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Literature / Starship Troopers

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"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 Napoléon Bonaparte and of The Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. The ghost of Hitler could referee..."
Lt. Col. Jean V. DuBois, M.I. (ret.)

Starship Troopers is a Military Science Fiction novel written by Robert A. Heinlein as an argument against a unilateral U.S. ban on nuclear testing, and published in 1959. It waxes Anvilicious on the merits of soldiers being willing to give their lives for their country and the proper merits of a soldier, an officer, and an army and nation as a whole. Heinlein, a former naval officer who had received a health-related discharge before he could gain actual combat experience, interviewed infantry soldiers and officers to get the "flavor" of ground combat for his book. The story traces the evolution of Juan "Johnnie" Rico from feckless civilian into an Officer and a Gentleman during the Bug War as a Framing Device and example. Much of the military action in the novel parallels the Pacific campaign of World War II ending at Guadalcanal.

Starship Troopers is notable for early use of the concept of Powered Armor and being an early example of the Space Marine trope. It was also the first science fiction book to appear on the U.S. military's recommended reading lists. It is also significant, and controversial, for its description of the Terran Federation's political system. It is a limited democracy, in which only "veterans" of Federal Service are eligible to vote, run for office, hold certain jobs, or even teach some subjects at school. It should be noted that this service is not necessarily military/combat and in fact usually isn't, although you have no choice where they send you and non-military service is only mentioned in a few brief sentences and never shown. Needless to say this alone tends to provoke accusations ranging from "jingoistic" up to "fascist propaganda."

A film made in 1997 adopted the Broad Strokes of the novel; however, it subtly satirizes those aspects of the book's ideology that Paul Verhoeven (who by his own admission never finished the book) considered jingoistic or fascist (which is to say all of it). The parody was a bit too subtle for some viewers, who considered the film (and by extension the book) to be outright fascist propaganda. It also replaced the Power Armor with conventional infantry armament: you probably care more about that. A reboot of the film is in the works which will be much closer to the books.

The novel provides examples of:

  • Ace Pilot: Captain Deladrier, the CO of the corvette Rodger Young. In the prologue of the book, Johnnie notes that she coordinated their drop with the rotation of the planet to ensure that their landing zone wasn't too spread out. Later, the Roughnecks' shuttle is late to lift off because they're waiting to extract wounded; this causes them to miss the carefully preplanned and calculated rendezvous.note  Captain Deladrier instead takes manual control of her corvette, and plots a flight course to dock her ship and the shuttle. On the fly. No calculations. By sight, instinct, and a steady hand.
  • Added Alliterative Appeal:
    • Applies to many units, usually based off their leader's name. Throughout the novel, we come across Rasczak's Roughnecks, Warren's Wolverines, Blackie's Blackguards, King's Kodiak Bears, and Willie's Wildcats.
    • After Rasczak is killed, the soldiers propose to rename the unit Jelly's Jaguars, after their new leader. Jelly promptly shoots it down
    • At the end of the novel, the unit is now named Rico's Roughnecks.
  • An Aesop: Heinlein compares the morally-brightest example of a militarized society (the Terran Federation) to the worst example possible (the bugs) to draw out a number of principles about what he thinks makes a good military. Those principles include:
    • If you want to participate as a citizen, you have to serve your country, up to and including being prepared to quite literally fight, even die, for the privilege. The protagonists constantly link their military service to their responsibility as citizens to the Terran Federation, while the bugs are largely mindless.
    • An all-volunteer army that's well trained, well equipped, and knows the value of the individuals that serve in it trumps an army that treats its infantry like so many potatoes to be thrown at enemies, even if the latter greatly outnumbers the former. Since the Bugs' idea of troop management is "let 'em die like pigs, We Have Reserves", those "reserves" run out pretty soon... while the determination of Terran troops never runs out.
    • Lastly, there are two aesops regarding sexism and racism. Johnny Rico is Juan Rico and his girlfriend Carmen is an officer and a pilot, trying to demonstrate an integrated service being the ideal. In comparison, the Bugs are portrayed as lacking in all diversity.
  • All Asians Know Martial Arts: Japanese recruit Shujumi isn't a black belt yet, but is able to fight Sergeant Zim to a draw on his first day of training. In the same scene it's stated that Shujumi's father is a famous martial artist and Colonel Badass who at some point taught Zim.
    • Artistic License – Martial Arts: Heinlein, lacking the Internet, seemed to assume a "black belt" meant absolute mastery, where in judo and karate it's merely the first rank in which one is allowed to teach others.
  • All Planets Are Earthlike: Averted. Many planets are inhospitable to humans, who must wear protective armor while on them. Some have different gravity as well. The war is ultimately over control of those few that are even remotely habitable for either race.
  • Amazon Brigade: Most of the Navy's pilots are women. The book explicitly states that women (in-universe) have faster reflexes, and are better able to withstand "g" forces, which is downright crucial to the job. Pilots now and (in Heinlein's opinion) 20 Minutes into the Future need a strong kinesthetic sense to aviate. This is a characteristic they share with dancers and gymnasts, hence the implication that Carmencita's competitive diving skill is a manifestation of latent pilot awesomeness.
  • Ancient Tradition: The Mobile Infantry incorporate all manner of national military traditions.
  • Anyone Can Die: It's masked a little by Johnnie's optimism, but pretty much anybody he mentions by name has about a fifty/fifty chance of buying it by the end. Word of God says that Johnnie bought his farm on Klendathu.
  • Archaic Weapon for an Advanced Age: Discussed. One of Rico's fellow recruits complains about having to learn to throw knives in an era of Powered Armor and starships. Sergeant Zim responds with a detailed lecture on the topic: Knives and hand-to-hand combat are quieter and don't run out of ammunition, and some missions require precision kills rather than carpet-bombing. And besides, there may come a day when you need to kill a man and all you have is a knife...
    Zim: There are no dangerous weapons, only dangerous men.
  • Artificial Limbs: When Johnnie goes to sign up for military service, he's greeted by a fleet sergeant who's missing both legs and an arm. When he later runs into the same man, he doesn't immediately recognize him, as he's walking around on two legs and shakes Johnnie's hand with his missing arm. The fleet sergeant states that he purposefully doesn't wear his prosthetics when greeting potential new recruits, in order to remind them what's at stake and scare off any who aren't fully committed.
  • As You Know:
    • Inverted, as it's used toward the reader as an excuse to skip exposition. Specifically, Rico's narration skips over a lot about the powered armor by telling the reader something along the lines of, "I'm not going to bother telling you the details since you've already seen so much of them on the news."
    • The classroom sections fall into this to some extent, although the exposition comes across fairly unobtrusively in Socratic form; the Turkey City Lexicon would refer to this type of seamless expospeak as "Heinleining" in Bob's honor.
  • Asskicking Leads to Leadership:
    • Soldiers have to prove themselves in combat before they can go to command school and become an officer. Moreover, to become Sky Marshal it's required that a candidate has commanded both a Mobile Infantry regiment AND a Navy vessel in combat.
    • Invoked and subverted by Ace, who treats Rico as his superior in name only (Rico outranks Ace as his newly-promoted section leader, but Ace is actually senior in age and service time). They go find a private place to brawl about it and while Ace eventually knocks Rico out, Rico fights well enough that Ace wakes him up and has him get the last hit in so Ace can claim Rico won.
  • Author Tract and Author Filibuster: We get several classroom scenes which are literally just the teacher talking at length about whatever Heinlein wants pounded into our heads.
