Skip to comments.Heinlein on Patriotism
Posted on 08/03/2011 6:46:27 PM PDT by stolinsky
This is excerpted from the April 5, 1973 address The Pragmatics of Patriotism to the Naval Academy by Robert A. Heinlein, author and Academy graduate. Heinleins naval career was cut short by tuberculosis, which was the Navys loss but science-fiction readers gain. Some of what he says may seem old-fashioned, but there is nothing wrong with that. It is good to recall where we come from, and how much we owe to those who bought our freedom with their sweat and blood.
Much has changed since 1973, but much hasnt, including the anti-military feelings Heinlein describes. Note the drastic cuts in defense in the new deficit plan. Despite 2½ ongoing wars, defense makes up only 20% of the federal budget, yet it is expected to provide at least half of the cuts. Heinlein would disapprove, probably in rather colorful language.
Heinlein on Patriotism
Robert A. Heinlein
Popular governments are not generally favorable to military expenditures, however necessary.
− Alfred Thayer Mahan
Every military officer has had his nose rubbed in wry truth of Admiral Mahans observation. I first found myself dismayed by it some forty years ago when I learned that I was expected to maintain the ships battery of USS Roper in a state of combat readiness on an allowance of less than a dollar a day − with World War Two staring down our throats.
Why are you here?
You are here to become a naval officer. Thats why this Academy was founded. That is why all of you are here: to become naval officers. If that is NOT why YOU are here, youve made a bad mistake. But I speak to the overwhelming majority who understood the oath they took on becoming midshipmen and look forward to the day when they will renew that oath as commissioned officers.
But why would anyone want to become a naval officer?
In the present dismal state of our culture there is little prestige attached to serving your country; recent public opinion polls place military service far down the list. Why would anyone elect a career which is unappreciated, overworked, and underpaid? It cant be just to wear a pretty uniform. There has to be a better reason.
As one drives through the bushveldt of East Africa it is easy to spot herds of baboons grazing on the ground. But not by looking at the ground. Instead you look up and spot the lookout, and adult male posted on a limb of a tree where he has a clear view all around him − which is why you can spot him; he has to be where he can see a leopard in time to give the alarm. On the ground a leopard can catch a baboon, but if a baboon is warned in time to reach the trees, he can out-climb a leopard.
The lookout is a young male assigned to that duty and there he will stay, until the bull of the herd sends up another male to relieve him.
Keep your eye on that baboon; well be back to him.
Today, in the United States, it is popular among self-styled "intellectuals" to sneer at patriotism. They seem to think that it is axiomatic that any civilized man is a pacifist, and they treat the military profession with contempt. Warmongers − Imperialists − Hired killers in uniform − you have all heard such sneers and you will hear them again. One of their favorite quotations is: Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.
What they never mention is that the man who made that sneering remark was a fat, gluttonous slob who was pursued all his life by a pathological fear of death.
I propose to prove that that baboon on watch is morally superior to that fat poltroon who made that wisecrack.
Patriotism is the most practical of all human characteristics.
But in the present decadent atmosphere patriots are often too shy to talk about it − as if it were something shameful or an irrational weakness.
But patriotism is NOT sentimental nonsense. Nor something dreamed up by demagogues. Patriotism is as necessary a part of mans evolutionary equipment as are his eyes, as useful to the race as eyes are to the individual.
A man who is NOT patriotic is an evolutionary dead end. This is not sentiment but the hardest of logic.
To prove that patriotism is a necessity we must go back to fundamentals. Take any breed of animal − for example, Tyrannosaurus rex. What is the most basic thing about him? The answer is that Tyrannosaurus rex is dead, gone, extinct.
Which brings us to the second fundamental question: Will Homo sapiens stay alive? Will he survive?
We can answer part of that at once: Individually H. sapiens will NOT survive. Very well, as individuals we all die. This brings us to the second half of the question: Does Homo sapiens AS A BREED have to die? The answer is: No, it is NOT unavoidable.
We have two situations, mutually exclusive: Mankind surviving, and mankind extinct. With respect to morality, the second situation is a null class. An extinct breed has NO behavior, moral or otherwise.
Since survival is the sine qua non, I now define moral behavior as behavior that tends toward survival. I wont argue with philosophers or theologians who choose to use the word moral to mean something else, but I do not think anyone can define behavior that tends toward extinction as being moral without stretching the word moral all out of shape.
We are now ready to observe the hierarchy of moral behavior from its lowest level to its highest.
The simplest form of moral behavior occurs when a man or other animal fights for his own survival. Do not belittle such behavior as being merely selfish. Of course it is selfish. But selfishness is the bedrock on which all moral behavior starts and it can be immoral only when it conflicts with a higher moral imperative. An animal so poor in spirit that he wont even fight on his own behalf is already an evolutionary dead end; the best he can do for his breed is to crawl off and die, and not pass on his defective genes.
