Heinlein’s Wisdom in Patriotism

I stole this LONG quotation from a 1973 speech by a famous Naval Academy graduate, and author, Robert Heinlein. I was actually pointed toward this by an enlisted SEAL friend of mine, having never seen or heard it myself, making it all the more impactful.  Heinlein’s words ring true, especially in the environment we find ourselves in today. He covers patriotism, the nature of mankind, the meaning of being a naval officer, and the concept of human progress. Yes his sentiments may be slightly old fashioned for the more progressive among us, but they really drive to the heart of the fundamental necessities of humanity’s existence, and the old-fashioned nature is part of the point. I promise it is well worth the time investment to read it.

…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 day the same, and pound 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, 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; 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 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. sapienswill 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 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. 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 that 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 are certainly should know that there is NO chance of abolishing war in the foreseeable future. In the past few years I have ben 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 on 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 form 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 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 our. 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 now 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 give 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 did 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; As the going down of the sun and in the morning, we shall remember them…”

-Tomb of the Scottish Unknown Soldier, Edinburgh

What Disruption Really Looks Like

I was addressing this particular aircraft (The Killer Sky Tractor) with my students who are all selected for naval aviation, and depart for flight school in under 6 months. Each one has an engineering background and many are mechanical, electrical, or aeronautical engineers. I showed them the above picture and asked “Give me the reasons you think the U.S. wouldn’t or shouldn’t buy that?” I got a myriad of responses that ranged from “it is low-tech” to “the thing is ugly” (yes indeed, many times the coolest looking platform is the one chosen by the defense world.) Then we walked through the reasons the U.S., or an adversary, might find one useful: Ease of maintenance (no ejection seat), the ability to ACTUALLY operate from unimproved airfields (sorry AT-6 fans), the cost, the flexibility, its on-station time, even the fact that low, slow, stable crop dusting is a sort of analogue for CAS. We have a tendency, as a military, to think that all innovation means higher-tech, faster, sexier, etc. I have been a vocal critic of that type of “cult of innovators unchained”. This, right here, is innovation, grounded in utility and reality, with concise, even limited, purpose of design. In essence, to my pilot brain, it is a near perfect weapon system. But of-course, it wasn’t innovated by the military, but by an organization who does not have the luxury of dulling their fangs to please defense-contractors and policymakers. I have previously written about my love for these types of rugged, no-nonsense platforms, and the utility they maintain, despite the innovation and high-tech obsession. Sadly, I still think that I am in the minority. Hopefully, one, or maybe a few, of my students will have heeded my inquisitiveness on matters “ugly” and will be in a position to do the same when it counts.

The (political) Pit and the Pendulum

Today is a day of profound transition. And to paraphrase a line stolen from Spiderman, with great transition comes great responsibility, which brings me to the important word of the moment: Equilibrium. Equilibrium is a funny thing, especially given that nature, in all its marvelous vastness, seeks such a balance. Gasses moving from high to low pressure, balance in ecosystems, water seeking its lowest point, Cessna 172s, and especially the slow diminishing movements of a pendulum are all examples of nature’s proclivity for equilibrium. To me, this natural state should also subsist in politics, and indeed, it makes them more effective, efficient, and to steal a political science term, sticky. I will explain, and please forgive my simplifying a subject that is more complicated than I am giving it credit for. Bear with me.

After the 2008 election the Democratic party was in much the same place that the Republicans find themselves in today. They had both houses of congress and the presidency, and it was predicted that this was a generational sea-change that was the new norm, and there was much partisan rejoicing, and also gnashing of teeth (sound familiar?).With no partisan rancor, I think it is fair to say the actions and intent of the Obama administration were to swing the proverbial political pendulum hard to the left, hoping to force it to stay there. The easiest and most descriptive target for our conversation were the efforts of Obamacare (I want to address social change in the military, but it was not voted on, and was a supporting act, not the main stage). Obamacare, the landmark achievement of the last administration, passed the house and the senate without a single Republican vote. At the time the very fact it passed was hailed as an achievement, often because it was done in spite of the Republican party. This mentality is not only poisonous, but it creates legislation that can be easily used as a wedge issue to motivate voters of the opposition. Nor, does passing a bill with no bipartisan support signal good governance, or any level of compromise, and ultimately (at least in this example) because there were no supporting votes from the other side, the legislation upset the very notion of equilibrium. It didn’t even have the veneer of equilibrium, and loudly celebrated itself as such. This, in the humble opinion of the author, is not a formula for lasting legislation. Also, the lack of any bipartisanship gave legitimacy to the narrative (rightly or wrongly) that the pendulum was being forced hard to the left and ultimately that it was in dire need of correction. This alone does not explain the history of the last 8 years, but I think it is a fair place to begin thinking about it. I also posit that it is fair to make the claim that bipartisan legislation is sticky legislation. Even bad bipartisan legislation is difficult to remove, because both sides have a vested interest in maintaining it. This is not a catch-all fix, but as I said earlier, it is a good place to begin governing.

