After having seen the movie and hearing over the years of people talking about the controversy around the book, I decided to pick it up from the local library and see for myself what all the fuss is about. This post will describe some of my thoughts on the book not really a full book report style review.
The book was written in 1959 by Robert A. Heinlein but if you didn’t know that, you would think it was written in the last couple of years. The technology, tactics, and mindset he describes all fit with our current time. Pretty impressive for a 50 year old novel to accurately depict our reality. Makes you wonder if he predicted the future or the future modeled itself on him.
An interesting concept that the book lays out (one of the central themes) is the concept of being a citizen of your nation. Everyone from birth is considered a civilian. This classification gives them access to every right and freedom save two. They cannot vote and they cannot hold public office. To gain these two rights requires enlisting in federal service (joining the military) for a term of at least two years (the term is open ended if the nation is in conflict and needs you longer). Further, while you are doing your federal service, you cannot vote. So career military men would not be able to vote until their retirement.
The interesting thought of this setup is that the acting military does not get a say in the future of conflict or military infrastructure. Thus they cannot vote in their self-interest. All those that do get to vote are former military men that have seen the good and bad and put their own necks on the line. They should have a clear picture of what it really means to fight and die and can vote with that knowledge. It seems like a much better setup than some ivy league lawyer in Washington committing troops to some location without any first-hand knowledge of the reality of what that means. Also this would seem to prevent the concept of the military-industrial complex from being able to take hold since active military cannot vote.
Another thing this would seem to prevent would be the continued expansion of the government payrolls. This reminds me of Philip Greenspun’s recent post on Should Government Employees Be Allowed To Vote?. Employees of the government will always tend to vote for anything that expands or improves their employment situation. If the number of employees grows too large, then you create a situation where those kinds of votes will always pass. I think I would have to agree with Philip that the Constitution probably would have explicitly addressed this if they thought it possible for this to ever happen.
Also in this completely voluntary federal service commitment, they try to make it very difficult to join and easy to quit. They intentionally try to discourage everyone from signing up. If they fail at that, they make it as easy as possible for an individual to drop out. The only repercussion of dropping out is you can never sign back up and try again. This ensures that those that are in the service are very committed to the idea of putting themselves on the line for the good of the nation as a whole and really want to be there. This reminds me of Zappos paying new hires cash to quit.
I would definitely be on board with our current military adopting this kind of setup to see how it changed the shape of our military. With an all volunteer force, it seems a bit strange to change the rules the second you sign the dotted line. You are free to join, but not to leave. If it didn’t work, we could always go back to the old way of doing things, but I would imagine this would lead to an even higher quality force than we have currently.
There is one soliloquy in the book that is really potent (and makes it shocking this was written in 1959). It is about the term juvenile delinquent and the nature of what causes a young person to become delinquent. The argument is that to have a juvenile delinquent, you must have an adult delinquent that allowed this situation to occur by not using operant conditioning and discipline to mold the child into someone with a moral basis for behavior. He specifically talks about the removal of corporal punishment from youth and how purely at an animal/behavioral level this causes the individual to not properly learn the actions/consequences model that many of us learned at the end of a ruler or paddle. Fascinating stuff to ponder.
I did not find the book as controversial as the critics made out and thoroughly enjoyed it (only took 2 days to read it). Many criticisms have been made about its pro-military stance (Heinlein was an officer in the Navy), but I did not see it that way (with my background of never having been in the military). I saw it speaking of a more restrained military and federal organization than we have currently. Others critics disliked it saying it was more of an essay of Heinlein’s views versus an actual story arc. I can see part of this, but it was not very noticeable or distracting to me. It also might explain why Paul Verhoeven, who made the film version, is quoted as saying he never even finished reading the book (the movie doesn’t have much of the same story of the book).
I think this book is definitely worth reading if you have ever pondered what the responsibility is of the nation to its people and the people to their nation. It gives you some great food for thought and can spur some great discussions with friends. Of course there is Power Armor thrown in too so that is also a plus.