Heinlein and the 21st Century Veteran: Starship Troopers Service Guarantees Citizenship

Starship Troopers Mobile Infantry
January 29, 2022  
Categories: Op-Eds

Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers has been on the Marine Corps Commandant’s Reading List for as long as I can remember, though it appears to have been removed from the most recent list. Hippies’ assertions of “fascism” to the contrary (“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means”), the book was Heinlein’s answer to communism. Don’t be so lazy you misinterpret what he wrote (including the famous “Service Guarantees Citizenship” quote). 

It’s a thought experiment, considering a stable republic able to withstand the swarming, dehumanized anthill of collectivism. It is more philosophical tract than a science fiction adventure; a true “science” fiction novel revolves around political science and sociology.

Cover: Starship Troopers-inspired concept art by Karl Kopinski

Starship Troopers - The Controversial Classic of Military Adventure.
A sci-fi novel that has been on the Commandant’s Reading List for a long time. Service guarantees citizenship!

This article was originally published in August of 2016. 

Buy a copy of the Starship Troopers novel.

There are quite a few good ideas in the book, especially regarding discipline and civic virtue being survival traits of any successful society. For anyone who hasn’t read the book (for shame!), the basis of Starship Trooper’s Federation society is that to earn “citizenship,” in this case the right to vote, one had to serve a minimum two years Federal Service.

While most people say that one had to be a combat veteran to vote, in fact, Federal Service could involve any sort of hard, challenging, miserable work serving the Federation. The idea behind the system is that only those who sacrificed for society invested enough to direct it responsibly.

There is something to be said about this system, especially as we look at a representative democracy (I will not call what we have now a “republic” anymore), where all it takes is a birth certificate and a pulse to vote. Even the birth certificate is now considered “discriminatory.” There was a reason why the Founders decided on a Republic rather than a Democracy, though that’s a subject for another post.

A depiction of the Signing of the Constitution of the United States. Starship Troopers.

In recent years I’ve had many discussions in Humvees, hide sites, patrol bases, and team rooms where Starship Troopers has come up. Many of our generation of veterans think “service earns citizenship” is the best idea ever. It certainly has some good points. However, many seem to ascribe to the “only combat vets can vote” version, which isn’t what the book is about at all.

And if only being a veteran qualifies one to vote, would we see anything different, given the current society we live in?

I would argue no. The key to Heinlein’s proposed system was the cultivation of “civic virtue,” of placing one’s country and people ahead of one’s own welfare. Much of that outlook is conspicuously missing from today’s United States and from many of the more vocal members of the veteran community.

You know who I’m talking about. The guy who never misses an opportunity to remind people of his service. The guy who got out after four years with three Ninja Punches, but has “Semper Fi” plastered all over his clothes and vehicle. The guy who’s the first in the pile-on when somebody, somewhere two thousand miles away, “disrespects” veterans.

‘You. What is the moral difference, if any, between the soldier and the civilian?’

‘The difference, I said carefully, ‘lies in the field of civic virtue. A soldier accepts personal responsibility for the safety of the body politic of which he is a member, defending it, if need be, with his life. The civilian does not.‘”

These are attitudes of entitlement and self-centeredness, not virtue and selflessness. This is not to say that there is no virtue in serving. There is. But it must be actively cultivated, or else it becomes meaningless. In Starship Troopers, this was the purpose of history and moral philosophy courses. Today, we have no equivalent. The self is the end-all and be-all of life, societal stability and virtue be damned. The Supreme Court has even said so, though in more polite language.

.For a society to last, it must cultivate virtue. The Greeks and Romans knew this. Heinlein wasn’t saying anything Thucydides, Plato, Plutarch, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius and others hadn’t already. He was simply trying to propose a system as a thought experiment that might preserve that stability longer.

Liberty is never unalienable; it must be redeemed regularly with the blood of patriots or it always vanishes. Of all the so-called natural human rights that have ever been invented, liberty is least likely to be cheap and is never free of cost.

Jean V Dubois (Robert Heinlein)
Plato Silanion Musei Capitolini: an OG proponent of "Service Guarantees Citizenship".
Smart folks were talking about these ideas long before Robert Heinlein ever thought of Rico’s Roughnecks (or the “service guarantees citizenship” approach).

