Nobody knows where it comes from but it can’t be ignored

Monday, February 22nd, 2021

When I read a friend’s copy of Robert Heinlein’s Glory Road back in high school, only a couple things stuck with me: (1) dueling scars, and (2) methane-burning dragons. When I recently re-read it, it was chock-full of Heinlein-isms. Here’s what jumped out at me in the first few dozen pages:

It was an election year with the customary theme of anything you can do I can do better, to a background of beeping sputniks. I was twenty-one but couldn’t figure out which party to vote against.

I object to conscription the way a lobster objects to boiling water: it may be his finest hour but it’s not his choice.

Nevertheless I love my country. Yes, I do, despite propaganda all through school about how patriotism is obsolete. One of my great-grandfathers died at Gettysburg and my father made that long walk back from Inchon Reservoir, so I didn’t buy this new idea. I argued against it in class—until it got me a “D” in Social Studies, then I shut up and passed the course.

After you’ve spent years and years trying to knock the patriotism out of a boy, don’t expect him to cheer when he gets a notice reading: Greeting: You are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States—

Sure, they had Hitler and the Depression ahead of them. But they didn’t know that. We had Khrushchev and the H-bomb and we certainly did know. But we were not a “Lost Generation.” We were worse; we were the “Safe Generation.”

Oh, we talked beatnik jive and dug cool sounds in stereo and disagreed with Playboy’s poll of jazz musicians just as earnestly as if it mattered. We read Salinger and Kerouac and used language that shocked our parents and dressed (sometimes) in beatnik fashion. But we didn’t think that bongo drums and a beard compared with money in the bank. We weren’t rebels. We were as conformist as army worms. “Security” was our unspoken watchword.

Short of a pregnant wife with well-to-do parents the greatest security lay in being 4-F. Punctured eardrums were good but an allergy was best. One of my neighbors had a terrible asthma that lasted till his twenty-sixth birthday. No fake—he was allergic to draft boards.

More than half of my generation were “unfit for military service.”

I was no better off financially as my uncle-in-law was supporting a first wife—under California law much like being an Alabama field hand before the Civil War.

Ever been in Southeast Asia? It makes Florida look like a desert. Wherever you step it squishes. Instead of tractors they use water buffaloes. The bushes are filled with insects and natives who shoot at you. It wasn’t a war—not even a “Police Action.” We were “Military Advisers.” But a Military Adviser who has been dead four days in that heat smells the same way a corpse does in a real war.

I was promoted to corporal. I was promoted seven times. To corporal.

Military policy is like cancer: Nobody knows where it comes from but it can’t be ignored.

In Asia every cab driver speaks enough English to take you to the Red Light district and to shops where you buy “bargains.” But he is never able to find your dock or boat landing.

Do you know how much tax a bachelor pays on $140,000 in the Land of the Brave and the Home of the Fee? $103,000, that’s what he pays.

I wouldn’t be “cheating” Uncle Sugar; the USA had no more moral claim on that money (if I won) than I had on the Holy Roman Empire. What had Uncle Sugar done for me? He had clobbered my father’s life with two wars, one of which we weren’t allowed to win—and thereby made it tough for me to get through college quite aside from what a father may be worth in spiritual intangibles to his son (I didn’t know, I never would know!)—then he had grabbed me out of college and had sent me to fight another unWar and damned near killed me and lost me my sweet girlish laughter.

About then I made a horrible discovery. I didn’t want to go back to school, win, lose, or draw. I no longer gave a damn about three-car garages and swimming pools, nor any other status symbol or “security.” There was no security in this world and only damn fools and mice thought there could be.

Somewhere back in the jungle I had shucked off all ambition of that sort. I had been shot at too many times and had lost interest in supermarkets and exurban subdivisions and tonight is the PTA supper don’t forget dear you promised.


  1. Kirk says:

    Heinlein is an acquired taste, and you have to acquire it at about the right point in your life, or it just won’t take.

    I’ve been re-reading the stuff I read of his back in my formative years, and it is truly astonishing how much I internalized without realizing what was going on–Or, it’s a case of having read him, retained that because it resonated (or, whatever… It made an impact on my formative years…), and then forgot the source of it. Upon re-reading him now, I’m struck by just how much of his writing still resonates and makes me go “Uh-huh… That’s right… That’s the way it is…”.

