It’s safe to say that the vast majority of troops and veterans today have seen the 1997 film, Starship Troopers. It’s an expertly crafted film and its tasteful use of special effects (for late 90s, anyway) was beyond astounding.
The film is terrific in its own right, but Robert A. Heinlein’s novel, upon which the movie is (loosely) based, elevated the science fiction genre and has a place on nearly every single required reading list created by the United States military. If you’re a young private in the Marines or a battalion commander in the Army, you will be asked to read this classic — and this is why.
Technically speaking, the film was originally based off an unrelated script for a film called Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine until the production team realized that it only had a passing resemblance to the novel. This lead to many of the significant differences between the two and a drastic change of tone.
The adaptation of the original script to film lead to more of a statement on how propaganda affects the troops fighting in a war in a satirical manner. The novel, however, uses the Bugs as a stand-in character for some nameless enemy to focus in on the novel’s theme of the mindset of a soldier fighting a seemingly unstoppable force.
This is immediately made clear in the first paragraph of the novel.
“I always get the shakes before a drop. I’ve had the injections, of course, and hypnotic preparation, and
it stands to reason that I can’t really be afraid. The ship’s psychiatrist has checked my brain waves and
asked me silly questions while I was asleep and he tells me that it isn’t fear, it isn’t anything important —
it’s just like the trembling of an eager race horse in the starting gate.
I couldn’t say about that; I’ve never been a race horse. But the fact is: I’m scared silly, every time.”
Contrary to what you’d expect if you’ve only watched the film, they’re actually fighting a different alien than the Arachnids (at first.) The first enemies were called “skinnies” and were essentially just tall, lanky, human-like aliens that didn’t really cause a threat to the humans. Their entire Army is easily wiped out by just a single platoon but the prospect of war still frightened Johnny Rico, the stories protagonist.
After the battle, the story flashes back to Rico’s time as a civilian before the Mobile Infantry. The idea of “service equals citizenship” had a different meaning in the novel. Despite the world being under the unified “Terran Federation,” the military and its veterans were treated as a higher caste than non-military people. You literally had to join the military to become a citizen.
This hyperbole was just as relevant in 1950’s society (as it is today in the military community). Despite the fact that signing up is a fantastic way to get benefits in our world, and definitely in the novel’s world, military service is often discouraged and looked down on — as demonstrated through Rico’s father.
The novel spends a lot of time in boot camp for the Mobile Infantry. It shows the deeper motivations about what it takes to be in the military — mainly the forced brotherhood, the “one team, one fight” mentality, and the loss of personal identity that comes with service. Which eventually leads to the “Bug War” when the Arachnids destroy Rico’s home city of Buenos Aires.
The troops are overzealous and believe they can handle it. Despite Rico being the only one personally affected by the attack, he’s also one of the only ones not to refer to the Arachnids as “bugs,” which was highly implied to have racial undertones. He instead keeps a level facade while remaining terrified. The first chapter happens around here. This is the exact mindset of many troops right before they’re sent to deploy.
When the Mobile Infantry arrives on Klendathu, it’s a complete disaster — the exact opposite of the battle with the skinnies. The Arachnids were massive and though the humans had the firepower, it was no match for the unstoppable numbers of their enemy.
Rico finally gets his chance to fight the Arachnids with the Rasczak’s Roughnecks. He and his men capture a Brain Bug and begin learning more about the “bug” society. It mirrored their own except the Warriors were the lowest caste fighting for an apathetic queen. Rico learns that aimlessly tossing troops at the problem would only result in more and more deaths.
The novel ends with a coda of the first chapter as Rico is about to make his drop onto Klendathu with confidence. He does this because he learned the value of military strategy — the one thing the Arachnids lacked.
Starship Troopers makes heavy parallels between the Mobile Infantry and Arachnids. It’s often incorrectly believed by casual readers, or those without knowledge of the military, that the novel promotes fascism and militarism — it doesn’t.
If anything, the novel explores the psyche of the troops as they head off into combat — it just utilizes an extreme science fiction setting to do it.