Starship Troopers and the Right to Vote

Tomorrow is election day here in the U.S., though it’s an off-year, so it’s mostly local elections, bond votes, and the occasional state constitutional amendment. I plan on voting, and I vote every chance I get. In fact, it’s a bit strange that I haven’t already voted because I’ve become a big fan of early voting in the last few years. (Notably, I had to bust out of the hospital to vote in the 2008 presidential primary, so I don’t like to leave things until election day.)

Voting and science fiction almost inevitably brings up Robert Heinlein’s novel “Starship Troopers.” In that novel, the voting franchise was limited to “veterans”. A “veteran” was not necessarily someone who had been a soldier, but rather someone who had volunteered for a two-year stint in “Federal Service”. Whether a soldier or not, these service jobs were apparently all fairly hazardous. Only after retiring from federal service could you vote or hold public office. The book focuses mostly on the soldiers, so both fans and critics tend to look on the rule as “only combat veterans get to vote,” even though the book made it clear there were non-military paths.

The argument for this was that the responsibility of voting should be reserved for those who have demonstrated an understanding of individual sacrifice for the greater good, i.e. voting is not about getting something for myself but about getting something for everybody else. Whether or not Heinlein himself felt that the voting franchise should be so restricted, the book makes a fairly passionate argument for it.

Critics have often equated this with fascism or military dictatorship. The 1997 movie of the same name was perhaps the greatest critique along those lines as it showed the Terran leaders as being active-duty military officers wearing remarkably Nazi-like uniforms. The movie also varied from the book in enough other ways that I don’t consider it to be a valid representation of Heinlein’s original argument on restricting the franchise to those who have already served. (The director has stated that he read only the first few chapters of the book.)

However, one thing that the movie did do was to bring up this argument again for a new generation. I was at a WorldCon in Baltimore (1998, I think), and I attended what was supposed to be a late night panel on Starship Troopers. Instead of a proper panel, it devolved into a roundtable discussion between all attendees. The arguments pro and con went round and round, complete with epitaphs of “Nazi” and “commie” and what have you.

I had not said much at all in that discussion, mostly just observing. (As a side note, I grow weary of the vitriol of many folks who are so fixed in their positions they are unwilling to entertain the notion that they might be wrong, and this discussion was filled with that kind of vitriol.) But eventually, someone turned to me and said, “You’ve been pretty quiet. What’s your take on it?”

I replied, “It seems to me that those of you arguing for the veteran-only vote are people who would be willing to make that sacrifice to earn the right to vote, while those of you arguing against it are people unwilling to make that sacrifice and just don’t want to agree with a system that would deprive you of the right you currently enjoy.”

I got two reactions. From those arguing for it, I got a chorus of “Fucking A!” From those arguing against it, silence.

I wasn’t surprised by the response from the pro-Heinlein crowd, but I was disappointed in the response from the others. I had hoped that instead of arguing against the likely results of such a system (again, the Nazi or militarism arguments) they would offer an argument for the right to vote for those unwilling to give up two years for some level of community service, that those voters deserved the right to vote or that they offered a unique and valuable voice that would not come from those who had already served.

Personally, I’m a little torn. I like to think that if I found myself in the world of Starship Troopers, I would have signed up and done my two years. However, in this world, I have never done so. I considered it strongly after high school, but pressure from my parents pushed me into college, and after that marriage, job, and kids kept me away from such a choice. I find that as the years go by, I regret that more and more. I still seriously consider making the switch to some kind of community service job in my later years, perhaps teaching. But I continue to vote now, without having made that choice.

I’ve gotten into the habit of closing these with a question, so my question to you is this: If you did have to do two years of community or military service to earn the right to vote, would you do it, and what kind of service do you think you would do? Don’t feel you have to restrict yourself to Heinlein’s choices of soldier or medical test subject. Instead, consider the many thankless jobs we have in today’s society.

5 thoughts on “Starship Troopers and the Right to Vote

  1. Starship Troopers remains one of my favorite Heinlein novels, simply because it makes the reader consider exactly what you are asking here. Heinlein himself was a classical liberal (or close to the modern libertarian), and discussed his political stances at length in some of his nonfiction writings. I have Take Back Your Government and Tramp Royale if you’d ever like to borrow them.

    In answer to the question you posed, yes, I would not hesitate to be willing to serve in order to secure my privilege to vote. I too strongly considered military service in my younger years, and have some regret that I did not take that path when it was an option to me. I think I was rebelling against the not-inconsiderable pressure I got after taking the ASVAB tests in high school. Now, I believe I am too old to be considered for military service, but I would be willing to take on a 2-year stint in nearly any capacity, though of course I would prefer to be placed in some service that would best utilize my aptitudes.

  2. Most of my immediate family (4 of 7) got their higher education from the military,
    and I’ve worked on DARPA and DOD research projects for 20+ years. Frankly I feel that I’ve contributed more to the military by my work, than I ever could have in 2 years of direct service.