That thought experiment still has value and makes for some interesting conversations among warriors. But would simply changing the rules of the franchise to “Vets Only” solve all of our problems?

Not from what I’ve seen.

⚠️ Some hyperlinks in this article may contain affiliate links. If you use them to make a purchase, we will receive a small commission at no additional cost to you. It’s just one way to Back the Bang. #backthebang   

Get banged on the regular, sign up for the newsletter!

Pete Nealen

Pete Nealen

About the Author

Pete Nealen is a former Reconnaissance Marine, a combat veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan and the author of several books. A contributor here at Breach-Bang-Clear for many years now, Pete is a bad ass writer who continues to make the Duo's efforts look pale and feeble (if less gritty and jaw-clenching-y) by comparison. You can follow Nealan on his own blog, American Praetorians. We encourage you to do so here. His author page on Facebook is at PeteNealenAuthor. If you'd like to read some of his books, you can start the American Praetorians series (about a PMC in a post Greater Depression dystopia now 4 books long) with Task Force Desperate. He has a standalone action novel called Kill Yuan, which you can find here. You could also do worse than to start reading the Jed Horn series (a supernatural shoot 'em up series now on its 3rd volume) with Nightmares, then proceed with Silver Cross and a Winchester and Walker on the Hills and . His fiction is widely claimed for the realism of its combat scenes -- this is no doubt because he hangs around with us. It could also have something to do with his skill as a writer and his background (multiple deployments, qualifications as a Combatant Diver, Navy/Marine Corps Parachutist, Marine Scout/Sniper and S/S team leader, Combat Tracker, et al).


  1. Ed

    I see what the overall point though and that is – people need to “invest” themselves into the civic arena. Care about where you live. Take pride in the US.

    It is why I believe, and as Gen. Stan McChrystal states, we need 2-years of mandatory service. IMO it could be NG, Reserve, Active duty, Habitat for Humanity, a newer Peace Corps, VA hospital duty (for those wanting a long-term healthcare profession), etc — service that helps the community. After the 2 years is completed — your AA college degree, if so desired, is free on the taxpayer. I would’t tie it to voting however. Voting is a huge issue that needs to be fixed firstly with a Voter ID card system, period.

    But 2 years of mandatory service would go a long way to correcting the mindset of the newer generation which is all about me-me-me first.

  2. MrTimm

    As a long time Chicagoan I can tell you what’s wrong with a political fantasy like Starship Troopers (great book, great game, epic song).

    Discrimination… You show up at the recruiting station “Ah, you’re white, you get to test the new brothel on Venus. You’re black, you get to test sleeping bags on the sun.”

    People like Heinlein and Ayn Rand, and Karl Marx forget, or conveniently don’t care, that people run things in the real world. Look at voting literacy tests and poll taxes.

  3. Chris

    I agree that “service guarantees citizenship” has a nice ring to it initially, but probably isn’t going to be the best way to fix what ails our country.

    Here are the points in my reform plan, take it for what it is worth:

    1) No more political parties listed on ballots.

    2) No more “winner-take-all” states in the electoral college. Award electoral votes based on congressional districts, with the state winner getting the “Senator’s” two votes.

    3) Institute a preference voting system in races with more than two candidates (there are different ways to do the math, just need to pick one and stick with it). If 40% want Hillary as their first choice, and 39% want Trump as their first choice, but 70% want Johnson as their second choice, it seems like giving a majority of people their second choice is better than giving a minority of people their first choice.

    • Chris

      one more…

      4) Everyone wishing to vote needs to pass the same test we give to immigrants before they can become citizens.

  4. DAN III

    Here’s how I see it…..

    1. The only people who can vote are property owners, not property renfers.

    2. Eliminate ALL property taxes so that one OWNS his dirt, not rent it from tne scum known as “government”.

    3. Eliminate all political contributions. No candidate or incumbent can have more tha $10k in their political warchest.

  5. Kirk

    I have to agree with the thrust of what the author is saying. I don’t think that a government restricted to those who served in the military would be any better, in the end, than the sort we have now. Our current problems stem from several things, not the least of which is an utter and complete lack of civic virtue on the part of our elites. Eventually, even the ideal of Heinlein’s hypothetical society would wind up the same way–And, he seemed to acknowledge that fact, as one of the details in the book which many missed was that someone noticed and bemoaned the fact that the outer frontier worlds contributed more volunteer manpower than “effete Earth”.

