The following review is a guest post by Eye-Patch, a reviewer and columnist for one of the most respected arts and culture magazines in the Terran Federation. In addition to his writing, Eye-Patch is a veteran, teacher and citizen.
It is now 19 years since the release of the motion picture Starship Troopers, directed by Mr Paul Verhoeven (non-citizen) and based on the book by Mr Robert A. Heinlein (citizen). It is a film that was controversial upon its initial release and remains controversial to this day. Upon its release, the film was accused of distorting the original intention of Mr Heinlein’s admirable original story, of representing an example of the film industry’s liberal and unpatriotic bias, of being insidious anti-government and anti-war propaganda, of being covertly pro-Bug, of being out of touch with the opinions of the vast majority of right-thinking people in the Federation.
In this appreciation, I want to argue that much of the controversy about the film stems from the fact that its message has been severely misunderstood, as has the nature of the media in the Federation. Far from being dangerous and subversive, Starship Troopers is in fact a deeply patriotic film, dedicated to strengthening the Terran Federation, both morally and materially.
At the time of its release, many critics – on both sides of the political divide that we tolerate perhaps more than we should – interpreted the film as an attack upon our society and war effort. Whether you thought this was a good or bad thing depended upon your point of view. But a surprising agreement was reached across ideological lines. The charges levelled at the film by mainstream critics were that the film might dissuade potential recruits from enlisting for federal service, erode the confidence of the troops already enlisted, erode public confidence in the war at home, and erode public confidence in the government and the Federation’s political system. What these allegations amounted to was something very serious: treason. Giving aid and comfort to the enemy. The only consolation was that the Bugs are too savage and stupid to watch movies!
It was, and is, an odd idea. It is not as if the motion picture industry is still run by left-wingers and liberals, the way it used to be in the olden days before the Federation. We are too wise these days to tolerate a media who are unduly critical of the Earth government and the Federal system generally. We would not tolerate a media geared towards undermining our war against the Arachnids on the basis of any spurious idea that it was somehow unjust. It would be impossible, under our rational system of democracy, for such a thing to happen, since the output of the media is supervised by citizens, thus enforcing democratic controls, and the citizens are by definition the ones who have proved their loyalty.
It wasn’t always this way. Way back in the 20th century, before the failure of the Western democracies, movies were made by what was called a ‘Hollywood’ system. ‘Hollywood’, as any responsible historian will tell you, was a byword for liberal bias and subversive propaganda. The system churned out endless films which undermined authority, democracy, the traditional family, traditional values, heterosexuality, normal ideas of gender, Western religion, decency and propriety, and white civilisation generally. ‘Hollywood’ relentlessly propagandised the public to doubt the existence, goodness, or both, of all these crucial bedrocks of society. On the other hand, ‘Hollywood’ pushed a distorted view of what was good, constantly depicting divisive social phenomena – such as divorce, homosexuality, Islam, crime, pacifism, anti-establishment ideas, and all kinds of radical scepticism about the values of Western civilisation – in positive terms.
This was undoubtedly, as – again – any responsible historian will tell you, one of the major signs of the weakness and softness of the old Western democracies. In their boundless tolerance and permissiveness, their suicidal liberality, those societies invited their own destruction. And it is crucial to remember that they were not only under sustained and merciless assault from outside but also from inside. It was not just the threat of China, and later of Islam, which assaulted them. They were also under attack from enemies within, social carcinomas which grew within them and which, despite being noticed in time, went untreated. When they should have been cutting these cancers out with razor-sharp scalpels, or blasting them with devastating doses of radiation, the Western democracies instead chose to pity and coddle the tumors, to worry about how they felt, to anaesthetise themselves with analgesics which made them forget their own pain, and to treat their ailments with homeopathic doses of ‘understanding’ and ‘tolerance’. As we know, the patient died through its own kamikaze neglect of its own health. But we shouldn’t complain. The death of the doddering and senile ancien regime gave rise to the Federation, a strong and virile society that protects itself mercilessly with the scalpel of the military and the radiation therapy that is real democracy.
However, it cannot be said that all the cultural products of the decadent 20th and 21st century democracies were without merit. This is not a simple story. There was the work of Frank Miller. There were the films of Michael Bay. There were the heroic writers of Castalia House, and the YouTube philosophers of #GamerGate, who tried to save Western civilisation and who nearly succeeded… people who have rightly been honoured with having their likenesses carved onto the backside of Mount Rushmore There are also the late 20th century and early 21st century American films about America’s wars. Widely misunderstood in their own time and in ours, these films managed, for the most part, to smuggle a deeply patriotic message into the mainstream discourse of the time, a discourse which – despite the totalitarian ideological regime of critical scepticism – failed to notice the contents of the trojan horse of decency that had been wheeled through its gates.
