"Federal Service" in Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers

by David Dyer-Bennet


There's an argument about a point in Robert A. Heinlein's _Starship Troopers_: in the government described, are voting rights given to military only, or to a broader class veterans of government service of some sort?

Heinlein himself has commented on the issue; he says "In Starship Troopers it is stated flatly and more than once that nineteen out of twenty veterans are not military veterans. Instead, 95% of voters are what we call today 'former members of federal civil service.'" (Expanded Universe, Baen hardbound printing, 2003, p.325.)

I was shocked. I'd read the book quite a number of times, discussed it with friends, for a couple of decades I'm sure before I ever encountered this claim. It made no sense; it was nothing like what I remembered.

I've discussed this with a lot of people over the years, online and in person. So far nobody has been able to show me where it says anything close to that in the book even once. Please feel free to step up to the plate if you think you know where it is!

It is my thesis that there is essentially no support in the book for the hypothesis that "Federal Service" included both the military and what are now "civil service" jobs, and quite a lot of strong evidence to the contrary. I don't know if Heinlein just "wrote the book wrong" (i.e. not expressing adequately his conception of the society), or if he changed his mind later (thus explaining his statement mentioned above), or if I'm incapable of reading a book correctly, or what. I will say that, the first time I encountered Heinlein's statement, I went and re-read the book prepared to discover that I'd misread it. Instead I found clear and compelling evidence for my original position. So it goes.

Jim Gifford has proposed a theory involving a casual phone conversation being badly transcribed and edited to create the remark in Expanded Universe. He expounds that at the link I give below. This is of course somewhat speculative; and Heinlein is not known to have complained about how material in Expanded Universe came out.

Relevant Passages

(Page references refer to the 4th printing of the Berkley Medallion edition, S1560, December 1969. The book was originally published in 1959.)

P 22:

He sighed again. "All normal stages. And the last one, right at the end of adolescence, is when a boy decides to join up and wear a pretty uniform."

(Juan's father trying to talk him out of signing up. Juan hasn't gone in to talk to the recruiter yet, and he hasn't expressed any interest in anything more specific than a term of Federal Service; Juan's father appears to assume that this means the military, or at least SOME uniformed service.)

P 23:

"Son, don't think I don't sympathize with you; I do. But look at the real facts. If there were a war, I'd be the first to cheer you on—and to put the business on a war footing."

(Juan's father still trying to talk him out of it. He seems to think that the military is all there is to Federal Service.)

P 26:

The recruiting station was inside a railing in the rotunda. A fleet sergeant sat at a desk there, in dress uniform, gaudy as a circus. His chest was loaded with ribbons I couldn't read. But his right arm was off so short that his tunic had been tailored without any sleeve at all ... and, when you came up to the rail, you could see that he had no legs.

P 27: (Same sergeant)

"Look, boys, have you any idea why they have me out here in front?"

I didn't understand him. Carl said, "Why?"

"Because the government doesn't care one bucket of swill whether you join or not! Becaus it has become stylish, with some people—too many people—to serve a term and earn a franchise and be able to wear a ribbon in your lapel which says that you're a vet'ran ... whether you've ever seen combat or not. But if you want to serve and I can't talk you out of it, then we have to take you, because that's your constitutional right. It says that everybody, male or female, shall have his born right to pay his service and assume full citizenship—but the facts are that we are getting hard pushed to find things for all the volunteers to do that aren't just glorified K.P. You can't all be real military men; we don't need that many, and most of the volunteers aren't number-one soldier material anyhow. Got any iudea what it takes to make a soldier?"

"No," I admitted.

"Most people think that all it takes is two hands and two feet and a stupid mind. Maybe so, for cannon fodder. Possibly that was all that Julius Caesar required. But a private soldier today is a specialist so highly skilled that he would rate 'master' in any other trade; we can't afford stupid ones. So for those who insist on serving their term—but haven't got what we want and must have—we've had to think up a whole list of dirty, nasty, dangerous jobs that will either run 'em home with their tails between their legs and their terms uncompleted ... or at the very least make them remember for the rest of their lives that their citizenship is valuable to them because they've paid a high price for it."


"So they put me out here to discourage you boys. Look at this." He shoved his chair around to make sure that we could see that he was legless. "Let's assume that you don't wind up digging tunnels on Luna or playing human guinea pig for new diseases through sheer lack of talent; suppose we do make a fighting man out of you. Take a look at me—this is what you may buy ... if you don't buy the whole farm and cause your folks to receive a 'deeply regret' telegram. Which is more likely, because these days, in training or in combat, there aren't many wounded. If you buy at all, they likely throw in a coffin—I'm the rare exception; I was lucky...though maybe you wouldn't call it luck."

He paused, then added, "So why don't you boys go home, go to college, and then go be chemists or insurance brokers or whatever? A term of service isn't a kiddie camp; it's either real military service, rough and dangerous even in peacetime... or a most unreasonable facsimile thereof. Not a vacation. Not a romantic adventure."

(Here, straight from the mouth of the official federal service recruiting agent, we are told that federal service is either real military service, or something faked up to be just as dangerous.)

