The […] novel sucked. Even when I liked Heinlein I saw right through that Rah Rah Military is Awesome bullshit.
- Facebook Comment
I met a man who despised me.
He called me fascist, murderer, and a dumb blunt tool.
I didn’t take it personally – though a younger me might have.
I didn’t meet him in the flesh, like most of my social interactions these days I encountered him online. He surfaced on a well known author’s Facebook page during a conversation regarding a certain well known classic science fiction novel.
The novel was, of course, Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.
But really it doesn’t matter which author or what novel or exactly where the conversation took place. The conversation and the novel which inspired it aren’t relevant to this essay, other than as a starting point. Suffice it to say the novel and the reputation of its author is such that fully six decades after it was written it still has the unerring ability to generate violent conflict and powerful emotions. Mention it in any conversation about government and/or military service and the sparks will fly.
It’s one of those books you either love or hate.
Very few who are familiar with the work find middle ground between those poles – including those who haven’t actually read it and are familiar with the writer and the novel only by second-hand heresy (yes, heresy, the book is nearly an article of faith to many) and a terrible Hollywood adaption.
It’s one of those stories where your opinion depends very much on your age and experience, and as such your opinion with regards to the story tends to change and temper over time.
To me, well, that’s what makes it a truly great work.
Love it, hate it, it is a coming of age story and it endures as a lightning rod, as a jumping off point for exploration of the human condition, of government, of service, of duty, of war and conflict, of why we fight and why we should – or should not.
I have read this novel many, many times.
I read it as a teenaged boy before I joined the military.
I read it again at various points throughout my military career, as an enlisted man and as an officer – and in fact it is required reading for students at a number of military academies.
I read it the day the author himself died, and raised a glass to yet another lost shipmate while stationed at a far distant outpost.
I’ve read it a number of times since I hung up my sword. I may, in fact, read it again today.
I don’t know that it influenced my decision to join up. I don’t know that it didn’t. The author, in this work and many others, certainly had some impact on my worldview. I do know that this novel did influence what kind of military man I ultimately became and that there were times, very difficult times, black days, moments when I didn’t know what to do next and lives depended on my decision, when I heard the words of Robert Heinlein whispering in my head, honor, courage, duty, ethics, morality, service above self, willingness to give one’s life in the cause of something greater – even and perhaps most especially when the cost is unjust and immoral and terrible.
The ideals of that book, and the veteran who wrote it, those ideals spoke to me in a very personal way.
And they still do.
As a writer of politics and military subjects, I encounter this book and discussions of its author often and I watch the resulting battles with some amusement. I’ve read hundreds of treatises on this book and its long dead author, detailed analyses from bloggers, columnists, best selling writers, noted scientists of various specialties, politicians, academics, and of course, military professionals.
All, every one, miss one fundamental thing.
And that is this: The reason six decades later this novel still generates love and hate and violent emotion is because the protagonist, Johnny Rico, a man very much like me, finds a home in the military.
War is his profession and he embraces it willingly and without regret.
And that, that right there, is the novel’s great sin.
That’s the criticism most often leveled at both the book and its author, they are pro war, pro military, and therefore somehow fascist and un-American.
To me this is like saying a fireman, one who runs towards the inferno, who is willing to brave the flames to save others, is somehow pro-arson.
There is no one who knows the terrible cost of war more than a veteran. There are few more anti-war than a combat veteran. Just as there is no one who knows the terrible toll of fire more than those who fight it. And yet, both still serve, because that is who they are.
It’s okay in our society, at the moment, to love the soldier, to tell the story of war.
It wasn’t always so. When I was growing up, society openly despised the soldier.
But somewhere in the intervening 50 years, the circle has come full around and now again it is not only okay to love those who do violence in our names, it is nearly mandatory.
But it must be done in a certain way, you see.
It’s okay to write about war, to set novels among the conflagration and tell tales of glory and honor and sacrifice, so long as those who are caught up in its horror resent their own service. So long as they despise the conflict and the government and the utter ridiculous stupidity which sent them into the meat grinder. It’s okay to tell stories of war and conflict so long as the hero is serving only out of duty and will return to civilian life once the war ends – or die heroically, or tragically, or foolishly, depending on what kind of story you’re telling.
But to tell a story of those who serve when they don’t have to?
To write of those who find a home in the military?
That is a sin.
Those people, you see, they’re the losers. Honor, courage, duty, ethics, the morality of war, service above self, willingness to give one’s life in trace to your country, well, these things are for suckers, wannabe fascists, murderers, dumb blunt tools with nothing better to do.
This is the difference between Full Metal Jacket and The Green Berets.
This, this right here, is the difference between The Forever War and Starship Troopers.
This is the difference between the man I met up above … and me.
Today we honor those who served in peace and in war.
We honor those who came of their own free will and those who came only because they were called.
We honor those who came of age in bloody conflict, those who like me, like the protagonist of that novel, found a life, who found ourselves, in the military.
And we honor those who resented every goddamned miserable senseless minute of it.
Today wreaths will be laid. Flags will be raised to the truck and lowered to half-mast and there they’ll fly, cracking in the cold breeze, the symbol we fought and bled and died for, while below words of patriotism, duty, honor, courage, service, and sacrifice will be spoken.
The trumpets will sound their terrible call and the tears will flow – as they are down my face even as I write this.
Because, you see, I remember.
I remember those who trained and led me. I remember those I served alongside. I remember those I trained and led myself. I remember those men and women, every one of them, the good and the bad, the faithful and the faithless, the leaders and the followers, the admirable and the shitheads, those who came before me and those who came after, those who still live and serve and fight out there every day in the dark and dangerous corners of the world, those who have hung up their swords, and most of all I remember those who have given the last full measure – I remember them, each and every single one, each and every single day.