In the years following Old America’s struggle for freedom in Vietnam, a slew of ‘Hollywood’ films were released which depicted this struggle. Some of these films, generally considered more ‘artistic’ and ‘serious’, were highly praised at the time by liberal critics for being critical of America, the conduct of America’s troops, the project of the Vietnam war, and indeed of war itself. They were seen as part of a liberal attempt to interrogate America, American values, and America’s ability to make war. By some contemporaries, and later by the cultural historians of the Federation, the same films have been heavily criticised for the same reasons. But both the praise and criticism is based on a misapprehension.
This misapprehension is understandable. For a start, there is the experience of the war itself, during which the American war effort was fatally undermined by an adversarial news media who relentlessly used critical coverage to stir up the feckless youth of the country to oppose the war. Members of the liberal media at the time will have been only too ready to think of any serious and complex look at the subject of Vietnam surely must contain standard critique. They saw the films through their own tinted lenses. To subsequent analysts there is, of course, the fact that most of the products of Hollywood are to be mistrusted as anti-establishment peacenik propaganda. The films themselves tended to be more honest about the terrible nature of war, the horror of violent conflict, and about the travails of troops. Given this context, and given the way in which these Vietnam war films tended to be well-received by the liberal media, it is only too easy to see why generations of critics and historians have counted them as part of the anti-war tidal wave. The films can easily be mistaken for attempts to dissuade both potential recruits and policymakers from future engagements. But I believe that a careful reading of such generally shows them to be undeserving of either the praise of the liberals or the criticism of those whose views are generally more trustworthy. Ultimately, these films are supportive of America’s aims and conduct during the war.
The Deer Hunter, for instance, concentrates on the sacrifices made by American soldiers, and depicts the Vietnamese communists – forerunners of our Bugs – as inhuman monsters. Apocalypse Now showed Americans literally driven mad by their confrontation with the ruthlessly efficient savagery of the Asian hoardes. Platoon showed how with better, more stable and moral men in charge, the war could and should have been won. And so on.
Years later, after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, another round of similar movies were produced and released. Often taken as profound and brave because of their confrontational stance on the wars, often praised on exactly these grounds by the liberal media, and attacked by others for the same reasons, these films were, like their forerunners on the subject of Vietnam, actually very responsible films which ultimately landed on the correct side, the side of supporting their own society. The Hurt Locker, for instance, shows the blood and guts, but is ultimately a celebration of manly heroism. Zero Dark Thirty depicts the dirty work that sometimes has to be done to vanquish an implacably hostile enemy. (An irony here is that a film widely attacked at the time for being “jingoistic” and “pro-government, pro-war propaganda”, American Sniper, was actually a deeply subversive film in which American values are compared to a visibly fake plastic baby.)
We must see Starship Troopers in the tradition of these films. At the time of its release, mainstream opinion among Federation critics and audiences was highly dissatisfied with the film, with many suggesting that it was a ‘satire’ of the military and the anti-Bug war effort. It was said that the film depicted our society as fascist, suggesting that our war against the Bugs was unjust and bigoted, reducing the core values of our society to mindless platitudes and bromides. But the film simply champions the rightness of our system of franchise: that only citizens may vote, and citizenship must be earned through military service.
How can a society be fascist if it is based upon democracy? It is simply that, unlike the foolish and fallen Western democracies of the past, our society recognises that democracy must have limits in order to be meaningful. We recognise that democracy is not a right but a privilege that must be earned. As with all things in life worth having, it must be struggled and fought for. That is the essence of the unification of our military struggle with the franchise. Only the better people can be allowed to vote, and we know the better people because they step forward. It is the leap of logic and guts the decadent Western democracies of the past were never able to make, though they knew they should. In a way, the Bugs have done us a favour by forcing this decisive step upon us. The film depicts this. How it can be mistaken for a satire of our ostensible ‘fascism’, I don’t know… unless you mistake meritocracy for tyranny, thus mindlessly extracting the factors of capability and nobility from the quality of strength.
People have pointed to the little inserts of mock-television coverage seen in the film, and claim that the film satirises the Federal Network, and mainstream Federation attitudes and culture, that it represents our attitudes – reflected in our media – as cruel and callous towards our foes, or glib when it comes to our troops and what they go through. What such critics have failed to understand is that the film is being painfully honest about some of the necessities of war, such as the need to use propaganda at home to depict one’s enemy as both strong and weak at once, one’s own forces as vulnerable and indomitable at once.