  • Authority Grants Asskicking: Everyone drops, with generals and other officers first on the ground, and command suits have the speed of scout suits while still packing weapons for self-defense.note 
  • Badass Army: The Mobile Infantry. A good example comes from what happened to Rico on leave from training, when he and two fellow trainees get attacked from behind by two civilians and two sailors of the merchant fleet: Rico executed an Offhand Backhand on the one who attacked him, then realized they were being attacked and turned to help the others but sees that they did the same to their aggressors, with the short and shy 'Kitten' Smith stomping two of the aggressors (Rico's narration then says it's a good thing they are unarmed on leave and trained to fight to disable, as they had acted only through reflexes). If unarmed trainees halfway through training can do this, then the fully trained and equipped M.I. rules this trope.note  Johnnie states that a single M.I. private in powered armor could defeat a whole squadron of tanks, if anyone were stupid enough to send tanks against them.
  • Badass Teacher: Many examples:
    • Every single military service instructor is a combat veteran of their given trade, from the lowliest boot sergeant to the commandant of OCS (who is a retired general that came back to service to foster new generations of young officers during the war). Most of them are fully capable of kicking ass as well as taking recruits to school on a wide variety of subjects.
    • Lt. Col. Dubois. He lost his arm and both legs in combat, got medical retirement and went to teach History and Moral Philosophy for Johnnie's high school. Johnnie knew he was a veteran (you have to be to teach H&MP), but didn't realize he was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Mobile Infantry until he is almost ready to graduate from Basic, whereupon Dubois informs him that he himself was an M.I. trooper. And a lieutenant colonel, which is no mean feat. Even Sergeant Zim idolizes the man.
  • Bad Luck Charm: Before going on his first training cruise, Rico is asked if he'll wear a set of officer's pips where all but one of the cadets who have worn them have flunked out due to various bad-luck causes. Rico reluctantly agrees which pleases the Commandant: he was the first one to wear them, and wants to see the jinx on them broken.
  • Band of Brothers: The Mobile Infantry are well aware that every drop could be - probably will be - proof that War Is Hell. But staying behind while their companions risk death is unthinkable.
  • Big Eater: Johnnie, and by extension the rest of the M.I. troopers. The physical conditioning they undergo to remain in shape for drops means they need to eat many more calories than sedentary civilians. For instance, breakfast in the barracks while on leave on Sanctuary:
    (Ace and I) hit the chow line for a half dozen shell eggs and sundries such as potatoes and ham and hot cakes and so forth and then we hit dirt [off-base] to get something to eat.
  • Bizarre Alien Biology: The Bugs.
  • Blade Enthusiast: Sergeant Zim. Not only did he train the recruits in knife fighting and throwing, he liked to make and balance his own rather than use the perfectly good service-issue knives.
  • Book Dumb:
    • Johnnie thought his education was "well-rounded," even though he's deficient in math and it's revealed he took classes like "Appreciation of Television." One of his squad mates does mention that his education makes him an acceptable candidate for OCS, putting him fairly well ahead of the pack, but he still has a lot of catching up in the natural sciences. Johnnie points out even an MI private has to learn so many skills he would easily be a master of many other trades if he trained as hard in them, and officers are forced to read everything from advanced natural sciences, pure mathematics, and political theory to "why Napoleon lost the big one."
    • One of his OCS classmates is a 1st Lieutenant (field commissioned) who received a Field Promotion, and willingly took a demotion to 3rd Lieutenant so that he could attend OCS and get the book learning to complement his experience.
  • Bug War: The Arachnids, also the Trope Namer. The Arachnids are depicted very differently in the book from the movie; while in the film, the Bugs are portrayed as essentially animals who have somehow evolved, among other things, the ability to bombard enemy planets at interstellar distances, the book Arachnids are a technological civilization on an even par with humanity, and their soldier caste is every bit as smart and skilled as the MI - as Johnnie says, smarter than their opponents, if they get the drop on the enemy first.
  • The Captain: Played With, due to "Captain" being Army and Navy ranks of differing grades (a Navy captain outranks an Army captain by a significant degree). Navy tradition is that only one man on the ship can be The Captain, so any Army Captains who happen to be aboard receive a temporary honorary promotion to "Major." (One step up from Army Captain, still a full two steps below a Navy Captain. Also, a navy Captain-by-rank traveling as a passenger becomes "Commodore".)
  • Catchphrase:
  • Comes Great Responsibility:
    • The concept covered by the trope is used as the justification for the Terran Federation's unusual political system: since being able to vote is the greatest power a person can wield, you have to prove you can handle it by voluntarily protecting the state and are willing to place others' needs ahead of your own by putting your own personal ass on the line.
    • The maxim "with great power comes great responsibility" is also used in the military criminal justice system. When an officer commits a crime, he receives a punishment eight times greater than an enlisted man would receive because as an officer he should have a better understanding of his crime. A crime that would result in an enlisted man being flogged might result in a death sentence if an officer does it.
  • Conscription: Averted. Military service in the Terran Federation is completely voluntary, even during times of war. And even after enlisting the recruit can resign from the military any time they want, even immediately before a battle (unless they're facing military discipline). The justification for this is that people who are forced into military service against their will make poor soldiers. This was one of Heinlein's few Take That! moments at the American military, which in 1959 was still built around the idea of a Zerg Rush of draftees. After signing up, recruits have a 48 hour "cooling off" period before reporting for duty; if they don't report, there are no consequences. Similarly, anyone can resign during training, again without consequence. This is to ensure that nobody's there who doesn't want to be there.
  • Corporal Punishment: Discussed at length. In the Mobile Infantry, any and all corporal punishment — from a Dope Slap to a summary execution is legal... as long as the punisher can demonstrate that it was necessary and reasonable. Nor is it restricted to the military — it's a civilian criminal sentence as well, and even public schools are mentioned to (rarely) use it on students.
  • Court-martialed:
    • The Federation forces have "thirty-one ways to crash land", that is, thirty-one military capital felonies, including assault on an officer during emergency or wartime.
    • Ted Hendrick is sentenced to flogging before getting a dishonourable discharge for assaulting Sergeant Zim during training (and saying so before an officer in the presence of witnesses: Captain Frankel had realized what happened upon seeing Zim's black eye and was trying to avoid a court martial, but when Hendrick admitted it...). Zim and Frankel actually go out of their way to save Hendrick's life by arranging a summary court martial, not a general one, because the latter would have resulted in a death sentence. Zim blames himself for letting Hendrick hit him to begin with (and Frankel privately chews him out afterwards).
    • The hero, Juan Rico, is sentenced to five lashes for fucking up during training. Contrary to Hendrick's case, though, he is deemed 'salvageable' and flogged as an administrative punishment, designed to disappear from his record upon graduation. It helped that Rico kept his mouth shut and didn't ask for a court martial (in fact, when offered, he refused as he realized just how much he had fucked up, and the battalion commander was visibly happy he did so).
    • Another trainee who deserted is later hanged in front of the regiment for kidnapping and then murdering a little girl. Kidnapping and desertion are also capital crimes, the book specifically notes, even without the murder, though most deserters are just flogged and dishonorably discharged instead (with executions only occuring for desertion in combat or other genuinely heinous examples).
  • Days of Future Past: Downplayed, but present in the generally accepted corporal punishment, classical curriculum and fin-du-siècle style Social Darwinist ideology of the Federation. There are also some subtle hints that Europe has revived some of its older traditions: for example, the German Reich is united (and includes its pre-World War II territories), and the German characters at boot camp seem to honor the old aristocratic Prussian Korps.
  • Death from Above: Via It's Raining Men. Mobile Infantry troopers are dropped from orbit to land in a combat zone. They also have weapons that can "glass" a planet's surface from orbit but are reluctant to destroy the valuable real estate they're fighting over; it's mentioned that later in the war planet-buster bombs get developed. They are also reluctant to kill sapient beings unnecessarily so they only use the force needed to accomplish their mission.
