Thursday, January 1, 2009
"The Republic will always have need for heroes."
Midshipman Heinlein, from the 1929 US Naval Academy yearbook
On 5 April, 1973, Robert Heinlein, noted science fiction author and graduate of the United States Naval Academy, delivered the James Forrestal Memorial Lecture to the Brigade of Midshipmen at his alma mater. At the request of the midshipmen, Heinlein took the first part of his speech to discuss freelance writing. After he satisfied their request, Heinlein told the midshipmen what he believed they needed to hear.
It was a time of turmoil and doubt. The Vietnam War was being "Vietnamized" and American soldiers were coming home from the second inconclusive, unpopular war in a generation. Midshipmen in Heinlein's time proudly wore their uniforms off post and were hailed as heroes-in-the-making and given free meals and, not infrequently, got their pick of the girls. By 1973, Naval and Marine officer candidates rarely wore their uniforms off post, for when they did, the girls would spit on them and call them "babykillers."
As for Heinlein, he had no doubts, and in his speech he tried to get across to the midshipmen that they should have none either.
I dedicate this reprint of his remarks to the men and women of the USNA Class of 2013 in the certainty that they too can benefit from Heinlein's wisdom.
"I speak to the overwhelming majority who understood the oath they took. . . The Republic will always have need for heroes."
In this complex world, science, the scientific method, and the consequences of the scientific method are central to everything the human race is doing and to wherever we are going. If we blow ourselves up we will do it by the misapplication of science; if we manage to keep from blowing ourselves up, it will be through intelligent application of science. Science fiction is the only form of fiction which takes into account this central force in our lives and futures. Other sorts of fiction, if they notice science at all, simply deplore it - an attitude very chic in the anti-intellectual atmosphere today. But we will never get out of the mess we are in by wringing our hands. . .
(To the Brigade at large:)
Why are you here?
(To a plebe:)
Mister, why are YOU here?
Never mind, son; that's a rhetorical question. You are here to become a naval officer. That's 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, you've 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.
It can't be the pay. No one gets rich on the pay. Even a 4-star admiral is paid much less than top executives in other lines. As for lower ranks, the typical naval officer finds himself throughout his career just catching up from the unexpected expenses connected with the last change of duty when another change of duty causes a new financial crisis. Then, when he is about fifty, he is passed over and retires... but he can't really retire because he has two kids in college and one still to go. So he has to find a job... and discovers that jobs for men his age are scarce and usually don't pay well.
Working conditions? You'll spend half your life away from your family. Your working hours? 'Six days shalt thou work and do all thou art able; the seventh the same, and pound on the cable.' A forty-hour week is standard for civilians - but not for naval officers. You'll work that forty-hour week, but that's just a starter. You'll stand a night watch as well, and duty weekends. Then with every increase in grade your hours get longer - until at last you get a ship of your own and no longer stand watches. Instead you are on duty twenty-four hours a day... and you'll sign your night order book with: 'In case of doubt, do not hesitate to call me.'
I don't know the average week's work for a naval officer but it's closer to sixty than to forty. I'm speaking of peacetime, of course. Under war conditions it is whatever hours are necessary - and sleep you grab when you can.
Why would anyone elect a career which is unappreciated, overworked, and underpaid? It can't 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, an 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; we'll 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 is it something dreamed up by demagogues. Patriotism is as necessary a part of man's 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. It is unlikely that anyone here tonight will be alive eighty years from now; it approaches mathematical certainty that we will all be dead a hundred years from now as even the youngest plebe here would be 118 years old by then - if still alive.
Some men do live that long but the percentage is so microscopic as not to matter. Recent advances in biology suggest that human life may be extended to a century and a quarter, even a century and a half - but this will create more problems than it solves. When a man reaches my age or thereabouts, the last great service he can perform is to die and get out of the way of younger people.
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 won't 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 won't 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 she'll 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 than the unit family - an extended family, a herd, a tribe - and take another look at that baboon on watch; he's at that moral level. I don't 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.
But that baboon behavior can be explained in evolutionary terms. Evolution is a process that never stops. Baboons who fail to exhibit moral behavior do not survive; they wind up as meat for leopards. Every baboon generation has to pass this examination in moral behavior; those who bilge it don't have progeny. Perhaps the old bull of the tribe gives lessons... but the leopard decides who graduates - and there is no appeal from his decision. We don't have to understand the details to observe the outcome; baboons behave morally - for baboons.
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 those astronauts knew the meaning of what they were doing, as is shown by Neil Armstrong's first words in stepping down onto the soil of Luna: 'One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.' Let us note proudly that eleven of the Astronaut Corps are graduates of this our school. And let me add that James Forrestal was the FIRST high-ranking Federal official to come out flatly for space travel.
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 they'll tell you that to your face. I won't waste time trying to judge their motives; my criticism is of their mental processes: Their heads aren't 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 don't know what planet those pious pacifists are talking about but it can't be the third one out from the Sun. Anyone who has seen the Far East - or Africa - or the Middle East - knows or 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 won't 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 Hale's last words: 'I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.' Torpedo Squadron Eight making its suicidal attack. Four chaplains standing fast while the water rises around them. Thomas Jefferson saying, 'The Tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots'' 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, you've had it, you're done, you're 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 of 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 don't 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 nation's 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. You gentlemen of the Brigade are most fortunate. You are going to a school where this basic moral virtue is daily reinforced by precept and example. It is not enough to know what Charlie Noble does for a living, or what makes the wildcat wild, or which BatDiv failed to splice the main brace and why - nor to learn matrix algebra and navigation and ballistics and aerodynamics and nuclear engineering. These things are merely the working tools of your profession and could be learned elsewhere; they do not require 'four years together by the Bay where the Severn joins the tide.'
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: 'Don't Give Up the Ship.' If you feel nothing, you don't 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 woman's 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 husband's 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 that's all we'll 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
This essay was originally published in Expanded Universe (Ace Science Fiction Books, 1980). Robert Heinlein (1907-1988) was a retired naval officer and renowned sci-fi author.