To be honest, I am more inclined to say that the film is, at most, affectionately jabbing at some of the luridness and incoherence of our news media, some of its enthusiasm for the fight, some of its simplification of the issues. I think anyone who sees more than a mild ribbing in any of the parodies of news programming is labouring under a fundamental misunderstanding of the ideological import of such programming. It is the left and liberals, those who are more concerned with attacking their own culture and the brave people who defend it, to look at the enthusiasm and luridness and direct emotive simplicity of the news media, and see a serious fault there. They are the ones who would have all programming be terribly earnest and intellectual, and thus distort moral truths into abstruse nuances that do not inspire anyone to constructive patriotism or public service. They fail to see that such programming would not only be socially detrimental, but would go unwatched by most ordinary people. Looking at things through that same distorted lens, of course they see ‘satire’ in Starship Troopers when it jokingly chuckles at some of the media’s excesses and simplifications. What patriotic, right-thinking people see as vulgar but essentially good-hearted enthusiasm for the war effort, the malcontent and clever-clogs will see as a terrible transgression. So when a film represents what he sees as a transgression in a jocular way, his own smug ideological filters will make him see it as critique, whereas it is in fact no more than affectionate joshing with a friend, an ally. Nobody who sees the way the bravery of embedded journalists is depicted in the film can be in any doubt about its real attitude to the loyal press we in the Federation are lucky to have protecting our democracy.
This issue, in turn, connects with another which has led some such clever-clever oppositional critics – and even some misguided patriotic ones – to misperceive as the film’s determination to put young people off enlisting, namely the way the film shows war as frightening and painful, with graphic depictions of horrible injuries and deaths suffered by troops and other humans in the combat zones. This, once again, is to misunderstand what the film is doing. The film is a glorification of our struggle against the evil of the Bugs, against their inhuman evil, their racial aggression, their sly and sneaky ruthlessness, their conspiratorial subtlety, their instinctive hostility to all that is good and pure and worthwhile, in other words: all that is human. The film honestly admits not only the camaraderie and adventure of war but also the occasional hellishness of it. The aim of the film is to glorify the troops, and what glory is there in doing something that is easy and painless? Something in which there is no need for bravery, and no sacrifice? It is precisely because it shows the sacrifices and bravery of our brave boys and girls that the film is so triumphantly patriotic.
People have criticised the acting, but their underlying assumptions are incorrect. The director didn’t get substandard or uninspiring acting; he got the performances he was looking for. The director was not searching for brilliantly artistic conveyors of deep emotion, or skilled interpreters of the English language, or balletic expressionists, or painstaking practitioners of the Method. Such things were all well and good for the ‘artistic’ directors and their ‘artistic’ films, the kinds of cynical and sceptical and didactic dramas made by people who thought they knew better than everybody else and who wanted to preach their wisdom. Such films scored brownie points with the artsy-fartsy bohemians, the so-called ‘intellectuals’, and the snooty liberals in the media, by trying to drag down and smear the Federation government, the war effort, and by extension the beliefs, hopes, fears, and sacrifices of millions of ordinary people. Many of those people are citizens who have earned their citizenship through brave service, or are the parents of our boys and girls currently out there doing the same right now. They’re not the kinds of people who respond to the impenetrable and the pretentious; they’re the kinds of people who respond to earnestness, youthfulness, brightness, perkiness, healthiness, and beauty. These are the people who simply want to relate to simple kids with simple virtues. The characters are such simple, honest, good people. They want to serve their government and people, or to find love and happiness, to prove themselves, to succeed in life, to earn citizenship, to get careers, to strike a blow for freedom, to find adventure… and there’s no contradiction here. These are all natural things for young people to want to do. And they can’t very well plan secure and prosperous futures for themselves if their planet is under siege from evil alien monsters, can they?
This is the essence of the case for service and, through service, citizenship: the fight for freedom and the pursuit of individual happiness are linked, inextricably, to service to the community, the race. “Enlightened self-interest” was what the democracies of the 20th and 21st centuries used to call it… and they were correct, even if they were too weak to fight ruthlessly to protect the principle, and thus defend their own existence. This is why these characters are played by the kinds of actors who belong in daytime soaps. Beautiful, fresh, young, and wooden. They need to represent the decent, simple, uncomplicated values of the ordinary people who flock to such shows and, in so doing, prove what they desire and cherish and value. In many ways, the characters in Starship Troopers are characters from daytime soaps, or high-school comedies, or teen romances. The point of such shows, and such actors, and such characters, is to connect our fantasies to our moral instincts. That’s why they are such a hit. They connect decency of character to beauty, athleticism, straightforwardness, healthy competitiveness, physical strength, optimism, honesty, openness, and faith in one’s society. They reflect the very best of us, our idealised selves, back at us. They may not look like all of us, but all of us can see the selves we want to be, or wish we could be, in them.
This is also why Mr Heinlein’s multi-racial cast of characters is rationalised down to white characters. The characters must be universal, and it is well-understood (by anyone not blinded by ideology, grievance, envy, or special interests) that white people are more universal in their appeal. They can stand for all, and frequently have done – as Western civilisation proves. You can adapt this same argument to account for their uniform heterosexuality. It would be snobbery and elitism to offer the viewers anything else in a film about the very best of our young people doing the very best they can in the very best of all struggles.
Long live the Federation! Glory to our race! Exterminate the enemy! Death to all Bugs!
Thanks to Daniel, Shana, James, and Kit for their feedback. Especially Kit, who came up with the eye-patch joke. – JG