  • "Dear John" Letter: Played with. When at OCS Johnnie claims he and Carmen were dating, but she sent him a "Dear John." This is technically true, since he and Carmen went on a few dates, nothing serious, and she always begins her (occasional) letters with "Dear Johnnie." Essentially, Johnnie is playing up the trope to gain some street cred.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: Johnnie and Ace are close after their fistfight (which Johnnie lost, but Ace said he lost to protect Johnnie's position as a superior). Similarly, Johnnie's first squad leader is said to have recommended him for promotion shortly after beating his ass for mouthing off.
  • Defector from Decadence: Johnnie's family is quite wealthy; they're mentioned to have an Olympic sized pool, and his father bought him a "Rolls copter" for his 14th birthday. However, he joins the Mobile Infantry to prove himself instead of just climbing the ladder in his father's company. His father later does the same thing.
  • Democracy Is Flawed: According to the movie's Backstory, the United Citizens' Federation was established after combat veterans overthrew Earth governments for being sent to fight in pointless wars the politicians themselves purportedly had no stake in due to not having served themselves. Consequently the UCF denies voting rights to anybody who has not done "federal service"—either a military enlistment or certain specified civilian-side government jobs. Although the development of the Terran Federation isn't discussed in much detail in the book, what we do know is that it had its genesis in combat veterans coming home from the Third World War (China facing off against a US/UK/Russian alliance) and restoring order on their own initiative upon discovering that the previous governments of their home countries had largely collapsed.
  • Desk Jockey/Soldiers at the Rear:
    • Both doubly subverted; everyone in the MI fights. Any job that doesn't involve combat is undertaken by civilian contractors or other branches of the Civil Service — unless they "require fighting spirit". Because all MI officers fight, and they drop first (and therefore sustain a higher casualty rate than enlisted men), active-duty officers often find themselves juggling multiple desk jobs along with their combat duty. Johnnie's officer training school tour as a Third Lieutenant with Blackie's Blackguards has him wearing enough hats that Captain Blackstone has to teach him a valuable lesson about time management.
    • Not just officers. Sergeant Migliaccio leads a section with the Roughnecks during drops. He is also the platoon armorer maintaining and repairing the power armor. Finally, he is also the platoon Padre looking after the men's spiritual needs.
    • Jobs that can't be handled by either civilians or active MI (like instructors at Officer Candidate School) are filled by officers who have been crippled, but refuse to be discharged. One notable example is the Dirty Fighting instructor, who was wheelchair bound and wore a neck brace, and could still offer savage but valuable criticism.
    • Another notable (and highlighted strongly in the book) special task is recruiter. This is reserved for the most mangled, crippled, and disfigured of survivors. The one in the recruiting center Rico signs up in is missing three limbs, an eye, and has a face barely recognizable as human (though later Rico meets him after hours and initially doesn't recognize the man because he's wearing all of his prosthetics - the sergeant only displays his 'horror show' while on duty). These people are given the task of signing up recruits because this is a military that wants you to know what might happen to you before you sign up.
      • The recruiter's job is literally to scare away anyone who isn't signing up for the right reasons. The recruiter states that, if you're smart enough to understand the oath and choose to take it, Federal Service has to find something for you to do. Even if you're a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic, they'll find some way for you to earn your citizenship. But they want to make sure you know, in advance, that the work is (by design) dangerous and unhealthy, since that's the kind of work required to earn the responsibility of citizenship.
  • Dirty Communists: The Bugs, explicitly. Also, the Chinese Hegemony.
    Every time we killed a thousand Bugs at a cost of one M. I. it was a net victory for the Bugs. We were learning, expensively, just how efficient a total communism can be when used by a people actually adapted to it by evolution; the Bug commissars didn’t care any more about expending soldiers than we cared about expending ammo. Perhaps we could have figured this out about the Bugs by noting the grief the Chinese Hegemony gave the Russo- Anglo- American Alliance; however the trouble with "lessons from history" is that we usually read them best after falling flat on our chins.
  • Disaster Democracy: How the Terran Federation came into existence; apparently, national governments largely collapsed during the "Disorders" at the end of the 20th century, following World War III.
  • Dream-Crushing Handicap: Averted with military service; they won't turn away anybody who is willing and psychologically able to service, to the point that they will make up a job that you can do regardless of your physical limitations or disabilities.
    • Johnnie runs across a Navy crewman on one mission who had been in boot camp with him. The man couldn't keep up with the physical demands of being an MI and collapsed during a training exercise. He refused a medical discharge which would disqualify him from full citizenship. Instead, they found him a less physically demanding position as third cook on a troop transport.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty:
    • Zim, although all of Rico's instructors count. They do it on purpose, to weed out those not cut for the job and on the idea that pain will help the trainees learn (it works). When basic training has reached the point where everyone who won't hack it is gone, the drill sergeants switch to an emphasis on getting the remainder over the finish line.
    • Johnnie mentions that the M.I. tries to weed out the bullies and sadists, not because they believe in going soft on recruits, but because bullies are in it for fun and will start to slack off when it stops being so. He does concede that some of the instructors might be professional at their job and enjoy it at the same time.
    • Johnnie has something of an existential crisis when he overhears a conversation between Zim and his superior officer, where Zim admits that he's at fault for a recruit's offense that resulted in a dishonorable discharge. Zim admits that he liked that particular cadet, and wasn't as wary of him as he should have been. Johnnie just can't grasp that not only do the Drill Sergeants make mistakes, but that they might actually like the recruits they're training. Deconstructing the trope nearly deconstructs Johnnie Rico.
  • Drop Pod: Likely the Trope Maker. The M.I. version are called "capsules", with the soldiers being called "cap troopers". Being fired out of a tube like a torpedo, these capsules have no way of course correcting, so they are at the mercy of the pilot to ensure the drop zone is correct. They are designed to protect the soldiers during free fall and have multiple layers that burn away during the descent; this has the added benefits of filling the air with falling debris to confuse enemy targeting systems.
  • During the War: About halfway through, Rico mentions in passing that, officially, what's going on the background to his experiences is a "police action" that the Federation is about to outright label a war. (He also points out that since you can die either way, and most of the "31 crash landings" still apply, the difference in label isn't very important.)
  • Earth Is the Center of the Universe: Justified in that there are stated to be very few habitable planets with resources, as well as very few species capable of interstellar travel, so it stands to reason that the bugs would be interested in earth both for the resources, and to wipe out a competing species. The Terran Federation maintains "Sanctuary", a very Earthlike planet, as a backup in case Earth itself is conquered or rendered uninhabitable, and its location is one of humanity's most closely-guarded secrets.
  • Elaborate Underground Base: While some of their structures are above ground, the Bugs live almost exclusively underground.
  • Ensign Newbie: Averted; soldiers enter officer training only after having gained combat experience, so there are no Book Smart but inexperienced officers.
  • Everybody Calls Him "Barkeep": Rico's platoon sergeant. Revealed at the end of the book to be Sergeant Zim.
  • Everything's Louder with Bagpipes: In basic training, there are four sets of bagpipes and uniforms donated by the Lochiel of Cameron whose son had died there in training. Rico describes them as odd at first, as though the piper had a cat under his arm, the tail in his mouth, biting it. But they grow on you and the music helps during marches.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: The Thirty Second Bomb, certainly truth in advertising, designed as a psychological warfare device to frazzle nerves.
    Thirty Second Bomb (in the local language): I'm a 30 second bomb! I'm a 30 second bomb! 29, 28...
    • Also the action Rico is on when he uses the above weapon, explicitly called a Terror Raid.
