By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard ‘round the world.
From Concord Hymn (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
Two-hundred-forty years ago this month, the American Revolution began in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. Small bands of American farmhands, laborers, and merchants refused to yield to the advance of a professional British army, the best fighting force in the world at the time. These men of different social statuses, ideals, and backgrounds stood together, ready to sacrifice everything with the odds stacked heavily against them. Though what happened there can hardly be called more than a skirmish, the principles they stood for are recognizable.
I recall vividly visiting these two historic towns when I was 16 and reading Emerson’s hymn inscribed on the base of Daniel Chester French’s Minute Man statue in Concord. It sent shivers down by spine. Just two years later, at 18, I joined the U.S. Army and picked up a rifle for America as well. Like most who serve, the patriotic feelings I had then and now had much to do with that decision.
America’s own myths about itself today conjure up images of rugged individualism, American Exceptionalism, manifest destiny, cowboys and Gary Cooper in High Noon, the lone wolf, the reluctant hero, and simple, moral clarity. The narrative of America’s founding, that a colony of people who left behind tyranny and oppression in Europe and fought a global empire against great odds to gain their freedom, is the foundation of this history. Indeed if you listen to the every-day conversations of average Americans today, the rhetoric of its politicians, and the tones of its media offerings, all of it reflects a “tough guy” swagger at the surface. But, sadly, it does not seem to run much deeper than that anymore. The actions do not fit the words.
Every American professes patriotism. But what most actually mean when they say they “love America” is that they love their own lifestyle and their own particular patch of ground.
It is a common sight in America today to watch groups of young men dressed in MMA t-shirts yelling at the television about a football game or a cage fight, though they could hardly make it up two flights of stairs without stopping to catch their breath. It has gotten to the point that most American youths are unfit to join the military if they wanted to, though only around one percent ever do. This despite the fact their country has been at war for 15 years now.
They love to watch the violence on TV, in American Sniper at the movies, or playing Call of Duty on Xbox and are not above an occasional sad, alcohol-induced shoving match that involves more talk than action. But they manage to find excuses when it comes to real violence or danger that has any deeper meaning than sheer entertainment. Many of these same people, as President Obama has put it, “cling to their guns.” A gun does not make for bravery or strength; that must come from a man himself. They buy weapons under the claim of protecting their family and homestead from a vague fear of criminality, yet they will not pick up a rifle for America and head off to war to protect family and home against a clear threat.
On the other side there are those Americans who believe that “violence is never the answer,” though this country – like all others – was founded by and is still protected (to paraphrase George Orwell) by rough men and women who stand ready to do violence on their behalf. The false lessons they have drawn from America’s misadventures in places like Vietnam and Iraq is that war is never necessary and is only designed to protect the interests of the elite, though these “champagne revolutionaries” still take full advantage of consumer culture and economic advantages being an American provides – forgetting that America’s position is built upon the foundation of military strength that protects its interests, economic, political, and otherwise. In their moral relativism, they are willing to believe the worst about America and the best about its foes and quick to proffer arguments that America’s actions “brought it upon itself.” The sentiments of this limp wing of faux Realists are well reflected by those who echo Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric of the West invading Russia’s non-existent “sphere of influence” by trying to pull Ukraine into its fold.
Every American professes patriotism. But what most actually mean when they say they “love America” is that they love their own lifestyle and their own particular patch of ground. Many promise to “fight to the death” against the U.S. government telling them how to live their lives, yet have no trouble telling others – minorities, homosexuals, women they are not married to – how to live theirs. Though they profess “respect” for the military, historically many have no trouble either sending other people’s children to fight for questionable causes, such as the War on Terror, or professing “war fatigue” that keeps America from using strength when it could be decisive, as in Ukraine. When I came home from Iraq, the folks down at the bar did not seem to have grounds to be “tired” of war, except perhaps to say they were tired of hearing about it.
