Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder



    The running controversy in the Publications concerning Heinlein's Starship Troopers calls for some comments, mostly in defense of Heinlein's ideas.

    I thoroughly enjoyed Starship Troopers, and I thoroughly approve of most of the author's points, partially approve some, and strongly disagree with one.  That latter is his claim that war is always due to population pressure.  This is palpably untrue.  For a horrendous example close at hand, there is the Cold War, which may become hot war at any time.  The basic cause is religious: the aim of the Communists is to convert the world to their religion (Communism).  In the nations which the Communists have already conquered they have practiced neither mass deportations nor genocide except as disciplinary measures.  Their clear intention is to convert, not to displace.  Heinlein thus overlooks completely the ideological war, whose purpose is not to rob foreigners of their land or resources, but to impose upon them a particular system of ideas.

    Since many of the criticisms of Starship Troopers are duplicated among the various correspondents of the PITFCS, I think it will be simplest to list the major complaints, without attribution to specific writers.  And it will also make the argument less personal.  While I am at it, I shall attempt to answer some common criticisms raised elsewhere than in the PITFCS.

    (1)  REGARDLESS OF WHAT ONE THINKS OF HEINLEIN'S IDEAS, IT IS NOT PROPER TO STUFF A LOT OF PROPAGANDA INTO A BOOK AIMED AT YOUNGSTERS.  There is some validity to this, but I wonder to what extent it is a case of whose ox is being gored.  Ask yourself, would you object to the same intensity of propaganda if it were in favor of, say, racial toleration or democratic world government?

    (2)  TO BECOME A CITIZEN OF THE "TERRAN FEDERATION," ONE MUST SUBMIT TO BRAINWASHING.  I could discern nothing in the book remotely resembling brainwashing, although that term appears not infrequently in criticisms.  Perhaps we should all take the trouble to learn what brainwashing is.  It certainly does not mean merely any form of indoctrination, such as the classes in "History and Moral Philosophy."  Brainwashing means the use of non-rational and will-destroying methods of implanting ideas, methods usually involving physical privations for the temporary destruction of the critical faculties.  Nothing of the sort appeared in Starship Troopers.  So far as can be found in the book, the training methods did not even go to the extent of giving the troopers indoctrination when they were physically exhausted; indeed there was no mention at all of indoctrination in the boot camp.  Juan Rico's only encounters with indoctrination were in the H&MP courses in high school and Officer Candidate School; neither of which were described in a way to give the slightest justification for this puzzling charge of brainwashing.

    I begin to suspect that some people use "brainwashing" to mean any propagation of ideas of which they disapprove.  Or possibly they mean to convey that they do not approve of any form of indoctrination, rational or otherwise, and regardless of the ideas taught.  I contend that any society, to survive for long, must systematically indoctrinate its young in its values.  Over the last generation or two, it has been very popular in America to let kids grow up without any attempt to instill values in them.  Apparently, they were expected to absorb civilization by osmosis.  For the results of this, I invite you to look at, on the one hand, the beatniks, and on the other hand, the amoral delinquents, such as the lad who coolly murdered his father for not letting him have the car.  In their different ways, both types are savages--they have not learned how to be civilized.  So, while one may object to the particular values of a society, one can hardly criticize reasonable efforts to propagate those values.

    (3)  THE SOCIETY OF THE TERRAN FEDERATION IS AUTHORITARIAN AND "SPARTAN." Those who make this criticism seem to me to have missed the entire point of the book.  The military forces are undoubtedly authoritarian, and that is as it should be.  There is no such thing as a democratic army; it is a truism that discipline, i.e. authoritarianism, is the difference between an army and a mob.  Heinlein's critics seem to have jumped to the conclusion that the authoritarianism of the military service is reproduced in civilian society, though nothing in the book justifies such an assumption.  To the absolute contrary, the civil society appears to be appreciably more libertarian than ours.  For example, the Federation has far fewer police per capita than we in 20th Century America (p. 139), which would hardly be true of an authoritarian state.

    I take Heinlein's point to be that the Federation is quite libertarian precisely because of the "unique poll tax" which is the price of citizenship.  The citizen ruling class (which absolutely anyone may join) is highly responsible, thus not given to voting the impossible, and therefore can be trusted with extensive liberty.  And the comparatively irresponsible "legal residents" can also have extensive liberty, because they have no political power to abuse.

