Starship Troopers’ Influence on the American Military

Science fiction is part and parcel of the American culture that is reflected in the American military. In fact, military men and women have a special affinity for sci-fi. The influences of sci-fi on the military are both technical and cultural and flow in both directions; from the military into the general society and from sci-fi into the military.

Arguably the single most important work of military science fiction in the last sixty years is Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. When Robert Heinlein wrote Starship Troopers in 1959, the novel was supposed to have been another in the long line of sci-fi juvenile novels that Heinlein produced for the publisher Charles Scribner's Sons, Inc. From 1947 with Rocket Ship Galileo to Have Space Suit—Will Travel in 1958, Heinlein wrote twelve such young adult novels. However, as early as the publication of Red Planet in 1949, Heinlein had pushed the limits of subjects and themes of these novels with the publisher. The submission of Starship Troopers wore out the publisher’s patience and they refused to publish it. Scribner's loss was publisher G. P. Putnam's Sons’ gain. Putnam bought the book sight unseen. Then they marketed Starship Troopers to both the youth and the adult markets.

The novel was an immediate critical and commercial success. It won the 1960 Hugo Award for Best Novel and made The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (F&SF) top ten list of sci-fi novels of 1959. The book had been serialized as “Starship Soldier” in F&FS. Of course, Starship Troopers also had its detractors. One writer compared it to a "Victorian children's book," and Anthony Boucher, the founder of F&FS, stated that Heinlein had "forgotten to insert a story" among all the politics. Most criticisms of the book attacked the politics, not the book’s literary value.

Heinlein was inspired to write Starship Troopers after the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy placed an ad in several newspapers in April 1958 calling on the United States to unilaterally suspend its nuclear weapon testing program. In reaction to that ad, Heinlein and his wife, Virginia, founded the Patrick Henry League to support America’s continuing nuclear testing. Heinlein was attacked for his views and wrote the novel to defend and explain his outlook on politics and the military.

Written six years after the end of the Korean Conflict (1950-1953) and about five years before the first commitment of large combat forces to Vietnam in 1964, the novel is very much a product of its time. For example, in the book, the enemy of humanity are the Bugs, which are described as having the “ultimate dictatorship of the hive” and “total communism.” Further, in the book’s fictional history, the last war fought on Earth was between the “Russo-Anglo-American Alliance and the Chinese Hegemony.”

The novel’s most famous technological innovation is the powered armor or fighting suits worn by the Mobile Infantry. Heinlein goes into great detail describing the fighting suits; some six pages. Suffice to say that the Mobile Infantry’s powered armor makes a soldier stronger, faster, able to leap tall buildings and carry heavy weapons. The suits also provide enhanced sensory data to the soldier wearing it, such as radar and night vision.

The other noteworthy technological innovation in the book is the delivery of soldiers from spaceships to a planet’s surface, via what are essentially one-man atmospheric reentry vehicles. This concept is the logical extension of the idea of airplane-delivered paratrooper forces dropping behind enemy lines. Paratroopers were developed and used extensively during World War II and were very much considered the elite of the ground forces. Heinlein drew on his knowledge of this when writing about the Mobile Infantry.

The most contentious part of Starship Troopers is, of course, the politics. The most controversial part of those politics is the concept that in Heinlein’s future society, the Terran Federation, only veterans may vote, hold political office, serve in the civil service and teach certain courses in school such as History and Moral Philosophy. Otherwise, the Terran Federation is a model of classical liberal representative democracy.

Despite the controversy, Starship Troopers has had deep influence on the American military, certainly more than any other science fiction book. The book has deeply affected the American military both technologically and culturally.

Dropping infantry soldiers from spaceships is still out of reach as a technological and military goal, but the development of powered armor is just within the realm of possibilities. For example, from 1965 to 1971, General Electric worked on a powered exoskeleton called Hardiman (Human Augmentation Research and Development Investigation MANipulator) directly inspired by Heinlein’s description of the Mobile Infantry’s powered armor. The Hardiman project never advanced beyond the prototype phase and was finally abandoned in 1971 because of serious stability and weight issues.

However, the idea of a fighting suit did not die there. Since at least 2000, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been working on the powered-suit concept, called Warrior Web. Warrior Web “will augment positive work done by the muscles, to reduce the physical burden… The suit seeks to reduce the metabolic cost of carrying a typical assault load, as well as compensate for the weight of the suit itself… a Warrior Web suit system is not intended to interfere with current warfighter ‘soldier systems,’ such as external body armor, rather it aims to augment them to improve warfighter effectiveness.”

In 2009 the Army published the “Future Soldier 2030 Initiative,” which was designed to spark a conversation regarding how soldiers will be equipped in the future. Besides the Warrior Web suit, future soldiers will have highly integrated communications, sensor capabilities and internal and external monitoring of soldiers’ vital signs. Much as described in Starship Troopers.

Starship Troopers’ cultural influence started at the bottom of the military hierarchy and worked its way to the top. Since its publication in 1959, the book has primarily appealed to the young in their late teens and early twenties. Typical of this was Joe Haldeman, author of The Forever War, who read the novel in 1961 when he was 19 years old. Also typical was the veteran who reported when he shipped to Southeast Asia in 1970 that he took only three books with him: Stranger in a Strange Land, Lord of The Rings, and Starship Troopers. By the early 1970s, Starship Troopers was a textbook in some 7th and 8th grade social studies or civic classes. In the junior high school classes, the novel was used to prompt discussion on citizens’ rights, individual responsibility and civil-military relationships.

By the 1980s and the revitalization of the American military by President Reagan, the younger baby boomers that had read the novel started to enter the military and advance through the ranks, such that by 1996, Starship Troopers had become “an integral, even fundamental part of [military dialog].” This status was confirmed with the publication of the article “We can make real ‘Starship Troopers’" by Naval Captain Robert Smullen in the very conventional Proceedings of the Naval Institute in October, 1996.

The integration of Starship Troopers into the military has been both formal and informal. In 1992 the Chief of Staff of the US Army announced a formal military professional reading list. Allied services, other branches of the American military, and subordinate commanders soon followed suit by proposing similar reading lists. In 2001, Starship Troopers was placed on the Canadian Army’s reading list, along with classics like All Quiet on the Western Front. In 2008, the Navy added the book to the official reading list for junior enlisted. In April 2011 the book was added to the US Army Maneuver Center of Excellence’s professional reading list for all infantry and armor leaders.

The idea communicated from Starship Troopers to the current military leadership is one where soldiers and marines act as “Robert Heinlein’s futuristic warriors… someone who can think and act independently, with self-discipline and the will to complete missions without coercion.”

Informally the influence of Starship Troopers has been largely linguistic. That is to say, words and phrases from the book have been incorporated in the military’s lexicon. Just to give just three examples: during “Operation: Restore Hope” in Somalia (1992-1993), the native Somalis were often referred to as “Skinnies,” the name of one of the alien races in the book. During the Iraqi War (Operation Iraqi Freedom), the term “bug hunt” was used, generally in the context of a cordon and search operation designed to find various high value targets, such as Saddam Hussein and his supporters. Lastly, at least one Special Forces Operational Detachment A-Team used the nickname “Roughnecks” taken straight from the novel.

For good or ill, as the general level of military technology has started to approach the level described in the novel and the book has become more readily available to new generations of readers through online sellers and through electronic formatting, we should not be surprised that Starship Troopers’ impact on the American military has also grown.

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