Since my son is about to start basic training with the Marines, I have been spending a great deal of time lately thinking about honor, courage and commitment, the core values of the Marines. Citizen soldiers have fought for the ideals of freedom and democracy since April 1775, when the local Massachusetts militias first confronted the most feared army of its day at Lexington and Concord. Few could have imagined that a rag-tag army of irregulars and citizen soldiers could bring the British Empire to its knees and win independence for this fledgling democracy. Even more astonishing is the fact that 242 years later, the Republic has not only survived, but it has become the greatest and most powerful nation on earth.
Like several generations of his forefathers who have served their country before him, my son will soon raise his right hand along with many other patriotic young men and women, and solemnly swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and to bear true faith and allegiance to the same. They will come from all backgrounds, races, colors, and creeds, but the one thing they have in common is a devotion to their country and a willingness to fight and – if necessary – die for it.
Unfortunately, the spirit of public service and self-sacrifice appears to be on the wane. Few of my son’s classmates seem to be attracted to government service, such as the Peace Corp or VISTA, and almost none are signing up for military service.
I am saddened, but not surprised. How can we expect our younger generation to follow the call of honor, duty, and dedication to the common good when they can plainly see that our country’s elected leaders are driven more by craven self-interest and egotism?
Our young men and women must be deeply concerned about the direction in which our country is going. Is it still worth fighting and dying for? They must have some doubts. The gulf between the very rich and the rest of us in America has widened over the past several decades. More and more Americans are struggling to make ends meet, and as they see the American dream rapidly fading, they are increasingly turning in despair and desperation to alcohol and opiates. No longer is a good education and hard work a sure ticket to participate in the American dream. The only guarantee now is that you will be paying off your student loans for the rest of your working life. Small wonder, then, that most Americans are all consumed with the burdens of day-to-day survival, and have stopped looking beyond the frantic scramble to exist to ask what they can do to serve their country and their fellow citizens.
The first cabinet meeting of the new Administration on Monday, June 12, 2017, demonstrated how far the standards for our civilian leadership have fallen. The current Commander-In-Chief began the proceedings by praising himself as history’s most successful president, “with few exceptions.” Really? What of the truly great Presidents who have come before him? What of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan?
Greatness must be earned; it is not pre-ordained or self-proclaimed. It is the judgment of history about us, not our own judgment as to what place we think we deserve in history. Uncritical self-praise and self-congratulation is a prescription for disaster, not a success. Pride cometh before the fall.
Fortunately, the one Cabinet member charged with responsibility for our armed forces had a different perspective than those of his colleagues, who were falling over each other to see who could praise the President the most. Retired General James Mattis of the U.S. Marine Corps, now serving as Secretary of Defense, firmly stated that his “praise” was reserved for the members of the armed services. “It’s an honor to represent the men and women of the Department of Defense,” he said. “And we are grateful for the sacrifices our people are making.”
Has the quality of our civilian leadership fallen so low that we must rely upon a retired general to remind us that the role of our government officials is to protect and serve the people of this great country, not just the current occupant of the White House? This is not the first time in American history that our military leaders have had to also provide the country with moral leadership as well as security. Nor, I suspect, will it be the last.
Fear seems to be the great motivator of our times, with the courage to face our deepest fears in precious short supply. The Marine Corps defines courage as “having the mental, moral and physical strength to do what is right in the face of fear.” The lesson ingrained in every Marine recruit is a simple one: You can never escape fear, it will follow you everywhere. The key is to embrace that fear, then turn it inside out and transform it into a mental, moral and physical positive field of energy that will make you and your unit invincible.
Where are the true leaders, the patriots of this generation who are willing to put country ahead of partisanship, community before tribalism? No doubt there are many young people out there who would be willing to make the necessary sacrifices that prior generations have made for their country. But will they dare to step forward when they see leaders who are less interested in making sacrifices for their fellow citizens than tweeting about petty grievances?
As much as I strongly believe in civilian control of our military, I am hugely relieved that the current President has seen fit to delegate most of the awesome responsibilities for military action to our current and former military commanders, such as General Mattis, who at least have a basic grasp of what America’s role is in the world, and that our key allies should be supported, not criticized. Our young men and women in uniform deserve wise and thoughtful leadership, and I am confident at least that our military leaders are up to the task.
Godspeed, my son. May God look after and protect you and your fellow Marines.