    On the other hand, there’s a bunch of his later stuff that just trips the ever-loving hell out of my “WTF?” circuits, like the incest themes in “Time Enough for Love”, and the other weirdnesses in “Stranger in a Strange Land”. You can quite literally tell when he got too big to edit, and when his health was in decline. Some of his later work should have never seen the light of day.

    The thing about Heinlein, however, is that you can’t read what he wrote as any sort of “Yeah, this is what he actually thought…”. There’s a technical term for people who read authors like him and then take what was written in a work of fiction for sale as being anything other than a posture taken up for story’s sake and/or sales, and that term is “Idiot”. I seriously doubt that the stuff that made it into Starship Troopers, for an egregious example, were things that he really believed or would have put into place had he been given the power to do it. He was merely looking at a set of facts, examining the trend lines, and then extrapolating out to the ridiculous extension. I think anyone actually reading the breadth of his work can really say what the hell he thought about much of anything, aside from being an avowed male inferiorist and apologist for the matriarchy. He was, literally, all over the place politically (morally, even…) over the course of his career–Sometimes in the same damn book.

    You try to elucidate his actual opinions from even his non-fiction prose, and you’re going to lose your mind, because it’s all over the map–He started out socialist, and wound up somewhere undefinable after going through a bunch of different phases. He also seems to have been what you could term “somewhat pussy-whipped”, because he echoed whatever politics his wife of the time had. Which is weird, when you read what he wrote and then form the opinion that he was this maverick force-of-nature type, when the actuality was that he was so easily swayed by the distaff side of his life. His biography is kinda surprising in that regard–He and his wives were really people who should be evaluated as pairs, not individuals.

    Still respect his work, and am still influenced by it, but… I have a different outlook now than I did then. I’d be hard-pressed to say which of his books did the most damage, but I’d say it was probably a combination of “The Notebooks of Lazarus Long”, “Time Enough for Love”, and most of his juveniles. Starship Troopers should be in there somewhere, but I don’t know where I’d rank it, now. It was certainly something I read carefully with regards to what he had to say about social duties of a citizen with regard to the military, but it wasn’t the stuff that a lot of guys looked at and said influenced them. I found it a very convincing polemic against the draft and conscription in general, as well as a piece that made me think about the whole citizen/soldier dichotomy. The questions it raised for me sure as hell weren’t the ones it did for others, who mostly focused on the whole “powered armor, neato…” bits.

    I do wonder how he’s going to be read in a few more generations. Kipling, or Bulwer-Lytton?

  2. Paul from Canada says:

    I have similar feelings to Kirk with regards to him.

    I admit I have not read a lot of Heinlein, let alone all of it, but there are certain bits I like and provoke thought, and tons that make me go WTF?

    I need to go back a re-read some and read some of what I have not yet, but I agree with Kirk that he is all over the place. How the same person could write Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land is beyond me. I had not considered Kirk’s concept that there is no over-riding moral philosophy, but rather a market-driven prerogative. I would need to check the publishing dates, but that makes a lot of sense.

    Obviously the two books are written for different audiences, but even so, the commercial angle makes sense.

  3. Kirk says:

    I forget where I read it, but Heinlein supposedly said that the only Mary Sue character he ever wrote was Jubal Harshaw, the pulp-writing character from Stranger in a Strange Land.

    Key comment made there was that a writer writes for money, and writes anything that pays–And, there were a lot of “old shames” in that guy’s history. I suspect that he had a few of his own, like that last POS they published from his scrap-pile “never to be published” trunk.

    Of course, even that’s a lot more entertaining than about half the crap I see coming out of name-brand publishing houses, these days. Quality entertainment ain’t easy to find…

  4. Altitude Zero says:

    Heinlein was a very entertaining writer who liked redheads and wrote some very engrossing stories. That’s probably how he will be remembered,and somehow I think that would be fine with him…

  5. Kirk says:

    No doubt…

    He always gave good value for his money. I don’t think there’s a single work of his that I’ve read that didn’t make me think fairly deep thoughts–Even if they were “WTF? Just… WTF?!?!?”.

  6. David says:

    Would I follow him anywhere? No. Will I read anything he wrote and enjoy it either some or a lot? Definitely. Did reading him as a kid mean a lot? Almost certainly.

