Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein - my biased thoughts on the book
I finally read Starship Troopers, one of the sci-fi classics and subject of much criticism and political discussion, and these are my (biased) thoughts on it.
Disclaimer: I will not compare the book to the movie (like many of the reviews do) because it has been so long I don't remember the movie at all.
Before I read Starship Troopers, I have heard, several times, that it fetishizes the military and/or is propaganda of fascism itself. After reading it, I am still not entirely sure if it's simply a world the author created, a reflection of author's own political and societal beliefs, propaganda, or very dead-pan satire. It certainly read as satire to me.
The book opens up with Johnnie Rico jumping around an alien city blowing up civilian infrastructure (with nuclear weapons!) without much concern about his actions or civilians' lives.
…while I was jumping the river I had spotted a juicy target and I wanted to get it before somebody else noticed it a lovely big group of what looked like public buildings on a hill. Temples, maybe ... or a palace.
Right now I was trying to spot their waterworks; a direct hit on it could make the whole city uninhabitable, force them to evacuate it without directly killing anyone - just the sort of nuisance we had been sent down to commit.
So Johnnie and his team are war criminals . Yet somehow, against civilians, his team manages to lose two soldiers in power armor. Later in the book, a large military operation goes completely sideways:
Operation Bughouse should have been called "Operation Madhouse." Everything went wrong. It had been planned as an all-out move to bring the enemy to their knees, occupy their capital and the key points of their home planet, and end the war. Instead it darn near lost the war
And this happened not due to battle losses, but mostly due to... two military spaceships colliding and killing everyone on board.
...we had lost half our strength, about, in the collision between the Valley Forge and the Ypres; that disastrous mess on the ground had run our casualties up over 80 per cent
Wait a minute. Disregard for civilian lives, bombing cities' infrastructure, a failed 3-day blitzkrieg attempt, disastrous incompetence... This has uncanny resemblance to Russia's military during its invasion of Ukraine. Raczak's Roughnecks sound more like Russia's Rednecks to me at this point. Sorry for the terrible joke.
In the context of the book's world, there is plenty of propaganda and indoctrination for sure, ranging from classes with philosophical discussions on sacrifice, merit, and society, to incredibly dumb and cringeworthy boasting by military people.
The book often flashes back to Johnnie's high school teacher of History and Moral Philosophy, Mr. Dubois, a military veteran, who explains and praises the current system of military oligarchy , usually treating his students as stupid and using them to make or emphasize his own talking points. The central idea of Starship Troopers' society is that a person can only vote responsibly if they risked their life and "put others' ahead of themselves" in the Federal Service. In other words, "army will make a man out of you" ("армия сделает из тебя мужчину", a common saying I've heard). In true boomer fashion, the fall of previous democratic systems is blamed on undisciplined youth, and the society's revival was led by military veterans. The new tough philosophy supports corporal punishment, death penalty, and beating puppies (I'm serious).
History and Moral Philosophy, and specifically, "scientific morals", makes me think of my dad's stories about "Theory of Scientific Communism", a mandatory class at his university. This class was taught by a somewhat mentally unstable veteran who, when agitated, would try to reach for his (non-existent) sidearm, and would give grades based on students' parents' jobs or whether the student served in the military. The class itself was just pointless propaganda drivel, probably similar to what is described in Starship Troopers.
History and Moral Philosophy sections, although disagreeable, are at least interesting in the terms of world-building and explaining several things at the beginning of the book. But towards the end of the book, propaganda just turns extremely cheesy and "patriotic", whether it's contempt toward civilians, or bravado, or phrases such as "You can't buy fighting spirit". Barf.
The military system that is described as the basis of society, and a filter for "better" people, accepts Johnnie, who applies on a whim and has no particular skills. Johnnie, while in the military, promptly forgets about his best high school friend (who he enlisted with), and does not have any meaningful relationships other than with sergeant Zim, a father figure. Johnnie is often ignorant about his location and the purpose of the missions he runs, and actually defends his ignorance in the name of security. He changes his opinion of others when he finds out their rank. In other words, a perfect soldier - has no one to live for, does his job, and does not ask questions.
The war that starts while Johnnie is at Camp Currie is described as a 3rd or 4th galactic war, so definitely not the first for Earth. Despite this, Earth is very ill-prepared, and suffers significant losses: Buenos Aires is completely destroyed by the Bugs, and later, a botched military operation kills 80% of troops and destroys two large spaceships. Throughout the book, there is very little information given about the war or current state of events, which ties into Johnnie's ignorance very well. It is said that the Bugs want to expand to Earth, but it is entirely unclear why they wanted Earth specifically, when there is Sanctuary, a barely-populated, virtual twin of Earth in another star system. The Bugs are described as insect-like creatures with ant-like hierarchy and a hive mind, but the mission to extract and study one of the "brain" Bugs, who control the warriors, is a red herring, and the reader (nor Johnnie) is never told the result of it. There are multiple statements emphasizing how the Bugs, unlike humans, lack morals and camraderie, but calling a non-human insect-like society "absolute communism" is a hilariously bad take . Another humanoid race, only referred to as "Skinnies", whose city Johnnie was very happy to destroy in chapter 1, later become allies with Earth, for unclear reasons. So it's just another war for Earth, who is somehow still unprepared and incompetent at it.
And the futuristic, high-tech military that fights in this war, are still hung up on tradition and silly superstitions. A Navy ship cannot have more than one captain, so non-commanding Navy captains are called "commodores" and Army captains get temporary promotions while onboard. Cadets are not considered infantry while attending training, which is a source of identity crisis for some of them. There are temporary ranks and titles for specific situations and social events. Infantry ranks, chevrons, chain of command... there are dozens of pages about all of this.
An ignorant soldier is fighting in a vaguely described war, against a completely dehumanized enemy, while navigating the complexities of the military "social scene", all with lots of righteousness and pride. This does not read like praise of the military to me, it reads as satire.
Some more observations on the book
Sanctuary is a planet described as a virtual twin of Earth, but due to lower radiation levels, has only less-evolved life, such as ferns and invertebrates. I get that the attempted allegory is that difficulty makes one stronger, but sexual recombination of genes produces much larger variations that one-off mutations from cosmic rays.
I love the outdated technological descriptions in sci-fi: Combat suit's "circuits" for different radio channels, having to plug into the listening station, letters and telegrams sent from spaceships.
Thoughts on the political system
This goes beyond the scope of the book.
So the idea is that to be able to vote, one has to prove that they are willing to risk their lives (i.e. have an occupation with a non-zero chance of death) with Federal Service.
Does this mean that the Federal Service has the monopoly on all dangerous jobs, for example, a lineman, a miner, or a diver? In the save vein, what about the jobs with long-term health effects, such as most labor jobs, or jobs in specific industries? Does a chance of mesothelioma count as risking one's life to be able to vote?
Like with any oligarchy, the voters form an exclusive club that can control who gets in. The book shows how soldiers at boot camp can be pressured to resign fairly easily. Children of military servicemen could be given preferential treatment, and the rest are either forced to resign, or used as cannon fodder. We know where Johnnie Rico falls on that one...