The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

An Apology For Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers

Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer

Fascism kicks ass. It’s a fascist utopia. Verhoeven knew it, and so do you.

ImageNot even Heinlein fans get Paul Verhoeven’s magnificient Starship Troopers, whose tone of jolly-go-lucky fascism pissed off a lot of them. To be fair, I certainly can’t say that every Heinlein fan in the world hated Verhoeven’s movie, or that every Heinlein fan sees no fascist themes or imagery in the original novel — but oh, do I have loads of anecdotal evidence to support my claim! I’ve goofed around the MySpace boards, and a few years ago I even tracked down two Heinlein experts, and here’s what they said:

James Gifford, a writer and pubilisher of numerous books about Heinlein: “A lot of casual readers of the novel have a vague militaristic, fascist idea. It’s not supported by the book.”

Bill Patterson, editor of the Heinlein Journal: “It’s hard to find anything in the book that tends in the direction of fascism.”

Did we read the same book?

Did they not read the book where Rico, our hero, says, “The difference [between civilians and citizens] lies in the field of civic virtue. A soldier accepts 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” (Starship Troopers, page 26). Perhaps they overlooked Rico’s statement, “Either we spread and wipe out the Bugs or they spread and wipe us out, because both races are tough and smart and want the same real estate” (pages 185-186)?

My argument goes deeper than a few quotes, but I must bring up a brief exchange I had on MySpace with a right-wing military guy and Heinlein fan — the spectral opposite of me politically and psychologically (except for the Heinlein fandom). He was kind enough to read this argument in an earlier form, and while he enjoyed the essay, he politely dismissed my thesis, saying that I was reading too much into the text. Assuming for the moment that my thesis is righteous, I wondered why a guy with such militaristic leanings would resist even considering the possibility that Heinlein’s novel puts forth some fascist ideas? (Keep in mind that this guy categorically dismissed my ideas.) People had no problem seeing the libertarianism in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and people had no problem seeing the fuck-anything-that-moves crackpot sexuality in Stranger in a Strange Land, so why would they dismiss entirely the fascist ideas, themes and imagery in Troopers?

Easy question, right? Fascism is bad! Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini — the list goes on and on, and we don’t like anyone on it. Furthermore, whenever I even advanced this idea, blinders-wearing Heinlein fans would bark, “Heinlein wasn’t a fascist!”

Hey, everybody out there: No fucking shit Heinlein wasn’t a fascist. Believe it or not, it’s possible for a guy as brilliant as Heinlein to explore a few political or social ideas in his writing while not necessarily subscribing to them. He did in Moon, he did in Stranger and he did in Troopers.

Heinlein imagined a fascist utopia. He thought, “What if fascism worked? What if someone did it right? What would it look like?”

Paul Verhoeven understood that, and he made maybe the most underrated movie of his career. Verhoeven saw the strong streaks of militarism, nationalism, totalitarianism and racism — or, species-ism, if you will — and he put all of those ideas onscreen in glaring Technicolor and on some kind of pristine film stock that gave every face, image, surface and bug a water-weathered, sandblast-quality sheen and shine.

Verhoeven knew that fascism pisses people off, so he made it look hot. He cast preternaturally beautiful — though acting-challenged — people in the leads and blew his wad on a lot of rad special effects. Furthermore, he sauteed it all in his usual flavor of goofball, media-fried, loudmouth, belly-laugh satire — and nobody fucking got the joke.

OK, I haven’t offered a definition of fascism yet, right? I’ll give my definition, but let’s talk about the ideas of fascism and perspective while remembering that Verhoeven and Heinlein imagined a good fascist society; a fascist society that works. First: fascism and perspective. At its core, fascism is a dandy idea: make a benevolent genius sole steward of your country’s fate and let him/her do their best. Sounds great, right? But of course, because every “benevolent genius” in the history of fascism has turned out to be a “genocidal fuckhead,” the very essence of fascism has become irredeemably poisoned. Indeed, the mandatory spin through the dictionary definitions confirms this:

“A system of government characterized by dictatorship, belligerent nationalism, racism and militarism.” (Webster’s New World).