  • Fake in the Hole: Played with. In the first chapter, during a raid against a race referred to as the Skinnies, the protagonist finds himself in a building full of them. He throws something at random and it turns out to be a Thirty Second Bomb. When thrown it starts saying "I'm a thirty-second bomb! I'm a thirty-second bomb! Twenty-nine! . . . twenty-eight! . . . twenty-seven! —" The book doesn't say if there is an explosion at the end or not. Given the attack was meant as a show of force with the aim of causing maximum material damage and minimal casualties it is possible that it is a straight example.
  • Family Business: Johnnie's father has the expectation that Johnnie will graduate from high school, attend Harvard business school, then work at, and eventually take over, the family company.
  • Fantastic Racism: Most of the human characters in the book know they might have to exterminate the Bugs to win, and are basically okay with that ("Us or them" is the exact phrase). Arguably a Justified Trope: all those characters are soldiers, and the Bugs are pretty clearly bent on exterminating us. However, nobody claims the Arachnids are inferior or evil. It is just everyone's bad luck that "two tough, smart races want the same real estate." It's even implied that, rather than seeking annihilation of the Bugs, the Federation is seeking the higher castes in order to find out what kind of leverage they'll need in order to negotiate a peace.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: Handwaved with the "Cherenkov drive." Cherenkov radiation is a bluish glow given off when particles exceed the speed of light in the medium they are traveling in, like high energy electrons from a nuclear reactor exceed the speed of light in water.
  • A Father to His Men: Every officer and most non-coms.
    [Captain Frankel] knew all of us by name and face and seemed to have a card file in his mind of exactly what progress each man had made on every weapon, every piece of equipment — not to mention your extra-duty status, medical record, and whether you had had a letter from home lately.
  • The Federation: Terran Federation.
  • Felony Misdemeanor:
    • Subverted. An officer tells some officer candidates a story from the Napoleonic era: a junior navy officer during a ship battle picks up his heavily wounded commander and carries him to a safe place. Meanwhile all the other officers on the ship are killed, so the young guy automatically winds up a commanding officer on the ship—and, because he left his post, he stands trial and is cashiered (and is lucky not to be hanged). It seems a gross injustice for the candidates—but the officer explains that the punishment was completely justified: for an officer to have left his post without an order is really very Serious Business, because if a sudden catastrophe happens, it is much more likely to disrupt a unit without a commanding officer.note 
    • Inverted in the case of the thirty-one "Crash Landings"; technically these are capital crimes, but the death penalty is only enforced in extreme circumstances. Two soldiers commit these crimes over the course of the book — one is given a few lashes and a dishonorable discharge; the other is hanged, but for crimes he committed after deserting rather than the desertion itself.
  • Field Promotion: A few examples:
    • Fresh-out-of-OCS Third Lieutenant Juan Rico recommends a couple of field promotions be performed on the way back to base, to fill out his platoon. Captain Blackie explains that you never promote people before returning to base, as the replacement depot is more likely to steal your best noncoms.
    • Earlier, Rico (a term lance corporal at that point) is given the job of assistant section leader, giving orders to squad leaders who are corporals. The officer in charge feels that it makes more sense to leave as many squads as possible with their squad leaders, since the MI mostly operates by squad, and things have been rough lately; the assistant section leader doesn't do a whole lot and is such a relatively safe place to put Johnnie. Rico is later promoted in due order, and bumped to sergeant shortly before leaving the platoon.note 
    • A subversion happens when Rico is at OCS. We find out one of his fellow officer candidates received a battlefield commission as a First Lieutenant some time prior.note  The reason he's attending OCS is to become an officer "properly" - as a battlefield commissioned officer (with no higher education), his chances of rising higher than First Lieutenant are very small. With Academy education and field command experience, his prospects are suddenly very good indeed.
    • Sergeant Zim is mentioned to have received a battlefield commission for capturing the Bug Queen.
  • Fluffy the Terrible: One of Rico's squadmates is a man nicknamed "Kitten", having acquired it in basic training when combat drill Corporal Jones disgustedly said "a kitten would have hit me harder than that!" during a unarmed combat drill. "Kitten" is an all-round Nice Guy, but he is also a fully trained Mobile Infantryman, and fully capable of killing someone in twenty ways without breaking a sweat.
  • Funetik Aksent:
    • When a battle goes horribly wrong, the commanders broadcast sauve qui peut ("let him save himself who can") — that is, the only objective is to get yourself and any living buddies back to an escape ship and get off the planet. Later on, a character (smart enough, but without much formal education) refers to it as the "sove-ki-poo".
    • Also, on the first day of basic training, Sergeant Zim asks if anyone thinks they can beat him in a fight. Out of the ranks steps Breckinridge, three inches taller and wider in the shoulders. The following conversation takes place:
      Breckinridge, suh - and ah weigh two hundred and ten pounds an' theah ain't any of it 'slack-bellied'
      Any particular way you'd like to fight?
      Suh, you jus' pick youah own method of dyin'.
  • Future Imperfect:
    • A bit character near the end mentions that every country has its own version of history. In his, Simon Bolivar built the Pyramids, went to the moon, and defeated the Spanish Armada. Of course, he's probably being sarcastic about that...
    • The exact chain of events which led to the Terran Federation are unknown, even to in-universe historians, presumably because so many records were destroyed or lost at the time. The best they can do is tell where it probably started and why. It's mentioned, however, that most national governments collapsed in the wake of the "Disorders" triggered by World War III at the end of the 20th century (fought, as mentioned above, between an alliance of the US/UK/Russia and China). First in Glasgow, Scotland, and then spreading across the world, returning veterans stepped into the void to restore functioning government and the rule of law, only trusting other veterans to do likewise. This led to the current system, where democracy exists, but only those who have served federally (whether in military or civil - and as noted elsewhere, most "Federal Service" posts are what used to be called the civil service) are allowed to participate. How the collapse of governmental authority came about isn't specified, but there's a good chance, this having been World War III after all, that limited nuclear exchanges were involved, as well as economic disruptions caused by breakdowns in world trade.
  • Good Old Fisticuffs: Even though each trooper carries a couple hundred pounds of ordnance, most of the actual fighting in the novel is hand-to-hand.
  • Goshdang It To Heck: See Chaste Hero - Heinlein skirts the trope occasionally by way of Narrative Profanity Filter.
    • Johnnie specifically refers to "shucks" as a curse at one point.
    • It is emphasized that Sergeant Zim insults the recruits, eloquently and at length, WITHOUT using profanity or obscenity, which he "saved for special occasions".
  • Grenade Launcher: The "Y-Rack", a device that fires two grenades every time a Marauder suit lands from using its jump-jet.
  • Guilt-Free Extermination War: The war between the Terran Federation and the Bugs (Arachnids).
  • Hard on Soft Science: Johnnie states at one point that "everything useful is based on math," and his teachers tend to have a fairly low opinion of the social sciences (see Politically Motivated Teacher).
  • Hard Truth Aesop: Sometimes, Violence Really Is the Answer. Yes, peaceful solutions are preferable, but insisting on trying to find a non-violent solution when it is evident that there isn't one is every bit as immoral as leaping straight to violence when there could have been another way, if not worse.
  • Heroic BSoD: Johnnie ends up seriously depressed and almost resigns while in boot camp. The triggering event isn't the nonstop hazing or the difficulty of the tasks set to them, but rather realizing that those setting the tasks are mere mortals after all, and that everything he thinks he knows about the military is all wrong.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: A major theme of the book; Rico's ship, the Rodger Young, is named after a private who did exactly such a thing in the Solomon Islands campaign during WWII.
  • Hidden Depths: Jean DuBois, Johnnie's History and Moral Philosophy teacher. Although his students know that he is a citizen (he has to be one to teach the class), his manners indicate to them that he is little more than an unpleasant martinet. Rico learns later that he is in fact a highly decorated lieutenant colonel. It is implied that he doesn't act like a military officer because he actually believes what he is teaching, and wants his students to believe it for themselves, rather than because an authority figure said so. Similarly, Rico spends a portion of his boot camp training on light duty as a company orderly, and gets an up close and personal view of how military command really operates, as his superiors harshly punish a recruit and then chastise themselves for their negligence in letting the matter get to that point.