    Some may object that the very fact that the Federation is not an unlimited democracy is proof that it is not libertarian.  To them I recommend the book Liberty or Equality, by Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, which explicates in detail the distinctions between democracy and liberty.  For a crude example, suppose that the 90% of Americans who are white should vote to exterminate the 10% who are colored.  This would certainly be democratic (i.e., majority rule), but it would with equal certainty not be libertarian.  For another example, a society in which slavery exists is not libertarian even though all the slaves approve of their slavery.

    That the Federation is a "Spartan" society seems also to involve the false assumption that civilian life duplicates the admittedly Spartan military life.  But the Spartanism of the Service is deliberate as a means of making men out of boys; all indications are that civil society is comparatively luxurious.  In fact, the first arises out of the second: you don't need such rugged boot training if all the lads are already accustomed to Spartan living.  For a perhaps tenuous indication of the nature of the society, consider that Rico's father is a big businessman--and the existence of big business implies mass production, which implies mass consumption, which implies a high standard of living.

    (4)  HEINLEIN GLORIFIES WAR, AND IMPLIES THAT WAR IS THE ONLY OCCUPATION FOR A "REAL MAN."  Absolutely false.  Heinlein claims war is necessary at times, and certainly not shameful or dishonorable (the same could be said of defecation), but nowhere does he glorify war.  His basic statement, "The noblest fate that a man can endure is to place his own mortal body between his loved home and the war's desolation" (p. 113) implies, first, that war is something "endured," not enjoyed, and second, that war is so unpleasant, so desolate, that it must at all costs be kept away from one's home.

    Heinlein says that a certain amount of military service is the duty of every good citizen, but he never implies that the obligation cannot be discharged by anything less than a full lifetime of service.  Thus, he never says that war is the only occupation for a real man, although he surely does imply that anyone who refuses to take even a temporary part in war is not quite a "real man."  His reasoning seems to be that since war is necessary to the survival of society, one who refuses to take part is a freeloader who wants to enjoy the benefits of social life without sharing in the risks of preserving it.

    (5)  THESE IDEAS ARE A "RECENT ABERRATION" OF HEINLEIN'S.  An aberration they may be, but recent they are not.  See the last chapter of The Puppet Masters, published eight or nine years ago.

    (6)  WHILE THE SYSTEM MAY BE USEFUL FOR FIGHTING THE "BUGS," IT WAS UNJUSTIFIABLY INSTITUTED IN A UNIFIED AND PEACEFUL WORLD, LONG BEFORE THE BUGS WERE ENCOUNTERED.  Actually, Heinlein says that the system was originated by veterans in the anarchic period following the war between the Russo-Anglo-American Alliance and the Chinese Hegemony (p. 211 ff).  Nowhere does he say that the whole world was at peace, or even that the Russians, British, Americans, and Chinese did not resume the war when they were sufficiently recovered.  And the world was definitely not unified, for Heinlein specifies that the system was instituted in only a few places, and then spread.  Clearly, the Terran Federation was in fact created by the expansion of the new system into the vacuum left by the collapse of national governments.

*       *       *       *       *       *

    So much for the specific criticisms.  To me, the central question is, would the system actually produce responsible citizens?  This can hardly be settled except by actual experience, but theory at least favors it.  Certainly, it is true that the irresponsibility of voters is indeed one of the principal problems of democracies.  And Heinlein is absolutely correct in characterizing government as being force -- "the Power of the Rods and the Ax."  This is true virtually by definition: government is the social apparatus of coercion, possessing the legal monopoly of the use of violence in carrying out its policies.  But would Heinlein's system instill an appreciation of this fact, and inculcate the requisite moral responsibility for humane and libertarian use of such power?

    It is to be noted that the Federation system depends on both the term of service and the required classes in History and Moral Philosophy.  The system would be unworkable with either alone.  The H&MP course gives the student the theoretical knowledge, and the dangerous service makes it a real and living thing for him, by requiring him to assume the burden of maximum responsibility.  In a sense, the choice of whether to enlist for the term is the final examination at which the student passes or flunks Moral Philosophy.

    I do not know of any reason for asserting that the system could not work; the most that can be said is that it cannot be shown that it positively would work.

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Originally published in The Proceedings of the Institute for Twenty-First Century Studies #137, October 1960.

Graphics by Kelly