Pro Tip: All you need to sustain a voluntary military is a gaggle of ornamental women in uniforms

I just finished Starship Troopers which was, actually, a fairly good book. It was recommended to me by a friend who insisted that I had to read it if we were to continue being friends. He was not kidding, so I read it. I was shocked to discover that it is nothing like the movie (because movies based on books are usually so true to the original story! *note the sarcasm).

If you forgive the outdated sexism of the novel, it’s not half bad. And even then, for a military fiction novel written in the late 1950s it is not that bad. ST seems to draw a clear division between genders in that women join the Navy in non-com (non-combatant) positions, while men can occupy basically whatever position they want [read: whatever the military tells them to occupy]. This is without mentioning the very real line drawn in the spaceships in the novel where the women and the men are kept in separate areas of the ship. NO MIXING ALLOWED! COOTIES ARE REAL!

Just kidding.

But if you think about it, this book was written before women were first admitted to a US military college (and Canadian military colleges for that matter – both countries made us women wait until the 70s for that privilege). While the Federal Service had female veterans built in to its world, in the real world women couldn’t even get through the front doors.

In Canada, it wasn’t until 1941 that women were enrolled for military service outside of nursing – all non-com roles still. Then in 1965 the government capped the number of women allowed to serve in the military at 1500 (1.5% of the total force). Because…well I don’t know why but I’m sure those old men had their reasons.

Fun fact: In Starship Troopers essentially all the women are pilots. In the Canadian military, the classification of pilot was not open to women until 1980. The US has us beat there – the Women Airforce Service Pilots was established in 1941 for non-com missions.

We’ve (hopefully) established that Starship Troopers deserves at least a tip of the cap for its efforts to shrink the gender gap in terms of military service opportunities for men and women. And let me be clear that I am talking about Starship Troopers the BOOK. In the movie, the women are more or less treated as sex objects, but at least they get to be super sexy combatant sex objects and members of the M.I. (mobile infantry)!

SIDE BAR: I had completely forgotten that NPH is in the movie. Awesome!

The distribution of labour and availability of equal opportunities is not what I took issue with in the book. We’ve already discussed the historical context there. What I did take issue with was the protagonist’s, Johnnie Rico’s, constant amazement at the fact that women could be both pretty AND smart. Can you believe it?!? Rico just couldn’t wrap his sad little soldier brain around that concept. At multiple points in the book he states that either he’d forgotten that Carmen (sexy combatant sex object pilot) actually had her own ambitions and/or intelligence.

He also goes on to theorize that the true reason women are in the military is not because they make superior pilots and have anything of value to offer in terms of skills and intelligence, but in fact because men are motivated by their presence. Yes, that’s right, it’s good for morale to have women around. Reminds men what they’re fighting for! Nevermind that they’re the ones flying the ship and deploying the troops. Rico brushes aside the actual military contributions of all women and places all of their value on their ‘ornamental’ value.

This is where the book falls. This is where you start to want to beat Robert Heinlein with his own penis.

If you can ignore the sexism and instead enjoy it for what it is – a mid 20th century novel about men being all “HOO-RAH!” relishing in brotherhood and traditional masculine militaristic archetypes, then it’s not bad. It actually brings up some interesting philosophical questions about civic duty and military strategy.

Next up: Vampires! I’ve been wanting to read Interview with the Vampire since I saw the movie when I was a kid. It was then that I fell in love with Brad Pitt, and vampires.

UPDATE: I was thinking about this post last night and realized that I perhaps hadn’t made a clear enough distinction that the historical milestones in women’s rights I refer to are specific to military history. By the time Heinlein took pen to paper (or ink to type, or whatever he used) significant advancements in women’s rights had already occurred. This included (among other important milestones) the women’s right to vote (suffrage), Rosie the Riveteer, and the publication of The Feminine Mystique.

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2 thoughts on “Pro Tip: All you need to sustain a voluntary military is a gaggle of ornamental women in uniforms

  1. This is a great book. It’s been a while since I read it but I don’t recall any sexism. I remember the parts you mentioned, but I disagree with your assertion that they are sexist, given their actual context. There were almost no women in the book, and they barely talked about women.

    Heinlein put some interesting ideas out there for examination including the political system, suffrage, corporal punishment, individual vs common good, and so on. It was almost more of an essay than a story.

    I also think that the author intended the “hoorah” parts of the book to be taken with a grain of salt. He presented a story about a soldier and left room to consider the positive and negative parts of the lifestyle. The book did not make me want to join the army. Most of Rico’s friends died. Too bad!

    • Interesting perspective – I actually found there to be quite a lot of women in the book, although not many with actual speaking roles – Carmen would have been really the only one to fall in to that category. But the presence of women in the military and their apparent monopoly on the piloting and non-com roles was evident throughout. The military that Heinlein envisioned was a very gendered one with clear gender roles drawn and observed.

      I absolutely, fully, and unconditionally agree with your second paragraph – the political system and idea that one must earn their right to vote through civic participation is fascinating. There’s a lot of breadth to the ideas that Heinlein even just flirts with in this book that we could spend hours debating and fleshing out. I think it would make for a really interesting conversation. But then I disagree with you again on the ‘hoorah’ bit. It is too bad that most of his friends died, though. They live in the movie!

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