  • Hit Me, Dammit!: Ace says this to Johnnie Rico after he beats Johnnie in a fight. Afterwards they shake hands and Ace accepts his authority.
  • Hobbes Was Right: The general consensus in the novel is that the great democracies of the 20th Century all inevitably crumbled because they failed to balance privilege with responsibility. See also Humans Are Bastards, below.
  • Humans Are Bastards: So much so that we need to work hard on our moral training to control our natural bastardness - or channel it into something better.
  • Humans Are Special, Humanity Is Superior: The latter is explicitly discussed in the book, and dismissed; superiority is not the issue. Rather, as all the characters are humans, they would prefer that humanity be the side that survives an "us-or-them" war.
  • Humans Are Warriors: Discussed. Basically since only humans and the Bugs are real warriors, everyone else is irrelevant according to the protagonist.
  • Humans Are White: Completely averted; few characters receive much of a physical description, but last names and speech patterns allow you to read between the lines. Notably, Johnnie speaks Tagalog as his native language and reveres Ramon Magsaysay, pretty much spelling out a Filipino heritage. Shujumi and Jelal are Japanese (although 'Shujumi' is definitely not a Japanese name) and Finno-Turkish, respectively, in a book written in 1959. Think about American attitudes towards the Japanese just a few years prior. Adaptations tend to ignore this.
  • I'll Pretend I Didn't Hear That: During basic training, a recruit strikes a drill instructor outside of approved circumstances.note  Though the instructor — and later the company commander — do their best to ignore this, the recruit makes it impossible for them to do so (saying point-blank that he did it in front of witnesses). He's instantly court martialed, found guilty, flogged, and dishonorably discharged — which is actually a 'light' sentence possible only through some deft legal maneuvering on the part of the commander, because striking a superior officer (outside of training, with a superior heading the training and inviting physical competition) is a capital offense in wartime.
  • Implacable Man: The warrior Bugs are like this. Rico notes that you can shoot off three or four of their legs and they'll keep coming until they're dead or their opponent is.
  • Infodump: Plenty, as Johnnie both explains how the military works and recalling his teacher's classroom speeches that he thought nothing of at the time.
  • Inhumanable Alien Rights: Averted. A number of less combat-oriented species are respected allies of humanity. The Federation is only at war with the Bugs because they are Dirty Communist Explosive Breeders who fight wars with Zerg Rushes; even if they lose several million Bugs taking a human world, it's a victory because they can replace those numbers and then some in a fraction of the time it takes to birth, raise and train a human as long as they have a planet to creche them on.
  • In Medias Res: The book starts with Johnnie preparing for and executing a combat drop. The second chapter goes back to before he joined the military. Chronologically, the first chapter actually occurs about halfway through the book.
  • Insectoid Aliens: The aptly-named Bugs. Exoskeleton, too many legs, tendency to invoke various phobias, Hive Mind, We Have Reserves, and yes, the trope-naming Bug War.
  • Insignia Rip-Off Ritual: Played dead seriously during the execution of a child murderer who deserted from Rico's training regiment during boot camp. While the desertion is an offense de jure worth fifty lashes and a dishonorable discharge, it's one that would never be followed up, since service is voluntary and a deserter will never make a soldier (or a citizen). But, in every sense of the phrase, the M.I. takes care of its own. The actual ripoff ritual is described. The guilty man is trotted out to the gallows in full dress uniform, then everything that indicates it is in fact a uniform is carefully removed. Pins, ribbons, insignia and even buttons (which have the M.I. insignia on them) are cut away until he's standing in what looks like a bad brown suit. Then he's hanged.
  • Insistent Terminology: Inverted. Only one person on a Navy ship can be The Captain, so any MI captains embarked on the ship are referred to as "Major" instead, and Navy captains taking passage as "Commodore". (This is relatively common in Military Science Fiction, and it's also Truth in Television, a method used by real-life navies to avoid any risk of confusion in the chain of command at a critical moment.)
    • For its part, the Mobile Infantry are equally determined not to call one of their officers by an incorrect rank:
      Rico: The M.I. observes this by avoiding the necessity in the wardroom and paying no attention to the silly custom in our own part of the ship.
  • Interservice Rivalry: There's a certain amount of this between the Mobile Infantry and the Navy, as Rico observes on one of his ships. The level of rivalry generally varies from hostile to friendly (after her Ace Pilot moment above, Captain Deladrier is feted and made an honorary Roughneck). As a general rule, it doesn't get too unfriendly, since there are a lot of cute girls in the Navy, which Rico suspects was a deliberate choice by Navy higherups. Also, in order to have a shot at Sky Marshal, a prospective candidate must have major command experience both the MI and the Navynote  — which is saying something in the case of the MI, because OCS only accepts people who have gone through Basic Training and survived boots-on-the-ground combat. (Given the political tone of the Federation, it seems safe to assume that the Navy has similarly stringent standards, but Heinlein never explicates on the matter.)
    • Johnnie notes that a less-friendly one exists between the Mobile Infantry and the merchant marine. Part of it stems from the merchant sailors' guilds having tried for years to get their trade classed as "Federal Service," and thus grant citizenship, but Johnnie notes that a lot of it is just stuff that goes back centuries.
  • It's Raining Men: One of the Trope Codifiers for science fiction. The Mobile Infantry troopers are dropped from orbit in individual Drop Pods.
  • Kangaroo Court: Subverted. Yes, Hendrick faced administrative punishment for striking a superior without a chance to defend himself. But he was dumb enough to appeal, and the court-martial had him slung out of the service. A full general court-martial with all legal protections would have had him executed. Smart soldiers know that when they're assigned summary punishments, the appropriate response is to shut up and take it, rather than barracks lawyering.
  • Kill It with Fire: Handheld flamethrowers. Text in the first chapter implies that they might be more exotic than that, as Johnnie is able to narrow the flame to cut through a wall.
  • Kinetic Weapons Are Just Better: Averted. They are used in training, but rarely (if ever) in actual combat.
  • Leitmotif: An unusual literary example: each ship in the Fleet has a theme song, played over the radio by the recovery shuttles, so the troopers know when it's time to regroup and leave. The Rodger Young has "The Ballad of Rodger Young." The Valley Forge, Johnnie's first ship, uses "Yankee Doodle", and the Voortrek, the ship that picks him up during the scramble to get off Klendathu, uses "Sugar Bush".
  • Lowered Recruiting Standards:
    • Thoroughly averted with the M.I. It's implied they never have a shortage of recruits; when the war ramps up and they need more soldiers, they actually make things harder by no longer giving recruits Sundays off during training.
    • An interesting case for the Federal Service in general; since it's required for citizenship, there are no physical standards a recruit must meets as long they are psychologically willing and able to serve. The Service will find, or make up, a job suitable for any level of physical disability to ensure that everyone who wants to has a chance to serve.
  • Meaningful Name: Juan ''Johnnie" Rico, Johnnie Rich. He's a pampered rich kid before joining the Mobile Infantry.
  • Misery Builds Character: The idea behind "Service Guarantees Citizenship". Even the non-military jobs described in the book are described as unpleasant and grueling (at least, the ones Johnny would qualify for), and the point is to make its citizens understand putting the group ahead of oneself as well as appreciate their franchise more.
  • Military Mashup Machine: the Marauder Powered Armor Suit, which can fly (a little), submerge, outmuscle a gorilla, protect the wearer from bullets and radiation, and rip through tanks.