What does it mean to have a culture where few will fight for a country all profess to love? Perhaps American Exceptionalism is to blame. Ironically, those who have hawkish views on American policy, yet do not fight themselves, and those with dovish views on the use of military force unwittingly share similar conclusions on this point. They believe that their version of America is such a special creation in God’s eyes or has reached such a state of enlightened, modern development that the normal rules of history do not apply.
The belief that their ideal American system places this country in such a position that it can maintain its power in perpetuity without having to fight for it is just as ridiculous as the idea that use of America’s military strength is the cure to all ails. This view ignores the sound strategic decision-making which gotten us where we are today. America is not a superpower because it is “exceptional”; it is a superpower because of hard work and sacrifice. American leaders, for their faults, have been surprisingly adept at picking where, when, and how to fight to win. That is a continual, on-going struggle. Such things are not decided once, but again and again through history. Assuming America is exceptional is dangerous. As Thomas Jefferson said, The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.
That is not to say every American should be made to don the uniform; that would be disastrous and unnecessary. America does not need, nor should it pay for, a massive army of personnel, the majority of whom will not see combat. Short-term conscripts as many European militaries have required until recently make for under-qualified and rather useless soldiers. Many Americans are not qualified nor fit for military life or are unable to serve because of physical limitations. However, it appears the number of veterans among those leaders and citizens who adopt the most hawkish rhetoric is on the low end. But this is in line with the American practice of not practicing what we preach.
It seems most Americans are not willing to sacrifice much anymore, for the greater good or otherwise. Despite paying extremely low taxes for a developed country, any talk of raising taxes for the rich, for multinational corporations, to fix Social Security, or to fund healthcare is met with calls of communism. Demanding increases in stagnant wages is shouted down as socialism. “Society” is a dirty word because the thought any money would go to someone who has not “earned it” is repugnant. Unwillingness to sacrifice in war is paired with unwillingness to pay for the greater good.
Ask a veteran if they were paid in line with how hard they work and for what they sacrificed for the greater good of the country. Ask them about hard work. America is underpinned by the strength and sacrifice of those few who are still willing to fight and die for it. This one percent who practice what America preaches is the reason why anyone is allowed to “earn” anything in America. They are the real “job creators.”
The weakness and malaise in America’s system have translated into a pendulum swing in foreign policy terms. The 2003 war in Iraq was started by Bush administration hawks on false pretenses, who then also mismanaged the legitimate Afghanistan war. The pendulum has swung to an Obama administration with a focus on “not doing dumb stuff” and “strategic patience,” which, though it sounds good in principle in comparison to the previous administration’s policies, means a hesitancy that has extended conflict in Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine which quick, decisive action could have decided early on. Neither swing of the pendulum has served America well.
However, this polarized, pendulum-swing nature is also reflective of the divided state of American politics and government. Candidates for office in America are no longer allowed to be moderate or think with moderation. They will not survive in office. They must choose a pole far left or far right in order to raise campaign funds. Campaign cash is the life blood of American politics. Nothing else matters. Candidates no longer have to be informed, nor articulate, nor even intelligent at all. So long as they know which pole they stand by, and take their messaging cues from, the money will come. Many today have the added advantage of having plenty of their own cash to get started with. A majority of those in Congress are millionaires and only a tiny minority have ever served the country in uniform.
The field for the 2016 presidential race continues to expand. Many of those with their hat in the ring or considering it are dynasty candidates (which Americans profess to dislike) or also-rans from previous years which have little chance of succeeding, but beat the drum for certain factions of the left and right. None, so far, seem to stand for the middle ground, moderation, or for the greater good.
Words no longer match deeds. America stands divided politically, economically, and socially. Its foreign policy is adrift without a grand strategy over the last 15 years of the post-9/11 era. There is little sign thus far that things will change in 2016. We are indeed a long way away from those farmers, laborers, and merchantmen who stood together, shoulder to shoulder, at North Bridge in Concord and faced down an empire, knowing it would mean the end of life as they had known it and death for many of them, especially if they failed. The stakes were high then. They are just as high today.
