I have since heard the book and its message described as fascistic, provocative, irresponsible, unpalatable. This it may well be. Yet I found reading his book to be an amazingly sobering and dispiriting affair. One can really drink up the spirit of a man in reading his prose, and I fear Heinlein to be not someone with whom I want to share a beer or be friends. I read later that he was a career military officer who developed tuberculosis and was invalided out of the fleet to a literary career. There hangs about this book a severe and cynical air of wounded world-weariness, as if life is a dreary and dangerous affair requiring toughness and discipline to survive. He nearly models Sparta in his apotheosis of rigorous military training as necessary for the formation of good character in a person. His anger and disdain for modern liberal democracy is strong. The dispiriting part is that Heinlein is consistent and correct in his powerful arguments - it is impossible to dismiss him, even if he gores the sacred cows of our age.
Heinlein's 22nd century earth is at war with an arachnid "bug" race from another galaxy. "They are tough and we are tough and only one of us will win and the other gets wiped out," explains Heinlein's protagonist Johnny Rico of the rugged Mobil Infantry, illuminating well the state of mind of the war between Japan and the United States during World War II, as well as the barely restrained ferocity of the Cold War afterwards. Rico's old high school teacher plays the stand-in for Heinlein's philosophy of an "improved" future society which emerges after following the "decadence and collapse of the democracies of the 20th century" after which the surviving veterans take over. Heinlein pays unconvincing lip service to the idea of a free society where civic service is voluntary and civil liberties are respected, but the soul of his argument lies in the military and the service of the State. The formation of young men and women does not take place primarily in schools, families, churches, sporting teams, universities, or love affairs. In Heinlein's idealized future, this takes place in boot camp.
Fully half the book takes place during Rico's basic training into the Mobil Infantry where he and his fellow recruits are humiliated, broken-down, and re-made into selfless members of an elite military unit. Potential soldiers learn that life is about duty, serving the collective, sacrifice, and punishment; perhaps echoing his own days as a midshipman at the U.S Naval Academy and later as a junior officer serving aboard the aircraft carrier USS Lexington, happiness is simply getting enough sleep. He is the very embodiment of Aeschylus when he said that we must suffer, suffer into truth. To a point, who can argue with that? To become a man takes learning and growing and suffering; it does not happen overnight. Who can argue that ultimately in our mature incarnations we must live for other people? And who can argue with the assertion that in democracies citizens with little invested in the system often make unwise and poorly-informed decisions when voting? So many who live irresponsible lives? Look at the drug problem in the United States, for example. Everywhere we look we see chaos, lack of order - the "degeneracy" Heinlein vigorously disdains. Look at the poverty, ignorance, and violence seen in the major American cities! In contrast, the global society into which Rico is born only lets those who have "placed the welfare of the group ahead of personal advantage" become citizens and vote. In other words, it are only the soldiers and others who have put their lives on the line who can vote and be trusted to do so wisely. Consequently, society is better arranged while peace and prosperity rule the day. The military caste are the Brahmins of Heinlein's ideal society; there is an offhand contempt for everyone else.
In the story, there is not one love affair worth mentioning. Sexuality and the need of...
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