  • Narrative Profanity Filter: The narration will often say that a person cursed or used vulgar language without ever specifying the actual words being said.
  • Never Found the Body: What happens to most men who enter Bug tunnels but not Rico's platoon at the end.
  • New Meat: Freshly graduated troopers are treated with a certain amount of disdain until they complete their first combat drop.
  • Nicknaming the Enemy:
    • Humanity's main opponent was officially known as the Arachnids (or Pseudo Arachnids), but the MI called them the Bugs.
    • The humanoid aliens Johnnie's platoon is attacking in the first chapter are referred to as Skinnies.
  • No One Gets Left Behind: "Men are not potatoes." This is the M.I.'s policy and practice. It also extends beyond the battlefield, such as the case where a soldier who deserted two days into training ends up kidnapping and killing a young girl and is brought back to be hanged with full military ceremony:
    The M.I. take care of their own — no matter what.
    Dillinger belonged to us, he was still on our rolls. Even though we didn't want him, even though we should never have had him, even though we would have been happy to disclaim him, he was a member of our regiment. We couldn't brush him off and let a sheriff a thousand miles away handle it. If it has to be done, a man - a real man - shoots his own dog himself; he doesn't hire a proxy who may bungle it.
    The regimental records said that Dillinger was ours, so taking care of him was our duty.
  • No Ending: Rico graduates from OCS and takes command of the Roughnecks. Where he goes from there, to say nothing of the outcome of the war, are left to the imagination of the reader.
    • Although the epilogue does have them dropping down on Klendathu, the bug home world.
      • In some editions, there's an afterword that briefly mentions him making Captain, and dying.
  • Noodle Incident: At the end of Rico's training, he mentions that he left a lot out, specifically, that he said "...nothing about the time we dropped everything and fought a forest fire for three days, no mention of the practice alert that was a real one, only we didn't know it until it was over, nor about the day the cook tent blew away..."
  • The Not-Love Interest: Carmen. Although she and Rico have gone on a few dates, and he's very obviously infatuated with her, nothing ever really comes of it.
  • Nuclear Option:
    • Among their other armaments, the Mobile Infantry can be supplied with mini-nuke 2 kiloton rockets. They're drilled extensively to "get their money's worth" out of them, and taken seriously enough that Johnnie is flogged in boot camp for using eye-ball reckoning (rather than computer targeting) with a simulated one and getting one of his troopers caught in the simulated blast radius.
    • During the opening battle, Rico is issued two with orders to expend all the ammunition he has, but he comes very close to disobey his orders because he just can't find two targets worthy of being nuked, only the one starship in the local spaceport, and is quite happy when he identifies a large water reclaiming facility, whose destruction would force the Skinnies to abandon the now unlivable city.
  • Obfuscating Disability: The recruiter deliberately left his prosthetics off when working to scare away gutless applicants. There are also indications that the most gruesomely maimed soldiers are selected for recruiting duty to maximize this effect. In the book (but not the movie) these guys don't pretend things are better than they are.
  • Obsolete Occupation: An interesting variation: full citizenship rights are only granted to those who serve the Federation, but everyone has the right to serve if they so choose. Contrary to popular belief, "federal service" isn't restricted to military service, as various civilian jobs also count, and the government is required to find duties every applicant can physically perform and allow them a reasonable opportunity to earn their citizenship, even if it's something as pointless as having a blind person "count the fuzz on a caterpillar by touch."
  • Oh, Crap!: The intended effect of the aforementioned talking bomb, noted as being almost, if not more, important than the explosion.
  • Old Soldier: Zim and numerous other veterans.
  • One Sided Battle: Inverted; the Bugs initially get the drop on the humans.
  • One World Order: Crossed with We ARE Struggling Together; it's implied that the Federation's members may end up turning on each other once the Bugs are out of the picture.
  • Orbital Bombardment:
    • Subverted in that the fleet could just reduce the surfaces of bug planets like Klendathu to a sea of radioactive glass, and this would kill most of the soldier bugs on them to be sure, but it wouldn't reach the queens and brain bugs deep underground who would just rebuild and breed new armies, thus making the entire effort pointless. The war would still be on, and all the Federation would have done is waste resources.
    • Later in the war, the Federation develops Nova Bombs said to be able to crack open a planet, allowing the Federation to just wipe out bug planets they don't plan to take for themselves. Klendathu is however excluded by the list, as they know there could be prisoners of war there and the Federation isn't going to kill their own soldiers like that.
  • Overranked Soldier: Johnnie's platoon for his trial as a third lieutenant is missing its normal CO (hospitalized due to implied battle stress), so the company commander installs his fleet sergeant as Johnnie's platoon sergeant, a job for someone several grades below his actual rank, to actually run the platoon and keep an eye on Johnnie.
  • Over-the-Top Secret: Sanctuary's location is only known to navy captains and navigation officers, who are under orders and hypnotic compulsion to kill themselves rather than be captured and have the information get out. Justified in that it may be the only habitable planet in the galaxy that the bugs aren't aware of, and would served as the backup headquarters for humanity if Terra were destroyed or occupied.
  • Planet Looters, Horde of Alien Locusts; Expansive (and exclusive) colonization is explicitly the goal of both the humans and Bugs.
  • Planet Terra: The human government is called the Terran Federation.
  • Planetville: Justified, as Sanctuary is pretty much just one city, which serves as both a spot for R&R, and a secondary base in case the Bugs conquer/destroy Earth.
  • Politically Motivated Teacher: A justified example. The History and Moral Philosophy class exists to help students see the rationale behind their system of government and instill the values embraced thereby (e.g., value of service to society as a whole, balancing rights with responsibility for one's actions and decisions, etc.) so the teachers naturally push these political and philosophical values on their students. Every student is required to take the class, but passing or failing is irrelevant, and Rico's teacher did not seem to expect much of his teaching to actually sink in to his young pupils.
  • Posthumous Character: Invoked in-universe by Sergeant Jelal after Lt. Rasczak dies during a combat mission. If a Roughneck screwed up or failed to behave properly, he would shake his head and say 'the Lieutenant wouldn't like it'. For the surviving soldiers, who all idolized Rasczak, it's an extremely effective motivator.
  • Powered Armor: Trope Codifier for Western culture, and at least inspiration for most of Anime/manga.
    A suit isn’t a space suit — although it can serve as one. It is not primarily armor — although the Knights of the Round Table were not armored as well as we are. It isn’t a tank — but a single M. I. private could take on a squadron of those things and knock them off unassisted if anybody was silly enough to put tanks against M. I. A suit is not a ship but it can fly, a little; on the other hand, neither spaceships nor atmosphere craft can fight against a man in a suit except by saturation bombing of the area he is in (like burning down a house to get one flea!). Contrariwise we can do many things that no ship — air, submersible, or space — can do.
  • Psychic Powers: Not focused upon, but present; one "sensitive" is brought in to draw a map of a tunnel network near the end. It's the real deal, but Rico himself is skeptical. Rico also refers in passing to the "talents" assigned to Logistics & Communications (including "telepaths," "sensers," and "lucky men"). Even after the sensitive's skills are proven, Johnnie still doubts the guy is psychic. His theory is the guy might just have really good hearing.note  Several comments made by the sensitive and his "handlers" would seem to back this up, but it's still ambiguous.
  • Propaganda Machine: Downplayed to around the level of many modern governments. Johnnie points that the M.I. technically weren't at "war" at the beginning of his service, but rather in a "state of emergency", with any military operations being "incidents," "patrols," or "police actions." He also remarks that his disastrous first battle has been called a "strategic victory", which he disagrees with.
  • Public Execution: The deserter is hanged in front of the other troopers to show them that Mobile Infantry always takes care of the troopers-even if they have to execute them.
