacified during training by singing silly songs and the violent death that most probably awaits them is to be ignored, as merely another minor hurdle in becoming a man. All of the soldier’s efforts though, all of their molding, is purportedly for one thing: to become a subservient citizen of the state.
In the film, this desire to be a citizen is also instilled in Carmen and Carl’s minds as well as Johnny’s. Though all three promise to remain friends at the film’s beginning no matter what, we see by film’s end, friendship, like love, has gone by the wayside to make way for service, duty, and sacrifice for the state, no matter what it asks. Being a citizen is also necessary in this world if one wants to pursue any kind of meaningful career, as we see in the in the film’s famous co-ed shower scene, where the stereotypical war movie character of the young writer is asking everybody why they were stupid enough to join the mobile infantry (this young writer will later be ripped in half during a battle). We learn some joined to get away from the farm, some for a political career, some to get a good husband or wife, or job, or money for college, in short, for the same exact reasons young people join the military in America today. There’s this nasty underlying purpose though for anyone joining the military beyond acquisition of citizenship and its benefits, that is, to kill and fight and sacrifice your life based upon tactical and ideological decisions by the state, the exact reason Heinlein promotes without ever questioning his state’s motives, or what makes up a state, or who is at its helm, questions apparently for those weak, milksop intellectuals and social workers out there causing trouble with their messy emotions and notions of human rights.
Verhoeven though, wants to make citizenship’s ultimate cause, and its result, painfully apparent to his audience, and he does a good job. When Johnny does go to boot camp, it is brutal. Limbs are broken in training on purpose, people are stabbed, shot to death; Johnny is brutally flogged for making what proves to be a fatal mistake for one of his men during training. Relating this flogging to the American military isn’t far-fetched at all as we know from Melville’s White Jacket, where men were flogged and executed somewhat arbitrarily in our own Navy here in the United States not much more than a century ago, an injustice the author saw firsthand. Heinlein, to the contrary, obviously supports the action of flogging through Johnny’s eyes as it is necessary to maintain order. It is even a sort of rite of passage in the book, not just a little paddling for discipline like a puppy will get. Johnny is even proud of getting five lashes, rather than just three like the other boys and glad to have been noticed as he notes “In a way, an administrative flogging is the mildest sort of compliment; it means that your superiors think that there is a faint possibility that you just might have the character eventually to make a soldier and a citizen” (Heinlein 85). Again, the equation of physical violence equaling admiration, respect, even caring is re-enforced here. Don’t worry about being flogged almost to death; it means they like you. The secret bond of violence, respect, and homo-erotic admiration in the book’s representation of the relationship between the drill instructor Zim and Johnny, is again present in the flogging scene as so much attention is paid to their dominant/subservient roles, and the camaraderie it generates.
Unlike the book’s mostly glossed over violence in battle, the film’s combat scenes are meaningful in that they are particularly violent and horrific as bodies are ripped to pieces torn, many dying in horrible, bloody, guts flying agony. Verhoeven is making sure we see the ugly underside of this stable society in which Johnny and Carmen live. “War is hell” the cliché says, and Verhoeven gives us a truly hellish version, again playing on his modern audience’s lust for blood at the same time. The dialogue in much of the film’s action scenes, more so than other scenes in the film, is filled with the clichés of war movies as well. “The bugs whacked us Johnny!” one cadet laments. Lieutenant Rasczak, the former history teacher who now re-emerges as his real military self (with a silver mechanical hand, no less) leading the tough “Roughnecks,” also spouts clichés. He has no emotion, no feeling really except hard ass, macho Sgt. Rock notions of camaraderie. He tells his old students, Johnny and Diz, “You don’t fight, I’ll kill you myself.” The Lieutenant later kills a soldier out of mercy who is being stabbed and torn apart by a giant flying bug and says, “I’d expect you to do the same for me!” By the film’s end, this actually comes to pass as the Lieutenant has the lower half of his body ripped off and says to Johnny in war movie fashion, “You know what to do!” and Johnny shoots him dead. As said, the relationship between Johnny and his history teacher is very important in both works. In the film, after his affair with Carmen recedes from the fore-front of his life, it is Lieutenant Rasczak who is the real dominant influence on him. And in pivotal moments in the book where Johnny is feeling weak and doubting his military commitment, Rasczak (as Dubois) comes through with letters of moral and philosophical support that keep Johnny going. Johnny is really just a younger version of Rasczak and by the end of the film he is indeed just like his mentor, parroting the same war movie clichés as we see him leading his own roughnecks into battle exclaiming, like Rasczak, “Come on you apes! You wanna live forever?!” and charging into battle (also one of the book’s sayings.) One can easily assume that Johnny, too, will one day have his legs ripped off and ask his young protege to put him out of his own misery. Thus, in both works, it is a camaraderie then of war and violence and service to the state that survives and underlies all human relationships. With Heinlein though, because there is no framing device of irony or satire to this fact, there can then be no remorse at the loss of non-violent human connection.
