TCS Daily

Starship Trooperization

By James Pinkerton - May 12, 2003 12:00 AM

This is not your father's infantry. This is the Mobile Infantry. Having dropped from the sky in a vertical insertion, Rasczak's Roughnecks are ready for some serious action. And none more so than Juan Rico, who recalls:

I ordered... Advance! And did so myself, hopping over the next row of buildings, and, while I was in the air, fanning the first row by the river front with a hand flamer. As I hit, the Y-rack on my shoulder launched two small H.E. bombs a couple of hundred yards each way to my right and left flanks but I never saw what they did as just then my first rocket hit - that unmistakable (if you've ever seen one) brilliance of an atomic explosion.

Uh, wait a second. An "atomic explosion"? That can't be right. Oops. I have my notes confused. That's not a first-hand account from Operation Iraqi Freedom, that's from the first chapter of Robert Heinlein's 1959 novel, Starship Troopers. Sorry. My mistake. A novel in which a small number of warriors swoop in on rockets and blast every target to smithereens suddenly doesn't seem like fiction anymore. Indeed, Troopers is the only sci-fi novel that's on the reading list of all four service academies.

No wonder, then, that what might be called the Starship Trooper-ization of the U.S. military is accelerating.

In late 2001, Pentagon Special Forces subdued the Taliban in Afghanistan with a total of 125 men on the ground. Or, sometimes, on horseback. To be sure, those 125 Special Operators had a lot of help. It was possible for an American to be riding along, spot a target, tap the GPS coordinates into a laptop, and then wait for a few minutes as the target was destroyed. This in any kind of terrain, in any kind of weather. Indeed, the seemingly magical power of such close air support led the Afghans to confuse cause and effect. That is, the locals came to notice that if an American seemed to be staring at a particular position through binoculars, it had a tendency to blow up. Since the JDAMs or cruise missiles came whistling down at invisible speed, the only conclusion to be reached was that the binoculars themselves were some sort of death ray. As sci-fi sage Arthur C. Clarke observed, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Meanwhile, another warfront is opening up, closer to home. The headline in Wednesday's Baltimore Sun read, "Rumsfeld conducting war on Army." That's the U.S. Army the Sun was referring to. And overstated, of course, but maybe not by much. Because it is true that Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, pushing for the further transformation of the whole U.S. military, has zeroed in on the Army. Last month he pushed out Tom White, the Secretary of the Army, and before that, he lame-ducked Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, who is due to retire in June, two years earlier than he might have hoped.

What was wrong with White and Shinseki? Both had fought Rumsfeld and other defense transformers over the size and armament of the Army. The Army men lost in their effort to preserve the Crusader artillery system, but they prevailed in their effort to preserve their service's ten active divisions, when Rumsfeld had wanted to cut by two. But that proved to be a Pyrrhic victory, now that they are both on the way out the door. And most galling of all, perhaps, is that White is to replaced by James Roche, the current secretary of the Air Force, who retired from uniformed duty as a captain - in the Navy. In other words, the Army is to be run by a service secretary with experience in two rival services, overseen by a SecDef who himself flew for the Navy in the 50s. As the Sun's Tom Bowman put it, "Rumsfeld is shaking up the Army, believing its generals have not taken to heart his goal of creating a more lethal and mobile force for the 21st century."

Lethal and mobile. That's the way Heinlein would have wanted it. He was an Annapolis grad, class of 1929, but his mind traveled farther than blue water, to the blue yonder. And so many of his works emphasized airy, space-y themes, including The Man who Sold the Moon, Beyond this Horizon, and Rocket Ship Galileo. Heinlein even published Space Cadet in 1948, decades before that phrase became a joke.

Starship Troopers depend on mobility; in Heinlein's telling, Rasczak's Roughnecks drop into the enemy zone in rockets, which peel apart to let the warriors deploy on the ground. As a commander explains to his men, "You'll be dropped in two skirmish lines, calculated two-thousand-yard intervals." But although the Troopers travel lightly, they are armed heavily. As the narrator, Juan Rico recalls, "I had three more of the little A-rockets and I certainly didn't intend to take any back with me. But I had had pounded into me that you must get your money's worth with atomic weapons - it was only the second time I had been allowed to carry them... I set the Y-rack launcher on automatic and let it lob a couple of little bombs every time I hit." Talk about "shock and awe."

But as Jerry Seinfeld might say, "Not that there's anything wrong with that." Or is there? To be sure, it's good to win wars, and quickly. And the Army is likely to emerge from this crisis-crucible with its feelings bruised but its ultimate war-fighting capacity enhanced.