  • Rank Up:
    • Johnnie is promoted several times, to Lance Corporal, Sergeant; he then becomes a commissioned officer and ranks up to 2nd Lieutenant upon finishing OCS.
    • In an inversion, one of his OCS classmates is a battlefield-commissioned 1st Lieutenant, who would be demoted to 2nd Lieutenant after graduating OCS (though Rico notes that his career prospects are better, so it all works out in the end).
    • Another inversion: the Commandant of Officer Candidate School is actually a famous and highly-decorated retired General who returned to duty to run OCS. As OCS is a Colonel's billet, he took a voluntary demotion. (Rico notes that when he retires again, he'll revert back to his actual rank).
  • A Real Man Is a Killer: Heinlein states through his Author Avatar that killing is human, and specifically male, nature, so the best thing a man can do is channel his natural bloodlust into defending his family/nation/race.
  • Real Men Wear Pink: Johnnie is especially proud of a pair of earrings that he wore on dates and inherited from his mother's grandfather. Earrings for men isn't limited to civilians; a lot of troopers wear various styles of gold skull earrings in one ear. Johnny acquires one for himself but stops wearing it when he realizes that the Roughnecks don't feel the need to show off in that fashion.
  • Reckless Gun Usage:
    • Averted. During training, Rico committed a safety protocol violation that doesn't result in anyone being hurt (and that he committed because he knew that nobody could possibly get hurt), and is severely punished by having his powered suit deactivated to force him to stay still for hours (Rico compared it to torture) while Zim explains exactly how stupid he had been, then he's brought before the commander who, after Zim vouches for him, decides to not kick him out of the service, asks him if he prefers to be judged by a martial court, and when Rico doesn't ask for the court martial has him flogged, to drive home the point that you don't violate gun safety protocol even when you know it's safe to. Note that Rico admits he got off easy: had he asked for the martial court he would have been flogged and drummed out.
    • During the raid on the Skinnies, a building explodes right as Johnnie jumps off of the roof. He wonders whether the Skinnies (correctly) decided it was worth destroying one of their own buildings to kill him, or if it was one of his comrades getting a little careless with their munitions.
    • Part of MI training involves using old-fashioned (for the setting) rifles with one in 500 rounds being live so that recruits will learn to keep their heads down in combat. Johnnie notes that many of the instructors were crack shots and several actually would deliberately try to graze recruits that were moving too slow. When Johnnie's company weren't progressing through training as fast as Zim wanted, they were threatened with their load outs being modified so that one in 100 would be live, and if that didn't work it would be changed to one in 50. It is noted that the recruits kind of scoffed at this until one of them was Shot in the Ass, "producing an amazing scar and a lot of half-witty comments", but also a strong interest in taking cover:
      We laughed at this kid for getting shot where he did . . . but we all knew it could have been his head or our own heads.
  • Recruiters Always Lie: Inverted; the recruiter is a triple amputee specifically chosen for the job to scare off anyone who might be joining for the wrong reasons.
    . . . the government doesn’t care one bucket of swill whether you join or not! Because 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.
  • Removing the Head or Destroying the Brain: The Bugs can fight with all their limbs blown off. One has to destroy the "nerve case"; and even then they keep running and shooting until they blunder into a wall or off a cliff or something.
  • Reverse Psychology: Johnnie's father claims this is what Johnnie's History and Moral Philosophy teacher is doing, when Johnnie claims that the man, if anything, discourages students from joining, acting like they're not good enough.
  • Safely Secluded Science Center: The Terran Federation maintains laboratories on Uranus and Pluto. Subverted when the Bugs later take out the facility on Pluto, getting Rico and Carmen's longtime friend Carl Killed Offscreen, after he had signed up and been assigned there as a researcher.
  • Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale: Subverted. The number of Mobile Infantry seems pitifully small to fight an interplanetary war, smaller than many real-world armies today. But the Roughnecks are considered enough to take on entire planets alone, and at one point Rico is highly stressed by a fight where the troopers are so close together that it's very difficult to fight without risking a friendly fire incident: namely a trooper every mile or so. Mobile Infantry are just that badass... and having Powered Armor and man-portable tactical nukes probably helps, too.
  • Selective Obliviousness: Johnnie is able repeatedly to read the signs when the M.I. is grooming another cap trooper for advancement. He never seems to realize they're grooming him as well. When injured in boot camp, he spends his time as a company orderly, letting him see the military from the higher-up's point of view. Later, he is flogged for his negligence in a training exercise, something the M.I. is very rarely willing to do, as it would be easier to just kick him out; and when in the Roughnecks, in order to keep the squads together, Rico is moved to a leadership position over the heads of men senior to him. Ace all but has to whack him in the head and tell him "The Army wants you to be an officer, dumbass!" while the two are on shore leave, and Jelly has his reenlistment paperwork filled out and waiting for his signature.
  • Sensor Suspense: When the M.I. drops in somewhere, there drop pods are designed to split apart with the pieces falling at the same rate as the troopers; this causes sensors to go haywire, as they are detecting incoming projectiles many times the actual number of soldiers.
  • Sergeant Rock: Every non-commissioned officer, especially Jelly and Zim.
  • Shot in the Ass: In boot camp the recruits practice taking cover while the instructors shoot blanks at them with an occasional real round mixed in, and one recruit gets shot across the buttocks. They joke about it, but the lesson is learned because they all know it could have been one of their heads.
  • The Social Darwinist: The Federation, and Rico himself.
    • Commenting on the planet Sanctuary:
      Sanctuary is going to be fully settled, either by us or by the Bugs. Or by somebody. It is a potential utopia, and, with desirable real estate so scarce in this end of the Galaxy, it will not be left in the possession of primitive life forms that failed to make the grade.
    • And commenting on the human wars of the past:
      Without debating the usefulness or morality of planned parenthood, it may be verified by observation that any breed which stops its own increase gets crowded out by breeds which expand. Some human populations did so, in Terran history, and other breeds moved in and engulfed them.
  • Space Cadet: Johnnie eventually advances in rank enough to become a viable officer candidate.
  • Space Marine: One of the early defining examples of the trope, although the Mobile Infantry are specifically referred to as being part of the Army being ferried from planet to planet on Navy transports.
  • Squad Nickname: The military units usually have nicknames composed of the name of their commanding officer and an alliterative noun: Rasczak's Roughnecks, Warren's Wolverines, Blackie's Blackguards, King's Kodiak Bears, and Willie's Wildcats.
  • Species Loyalty: Humans are out to make the universe safe for humans, never mind the bugs.
  • Staff of Authority: Drill sergeants carry swagger sticks that they use to hit the recruits. This is seen as more dignified than laying hands on them. It also serves the purpose of ensuring that any frustrated recruit who appears likely to lash out against a sergeant is unable to get close enough to do so. One recruit ends up striking his instructor, and is given Corporal Punishment for it. The instructor is then harshly berated for letting the recruit be in a position to get in trouble because he hesitated to strike the recruit first.
  • Straw Civilian: When Rico and his father meet up late in the booknote , they discuss how "the war" never really seemed real to people back on Earth... until Buenos Aires was attacked directly. Then they started screaming for the Bugs to be utterly wiped out.
  • Strawman Political: The Arachnids as Dirty Communists. Heinlein even lampshades this himself by saying that communism is okay for the bugs since they're evolved for it, but humans are different. More specifically, the Arachnids are the Chinese Communists — Heinlein felt they were less concerned with individual lives than even the Soviet Union.
  • Take That!: The military placement officer views Johnnie's low grade in his Appreciation of Television class to be a positive.
  • Tanks for Nothing: Tanks are explicitly stated to be useless against Mobile Infantry.
    A single M. I. private could take on a squadron of [tanks] and knock them off unassisted if anybody was silly enough to put tanks against M. I.