“A totalitarian government led by a dictator and which emphasizes aggressive nationalism and often racism.” (Random House).

“A system of government with a total dictator, socioeconomic controls, suppression of opposition and usually a policy of belligerent nationalism and racism.” (American Heritage).

ImageOK, nobody freak out. I’m not arguing that fascism has received a bad rap over the years. I’m arguing that Heinlein simply looked beyond fascism’s dismal track record, took its root ideas, gave them a makeover, and took them for a spin in his novel. In place of one total dictator, he put a limited military democracy with a head of state.

But what’s really brilliant (and hilarious) about Heinlein’s novel is how he retained all of the bad parts of the aforementioned definitions of fascism and put a happy face on them. The Terran government in Starship Troopers is just as aggressive, belligerent and racist as any fascist government we’ve seen, but because Heinlein unites the entire planet against an extraterrestrial foe, it tastes better.

Hell, maybe that’s Heinlein’s most subversive idea; that if we were to face an interstellar foe of the magnitutde of the Klendathu, we would need his breed of fascist government to survive.

(Side note about post-9/11 America: OK, I’ll refrain from including my most vitriolic prose in the main body of this story. Here I’ll say that in the years since the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration has expertly advanced the intellectually bankrupt – and utterly pussified – ideas that Islamic terrorists attack America for the sole reason that they hate our freedom, and they have attacked anyone who disputes this fuckbrained claim as unpatriotic nimrods.

Shame on them.

The reality is that 9/11 happened for a lot of complicated reasons, and the United States is not free of guilt … just like earth in Heinlein’s novel. Unscrupulous politicians have been using the same rabble-rousing tricks like these since time immemorial, and the Bush administration is no different.

Heinlein understood it. Verhoeven understood it.

Am I saying that it’s our fault that we got attacked on 9/11? Nope.

I am saying this: If you want the war on terror to end, we’re going to need a real man in the White House, and we’re going to need real men in Congress. Enough with the beer-willing, gay-bashing frat boys. Elect thinkers, because it’s going to take sound minds to get us out of this fucking mess.)

OK, full disclosure: Heinlein drives me up the fucking wall as a writer. He combines the brilliance of a Tolkein or a Herbert with the hack writing of a backwater yokel – yet his yokel-ness serves him well when throwing around militaristic rhetoric. Case in point:

“Let’s assume,” Rico writes in officer training school, “that the human race manages to balance birth and death, just right to fit its own planets, and thereby becomes peaceful. What happens? Soon (about next Wednesday) the Bugs move in, kill off the breed which ‘ain’ta gonna study war no more’ and the universe forgets us” (page 185).

Yokel moment and rhetorical trick: “Ain’ta gonna study war no more.” Note that Rico is quoting someone when he says this – but who is he quoting? Did someone in the book say this? Is there someone anywhere who would seriously advocate that a country (much less a planet) not be prepared for war? Oh, sure, there are some left-wing nuts out there who would argue for such a thing, and Heinlein recognizes that advocates of militarism like to pretend like there’s a huge wave of wackos who would like to dismantle the entire military, when the reality is that any decent politician recognizes the necessity of a strong military.

It’s a classic straw man, and Heinlein accurately represents it.

Let’s juxtapose that great passage with one of my favorite moments from the movie:

After open war has broken out, we see a reporter from a Mobile Infantry base say, “Some say the bugs were provoked by the intrusion of humans into their natural habitat that a ‘live and let live’ policy is preferable to war with the bugs.”

Here Rico cuts in and says, “Let me tell you something. I’m from Buenos Aires and I say kill ‘em all!”

Awesome. Reading the book and watching the movie, I wondered how the hell earth got into a fight with a planet full of insects that had no space exploration program. Heinlein sees that it’s easy for fascists to promote a war based on the creepiness of the aliens alone, and Verhoeven nails that idea to the wall with Rico’s moment with the reporter. In the face of Rico’s passion and the rubble that remains of Buenos Aires, thoughtful arguments sound like dangerous pacifism.