Heinlein’s classic novel of military science fiction tells the story of Juan “Johnnie” Rico, a young man who joins the Federal Service after high school, mostly to impress a girl. He gets assigned to the Mobile Infantry–the armoured grunts, the lowest ranking part of the military, the one that requires no special skills, since Johnnie has none. He works his way up through the ranks during the interstellar war with the alien Bugs, eventually going to Officer Candidate School.
Usually I get a bit bored when a writer keeps interrupting the action to talk at length about the background politics (I’m looking at you, Wicked, you were a lot more fun when you were singing and dancing), but Heinlein keeps his discussions of politics and the need for the military interesting throughout. Rico starts off as a fairly thoughtless young man who doesn’t really believe in anything when he first joins the military. While he was required to take History and Moral Philosophy in school, which was taught by a combat veteran, he mostly enjoyed it because he got to argue with the teacher, not because he believed in the state. He changes during his service, and learns to find a family in his fellow soldiers, and to take responsibility for them as he is promoted up through the ranks. He learns that he may not fight for some grand ideal, or for the state, but he will fight for his fellows. He will do his duty, and he will behave with honour, and he will discover what kind of a man he really is. This is not really a comfortable book, especially with the recent wars of the 20th and 21st centuries, but it is a powerful book.
I always get the shakes before a drop. I’ve had the injections, of course, and hypnotic preparation, and it stands to reason that I can’t really be afraid. The ship’s psychiatrist has checked my brain waves and asked me silly questions while I was asleep and he tells me that it isn’t fear, it isn’t anything important — it’s just like the trembling of an eager race horse in the starting gate.
I couldn’t say about that; I’ve never been a race horse. But the fact is: I’m scared silly, every time.
History and Moral Philosophy was different from other courses in that everybody had to take it but nobody had to pass it — and Mr. Dubois never seemed to care whether he got through to us or not. He would just point at you with the stump of his left arm (he never bothered with names) and snap a question. Then the argument would start.
But on the last day he seemed to be trying to find out what we had learned. One girl told him bluntly: “My mother says that violence never settles anything.”
“So?” Mr. Dubois looked at her bleakly. “I’m sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that. Why doesn’t your mother tell them so? Or why don’t you?”
They had tangled before — since you couldn’t flunk the course, it wasn’t necessary to keep Mr. Dubois buttered up. She said shrilly, “You’re making fun of me! Everybody knows that Carthage was destroyed!”
“You seemed to be unaware of it,” he said grimly. “Since you do know it, wouldn’t you say that violence had settled their destinies rather thoroughly? However, I was not making fun of you personally; I was heaping scorn on an inexcusably silly idea — a practice I shall always follow. Anyone who clings to the historically untrue — and thoroughly immoral— doctrine that ‘violence never settles anything’ I would advise to conjure up the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and of the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. The ghost of Hitler could referee, and the jury might well be the Dodo, the Great Auk, and the Passenger Pigeon. Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedoms.”
He sighed. “Another year, another class — and, for me, another failure. One can lead a child to knowledge but one cannot make him think.” Suddenly he pointed his stump at me. “You. What is the moral difference, if any, between the soldier and the civilian?”
“The difference,” I answered 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.”
“The exact words of the book,” he said scornfully. “But do you understand it? Do you believe it?”
“Uh, I don’t know, sir.”
“Of course you don’t! I doubt if any of you here would recognize ‘civic virtue’ if it came up and barked in your face!” He glanced at his watch. “And that is all, a final all. Perhaps we shall meet again under happier circumstances. Dismissed.”