“Mike? What’s the pool on me up to right now? What’s it up to? What is it three hundred dollars — is that it? Three hundred?
I’m a school teacher. I teach English Composition in this little town called Addley, Pennsylvania. The last eleven years, I’ve been at Thomas Alva Edison High School. I was coach of the baseball team in the spring time.
Back home when I tell people what I do for a living, they think, well, that, that figures. But over here it’s a big mystery.
So I guess I’ve changed some. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve changed so much my wife is even gonna recognize me whenever it is I get back to her — and how I’ll ever be able to tell her about days like today.
I don’t know anything about Ryan. I don’t care. Man means nothin’ to me. It’s just a name. But if — you know — if going to Ramel and finding him so he can go home, if that earns me the right to get back to my wife — well, then, then that’s my mission.”
Sometimes people ask me if I watch war movies. Having spent a good chunk of my adult life off fighting wars or preparing to fight them, I guess they might think it’s odd that I do. But I do. It’s not because of the fighting parts though. The violence and the action are usually pretty predictably dull. But the good ones get the human parts right. And the backdrop of war, the end failure of the human spectrum that reduces us to little more than brutish apes swinging better clubs at each other, helps us see things more clearly.
That quote from above is from Saving Private Ryan. It’s delivered after a battle where Tom Hank’s character, Captain Miller, has lost one of his men while on mission to save a lone Private Ryan who had lost three of his brothers to combat in the war already. Captain Miller and his small team were tasked with retrieving him somewhere in France in the days after the Normandy invasion to save Mrs. Ryan from having lost all of her children to the cause.
The fictional mission is designed to create tension and moral crisis. It’s about the situational value of life. About following orders. About duty. And about leadership. The crisis boils over after the team loses one of its own. The vocally subversive corporal rebels. The duty bound sergeant threatens to shoot him for desertion. And as the structure of the unit breaks down in a flurry of screaming young men, the Captain reveals himself. He descends from his post of authority to do the only thing that I’ve ever really seen work while leading through the mess of catastrophic crisis.
He becomes one of the men he’s leading.
He takes no sides. He lets them know he is what they are. He feels what they’re feeling. And he wants the same things they want. The bravado is gone. The formal authority drains out and is replaced by a bond of commonality. And they fight on in brotherhood. Few walk away from that. And those that do are better left out of the fight anyway.
A pretty good chunk of my leadership training at Annapolis could have been replaced with that scene and the lesson. In crisis, we draw on our commonality to bind us. We’ve got no shot on our own.
We are neither wolves nor sheep. We are the great upright making ape. And what has separated us from every living creature on this planet is cooperation at complexity and scale the world has never seen. And what will usher us into the dustbin of extinction one day, will be our inability to cooperate our way through hard problems. Climate. Nuclear proliferation…disease.
Four years ago when President Trump announced his candidacy for president, I was critical. Many have been critical. There have been accomplished journalists who seemingly haven’t written anything other than Trump criticism for four years. The theories of the rise of Trumpism are nearly uncountable. And the reasons given why he shouldn’t be president are so ubiquitous by now, we hardly ever notice when we call the President of the United States a liar. Or a fascist. Or a criminal.
My criticism has and will continue to be less fantastical. It’s not really the sort of histrionics that drives clicks. But I think it’s as right today as I did four years ago. It’s that President Trump’s adversarial political style and personal temperament make it nearly impossible for the people his government is responsible for serving to unite under a common purpose of an America we can all agree on. And in that division comes weakness. And in that weakness comes an inability to face the sorts of challenges that America will, and already is facing as I write this.
We’re eight months into the greatest crisis of my lifetime. A global pandemic has derailed our economy, stolen our freedom of movement and taken the lives of more Americans for a shorter period than any war in our history. We’re losing nearly a thousand people a day still, with closed schools and a third wave on the horizon. And we need, now more than ever, to come together as one country to fight this thing or it’s going to break us. Yet we remain, as warned, tragically divided.
The press pulls at the threads you give to pull. Political opposition opposes, by definition. These are forces as old and consistent as erosion. It is and always has been incumbent upon our leaders to smash through those forces, not with intimidation or authority. But by unifying the one thing in our nation that can overcome a slanted press and political gridlock. A unified American people. Not perfectly unified. But unified enough.
As long as President Trump continues to lead the way he has, that won’t happen. And it’s not unreasonable to believe that it’s too late for him to put the pieces back together even if he woke up tomorrow morning sounding like Abraham Lincoln.
It’s time to move on. It’s time to move forward, together. If a reset button is what we need, then fine. Clear the cache. Start with someone else. And let’s start walking this out together. It’s the only hope we have. It’s the only hope we’ve ever had.
Forward from here…