P 32:

The thing I did most carefully was to list my preferences. Naturally I listed all of the Space Navy jobs (other than pilot) at the top; whether I went as power-room technician or as cook, I know that I preferred any Navy job to any Army job—I wanted to travel.

Next I listed Intelligence—a spy gets around, too, and I figured that it couldn't possibly be dull. ... After that came a long list; psychological warfare, chemical warfare, biological warfare, combat ecology ... , logistics corps .... , and a dozen others. Clear at the bottom, with some hesitation, I put K-9 Corps, and Infantry.

I didn't bother to list the various non-combatant auxiliary corps because, if I wasn't picked for a combat corps, I didn't care whether they used me as an experimental animal or sent me as a laborer in the Terranizing of Venus—either one was a booby prize.

(Federal Service apparently consists of combatant corps, and non-combatant auxiliary corps, just like the military today.)

P 101:

I hadn't known it at the time but merchant sailors don't like us. Part of it has to do with the fact that their guilds have tried and tried to get their trade classed as equivalent to Federal Service, without success—but I understand that some of it goes way back in history, centuries.

(Why would the merchant sailors think their trade had anything to do with Civil Service work? But it has some resemblance to the military.)

P 129:

I could hear Colonel Dubois in my mind: "Citizenship is an attitude, a state of mind, an emotional conviction that the whole is greater than the part...and that the part should be humbly proud to sacrifice itself that the whole may live."

(You have to actually risk yourself for your country to win full citizenship; simply working for your country is not sufficient.)

P 143:

Sally answered, "Uh, service men are disciplined, sir."

Major Reid was gentle with him. "Sorry. An appealing theory not backed up by facts. You and I are not permitted to vote as long as we remain in the Service, nor is it verifiable that military discipline makes a man self-disciplined once he is out; the crime rate of veterans is much like that of civilians. And you have forgotten that in peacetime most veterans come from non-combatant auxiliary services and have not been subjected to the full rigors of military discipline; they have merely been harried, overworked, and endangered—yet their votes count."

("Non-combatant auxiliary services" is the phrase I'd use to describe quartermaster transportation companies and the adjutant general corps and lots and lots and lots of things in our current military. Juan's list of options includes a "logistics corps", which he confuses with logic, you'll remember; that seems to be exactly the kind of non-combat military service this is referring to.)

(Also, you'll note Major Reid says "in peacetime". That implies that it would be different in wartime—that most veterans would come from combat arms. Looking at our own forces in WWII, that suggests to me a higher percentage of combat veterans for Federal Service than our own military gets. If, on the other hand, Federal Service was the Civil Service, the clerks and accountants would outnumber the military people by a huge margin under all circumstances.)

(So, from several directions, I see Major Reid's statement as compatible with Federal Service being military, and NOT compatible with Federal Service being a much broader part of the government.)

P 144 (Major Reid speaking):

"So what difference is there between our voters and wielders of franchise in the past? We have had enough guesses; I'll state the obvious: Under our system every voter and officeholder is a man who has demonstrated through voluntary and difficult service that he places the welfare of the group ahead of personal advantage."

(This makes sense if "Federal Service" means essentially "military service"; it makes no sense if it means "civil service".)

P 145: (Major Reid speaking)

"Superficially, our system is only slightly different; we have democracy unlimited by race, color, creed, birth, wealth, sex, or conviction, and anyone may win sovereign power by a usually short and not too arduous term of service—nothing more than a light workout to our cave-man ancestors. But that slight difference is one between a system that works, since it is constructed to match the facts, and one that is inherently unstable. Since sovereign franchise is the ultimate in human authority, we insure that all who would wield it accept the ultimate in social responsibility—we require each person who wishes to exert control over the state to wager his own life—and lose it, if need be—to save the life of the state."

(Clearly military service. As a minor side issue, our cave-man ancestors wouldn't think being a "clerk" or "civil service" was a light workout; but they'd probably feel that way about boot camp.)

Additional Points

The use of the words "veteran" to refer to those who've completed Federal Service, and of "civilian" to refer to those who've never served, is pretty suggestive to my mind. Certainly "veteran" (generally combined with another word, as in "veteran pitcher") is sometimes used just to indicate experience, but the consistent pairing of veteran and civilian is highly suggestive.

Juan Rico goes to the Federal Building to sign up for Federal Service. The front personnel he deals with, and the critical ones throughout, are all military. The front personnel are specifically chosen to exhibit the possible costs of enrollment (multiple amputations). No reference is made to non-military jobs in the litany of dangers.

There are apparently specific jobs reserved for veterans. One of them is "policeman." One of them is teaching History and Moral Philosophy. I don't recall any others being mentioned.

In the discussion of how this system came to be, it's explained that it was started by a group of veterans of a disastrous losing war, acting essentially as vigilantes. They trusted each other a little bit, and nobody else at all. They decided to limit their formal government to other veterans, and it grew from there. From the description, there seems to be no doubt that "veteran" is being used in the conventional sense of former member of the military in this passage.

Other References

Jim Gifford's The Nature of Federal Service in Starship Troopers (PDF file)


This is at least the third major version of this document; it was written, lost, rewritten, recovered, merged, and revised some number of times before I started keeping track.

I identify this as version 3.1.1 of this document, last modified 21-Jun-2004.

Last modified .
David Dyer-Bennet