L. Neil Smith's
Number 310, March 13, 2005

"Words and Guns"

Heinlein's Wisdom as Taught by Sergeant Taylor
by Ali Hassan Massoud

Exclusive to TLE

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."
—From Time Enough for Love 1973.

Heinlein's juvenile novels" says his Wikipedia biography, "may have turned out the most important work he ever did, building an audience of scientifically and socially aware adults. He had used topical materials throughout his series, but his juvenile for 1959, Starship Troopers, was regarded by the Scribner's editorial staff as too controversial for their prestige line and was rejected summarily. Heinlein felt himself released from the constraints of writing for children and began to write "my own stuff, my own way," and came out with a series of challenging books that redrew the boundaries of science fiction, including Stranger In a Strange Land (1961), which is his best-known work, and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966), which many regard as his finest novel."

I remember as a kid that Starship Troopers blew me away. I was raised by anti-war, quasi-pacifist baby-boomer parents who absolutely believed and so indoctrinated into me the belief that anyone who served in the military was a either a misguided victim if they were conscripted, or bloodthirsty psycho that liked the idea of fighting and killing if they were a volunteer.

However, Heinlein thought differently. Starship Troopers didn't glorify war as films like the Sands of Iwo Jima, or a book like the Green Berets did, nor was a it bitter nihilistic anti-hero and anti-war black comedy like Catch-22 or M*A*S*H.

A rather lame motion picture loosely based on the Heinlein's novel was released in 1997 as a sci-fi action/adventure movie which had lots and lots of combat action scenes, nudity, gore, and graphic violence, starring some forgettable Hollywood types. This film is essentially a comic book version of the novel and is unremarkable in its genre. I only mention it here because should anyone be made curious enough by this essay to seek out the novel, please don't get put-off or bait-'n-switched by this movie, it's terrible sequel, and video games that all play off the title of Heinlein's story.

Starship Troopers is actually a love story on two levels. First about love of community, family, and friends and the deep-seated atavistic need men have to protect their people from those would harm them. The second level being the Platonic but deeply felt bond that soldiers develop for each other as they fight, kill, and die together in that defense.

My parents had always told me that the non-violent resistance techniques such as were employed by Gandhi and Martin Luther King were a better means for combating injustice and aggression and I had always accepted that they were correct. Starship Troopers made me question for the first time if this was always true. Some times I thought, good intentions or not, you have to fight. This was a breakthrough moment for me in my moral and spiritual development.

It was the first time that I can remember thinking to myself that my parent's were not infallible and might well be wrong about the role of armed collective defense. See the "bugs" who were the literal "alien combatants" in the book were a race of hyper-aggressive insectoids who will stop at nothing to kill every last human being. They can't be bargained with, or negotiated with, appealed to, or even surrendered to, any more than one could "surrender" to an earthquake or tsunami or other such force of nature.

This lesson from Heinlein was reinforced by practical example during the summer following my junior year of high school. My father was in those days a hippie vagabond, who fancied himself a "spiritual warrior". Dad would often leave his wife and four kids and go off to a Zen monastery in California, or on a pilgrimage to India, or live in an ashram in Burma to study Buddhism and so money was always tight for our family.

So I enlisted in the delayed-entry program of the US Army Reserve. I entered basic combat training as soon as school was out for the summer after my junior year of high school. Upon completion I would return home. The following summer I was to go to another Army school for advanced training for my assigned Army job. This seemed more fun and it paid better than any summer job I could likely get, and being a nutball thrill seeker like my dad, I signed up.

I was pretty good at what are called "combatives" which is unarmed or improvised weapon hand-to-hand combat. It isn't boxing, Karate, or a martial art style. The purpose of it is to kill your opponent. I defeated everyone I came up against. Most were easy victories, but a few took everything I had to beat.

The instructor thought I should be an example to the other trainees. So he had me go up against three of the other top rated trainees in my company. Who then proceeded to beat the living shit out of me. Now, this turn of events knocked me down a peg or three. My pride was bruised and myself esteem had tumbled. I was sullen and irritated and it must have showed in my attitude.

Our drill instructor, Sergeant First Class Taylor took me aside soon afterward and asked me if I knew what the lesson was that he was trying to instill in the training class in general and my cocky ass in particular was? "That three men can beat one Drill Sergeant!" I answered in the near shouting voice that trainees were expected to answer cadre NCO's questions in. SFC Taylor got directly in my face (literally) and gave me that harsh insanely angry glare that only an experienced infantry Drill Sergeant can manage.


That experience was for me what my dad would call a "Zen moment" and my Christian mother an epiphany. It was a moment of transcendent insight or clarity that washed over me. Those words opened my eyes to a new plane of metaphysical awareness. In life you can't win everywhere and every time but you do have to try to, because any effort less than that is a moral failure whatever the outcome.

The essence of rational, ethical, and manly character is the willingness to do what you must to defend your own. The cost to you or any other consideration is irrelevant. To stand by your duty and do what is necessary, proper, and just, whether in victory or certain defeat is the highest and best form of moral action a man can take.

That lesson is what I learned from SFC Taylor and Robert A Heinlein. Peace be upon both their souls.

Ali Hassan Massoud is a father, political theorist, apostate Muslim, small business owner, college graduate, crack rifle marksman, cat lover, shrewd investor, blogger, US Army veteran, and currently single. He lives in Michigan.


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