    Thus is it always; every sort of human institution and society has a life cycle and a life all its own, as if it were a flippin’ organism on its own. You can find organizational contiguity in the oddest damn places, when you know what to look for–There were bureaucratic vestiges of the Ottoman Turks and Byzantine Empire that one of my old bosses ran into, during his duties arranging the admin side of a deployment to Turkey in the 1980s.

    Likewise, the most virtuous organization is prone to being captured by self-interested careerist freaks, no matter how hard you try to prevent it. Part of the problem comes in because there is no long-term accountability in how we set these things up–Imagine a federal agency being punished for malfeasance by having its entire pension fund zeroed out to pay damages, on the theory that the retirees selected, trained, and promoted the offenders. You might see long-term slowing of the trend towards corruption, but… Eventually, corruption would happen. That’s what people do…

  6. Baker

    I’m not against the idea of adding value to society being a prerequisite to have a say in what goes on. But I do have a problem with the idea that the only way you add value to society is to work for the government. I would argue that the government is a big drag on society. There’s lots of people who have done more for our lives than any soldier, bureaucrat, representative, or president. Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Tesla, Ford, DuPont, Gates, Jobs. These are people who added value to society by giving people what they wanted at a price people were willing to pay voluntarily, with out the threat of jail time or fines for not paying taxes. These men, and millions of others, deserve citizenship before anyone who works for OSHA, the IRS, EPA, FDA, department of education, treasury department, FCC, SEC, or the myriad of other alphabet soup agencies that steal money from hard working Americans just to stab them in the back pocket.

    • John

      I agree, these people you mentioned has indeed contribute more to society than anyone working for the government ever has. However, I think Heinleins point was not about how much you have contributed to society, but that you are willing to make sacrifices and accept physical risks for the good of mankind.

      A quote from the book is “to place his own mortal body between his loved home and the war’s desolation.” This is why it is specifically mentioned that this service is always dangerous and tough, whether you are actually fighting in a war or not.

    • Michmike

      Baker, I think your generalizing about people in FDA or EPA or other agencies are short sighted and part of the problem we are now experiencing. There are a great many people in these and many other government agencies that are trying to make things better for everyone including you. Do all of the dcisisions always make perfect sense, no maybe not and at times there might be an agenda behind them but not most. Yes mistakes are made at the EPA for example and I do not agree with everything they do but they are trying to safeguard the environment and balance business needs with larger environmental concerns. Do you really think that DuPont or Ford would care if they polluted rivers (which they did) and created problems down stream? They want to make a profit and that is not a bad thing but there has to be a balanced approach because I do not want to die an early death just because Ford or DuPont Corp did not want to implement some type of pollution control device or procedure.

      I would advise you to think things through and not take such a black and white view of things. Perhaps take a look at why the EPA and FDA were created and look at some of the negative things big business does in the name of profits. Please do not be so nieve or gullible to believe the commercials that pretend to show how much they care and that they are there for you.

      Once again before you or anyone goes off on me by saying i am pro big government, i am not but do not be so foolish as to believe that if left to their own devices that business would police them selves. Yea how has that worked out for Wall Street and yes there are laws made which make little sense and they should be repealed but again it has to be a balance.

      Look at how much bitching chemical lobby groups did about lost profits and how much having green products would m and how many jobs would be lost! Go to target and all you see are green products and how eco friendly they have become! Perhaps eliminate the ability for companies to move jobs overseas and still get US benefits for their Corp.

      Anyway point is there is little black or white just shades of grey.

Submit a Comment

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Popular Articles

PSA Uppers, Lowers, Optics and More! 4th of July.

Celebrate July. Buy more, save more. Up to 30% off. Forloh.
Lone Wolf DAWN. Parts for Sig Sauer P365 30% off.

Gun.deals: back Breach-Bang-Clear

Find what’s in stock, and where, and compare prices. 

⚠️ Some hyperlinks in this article may contain affiliate links. If you use them to make a purchase, we will receive a small commission at no additional cost to you. It’s just one way to Back the Bang. #backthebang 

Get Patched In

Wretched Minion Patch