Posts Tagged ‘government’
Many of our nation’s greatest presidents have been veterans of war: George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. Military service is not necessary for a successful tenure in the White House, but it brings a deep understanding of war, in all its difficult dimensions, that every president must possess.
The next commander in chief, like every one since 1941, will have to make difficult decisions about deploying American forces into deadly circumstances abroad and managing the consequences for communities at home.
The great presidents who did not serve in the military – John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson – had close advisers who brought that experience to their deliberations. They relied on former soldiers for guidance on how to judge adversaries, how to prepare forces, where to deploy them and, most important, when to show restraint. Military experience has always tempered the most aggressive urges of ambitious political commanders.
The domestic side of military experience has proved even more important for presidents. Our nation’s social welfare programs have their origin in helping veterans adjust when they return to their families. In every generation, veterans have driven major government reforms to improve the life chances of hard-working citizens. Former Civil War soldiers pushed Progressive reformers to clean up urban corruption, improve factory conditions and assist struggling farmers. During the Great Depression, veterans marched in “Bonus Armies” at home, demanding government assistance for suffering families.
Most transformative, at the end of World War II returning service members demanded education and home-buying opportunities. Through the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, known as “the G.I. Bill,” tens of thousands of low-income and uneducated veterans attended universities and purchased houses with direct federal aid. These veterans carried American society to unprecedented prosperity during the second half of the 20th century.
But something has changed. During the past 10 years, veterans from the Second World War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War have largely retired, and they have not been replaced. Our society loves the slogan “supporting our troops,” but the voices from those who served have largely faded away. Today, our nation’s most prominent CEOs, intellectuals and politicians have never served in the military.
The current collection of presidential candidates – Republican and Democrat – is very revealing. Only one, Lindsey Graham, served in the military, and he is not even among the top 10 Republican contenders. None of the Democratic candidates has been in the military. Candidates from both parties are making extensive claims about how the United States should deploy its military power against ISIS, Russia, China and other foes and potential foes, but they have little firsthand experience with war. They represent the leading sources of money and influence in our society, and that largely excludes the armed forces, despite the importance of military decision-making to the presidency.
We do not need to have a veteran in the White House, and there is no reason to believe that someone with military experience is a better leader. There are plenty of contrary examples. But our public discussion of national security, as well as domestic policy, would be greatly enhanced if the real experiences of veterans in Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflicts were given detailed attention.
This requires much more than slogans. What does modern war mean for the men and women who serve when we deploy them to distant conflict zones? What happens to our warriors in combat and what are the true costs for our society? On the domestic side, what are the barriers to educational and professional opportunity for young men and women, many of whom have served their country? How can our government fulfill its duty to give loyal and patriotic citizens a chance at success?
We have avoided these questions in recent years and neglected the experiences veterans have always lent to American political debates. Focusing on ideologies about war and welfare rather than real experiences, we have increased our partisanship and decreased our policy effectiveness.
On this Veterans Day it is time to do more than thank our warriors. We should ask them to share their stories – bad and good – and we must be ready to listen and learn.
This article originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle (11 November 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.