The next higher level is to work, fight, and sometimes die for your own immediate family. This is the level at which six pounds of mother cat can be so fierce that shell drive off a police dog. It is the level at which a father takes a moonlighting job to keep his kids in college − and the level at which a mother or father dives into a flood to save a drowning child, and it is still moral behavior even when it fails.
The next higher level is to work, fight, and sometimes die for a group larger that the unit family − an extended family, a herd, a tribe − and take another look at that baboon on watch; hes at that moral level. I dont think baboon language is complex enough to permit them to discuss such abstract notions as morality or duty or loyalty − but it is evident that baboons DO operate morally and DO exhibit the traits of duty and loyalty; we see them in action. Call it instinct if you like − but remember that assigning a name to a phenomenon does not explain it.
The next level in moral behavior higher than that exhibited by the baboon is that in which duty and loyalty are shown toward a group of your kind too large for an individual to know all of them. We have a name for that. It is called patriotism.
Behaving on a still higher moral level were the astronauts who went to the Moon, for their actions tend toward the survival of the entire race of mankind. The door they opened leads to hope that H. sapiens will survive indefinitely long, even longer than this solid planet on which we stand tonight. As a direct result of what they did, it is now possible that the human race will NEVER die.
Many short-sighted fools think that going to the Moon was just a stunt. But astronauts knew the meaning of what they were doing, as is shown by Neil Armstrongs first words in stepping down onto the soil of Luna: One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.
I must pause to brush off those parlor pacifists I mentioned earlier, for they contend that THEIR actions are on this highest moral level. They want to put a stop to war; they say so. Their purpose is to save the human race from killing itself off; they say that too. Anyone who disagrees with them must be a bloodthirsty scoundrel − and theyll tell you that to your face.
I wont waste time trying to judge their motives; my criticism is of their mental processes: Their heads arent screwed on tight. They live in a world of fantasy.
Let me stipulate that, if the human race managed its affairs sensibly, we could do without war.
Yes − and if pigs had wings, they could fly.
I dont know what planet those pious pacifists are talking about, but it cant be the third one out from the Sun. Anyone who has seen the Far East − or Africa − or the Middle East − knows are certainly should know that there is NO chance of abolishing war in the foreseeable future. In the past few years I have been around the world three times, traveled in most of the communist countries, visited many of the so-called emerging countries, plus many trips to Europe and to South America; I saw nothing that cheered me as to the prospects for peace. The seeds of war are everywhere; the conflicts of interest are real and deep, and will not be abolished by pious platitudes.
The best we can hope for is a precarious balance of power among the nations capable of waging total war − while endless lesser wars break out here and there.
I wont belabor this. Our campuses are loaded with custard-headed pacifists, but the yard of the Naval Academy is not one place where I will encounter them. We are in agreement that the United States still needs a Navy, that the Republic will always have need for heroes − else you would not be here tonight and in uniform.
Patriotism − moral behavior at the national level. Non sibi sed Patria. Nathan Hales last words: I regret that I have but one life to give for my country. Torpedo Squadron 8 making its suicidal attack. Four chaplains standing fast while the water rises around them. Thomas Jefferson saying, The Tree of Liberty must be refreshed form time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. A submarine skipper giving the order Take her DOWN! while he himself is still topside. Jonas Ingram standing on the steps of Bancroft Hall and shouting, The Navy has no place for good losers! The Navy needs tough sons of bitches who can go out there and WIN!
Patriotism − an abstract word used to describe a type of behavior as harshly practical as good brakes and good tires. It means that you place the welfare of your nation ahead of your own even if it costs you your life.
Men who go down to the sea in ships have long had another way of expressing the same moral behavior tagged by the abstract expression patriotism. Spelled out in simple Anglo-Saxon words Patriotism reads Women and children first!
And that is the moral result of realizing a self-evident biological fact: Men are expendable; women and children are not. A tribe or a nation can lose a high percentage of its men and still pick up the pieces and go on, as long as the women and children are saved. But if you fail to save the women and children, youve had it, youre done, youre THROUGH! You join Tyrannosaurus rex, one more breed that bilged its final test.
I must amplify that. I know that women can fight and often have. I have known many a tough old grandmother I would rather have on my side in a tight spot than any number of pseudo-males who disdain military service. My wife put in three years and a butt active duty in World War Two, plus ten years reserve, and I am proud − very proud! − of her naval service. I am proud of every one of our women in uniform; they are a shining example to us men.
Nevertheless, as a mathematical proposition in the facts of biology, children, and women of child-bearing age, are the ultimate treasure that we must save. Every human culture is based on Women and children first − and any attempt to do it any other way leads quickly to extinction.
Possibly extinction is the way we are headed. Great nations have died in the past; it can happen to us.
Nor am I certain how good our chances are. To me it seems self-evident that any nation that loses its patriotic fervor is on the skids. Without that indispensable survival factor the end is only a matter of time. I dont know how deeply the rot has penetrated − but it seems to me that there has been a change for the worse in the last fifty years. Possibly I am misled by the offensive behavior of a noisy but unimportant minority. But it does seem to me that patriotism has lost its grip on a large percentage of our people.