The real problem is that the entire progressive welfare state that we have built over the last 100 years is fundamentally incompatible with the limited government, free market system implied by our Constitution and explicitly recognized in the Declaration. Those who oppose further expansion of the welfare state or taxes to pay for it, or who want to roll it back, are in fact the ones in accordance with our founding principles. Whether anyone really wants to make the sacrifices to fight for it is irrelevant if people don’t want to accept the ordinary risks and responsibilities of looking after their own lives, and taking the consequences of their errors, failures and simple bad luck.
Yeah, “Hey, kid, too bad you were born into a poor family in a high-crime area with bad schools. You just have to take the consequence of your simple bad luck and look after your own life. Good Luck!”
Equality of opportunity is what the Founding Fathers intended. That’s a worthy goal to work towards.
Chris, you write very well. However, I urge you to read Basic Economics by Sowell and Economics in One Lesson by Hazlitt. FDR’s Follies is good historical benchmark with which to gauge the likely outcome of some of your social policy prescriptions.
I think my education in law, international politics, and business has put me in a good spot to understand the balance between the competing needs of a market based upon the principles of free market competition with the social needs of building and maintaining a strong society. And balance is the key. But I do appreciate the recommendation and I’ll have a look at it. Thanks a lot.
Chris, I concur that this is well written; while I don’t agree with all of it I would note one point that you might consider: that the revolution didn’t fail and this ongoing experiment we have called a democratic republic is actually a success. I note this because of those who served enable the country to continue. Does it have flaws that appear to be expanding? Sure, but I would submit that the underpaid and, often, under appreciated (because those doing the “yellow ribboning” don’t have the context of serving) military (Active and Veteran) are what allows this country to continue. I’m similarly as cynical as you (and as an Army Intel type cynicism is my middle name) yet my faith int he country continually gets restored even with the demagogues (sorry, media talking heads) trying to hype things up. Then I think about Churchill’s comment on democracy and in the larger context, this experiment continues to run and can be successful at times, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
That’s well said, Pat. That it has failed is indeed an overstatement. I should perhaps have used the word ‘stalled’ instead. But, like you, I understand that this country has great capacity to restore itself to its promise and has done so at many times throughout its short history, from the War of 1812 to the Civil War to the Great Depression to the World Wars to the social divide of the 1960s up to today’s Charlie Foxtrot. I hope we’ll be alright.
A plain without a feature, bare and brown,
No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood,
Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down,
Yet, congregated on its blankness, stood
An unintelligible multitude,
A million eyes, a million boots in line,
Without expression, waiting for a sign.
Out of the air a voice without a face
Proved by statistics that some cause was just
In tones as dry and level as the place:
No one was cheered and nothing was discussed;
Column by column in a cloud of dust
They marched away enduring a belief
Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.
W. H. Auden, Shield of Achilles
“a country all profess to love?”
Where do you live?
Spend time on virtually any college campus. A whole lot of people dislike this country very much.
In fact, with the rapid changing of this nation’s demographics (what we’ve done to ensure the much sought-after Democratic “permanent majority”), the increasingly authoritarian nature of our federal government, the insanity of our fiscal policies, etc. I am becoming one of those people now. I suspect, in the future, the “hatred” will flip– with progressive institutions like universities and mainstream media waving the flag and centrists and rightists hating the country.
Well written and lots of great points and inconsistencies in the American Psyche pointed out by the author. But it appears the author also has some significant “slip and capture” blanks spots in his thinking. I can’t see what “force” would be “decisive” for the US to employ in Ukraine, and that does not even address the question of why, i.e., what is the national interest to expend money and shed blood there? Same for Iraq — a total debacle — and Syria. Also, the author bemoans the “hesitancy” of Obama and his apparent lack of a defined and decisive foreign policy. Would that the US had more hesitancy in its foreign policy of of the last 100 years — the country would have more money and less touching memorials to the dead killed in lots of useless wars. And it certainly would be nice for the President to be all-knowing and all powerful and correct 100% of the time — like the movies or those Masters of The Universe Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, et.al. Not every problem in the world has a solution and not every problem in the world should be solved by America, especially by military force/intervention.