Although Americans generally see democracy as an alternative to war, our democracy has been at war since its first days. Every generation of Americans has experienced extended military conflict that killed thousands of people, consumed mountains of treasure and changed the fabric of the country. But our wars have never really ended on the date when battlefield hostilities ceased. The costs are always greater than anticipated, and we pay the bills much longer than we expect.
The goals of war – independence, union, resources and security – are rarely achieved as decisively as leaders promise. Adversaries rarely disappear, and their successors are often more threatening. Numerous generations in retrospect have questioned whether their wars had been worth fighting. Would Americans re-fight the War of 1812, the Vietnam War, or the Iraq War if given another chance? The Second World War is the striking exception: the only American war that does not inspire serious regrets after the fact.
Our regrets are not because we devalue the courage, patriotism and sacrifice of our soldiers. Rather, it is because we care so deeply about the sacrifices of our warriors that we almost inevitably question why we sent them into harm’s way, and what their brave efforts achieved.
The deaths, the injuries and the debts linger over our society even after war has long passed. In fact, war has been a consistent engine of change in the United States far from the battlefields.
In 1786, about 4,000 Revolutionary War veterans in Massachusetts took up arms (“Shays’ Rebellion”) to demand better treatment in return for their service. Their resistance convinced many Americans, including George Washington, that the new country needed a strong federal government to control local separatist impulses. The continuing pains of war motivated the writing of the U.S. Constitution.
The decades after the Civil War witnessed similar pressures when soldiers returned home with poor health, broken families and dismal economic prospects. Federal pensions to Union soldiers became the first national social welfare program, sending millions of dollars each year from the treasury as guaranteed benefits to citizens and their closest kin. Former Confederate soldiers did not receive these benefits, exacerbating sectional tensions and motivating many Southern states, including Texas, to create their own social welfare systems for former soldiers.
The suffering of World War I veterans during the Great Depression, their demands for a “bonus” and their brutal treatment by federal authorities contributed, after 1932, to the New Deal. President Franklin Roosevelt famously declared that the United States had to fight a “war” on suffering that promised sustenance and security to patriotic citizens ravaged by an economic catastrophe they could not control. The countless federal and state agencies created during the 1930s used the military as a model for putting people to work building roads, parks, schools and other public facilities.
After World War II, the need to help millions of returning soldiers motivated another monumental shift in American society through the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the “GI Bill.” The GI Bill created our modern systems of higher education, home finance and consumer-driven economic growth. The service of African Americans and other minorities in the war also motivated the first major federal acts to desegregate war industries and the armed forces themselves.
In the coming years, we should expect the pressures for federal assistance to increase from veterans of our recent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and other regions, despite efforts to limit federal spending. Our returning soldiers need costly physical and mental care, and better-funded agencies to manage that care. The deaths and the suffering of the survivors and their families will surely motivate us to do more for public education, health and welfare.
On this Memorial Day we should not only thank our courageous service members, but also think deeply about the wars we have fought. We should begin planning for the continuing costs and accept the changes that those costs will bring. Addressing the true burden of war is our greatest patriotic duty.
This article originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle on 22 May 2015.
On Saturday I had the privilege of delivering the keynote speech to the 2015 Honors Day Convocation of undergraduates at the University of Texas. The students inspired me to think deeply about how educated young people can improve our society. Here are some of the words I delivered to the audience of 4,000 undergraduates, families and faculty:
We are a society of great power and wealth, but we cannot continue to go on as we are today. We are destroying too much as we overspend, overmilitarize and overconsume. The last 25 years have witnessed a remarkable burst in the creativity of our technology and our science, but our political and social thought has not kept pace. As human beings we have stagnated, even fallen behind. Just look at how old and out-of-date our ideas and our policies are. Just listen to how formulaic, useless and offensive our public rhetoric has become. Our technical ingenuity is not matched by the necessary humanistic creativity to move our society forward, and improve our lives — all of our lives.
As our most talented young citizens enter diverse professions, you have a collective choice: Will you maximize the value you can provide for yourself and your family, or will you find a way to do well but also do good? Will you define your success by your paycheck or by the larger purpose of your pursuits? These are not either-or propositions — you can live comfortably and help others — but they pose real choices about priorities. How will you turn your talents and opportunities into human value for others?
These are fundamentally questions of character. This is a word we do not talk enough about. In the past it was sometimes a code word to exclude people who did not come from the “correct” backgrounds. That misuse of the word should not lead us to forget its deeper and more inclusive meaning.
Character is the quality of seeing beyond the immediate to a deeper meaning in human interactions. It is a historical sensibility about past inheritances, present possibilities and future responsibilities. A person of character does not live for herself or for the present, but for a broader set of human purposes. A person of character derives wisdom and judgment from extensive reflection on what really matters, and what really endures for humans as a whole.
Citizens of character avoid simple solutions and slogans; they take on the more difficult and uncertain challenges that determine larger outcomes. They lead by example, they acknowledge their failures and they always strive to make themselves and others better. Citizens of character succeed for reasons beyond their brains and brawn. They display three fundamental qualities that draw others to them.
First, citizens of character display decency toward others. They do not make less talented and privileged people feel inadequate or inferior. They do not take all they can when they know others have so much less. Decency requires humility — a recognition of self-imposed limits on greed, even if society does not always enforce those limits. Decency stands for fair play, not profit maximization. In promoting justice rather than victory, acts of decency replace competitions for accumulation with cooperation to share the bounty.
Second, to gain character one must accept sacrifice. Nothing comes for free, and anything worth having requires giving something else up. Citizens of character do not market their talents for money alone — that is too easy. Citizens of character use their talents to achieve higher goals — that is the hard road that produces positive changes. Sacrifice builds character because it makes citizens strive for what they really value, not the goodies offered to them instead.
Third, and perhaps most important, character requires hope. It is too easy to look at our troubled world in a learned way and lament that things “cannot change.” Resigned to the present, one can feel free to profit from the problems of our day, as many of us do. Character comes from the courage to imagine a better world and believe in it. Character expresses itself not with easy promises and sound bites but real thought about how the world could be better and how we can start to get there. Great leaders of character inspire people to pursue big, realistic dreams.
I have hope because I see the decency in our talented students every day. I have hope because I know our students are ready to sacrifice for big dreams, if only we will encourage them to do so. Too many older and tired citizens are telling our students to think small, focus on their families and get rich. There is nothing wrong with being rich, but wealth does not create character or human fulfillment.
American society was built by great men and women of character, and it is time we recognized that we need another generation of character to take over the reins from those who have displayed a striking absence of character in recent years. Societies renew themselves when talent is combined with decency, sacrifice and hope. We are ready for that long overdue renewal. I see it coming the eyes of my students and the fears of their elders. Character beats fear every time.
This column originally appeared in the Daily Texan, 21 April 2015.