They are always with me, because they are the people who made me what I am.
Perhaps we are nothing more than blunt instruments. Perhaps we are fools. Today I am disinclined to argue the point.
Perhaps we are.
Because after the wreaths are laid, and the flags are lowered, and the trumpets sound their final mournful call, then the politicians will return to the same old divisions, the tax bill, the latest pork barrel project, or how the other party is a bunch of unpatriotic un-American bastards.
Tomorrow they’ll remember us not at all – or at best, only as a way to further their own selfish agendas.
The talk show hosts will cry their crocodile tears, and wax self-righteous and angrily demand that their listeners honor veterans. They'll take people to task for not wearing an American Flag pin, or for not having a yellow ribbon on their cars, or for not serving in uniform, all the while hoping nobody calls them on their own service, of which, most have exactly none.
And tomorrow, as always, they’ll forget all about us and go back to telling Americans to hate each other.
The Great Patriots, those Americans who think love of country is a contest and who wave the flag as if it were the cheap symbol of their favorite football team, are going to drink a lot of beer and discount liquor and pontificate drunkenly at great length about how the country is going to hell in a hand-basket because of that son of a bitch in [insert: Congress, the White House, Wall Street, et cetera here] and how we should be doing better by our “Heroes.” All the while hoping nobody calls them on their own service, of which, most have exactly none.
And tomorrow, they’ll nurse their sullen hung-over resentment and go back to fearing that the men and women they honor today will knock on their door to take away their freedoms and liberties and guns.
Meanwhile today a lot of folks who don't think much about patriotism are going to go to parades and wave little flags and quietly give thanks for those who bought their freedom at such terrible cost. Some will stand ramrod straight even though many can barely stand at all, like me they limp, or they roll, bent but unbroken, they’ll place their hands over their hearts as the American flag passes, and in their eyes you can see horrible memories of Saipan and Iwo Jima, Normandy, the Rhine, the black Ardennes forest, The Chosin Reservoir, Khe Sanh, Tet, Al Basrah, Anbar, and Bagram.
They won't talk about honoring veterans, they are veterans.
Today those with sons and daughters and husbands and wives in the service will raise a flag in their front yard, just as they do every day - and pray that those same loved ones get home alive and whole, just as they do every day.
Today those with sons and daughters and husbands and wives and mothers and fathers who have fallen in the service will visit graveyards, they'll bring fresh flowers, and fresh flags, and fresh tears.
Today, some just won’t give a good goddamn. They'll get a day off from work. They'll picnic, or party, or go boating, or hiking, or to the track. They'll paint the house, or do chores around the yard, they’ll haul trash to the dump if it's open or take the dog for a walk. Or maybe they won't, maybe today will be just like any other day. Kids still go to school, here in Florida. Teachers still teach. Stores, restaurants, car lots are all open with blowout sales. And it may be that these people most honor veterans, by simply going on with their lives, by living without having to remember the dead on some far distant battlefield, without having to worry about their security.
Without having to thank anybody.
And today, some will protest. Protest war, the military, the government. They'll use this day to burn the flag, they’ll take to Facebook and Twitter to call us fascists and murderers and dumb blunt tools. They’ll use this day to march and to demonstrate and it may be that these people are paying the highest compliment to veterans – even though that is the least of their intentions. Because, you see, it was veterans who bought them their right to despise us.
We are not heroes.
We are not heroes. Most of us anyway, we are simply people like any other, doing the best we can with what we have under difficult circumstance. We came when called and did our duty, each for our own reasons. You don’t have to understand why, just as you may not understand why a fireman would run into a burning building instead in the other direction. Just as you may never understand why Heinlein wrote what he wrote.
In our country, in a free society, the soldier should be no more revered than any other citizen.
We should respect the warrior, but we should never worship him.
There is no glory in war.
It is a horrible, brutal business and make no mistake about it.
We can wish it otherwise. We can rail against the utter stupidity and the phenomenal waste and the bloody obscenity of it all. We can declare and decry war’s terrible necessity and its terrible cost. Be that as it may, given human nature, for now war must often be done and our nation, our world, needs those who would fight, who would stand rough and ready to do violence in their name. It is a duty, a profession, a job, and a calling that must be done.
Perhaps in some distant future we will have put it behind us, perhaps we will have made war and the warrior long obsolete. We can certainly hope that it shall be so. We can and should and must strive to make it so.
Perhaps some day we will set aside a day to honor the peacemakers and study war no more.
But I wouldn’t count on it.
I don’t know. I don’t particularly care. I won’t live long enough to see such a day if it ever comes.
You see, I didn’t do it for you.
I didn’t do it for you and you owe me nothing. Neither thanks nor pity.
I’ve said it before, I’ll likely say it again: If you want a better nation, you have to be better citizens. And me? I joined the military for myself. To prove something to myself. To be that better citizen in my own way.
I joined for myself, but I stayed for them.
I stayed for my comrades in arms, for those I served beside. I did it for them. I did it for all the things I found in that novel, honor, courage, duty, ethics, morality, service above self, willingness to give one’s life in the cause of something greater – even and perhaps most especially when the cost is unjust and immoral and terrible.
I did it because like the protagonist of that book, that is my sin, I found a life there among friends.
I met a man who despised me.
He despised me for who I am, a veteran.
And you know what? That, that right there, is the highest compliment I could be paid.
That, that right there, is what we were doing out there in the dark and dangerous corners of the world, defending his right to hold us in utter contempt.
I met a man who despised me.
He called me and those like me fascist, murderer, dumb blunt tools.
I can live with that.
And I wear his contempt as a badge of honor.