Perhaps like me you have had a busy holiday season. You have focused on family and friends and forgotten, for a moment, the larger world – including, like me, deadlines. Now, I am trying to catch up.
The polls tell what most of us see all around and in ourselves – that this divided nation is united in one sentiment: dismay with our national leadership.
The media tells us that the source of our unhappiness is gridlock in Washington and broken government. As usual, the media has got it wrong.
It was government working all too smoothly that gave us the catastrophe that is Obamacare. Gridlock – or broken government, if you will – can be a good thing. It is a call for reflection. Deliberation. Openness to other views.
Expressed a different way, it requires those we have put in charge to step back and listen. To set aside such conceits as, in a phrase we often hear, the president (I mean not the current president but any president) “runs the nation.” The president doesn’t even run the entire government, and shouldn’t. The government writ large includes the other branches, independent agencies, the more often than not passive-aggressive federal bureaucracy, the 50 sovereign states and each of their three constitutional branches, their counties and their municipalities — all independent, the point being that in the beginning and in the end, we the people run the country.
What I am saying is more than a 4th of July truism trotted out in winter. Again and again it has been the source of our national survival.
In Carnage and Culture, his examination of how the ethos of countries and particularly the United States shape their approach to war, Victor Davis Hanson tells of the Battle of Midway. Of how workmen improvising on the fly, not waiting for orders, took a job that was supposed to require six months – repair of the carrier Yorktown – and finished it in less than a week. Of how squadrons given insufficient intelligence to find the enemy took it upon themselves to conduct the search, radioed back and forth until they located the invader’s carriers. Of how the torpedo pilots hugged the waves — as their flawed technology required if they were to launch their weapons – drawing enemy fire and dying, as the opponents’ awed commander observed in reverence, “like samurai.” Of how their sacrifice diverted attention from the gather of the bombers high ahead, who then, seeing and understanding, on their own command, dove out of the clouds, straight down and in a matter of minutes, destroyed the heart of the enemy fleet.
So Midway was not a victory of commanders, though commanders played a role. It was a victory that came from a free people – and it is not too much to say that, though much fighting lay ahead, it saved America in the Pacific.
It was far from unique. In Washington’s Crossing, his account of the Christmas campaign that saved our revolution, historian David Hackett Fisher compares British commander Lord Cornwallis’s councils of war with Washington’s. Cornwallis gave orders to his officers, who gave orders to their junior officers, who gave orders to their men. In contrast, Washington spent a great deal of time listening to his officers, who in turn were picking up information and ideas from their men in the field. Because of the initiative from its ranks, Washington’s army improvised and adapted. As it would be more than a century later at the Battle of Midway, the commander played a role, but it was the initiative of a free people that won the Battle of Trenton.
This American truth continues to modern times. In the late 1980s, President Reagan invited the head of the Soviet military to visit the United States and tour our military facilities. At every installation he visited, this most senior officer asked enlisted men and women what they did. What were their responsibilities? By all reports, the Soviet supreme commander left this country shaken. Even our most junior soldiers, sailors and Marines possessed an authority and personal capacity to decide and act that in the Soviet Union was confined entirely to officers.
The point I am making is not about the military but about all of us. These acts of initiative during the crisis of war derived not from the operations of the government but the character of the people. Again and again, when those we call our leaders have been paralyzed, the people have stepped in.
This past week a former Marine of 27 or 28 stopped by our house. As discussion ranged from his career to world affairs, including the apparent retreat of the administration from engagement on a number of global fronts, he told me about some of his past colleagues, now civilians, as he is – many of them in work that spans the globe. They see themselves and talk about what they are doing, he told me, as picking up the fallen flag. Where the Russians and the Chinese are using financial and commercial levers to expand their influence in strategic parts of the world, they are taking in American financing and know-how to counter them.
As I look around the nation, I see this story played out over and over again. Is the nation facing a crisis on many fronts — constitutional, economic, ethical? Yes. But here is a prediction for the new year. The nation’s salvation will come from where it has always come – from the understanding and initiative of this free people. We will have leaders who contribute when we have leaders who can follow.