Robert A. Heinlein on patriotism

The following is a shortened version of “The Pragmatics of Patriotism,” a lecture given by the science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein to midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy on April 5, 1973.  The complete lecture is given in Expanded Universe, an anthology of Heinlein’s works edited by Heinlein himself as an overview of his career and thoughts.

Heinlein himself graduated from the Naval Academy in 1929, but he was discharged from the Navy in 1934 for medical reasons; he had pulmonary tuberculosis.  After unsuccessful ventures in real estate sales and silver mining, he sold his first science fiction story in 1939, and soon became one of the most popular and influential science fiction writers.  During World War Two, he worked in research and development at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

Robert A. Heinlein

… … Why are you here? … 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.  … … 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 upon the ground.  But not by looking at the ground.  Instead you look up and spot the lookout, an adult male posted on the limb of a tree where he has a clear view of 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 man assigned to that duty and there he will stay, until the bull of the herd sends another male to relive him. … …

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 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.  … … 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 that 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. …

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. … … 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 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.” … …

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 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 you place the welfare of your nation ahead of your own even if it costs you your own 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” means “Women and children first!”

And that is the moral result of realizing a simple 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’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 at 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 10 years reserves, and I am proud – very proud! – of her naval service.  I am very proud of every one of our women in uniform; they are a shining example to the men.

Nevertheless, as a mathematical proposition in the facts of biology, children, and women of child-bearing age, are the ultimate treasure we must save. … …

… “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 60 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!

Heinlein was an original, hard-to-classify writer whose ideas I always found interesting, whether or not I agreed.  Heinlein has become a cult figure, and I am not a member of the cult, but I am  glad of the continuing interest in his work.

I was much influenced as a teenager by Heinlein’s young adult books.  The first Heinlein novel I ever read was Farmer in the Sky, which was serialized in Boys Life, the Scouting magazine.  I gave these books to my nephew when he was a teenager.  They’re good yarns, which illustrate the virtues of self-reliance, critical thinking and adult responsibility.

As an adult, I read every Heinlein novel or short story I could obtain.  I liked the early Heinlein better than the later Heinlein, but I found everything he wrote of interest except for the many-world series that began with  “…and the Number of the Beast,” because these stories place Heinlein’s earlier stories in a frame that diminishes their significance.

Re-framing of earlier stories is a common fault of science fiction writers.  I wish Isaac Asimov had let his original Foundation series stand as it was, and not written all the sequels which served no purpose other than stitching together his Foundation and robot stories.

But that is minor.  Heinlein was a fine writer and a true American original who deserves to be remembered.

Click on Robert A. Heinlein wiki for his Wikipedia biography.

The picture below is from the 1929 Naval Academy yearbook.

Double click to enlarge

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2 Responses to “Robert A. Heinlein on patriotism”

  1. Aurora shootings Says:

    […] means what Robert Heinlein said, in his 1973 address to the Naval […]

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  2. Say “no” to unqualified voting – A True Progressive Says:

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