  7. Kirk says:

    “Military policy is like cancer: Nobody knows where it comes from but it can’t be ignored.”

    This line has stuck in my head since Isegoria highlighted it. Probably because it goes with and so aptly supports my thesis (often stated on here) that most people running organizations like the military really have no idea how the hell things work within those organizations. Thus, the “policies without sources” that everybody acknowledge as senseless and ineffectual, yet everyone continues to support and follow.

    There really is no “science of organization”, or even real studies of such things going on. We don’t even have the language to discuss them properly, or an awareness that we need such things. Organizational issues are like the weather–Everybody talks about them and bitches about them, yet nobody really understands them or knows how to properly manipulate them. They exist in this real yet entirely unreal meta-world we all participate in on a daily basis, yet remain utterly oblivious to, as if we were fish entirely unaware of water, yet swimming in it.

    There is this vast chaosium we live and work in, every day, but which we really don’t understand because it exists in a place outside/beneath our awareness. Dysfunction is recognized, but we don’t know what to do about it, mostly because we’re unable to understand and diagnose what is going wrong in order to take action. We’re like mechanics working without manuals or wiring diagrams, trying to figure out what is going wrong and then correct or work around the broken bits without real knowledge of what we’re doing or where the side-effects are likely to pop out of the woodwork.

    Forget fusion; this is probably a more important and yet unlikely to be “solved” issue, mostly because it isn’t studied or even documented. Go look for a manual at Lockheed telling an executive how to set up another successful internal division like Kelly Johnson’s Skunkworks. There won’t be any such thing, because nobody knows how the hell it was done in the first place. It wasn’t something that happened out of intent; from the standpoint of the executive class, it’s like magic; it just happened, and they have no more idea what went into it or how to replicate than they have of how to transform dross into gold.

    This is possibly the most important thing in the world for us to study and understand, and yet most of the human race operates in a haze of obliviousness when it comes to all this. Nobody recognizes their role in perpetuating the stupidity or enabling the better aspects of an organization they’re a part of to function; we just get up, interact with our little family work-groups, go to work, interact with those bits of the organization we’re members of, and go home to do more with our families, never pausing to think about what it is that’s going on, or how to really do things within the environment we’re immersed in. Dysfunction is baked in, because most of us just accept things as they are, and never bother to consider the potential for just fixing that which doesn’t work and annoys us. Indeed, most of us let things spiral out of control to the point where the only thing we can do is either divorce, throw the kid out of the house, quit the job, or murder someone before we go mad ourselves.

    “Military policy is like cancer: Nobody knows where it comes from but it can’t be ignored.”

    Substitute just about anything involving working and living with other people for that phrase “military policy”, and you’ve got the major issue confronting people in groups since we came down out of the trees into the savannahs. And, yet… Nobody pays the slightest attention to it all, or really is even aware of the thing as a whole. It’s like we’re looking at the world around us and thinking it’s all inexplicable magic, without trying to systematize or codify it so as to actually fix what doesn’t work. We’re stuck in a perpetual “alchemy” phase of something we should have long since turned into either an acknowledged art or a fully realized and codified science.

    Which is just maddening for someone like me, who can see the outlines and ley lines of it all, yet can’t get anyone else to even recognize that there are such things. Alfred Korzybski said that “…the map is not the territory…”, and he was absolutely right. What we need to internalize is that the organization chart is not the organization; the written rules and formal structure we’ve created and assigned these entities are also only symbolic skeletons, merest frameworks that we flesh out on a daily basis in utter unawareness of what it is we are doing as we do it.

    This should be down to a science, by now. How long have we been putting together teams? Since the earliest days down out of the trees, building hunting parties and foraging groups. Yet, we never, ever think about those things. Someone sat down and figured out how to knap flint, turning it into tools and passing that knowledge down. Yet, from the indications, nobody ever had the insight to realize that a hunting party was as much a tool as the stone, or that such a thing needed as much work to be effective as a flint does to be turned from dull rock to razor-sharp cutting tool.

  8. Don’t know where else to put this but Kirk’s latest rant at the incompetence of the people supposedly in charge seems appropriate.