Still, a few possible concerns about Starship Trooperization come to mind. First, in the novel, Heinlein unabashedly celebrates the violence he so vividly described. Moreover, in the long didactic passages that dot the book, the authority figures frequently make militaristic arguments. In one scene, set in a History and Moral Philosophy class at the Federal Service academy, one female character pronounces, "Violence never settles anything." At which point the teacher pounces: "I'm sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that." But the teacher is just warming up. Accused of making fun of the woman, he says he wasn't making fun of her; rather, "I was heaping scorn on an inexcusably silly idea." Not satisfied with calling the women's assertion "historically untrue," he digs in further, calling it "thoroughly immoral." And he concludes by declaring, "Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedoms."

Indeed, so great is Heinlein's martial enthusiasm that he posits that only military veterans can vote in this bravest-of-the-brave new world of his. As another uniformed instructor explains, "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."

And the 1997 movie didn't help the reputation of the novel, not one bit. The production, directed by the Dutchman Paul Verhoeven, reeked of fascist imagery; the characters dressed in black-leather uniforms that looked more like the Waffen SS than anything on the original cover of Heinlein's novel.

In the book, even during wartime, the protagonists were careful about their targeting. As one explained, "War is not violence and killing, pure and simple; war is controlled violence, with a purpose." And that purpose is never to kill the enemy "just to be killing him... but to make him do what you want him to do." By contrast, in the film, such limited-war nuance was lost. As one movie character exclaims, "One day someone like me is gonna kill you and your whole [bleeping] race!"

So the print work, focusing as it does on dramatizing imaginative tactics, is a much better guide to the Rumsfeldian future than the movie, which focuses on bug-blowing-up. So it's with mixed feelings that one notes in the website that a sequel, "Starship Troopers 2," starts, er, shooting in June. And one of the stars is Kelly Clarkson, of "American Idol" fame. One might hope that this second movie, featuring such a sweet-faced young woman, would be a bit kinder and gentler than the first. But who knows? After all, the original offered the delectable Denise Richards, and she proved to be a perfectly eager killer. But of course, some argue that the first movie was a big over-the-top joke; for example, the waggish New York Observer thumbnail-reviewed: "The debate rages on: genius fascism satire, piece of crap, piece of crap, genius fascism satire. Either way, naked coed shower scenes." It will be interesting to see what tactics Clarkson and the rest of the movie-cast employ, on and off the battlefield.

Happily, no matter how successful the films are, there's little danger that any of the fictional military triumphalism of Starship Troopers will ooze into non-fictional American life. Heinlein is powerful, but not that powerful. And in the here-and-now Terror War, as opposed to Heinlein's Bug War, the Bush administration has in fact been rather restrained in its military celebrations; as of this writing, there are no plans for a post-Iraq "victory parade." And while the notion of an ultra-elite, ultra-tech military gives rise to some uncomfortable dystopic visions of Sparta-fication in the minds of some - if 125 men can take down a country in Central Asia, what else can such a small force do? - there's no evidence of any cultish militaristic politics on the rise. If anything, the recent bureaucratic smack-down in the Army is a reminder that the civilians are completely in charge.

And for what it's worth, while the real Heinlein had a militaristic streak, he was the opposite of a fascist. Instead, he was mostly a libertarian; in the novel, a character brags, "Personal freedom for all is greatest in history, laws are few, taxes are low, living standards are as high as productivity permits, crime is at its lowest ebb." And in addition, the real Heinlein always opposed the draft.

Fifteen years after his death, his work retains its power to shake things up. And Heinlein, who lived till he was 80, would have liked that. As he once put it, "To stay young requires unceasing cultivation of the ability to unlearn old falsehoods."

And what are the falsehoods of today? One is that America doesn't face serious threats. And another is that the world doesn't face serious threats. As Heinlein said in a 1973 speech to his alma mater, the Naval Academy:

"In this complex world, the scientific method, and the consequences of the scientific method are central to everything the human race is doing and to wherever we are going. If we blow ourselves up we will do it by misapplication of science; if we manage to keep from blowing ourselves up, it will be through the intelligent application of science. Science fiction is the only form of fiction which takes into account this central force in our lives and futures. Other sorts of fiction, if they notice science at all, simply deplore it... But we will never get out of the mess we are in by wringing our hands."

Now that's enduring wisdom. Starship Troopers may have anticipated the future of infantry, but Heinlein himself anticipated the overall danger to the species, and to the planet. The Pentagon has been learning its transformational lesson; the question for the rest of us is whether or not we can be equally ambitious in transforming ourselves, so that we can keep ourselves from blowing up this globe. Either that, or use technology to travel elsewhere in the big and beckoning universe.

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