As the purposefully hokey plot unfolds (and the same, just as juvenile plot in Heinlein’s case), a giant “thinking bug” is captured by the Mobile Infantry trooper forces. A trap was set for the men of Johnny’s unit by the bug’s themselves, but the whole operation, and the sacrifice of the Lieutenant, Diz, and thousands of men, was all a further tactical move by Carmen and Johnny’s old friend Carl, who appears now as a member of Military Intelligence, dressed in a black leather trench coat looking not unlike a member of the SS. Carl and Johnny argue briefly on this sacrifice, but it is apparent that the state’s needs supersede any old feelings of kinship. Still, the old friendship does make Carl help Johnny telepathically locate his old flame Carmen during the scene where the thinking bug is captured. Johnny thanks Carl and he acknowledges the help, but for the most part this is nothing but business. The thinking bug is a giant queen-like insect that Verhoeven has seemingly chosen to make a representative of some sort of female imagery, perhaps to either touch on deep symbolic themes of an earth mother imbedded down in the planet, or rather emphasizing a perceived fragility on her part because she is female. The thinking bug even has what is obviously a giant vagina-like opening for her mouth. She is hauled out before the cheering starship troopers and Carl is called upon to read her mind. He places his hand upon her while she makes scared squealing noises (all of the bugs seem to shriek when in pain, cry out in anger, i.e. have some measure of sentience, emotion and intelligence). There is a tense moment of silence and then Carl shouts out “It’s afraid!” and a happy cheer goes through the crowd.
This final scene is particularly unsettling for any objective viewer of the film who for any moment looks at this picture from the bug’s point of view, which is exactly what Verhoeven would seem to want us to do. He even has a reporter say at one point in the film that humans have caused all of this violence by invading the bug’s territory aggressively and that there should be a “live and let live” policy of co-existence. Johnny won’t stand for this as we see in the scene just before the first invasion, as all of the troopers are gearing up for a frenzy of jingoistic violence. Johnny’s family has been destroyed by an asteroid supposedly released from the Klendathu system where the bugs live on the other side of the Milky Way galaxy. These asteroids are one of the bug’s weapons. It is notable that these asteroids, and all of the other bug defenses, are somewhat natural; they shoot explosive plasma from their bodies, or shoot flames of acid from antennae, or use the warrior arachnids to fight with their pincers. This re-enforces the idea of their being a species that is merely acting in defense with weapons of natural self-defense, whereas our species is the aggressive and violent one, acting out of an un-natural twisted malice, creating artificial weapons of mass-destruction to invade and colonize other planets now that we have thoroughly unified and enslaved our own world. For as Heinlein states in his book on page 145, “all correct moral rules derive from man’s instinct to survive” which then allows him, somehow, to draw the conclusion that this instinct for survival and competition gives us the right to colonize other “weaker” and thus “wrong” countries and worlds. This again further assumes his dog-eat-dog philosophy that if we don’t kill the eternal enemy and “other,” they will surely kill us. As he says on page 146 “Either we spread and wipe out the bugs, or they spread and wipe us out” the false assumption then being there will always be this violent “other” at our door which necessitates a state with total control of its populace via the use of force.