  • A Taste of the Lash: A common judicial punishment both in the military and in civilian life. It's mentioned as the sentence for everything from drunk driving to dereliction of duty. One notable scene has Rico watching a whipping being carried out; he passes out just from watching halfway through. He's later whipped himself (though fewer lashes) and describes it as easier than watching. In both cases it's explicitly mentioned inflict pain but not harm. The conditions of the whipping are carefully controlled and the subject receives medical attention immediately afterwards — it doesn't even leave scars.
  • Team Dad: Rico describes both Jelly and Lt. Rasczak as this, the book ending with another person in the position: Johnnie Rico himself.
  • Technician vs. Performer: Johnny notices this about the different approaches of Sergeant Zim and Captain Frankel during training:
    Zim did everything with precision and style, as if he were on parade; Captain Frankel did the same thing with dash and gusto, as if it were a game. The results were about the same and it never turned out to be as easy as Captain Frankel made it look.
  • Terraform: Working as a laborer on the "Terranizing of Venus" is mentioned by Johnnie as a possible assignment if he can't make it as a soldier.
  • Theme Naming: Terran troop transport ships are named after either famous battlegrounds (large ships like the Valley Forge) or heroic individual soldiers (smaller vessels like the Rodger Young). This mirrors the Theme Naming practices of most real-world navies.
  • There Is No Kill Like Overkill: Denounced through the mouth of Sergeant Zim.
    Sgt. Zim: If you wanted to teach a baby a lesson, would you cut its head off?
    Ted Hendrick: Why... no sir!
    Sgt. Zim: Of course not. You'd paddle it. There can be circumstances when it's just as foolish to hit an enemy city with an H-bomb as it would be to spank a baby with an ax.
  • Throwing the Fight: In the first chapter, Rico is assistant section leader, and gets some static when giving orders to Ace, a squad leader who outranks him. Later, he decides to settle things the M.I. way (fistfight). He loses handily, but Ace revives him with cold water and tells him to crack him a good one, so he can tell his squad that Rico whipped his ass over his insubordination. The punch Rico connects with is described (by the narrator) as not being forceful enough to harm a mosquito, but it serves Ace's purpose.
  • The Reveal:
    • The identify of Rico's unnamed platoon sergeant: Sergeant Zim.
    • A minor one, but it does happen at the end of the book. Johnnie's race or nationality are never mentioned, and his father's Harvard accent might lead one to think they're American, possibly of Latino extraction. Then at the end he mentions that his native tongue is Tagalog, implying that he's Filipino.
  • Training from Hell: Mobile Infantry Boot Camp is described by Rico as being extremely grueling and even dangerous at times. Out of Rico's original group of 2,009 recruits, only 187 manage to complete their training (with a handful of recruits actually being killed from training accidents). Later in the book when Rico attends Officer Candidate School he describes it as being even harder than basic training because in addition to all the physical training and combat drills he is also required to become proficient in several academic subjects like math, science, history, military law, and strategy. The only break they are given is that they are assigned a civilian servant to look after their bunkrooms and uniforms. This isn't intended as a break for the recruits, but rather a means to give them more time in the day to absorb what they're being taught.
  • Un-Paused: When Johnnie Rico is put to sleep via post-hypnotic suggestion and then woken up again, he doesn't realize he's been asleep for more than an hour. He continues talking to the commanding officer who put him to sleep as if it hadn't happened. The topic of discussion? Rico refusing to go to sleep.
  • United Space of America: The Terran Federation's system of government and civic and military institutions and traditions, apart from its limited-franchise democracy, appear obviously American-derived. Also, "Standard English" is its state language.
  • Universal Chaplain: Sergeant and Padre Migliaccio offers a short prayer service before a jump, and troopers of a number of different religions take part in it.
  • Unusual Euphemism:
    • To "Dance to Danny Deever" is to be hanged. (A man dropped at the end of a rope tends to bounce around for a bit.) The choice is apt, since the song "Danny Deever" is about a soldier who is hanged for murdering a fellow soldier, and apparently the tune is played at MI executions.
    • "Buying the farm" has long been a euphemism for dying. However, the soldiers often talk around this, for example calling it a "real-estate deal."
  • Uplifted Animal: The "neodogs", which are genetically engineered symbiotes derived from canine stock and described as being about six times smarter than the average dog. They're capable of talking, after a fashion, and smart enough to be employed for independent reconnaissance in the M.I.
  • Up Through the Ranks: Required by the Federation military's structure. Everyone starts as a grunt or crewman and if they do well, they're allowed to apply to officer candidate school, as Johnny Rico eventually does. The sky marshal, the overall commander of the military, is required to start at the bottom rank in both the Army and the Navy and work his way up to a major command in both services to even be considered.
  • Walk of Shame: If someone drops out of training, the walk to the exit across the training ground is called the walk of shame. In the movie, the protagonist nearly takes the walk, but then his home city is destroyed in an attack just as he's about to leave.
  • War Comes Home: Discussed where military types marvel about how civilians are largely unconcerned with the Bug War against the Pseudo-Arachnids until a successful military incursion destroys Buenos Aires, Argentina. Simultaneously downplayed: The Narrator's mother is slain in the attack, but either because Rico is meant to be The Stoic or because the book was reworked for younger audiences, we don't see this having much emotional impact on him.
  • War Is Hell: Used directly, and discussed: if it's hell, why endure it?
  • We Have Reserves:
    • Averted by human military strategy, specifically because the bugs fit this trope to a T. "Every time we killed a thousand Bugs at the cost of one M.I., it was a net victory for the Bugs. ... We learned not to waste ammo even on warriors except in self-protection; instead we went after their lairs."
    • The Bugs, however, have no qualms with expending their own soldiers as if they were no more valuable than ammunition. Rico tells how the Bugs would send soldier arachnids out radioactive exit holes to attack even if the exposure level was so high that mere exit would expose their soldiers to lethal levels of radiation.
    "The Bug commissars didn’t care any more about expending soldiers than we cared about expending ammo."
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy:
    • Johnnie is deeply moved when he learns that his father was proud enough that he decided to join the Mobile Infantry himself.
    • Johnnie's former high school teacher wrote him a letter saying how happy and proud he was that his former student had joined the Mobile Infantry, which helped him through a significant psychological barrier. The same instructor later indicated how proud he was that Johnnie was becoming an officer by asking that Johnnie receive his own officer's "pips" as part of his final test. Johnnie's disappointment that they're unavailable (real-estate deal) is profound.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: A third race referred to as the Skinnies, humanoids with some kind of alliance with the Bugs, are the target of the first raid in the book. Somewhat later in the book Johnnie mentions that the Terrans have managed to break that alliance and turn the Skinnies into Terran allies of sorts (in fact, that's what the raid was about), but their eventual fate is never revealed.
  • World War III: The war between the Anglo-American-Russian alliance and China.
  • Writer on Board: As pointed out above, that was the reason it was written. Heinlein stopped working on Stranger In A Strange Land just so that he could start this book.
  • You Are in Command Now: Discussed multiple times; happens to Johnnie during Operation Royalty.
  • Zerg Rush: Subverted — the rush was mostly composed of non-combatant bugs and was meant as a decoy.
    • Averted spiritually when despite being THE Bug War, the Bugs actually use tactics not unlike humans and Bug Warriors are broadly equivalent in style to Cap Troopers. They still massively outnumber human troops and rely on quantity, though; the narrator once mentions a kill ratio of 1000:1 is still a net win by the Bugs. Although it should be noted that Cap Troopers operate in tiny numbers by today's standards; one soldier per square kilometer is considered a dangerously tight formation.
    • They try another rush with real warriors towards the end of the book and it goes terribly. A sudden close-combat ambush with superior numbers only gets you so far when the enemy is in Power Armor.