Starship Troopers vs. Forever War

December 6th, 2007 | by Sqotty |

This year being the Centennial marking the birth of Robert A. Heinlein, a lot of renewed interest in his works has been sparked. While attending Convergence (this was opposite the Heinlein Centennial Celebration taking place in St. Louis) there was a discussion on his works and Starship Troopers was brought up and some comparison was made to Haldeman’s The Forever War. The impression I got from most of the people attending the open discussion is that they were basing their opinion of Starship Troopers more on the movie of the same name rather than on the actual novel.

I have read Starship Troopers numerous times, and am only now reading The Forever War for the first time. Both books have received numerous awards, including the coveted Hugo Award, which is voted on by the fans.

The general theme that runs through both books is the story of a young recruit entering military service in order to fight an interstellar war; they go through basic training (and survive) and then are sent off into battle. Both stories are told in the first person, with a strong, smart guy as the point-of-view character. One was written in response to Cold War era decisions made by the U.S. and the other a response to the Vietnam War.

Heinlein was an Annapolis graduate (1929) and served in the Navy until medically retired in 1934. Haldeman was drafted and fought in Vietnam. Two completely different military experiences resulting in completely different stories despite some similarities on the surface.

A lot of SF fans today remark that Heinlein’s Earth in Starship Troopers is a fascistic society where the right to vote (and other things) is linked to military service. This take on Starship Troopers comes from the movie, not the novel.

In Starship Troopers, the right to vote and hold political office is earned, not through military service, but through Federal Service. Military service is but one way someone can serve and gain their franchise. As Rico put it when he was going through the enlistment process, he selected anything that was military rather than the hundreds of other choices because if you are going to serve, you may as well serve in the military. His best friend gets assigned to Starside R and D, specializing in electronics (Carl is killed when the bugs attack Pluto where he is stationed). Service is strictly voluntary and anyone can quit at any time for any reason.

In The Forever War, the military is made up of draftees into a United Nations (God forbid) military elite force. The selection criteria were high IQ, exceptional physical condition, and youth. They do not have the option to quit at anytime or for any reason. Many of the draftees are killed during training.

Government Differences

First and most obvious, in Starship Troopers we have voluntary Federal Service whereas in FW we have military conscription by the United Nations.

Focusing on that, the United Nations has gone from controlling aspects of space travel and the war with the Taurans to full control of the Earth.

Socialism is in full force on Earth by the time Mandella returns to it after being away for some 20 years real time (2 years subjective time‚ĶRelativity plays a significant role in this novel). The United Nations controls who gets a job, and who doesn’t get a job as well as who gets drafted and who can leave the Earth.

The Earth’s population is 9 billion by this point with a roughly 65% unemployment rate. Crime rate is high, and there are armed brigands. What is unexpected is that everyone is either heavily armed or has body guards. Or they get killed on the streets.

Currency is in calories, originally associated with the food wars that broke out while Mandella was off fighting the war. That Earth based war significantly dropped the population, bringing it down to 4 billion. However it didn’t take long for it to rebound to 9 billion.

Politics isn’t touched on, so you don’t learn anything about the active political system.

Most contemporary illegal drugs are legal in Haldeman’s future Earth, as is prostitution, while getting a job is illegal unless you get it through the United Nations. Corruption is rampant as there are “dealers” who can arrange for you to masquerade as someone who has a job, drawing part of their pay while they go into retirement, so to speak. Highly illegal, but tolerated. Also bodysnatchers, who go out and find people in serious trouble with the law and give them new identities in which they become serfs, so to speak, on the communal farms; many of these people do better in the farming communes than in the outside world.

In ST, the Earth is run by a Federation, politics plays a significant role (relativity doesn’t). In Heinlein’s future Earth, Federal Service is strictly voluntary and military service is merely one of the options. The political system seems to be a form of democracy or Representative Republic where the only people allowed to vote (or hold elected office and a very limited number of other jobs) are those who have completed Federal Service.

Civilian armaments are not mentioned, nor are the various other vices.

Crime, although still occurs, is pretty low, as is unemployment.

What we have is a difference between a free society and a socialist society. Based on this, Haldeman and Heinlein both speak the same language in that socialism is not a good thing. At least that is how Haldeman’s book comes across to me, whereas Heinlein is quite blatant about his political views.

By the end of The Forever War, Earth has changed substantially as humanity is cloned, apparently off of one genetic template. Not a lot of information is given except money is no longer used, the war is over, and there is no longer a need for the military. Planets where normal humanity still thrives are referred to as breeder planets in the even that the cloned Man finds that the use of one genetic template proves to be a mistake.

Science and Technology

Heinlein doesn’t focus a lot on science and technology in Starship Troopers, except for that which directly impacts the Mobile Infantry (or Cap Troopers as they are sometimes called), mainly their powered armor, and secondarily their weapons and capsule drops. Various technologies, such as the star drive are mentioned for color, but no details are provided.

Haldeman is pretty much the opposite as he not only gives details on the powered armor and weapons of his future infantry, but also about space travel and how relativity plays a role. Time dilation is a critical plot device, as well as being real science, and the whole story relies heavily upon that piece of Relativity. This is all important to the story as it relativity has an impact on the soldiers in that Earth society changes dramatically the longer they stay out in the deeps of space traveling from star to star fighting the war.


Both novels are very good and deserving of the accolades that they won in their own time. They are also surprisingly similar in their views on war just as much as they are different. Heinlein is more of a “sometimes wars need to be fought” while Haldeman comes off as more anti-war (I don’t know of anyone who is “pro-war” and would question the sanity of anyone who said that they were “pro-war”). Both give the appearances of being against military drafts (Heinlein especially so!). Both make it clear that pacifism only works when everyone feels that way. Both downplay the concept of heroism while showing that true heroism happens as a result of circumstances and ingenuity rather than brazenly charging the enemies guns.

As I wrote at the beginning of this article, Starship Troopers has been a favorite of mine and I have read it maybe a dozen times. This was the first time I have read The Forever War. I expected to come out of it hating the novel, but, in fact, I find it to be a darn good book that I’ll read again. Where Heinlein was writing for more of a teenager/juvenile audience, Haldeman’s story is distinctly for a more mature/adult audience. Both novels are well worth reading and I can see where pairing the two books for a comparative discussion can make for a lively debate.


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  1. 2 Responses to “Starship Troopers vs. Forever War”

  2. By Scorpio on Dec 11, 2007 | Reply

    Sorry, but the Heinlein Centennial celebration was held in Kansas City, where Heinlein went to high school and lived part of his life.

    It was great! Some of his relatives came, and members of his family put mementos on exhibit, and talked about him.

  3. By admin on Feb 3, 2008 | Reply

    Unfortunately I had to miss the Heinlein Centennial. with your mentioning the mementos put on exhibit, even more so.

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