    It’s not just the military, or academia, or the Versailles-on-the-Potomac. I’ve seen this complete cluelessness over the years in, of all places, gaming. I was going to say “video gaming” but Gary Gygax was outmaneuvered by slick lawyers and MBA educated suits, and look what happened to TSR. You’d think they’d know better than to drive away the golden goose that invented the thing they’re trying to sell.

    Similarly, Blizzard Entertainment has been making video games for 30 years now, and in my opinion everything started deteriorating when Big-Business Activision bought them out. Last year they re-released a game from nearly 20 years ago and the whole saga of this “re-release” is a laughingstock. By all accounts it was rushed out the door barely half-cooked, with over-hyped, underdeveloped promises and more bugs than an ant-hill. Fans not only angrily demanded refunds, they went over to official review sites and did everything possible to down-vote and negatively review the game until it was literally at the bottom. In the past Blizzard was famous for answering to pleas of “WHENZ IT DUN WE WANNA PLAY?!” with a calm “When it’s finished”. So why shove this abortion out the door? Anyone with a brain could and probably did point out just how not ready it was, but did the guys in charge care? Obviously not. That’s not even going into the whole sorry story of the Taiwanese Hearthstone champions who were kicked out because of obvious worrying about the Chinese market and what the PRC might say.

    Many of the people who originally founded and ran Blizzard are long gone, and the Big Business people who replaced them obviously don’t have a clue, yet surely every last one of the executives possesses an MBA or something similar from one of the noblest universities in the land. They’re burning their credibility with fans who have been playing their games for decades, and for what? They spend millions of dollars developing games and writing stories with them that have entertained a generation, and they can’t be bothered or are too short-sighted to do it right.

  9. Skeptical American says:

    Because of Robert A. Heinlein’s ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, I spent my entire working life playing with computers.

    I agree that his later stuff was…odd. Even so, in my humble opinion, everything he wrote was worth reading. And is worth re-reading in my dotage.

    Heinlein is my favorite author.

  10. Neovictorian says:

    Powers of the Earth is great. Corcoran said in a private conversation that yes, it’s a tribute, but he was also trying to “improve” some things. I think he mostly succeeded.

  11. John Dougan says:

    As my old house mate and I used to say: third rate Heinlein pastiche is still better than most commercial SF.

    I’ve been rereading as much Heinlein as I can find, including the more obscure stuff, and like Kirk it has been an interesting ride. “Admiral Bob” had a huge influence on me. I can say that in many ways he has had more influence on my attitudes than my parents and peers. I’ve always known this, so I’m less surprised at how much I find familiar if forgotten.

    I would argue that Heinlein changed his attitudes less than you might think. All the way through there is a strong belief in individuals and individual liberty. He did appear to change political leanings as he learned more economics and as the political parties shifted around him. The economics in For Us, The Living and Beyond This Horizon are a crude social credit economic theory, which can be seen to be clearly unworkable once you read enough Hayek. In general Heinlein’s later work is far more literary and he took more space to examine issues that you really can’t cover in a juvie, particularly when Alice Dalgliesh is your editor.

    He was also alway cognizant of he duty to entertain and that he was competing for the readers beer money. “He always gave good value for his money.” would have been considered a high accolade. That he made people think was a bonus.

    I could talk about this for hours…but since the margins of this blogpost are too small for a proper exposition, some pointers.

    As a general point Grumbles From the Grave and Expanded Universe cover a lot of ground in what his intentions were. If you want to understand Stranger in a Strange Land I recommend A Martian Named Smith by Patterson and Thornton. It is also worthwhile reading both versions side by side to see how closely it was edited. If you want to grasp what he was doing with Job: A Comedy of Justice read James Branch Cabell particularly Jurgen. I can’t recommend enough Take Back Your Government even as dated as it is, particularly the version with the forward by Jerry Pournelle. Time Enough for Love‘s subthemes center around thinking out what a “mature” human civilization might look like, particularly in the presence of very long life and solid genetic science and engineering. Starship Troopers becomes more comprehensible when you realize that the governmental form of the Federation was a warning, not a an endorsement. It is sort of the best he thought you could do given trends he thought he saw at the time of writing. I Will Fear No Evil is well, just look at this:

    I’ll let Spider Robinson have the last word: Rah, Rah, R. A. H.!

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