At the film’s end, after the thinking bug is captured, we again go back to the self-contained irony of the Federal Network which tells us that we will now experiment on the thinking bug to unravel its secrets, not to get along with the insects or resolve any conflict, but so we can entirely destroy their species. The idea of conflict resolution is never a factor really in either work and in a series of two, quick, horrible shots we really see what these human beings are all about. A gigantic harpoon-like needle is shoved unmercifully into the queen-creature’s side and she squeals in pain. Then a horrible razor edged instrument that serves as a violent phallic symbol is shoved deep inside her vaginal, mouth-like opening and she screams in pain. Verhoeven slaps a censored sign over the actual penetration and this action of censorship serves two functions. On one hand Verhoeven is making a few comments on the Federal Network itself. It will show you horrible scenes of carnage when it wants to influence and mold public opinion into a hatred of the bugs, but it is hypocritical in that it decides to censor this one scene as though it actually cares about the violence of this act. Verhoeven could also be making a subliminal comment on how sexuality is viewed in this future society in that, the action, though violent, is still sexual and thus must be censored, as love and sexuality, as we saw in Orwell’s 1984, have no place in a true totalitarian society. There is only room there for a shallow love, that doesn’t over-ride devotion to the state. These people, these troopers and their leaders are still human and have human emotions, presumably unlike the bugs, but what we are left with of this race, as a whole, is certainly not what any caring individual, or state, would strive for in the name of humanity. Even more unsettling is the fact that this society is so similar to our own. That Heinlein would fail to empathize with any of the perceived enemy’s pain, as well as viewpoint, is of course, quite evident. The “Brain bugs” captured in the book then merely serve as the first in what will surely be a long line of adventures in the exciting and fun world that lucky young Johnny occupies, until, of course, his own body is ripped in half or incinerated for the supposed public good.
In a world then where things happen for a reason, a world, some would argue, like our own, violence exists and it certainly has its place and time. One would hope though, through evolutionary advancement that we as a people of the future would move beyond what many would view as barbarism in the use of violence as execution of collective and individual will. Certainly that peaceful idea would seem to be embodied in such men as Martin Luther King or Gandhi, men revered by many in our society, but mocked by Heinlein’s novel. One would hope, and even think, that intellectual and societal advancement would eventually preclude war as a means to an end. What we see here though of our race, at the conclusion of both works, is a vicious species, much worse than the bugs. We see a society that is based upon violence, the use of force which believes the end always justifies the means. We see an Orwellian society that appears on its surface not unlike our own America as far as self-delusion goes. On it’s surface, at the film’s beginning, the world of these attractive starship troopers is, as stated in the beginning, like our own in the 1950’s, a society of privileged “citizens” be-bopping around the clock with father knowing best and the Nelsons in the kitchen, while rampant paranoia of communism was permeating the country and people of color were being hung in the backwoods or forced to ride on the back of the bus and drink from different water fountains, as second class or “bug-like” individuals, who surely never ventured into the secure neighborhood of Heinlein’s “This I Believe” speech except to clean his toilet.
At the conclusion of “Starship Troopers”, in their world, all human relations have been severed except in how they serve the state. Johnny Rico is leading his men into battle, Carl is presumably like Orwell’s O’Brien, working in “intelligence” probably in charge of the thinking bug’s torture, and more sacrificial, tactical operations of war. Carmen is at the helm of her starship, satisfied now, as the captain of her own ship, and as the narrator of the Federal Network unfortunately tells us, “They will keep fighting!” These words are blazed across the screen in giant letters along with the statement “We need more soldiers!” as we see forces being deployed into space. Verhoeven then adds the final ironic touch in the last words of the film which are in giant letters across the screen as well, that read: “AND THEY’LL WIN!” Of course, this is a joke of the most tragic kind for there is no winning in this type of society that operates, like Orwell’s, under the guise of the need for perpetual war. And, of course, this is the book’s philosophy as well: that there will always be a new “other,” a different enemy on the horizon to subsequently de-humanize and kill, in the process, rallying the bulk of society into submission. And much like our own society, with its enemies and wars, there will always be new, young adults, like Johnny, and Diz, and Carmen, and Carl, to serve as either fodder for the machine, or as perpetuators of its violent ideals.
Heinlein, Robert A.. Starship Troopers. New York: Ace Books, 1959.
and here’s a more recent, and much shorter take from Calum Marsh in the November 2013 The Atlantic.com website, 15 years later…