Now, here we find ourselves. Watching the news and CSPAN I see much of the same self-fulfillment and sense of assured righteousness as in 2008. I have seen similar Carville-esque over-zealousness  that prefaced the implosion of the contemporary Democratic party. I have even seen similarities in the way both sides have leveraged identity politics to empower their message, a point that most Republicans would probably try to dispute. This does not bode well. I hope, and it is a sincere hope, that the next sessions of congress are productive and bipartisan, and if my theory proves correct, accordingly sticky. But if instead the Republican majorities try to force the pendulum hard to the right, as done before, I would bet my flight-pay that they will find themselves in the same position that the Democrats are in today. Now, not to get too grim about the future, but it is then possible that if this is the case we may see the worst possible outcome, a divergent, negatively stable sine-wave, that continues to move away from the center. Extremism exists at both the margins far from the center. Republicans would do well to read their history and keep in mind these lessons, and in doing so, practice restraint and bipartisanship in their governance. The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but the road to irrelevancy is paved with pendulum forcing. Incrementalism may not be sexy, but it certainly has its virtues.

If you read anything this month, read this.

If you read one thing this day, this week, or even this month, read this article from War on the Rocks. This stark, sobering, and true assessment of U.S. strategic capability since Vietnam portrays the utter lack of strategy with which we have prosecuted every use of force event in the last half of the twentieth century and on to today. Most notably it breaks down the utter farcical nature of the Weinberger doctrine and the Powell corollary, which boils military force into something useless, and unattached from political realities. The article is also underpinned by the military’s near obsession with the concept of “conventional” war. This is something I challenge in my (someday soon to be released) short book, that an obsession with war “types” and conventional war has undermined our strategic capabilities and allows military commanders to remain mired in the operational level of war. Most importantly this piece reinforces the essential theories of Clausewitz, and his concept on the nature of warfare. We forget and misconstrue these lessons at our own peril. My favorite line, however, is “Carpet-bombing is not a strategy. Strategic bombing is a myth. The United States and Britain dropped tons of bombs on Germany during World War II, and it did not break Germany’s will. The United States dropped seven million tons of bombs during the Vietnam War, and it did not bring victory. Bombs alone cannot defeat an ideology.” How many times do we have to write this on the wall before we understand it? Enjoy. Oh, and yes, the guy in the image above, that is Curtis Lemay, I am sure you will get the connection.

Opening Salvo

This will be my first attempt at keeping a written record, so please forgive the mistakes, missteps, and possible long duration silence you may experience when reading what is published here. In trying to decide what exactly I wanted to portray here, and why I wanted to do so (I am still not sure about that part yet), I put my mind to trying to define the influences with which I order my own life, with the hope of making them “blog-able”. Herein I list these influences in no particular order of importance, as I am sure they will ebb and flow based on circumstance.

  1. Logos, Ethos, Pathos with an emphasis on the first two.
  2. Thinking about National Defense for the betterment of those institutions within it.
  3. Staunch Realism with the occasional idealistic detour.
  4. Service before self, especially in leadership.
  5. Striving, and often failing, to live the strenuous life.
  6. History is the enduring story that lends context to the present.
  7. The importance of balance in life, thinking, and politics.
  8. Strategic thinking is a never-ending, lifelong pursuit.
  9. Never mistake the power in the contemplation of, and action through, virtue.
  10. There is no finer title that could be placed on my headstone than that of “Raconteur”.

I will do my best to remain ideologically consistent, and in all hopefulness,  thoughtful and entertaining.  To close, a quote from one of the greatest men of any generation:

“We must show, not merely in great crises, but in the everyday affairs of life, the qualities of practical intelligence, of courage, of hardihood, and endurance, and above all the power of devotion to a lofty ideal, which made great the men who founded this Republic in the days of Washington, which made great the men who preserved this Republic in the days of Abraham Lincoln.” – Theodore Roosevelt