I hope I am wrong, because if my fears are well grounded, I would not bet two cents on this nations chance of lasting even to the end of this century.
But there is no way to force patriotism on anyone. Passing a law will not create it, nor can we buy it by appropriating so many billions of dollars.
What you do have here is a tradition of service. Your most important classroom is Memorial Hall. Your most important lesson is the way you feel inside when you walk up those steps and see that shot-torn flag framed in the arch of the door: Dont give up the ship.
If you feel nothing, you dont belong here. But if it gives you goose flesh just to see that old battle flag, then you are going to find that feeling increasing every time you return here over the years, until it reaches a crescendo the day you return and read the list of your own honored dead − classmates, shipmates, friends − read them with grief and pride while you try to keep your tears silent.
The time has come for me to stop. I said that Patriotism is a way of saying Women and children first. And that no one can force a man to feel this way. Instead he must embrace it freely. I want to tell about one such man. He wore no uniform and no one knows his name, or where he came from; all we know is what he did.
In my home town sixty years ago when I was a child, my mother and father used to take me and my brothers and sisters out to Swope Park on Sunday afternoons. It was a wonderful place for kids, with picnic grounds and lakes and a zoo. But a railroad line cut straight through it.
One Sunday afternoon a young married couple were crossing these tracks. She apparently did not watch her step, for she managed to catch her foot in the frog of a switch to a siding and could not pull it free. Her husband stopped to help her.
But try as they might they could not get her foot loose. While they were working at it, a tramp showed up, walking the ties. He joined the husband in trying to pull the young womans foot loose. No luck.
Out of sight around the curve a train whistled. Perhaps there would have been time to run and flag it down, perhaps not. In any case both men went right ahead trying to pull her free and the train hit them.
The wife was killed, the husband was mortally injured and died later, the tramp was killed − and testimony showed that neither man made the slightest effort to save himself.
The husbands behavior was heroic − but what we expect of a husband toward his wife: his right, and his proud privilege, to die for his woman. But what of this nameless stranger? Up to the very last second he could have jumped clear. He did not. He was still trying to save this woman he had never seen before in his life, right up to the very instant the train killed him. And thats all well ever know about him.
THIS is how a man dies.
This is how a MAN lives!
They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old
Age shall not wither them nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We shall remember them.
− Tomb of the Scottish Unknown Soldier, Edinburgh
Dr. Stolinsky writes on political and social issues. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
bump for later
It's happening all the time now with "gay culture," global warming, fight for malaria and against DDT, etc. etc. Anything is moral according to them, even if you happen to kill millions of humans in the process.
Stalin and Hitler and Mao are probably no longer the greatest villains of this civilization. All they did is they destroyed some millions of bodies. Modern politicians let people keep their bodies but destroy their mind - and they do it to hundreds of millions of people.
Read it before, happy to read it again. I always do get a little teary eyed at the end.
Thanks for posting.
Oh, and Asimov, who knew him, called him a "flaming liberal" at the time. That one always cracks me up.
It’s impossible to know which phrase or sentence to highlight; they are all so right and correct. Heinlein is like that. Reading his prose is like discovering an apple tree with perfect fruit. Which do you pick?
Anyway, here’s my humble choice:
Your most important classroom is Memorial Hall. Your most important lesson is the way you feel inside when you walk up those steps and see that shot-torn flag framed in the arch of the door: Dont give up the ship.
If you feel nothing, you dont belong here. But if it gives you goose flesh just to see that old battle flag, then you are going to find that feeling increasing every time you return here over the years, until it reaches a crescendo the day you return and read the list of your own honored dead ? classmates, shipmates, friends ? read them with grief and pride while you try to keep your tears silent.
(How true and the fruit is perfect)
Heinlien was the writer that had the greatest effect on my young mind. I wish I had met him. A couple of people I did meet when I was young besides my dad were Ron Paul and Chris Kraft
Thanks for posting this..
But if what he wrote influenced you, in a real sense you DID meet him.
I grok that.
Thanks for the post; I didn’t know this about Heinlein.
Thanks...saved to read later
RAH is quite unfair to Dr. Johnson.
The actual quote, as taken from Boswell's biography: "Patriotism having become one of our topicks, Johnson suddenly uttered, in a strong determined tone, an apophthegm, at which many will start: "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." But let it be considered, that he did not mean a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak of self-interest."
I really doubt RAH would disagree.
RAH is quite unfair to Dr. Johnson.
Actually “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” is one of the all-time two most misconstrued phrases. The other is Asimov's favorite "Violence is the last resort of the incompetent"
Think about the literal meaning of the words used.
"Only the incompetent wait until the last extremity to use force, and by then, it is usually too late to use anything, even prayer." - H. Beam Piper
Oh, and Asimov, who knew him, called him a ‘flaming liberal’ at the time. That one always cracks me up.”
Maybe he skipped “Starship Troopers” and “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress,” only catching “Stranger In A Strange Land,” which probably could have been written by a hippie (without being a satire).
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