"Bugs, Mr. Rico! Zillions of 'em!"
This is a commentary on the Robert Heinlein novel in which those immortal words appear, not the Paul Verhoeven movie in which (unaccountably) they are never spoken.
I like Starship Troopers, the book, but do not entirely approve of it. This itself is an odd thing to say. Quite apart from whether anyone else cares what I approve of, it is not the way I or most people usually talk about science fiction novels. But people do not talk about Starship Troopers the way they do about other SF novels, and I am not going to either.
Let's cut to the chase. The Starship Troopers debate, and it is as old as the book, is mainly about the Federation's political system and military institutions, and the surrounding culture, as shown in the book. What does Heinlein think of them, and what should we think of them? In other words the argument is about the book's politics.
Should it even matter? Starship Troopers is a science fiction novel, a work of Romance. It takes place in an imaginary future that is NOT a thinly veiled stand-in for Heinlein's present day, nor an overt commentary on it. There is one oblique reference to the Korean War - an important one, dealing with the non-return of POWs, in a book where 'making pickup' on your troops is a major theme. But Heinlein is disciplined in his historical references.
I can infer that the war which led to creation of the Federation was fought against Communists, and especially those prisoner-waterboarding Red Chinese. But this is only an inference: Heinlein does not say it. I can read the Bugs as a metaphor for Communism, but the same is true of the giant ants in Them! Hey, it was the 1950s.
Heinlein's 1950s juveniles were his Golden Age, and he put a lot of sophisticated political commentary into them, from multiple perspectives. ('Murrican perspectives, naturally, though he hints in some stories that the Anglosphere has re-coalesced into a new British Empire.) Starman Jones portrays a dystopian future of the New Deal, Between Planets a dystopian future of the internal security state.
Heinlein is far more approving of the society in Starship Troopers. Everyday civilian life, the little we see, is pretty colorless, pun intended. But there are no ration coupons, let alone conscript labor battalions or secret police.
In fact the comfortable dullness of Starship Trooper's civilian world is one more way that this book resembles Space Cadet. The compare & contrast is so crisp it is embarrassing. Matt Dodson goes to space Annapolis, Johnny Rico goes to space Camp Lejeune. Both sit through some lectures on the political theory behind the service they have joined. These lectures go down smoothly enough that teenage and preteen readers mostly didn't throw the books against the wall.
The Federation Space Patrol that Robert Heinlein has Cadet Dodson join, with all apparent sign of approval, is a one world, internationalist, global peacekeeping force under UN-esque auspices. Patrol officers are Blue Helmets with nuclear weapons, that they have used at least once against a city. This ought to be smoking hot stuff (so to speak), but no one argues about Space Patrol the way they argue about Starship Troopers.
That said, Heinlein goes much more into the political structure and ideals of the Starship Troopers Federation, again with apparent approval. And they are problematic. Heinlein is trying to square the circle of traditional republican civic responsibility and pure volunteerism, but the Federation's service-based restricted franchise could easily leave most of the people under its rule with no voice the government is obligated to hear.
If you are going to debate political theory this is a serious issue, but it hardly accounts for the visceral tone of so many Starship Troopers arguments.
Real world history explains some of it. The implied historical background of Space Cadet - the UN as a delicately veiled instrument of American hegemonism - was relegated to the hypothetical at the very start of the Cold War, as the print was drying on the first edition. The Patrol is the recognizable parent of Starfleet, but its politics have been relegated to an indefinite future.
The implied historical background of Starship Troopers - a West narrowly rescued from lawless streets and an un-won war - got a much longer run in 'Murrican popular political culture. Case in point, the references to unreturned POWs hit a historical and cultural chord. They make Johnny Rico a second cousin to Rambo, albeit a few generations removed. He needs that power armor, to carry not only a buddy but also a lot of political baggage.
Which still doesn't quite explain the accusation that Starship Troopers is authoritarian, or worse. On substantive grounds the accusation is lame. Military recruit training is authoritarian, but if you want out, just say the word and you're on your way home. Only if you violated a military regulation do you stand to get a flogging on the way out the door.
But flogging is rather prominent in Starship Troopers. It brought forth Thomas M. Disch's notorious comment about 'swaggering leather boys,' and not until David Feintuch would there again be so much spanking in a science fiction novel. Floggings are not confined to the military, either. Johnny Rico reflects that if anyone carried on like a juvenile delinquent in the bad old days, he and his father would both get one. I guess Heinlein was not a big fan of Rebel Without a Cause.
Flogging, I believe, largely accounts for the whiff of authoritarianism that clings to Starship Troopers in spite of all merely logical objections.
In mainstream Romance we usually encounter flogging only in premodern settings, most often at the grating of an 18th century frigate. Wherever we encounter it, it symbolizes dominance, submission, and hierarchy. In a future setting, where there isn't even the element of historical period color, the connotations are that much starker.
The floggings even account, in a way, for the charge of fascism. Yes, that word is far past its sell-by date, and should be confined to political movements that feature color coded shirts, torchlight parades, and preferably some actual historical link to Benito Mussolini. But one thing that has entered the pop culture is that fascists and their ilk (especially You Know Who), were pretty kinky. Starship Troopers doesn't have chains or leather, but it does have whips.
Well, now I have talked myself into an awkward jam, haven't I? Because in spite of all this I still like the book. It's a great story, told by a great storyteller near his prime. It may show the first stages of Heinlein's later crankishness, but it isn't pulled down by them.
And I am not alone. The Starship Troopers argument has lasted so long because it draws its oxygen from all those conflicted readers who like it, even though they feel uneasy about it. Or vice versa.