  3. I already feel that I do community service as a part of my commitment to being a good person.

    A tiny bit of history: My folks were big into service; they never said, “this is what a good person is”, they *showed* me what a good person *does*.

    My dad built things for our neighborhood, he took care of the “honey-dos” for an elderly neighbor; my mom volunteered all the time, from school events to being a docent at a local museum. They also had other jobs, but community service was woven into their lives as a strong motif of their characters.

    I suppose my question in return would be this: would compulsory community service remove the drive to do life-long, day-to-day service, which is the code by which many of us live? If so, I doubt I would volunteer for a two-year stint of service.

    Also, would we be able to determine the service we provide? As a conscientious objector, you can imagine that I would make a less-than-useless member of the armed services.

  4. “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea.” – Samuel Johnson

    I too sometimes regret not having served in the military, but in hindsight I was such a romantic airhead that I wonder if it would have done the military or me any good. :-/

    As for the voting and office-holding, the obvious argument against restricting the franchise to veterans of government service, especially military service, is that there’s nothing intrinsic about such service that makes a person particularly likely to be competent at government, especially the government of a civilian population that aspires to be democratic and “free,” however you define freedom. Also, people join the military for lots of reasons often having little or nothing to do with an interest in service for the sake of service. (Although in the case of Starship Troopers, one could say that failing to enlist in a context where the survival of your species is on the line says more about a person than failing to enlist in peacetime or during a classical nation-state’s imperialist growth phase.)

    Another argument for universal franchise is that if you want your government to be representative, then you need to find a way to sample the needs and desires of everybody.

    And, to follow up what Rose says above, if you want a society that is democratic and free—would you really want the government to have the power to decide what kind of service qualifies as sufficiently responsible citizenship?

    Of course, if one concludes that open democracy is a failed experiment, even within a constitutional, republican, rule-of-law context, then it might make sense to look for other ways to manage our tribal, hierarchy-making tendencies. Who knows…maybe overpopulation and environmental hazards will pose a species-wide threat that forces us to reconsider our values and norms. But “Carbon!” doesn’t sound nearly as sexy as “Bugggggs!”

  5. These and related concepts have been at the forefront of my mind since childhood and remain there. I’ll try to keep my response compact while dropping the related bits of light I have collected but in all likelihood it will be lengthy. First, it seems important to have the experience of individual sacrifice for the greater good just in general. It should also be said that any franchise seriously hindering the introduction of the “new and improved” because they are overly focused on “the system” is insufficient. So, it’s always good to have people around that will stand up and say, “Hey! Wait, wait, wait! It hasn’t been proven to us that this person has an understanding of individual sacrifice for the greater good but look at what they are doing. That’s wonderful. Perhaps this is a situation where we can learn from each other.” In other words, don’t disregard the revelation. It is not unlike parenting. Mostly what can’t be agreed upon is what the greater good is and how to get there. I avoid that debate. In fact, I don’t vote in the U.S. (In my family matters, I do vote). Voting in the U.S. is not a useful tool for handling my personal inner paradox generator. I can see how it is for others though. Instead, I prefer to do my “dance” in front of those that do vote and hope they are paying attention. If they aren’t, I might make sure I get their attention. If that doesn’t work, there are usually other universal forces that get a hold of them and from experience, I can tell you that not all of those universal forces are…fun. Now to answer the one question you did ask. I wouldn’t do community service to earn the right to vote if it didn’t resonate with who I was. So, while having the right to vote in the U.S. has never been that important to me, I will do community service always as it is a big part of who I am. What that has looked like for me in the past is walking and talking. I enjoy role-modeling when I can and communicating with people face to face. If you are not a member of the communities I have affected or you are but haven’t been paying attention then you might not know this. Since childhood, most of my life has been spent trying to figure out how I could “help” those around me. I have made mistakes and bad decisions along the way but overall, a lot has been gained. It is important to know how to care for yourself in a way that you can be “available” for serving the community. As well, know which legs you stand on. For me, I have learned (yes, sometimes the hard way), that some of mine are peace, love, family and resurrection. I try not to let the work I do go to my head, either. The human ego can be a false glory stealer. I do not like wasting valuable energy on things like war. In the spiritual sense, I am a veteran and I can say without a doubt that I choose peace. Now that I am thinking about all of the things I have learned from my efforts to serve the community in a peaceful and loving way, I am going to write them down….NOW…because I can’t think of anything more important to do. 🙂 I would welcome and appreciate a positive and loving opportunity to grow with the people I am meant to grow with while teaching what I have learned and continue to learn to others.
    This is the part of your post that stood out to me the most: “I considered it [community service] strongly after high school, but pressure from my parents pushed me into college, and after that marriage, job, and kids kept me away from such a choice. I find that as the years go by, I regret that more and more.”
    It seems as though you have been considering these concepts for quite some time as well. Do you feel you are thinking about this now because you want to enhance your voting or because it resonates with who you are?

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