I’m teaching Robert A. Heinlein’s Space Cadet in a Junior High English class, and have been thinking a bit about the book and its messages.  For the record, I love Heinlein’s juveniles, and Space Cadet is an excellent example of the form.  He teaches the reader about a variety of space basics that hold up to modern scrutiny and throws in some interesting social and sociological speculation.  It’s pretty severely lacking in character and story, but that’s part for the course.

Heinlein has been accused of being a militarist and a fascist.  I think such accusations are harsh and unjustified, but it’s quite obvious that he has has positive view of the military.  I really think Heinlein believed that, in the right situation and with the right mission, the culture and ethos of the modern Armed forces could be a force for good in human society.  However, he also realized the various ways in which the armed forces can easily become a force of evil, and I think he rather directly addresses three of them in Space Cadet – the threat of a military takeover, the threat of military partisanship, and the threat of neo-imperialism.

The Interplanetary Patrol of this book is a non-affiliated force, supported by but independent of any particular government.  It is tasked with maintaining the peace of Earth and its planetary settlements, via the awful threat of nuclear annihilation.  The Patrol has sole possession of nuclear weaponry, and has this weaponry deployed for use at a moment’s notice.  The officers of the Patrol are deeply steeped in a truly heroic idea of the ‘Tradition of the Patrol.’  They are trained to do the right thing, and follow the spirit of their oath, regardless of their orders or the danger that may pose to themselves.  One of their heroes disobeyed orders to stop his superior officers from launching a military coup, and died in the process.  Another one ordered the destruction of his own home city after it had violated the terms of the global peace and turned against the Patrol.  Cadets and Officers are expected to act selflessly, and to think independently.

Much of the book focuses on the training of a group of new Cadets, and the various academic and practical skills they study.  They also encounter this heroic ideal, and a dissenter.  One character, Girard Burke, is the son of a rich industrialist and possibly defense contractor, argues in several points that the Tradition of the Patrol is nothing but propaganda, a bunch of lies that cover the dark truths of power and profit.  Later on, the protagonists meet Burke again.  By this point, he has left the Patrol, and is captain of a rocket under the banner of his father’s company.  Burke was being held captive by the seemingly-primitive inhabitants of Venus, after a trade deal had gone wrong and he had tried to force concessions from the locals with violence.  Before his capture, Burke had sent an SOS, expecting the Patrol to rescue him, punish the locals, and enforce Human and corporate supremacy in the typically neo-Imperialist manner.  The Cadets disappoint him by listening to the locals, taking their side in the dispute, and confirming Burke’s imprisonment.

In another revealing incident, the protagonist gets into an argument with his father over the loyalties of the Patrol.  While the main character argues that the Patrol does not take sides, and is prepared to use the ultimate violence of atomic annihilation against any power or group that threatens the peace, his father contemptuously dismisses the idea that the Patrol would ever side against the “North American Federation.”  Later, the Cadet brings this issue up to his supervisor in the academy, who affirms the independence of the Patrol.

Space Cadet, then, proposes the idea of a thoroughly independent military, supported by all nations but responsible to none.  Heinlein seems to argue that only such an independent force could even truly live up to the ideal of a truly professional force dedicated to the maintenance of peace, and that only such independence can prevent the military from being twisted into a tool of capitalist oppression.

Militarist?  Clearly yes.  But fascist?  Not here.

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