The Purpose of Strength

A lifetime ago I was stationed in a dusty outpost in a backwater province in one of the dozens of countries American men and women have served in dusty outposts in backwater provinces over the last twenty years. One afternoon, one of the local officials we were working with brought a woman to the burnt out old government building that served as our office. She was distraught. Her nine-year old son had gone missing two days before. And she came to us for help to find him.

She’d gotten a few voicemails from the people who had taken him. She played one of them for us. My chief and I listened. I ignored my interpreter as he translated what he heard. I didn’t need to know what was said. I could hear fear in the voice of a young boy. And then the threatening tone of a man. And then silence.

We asked her what she thought we could do to help. And she said that she hoped we could find him. My chief told our interpreter that we’d see what we could do and he relayed the message to her as he walked her out the door. That work wasn’t why we were there. But my chief and I rounded up a few of the team and did a little work anyway. And we made a little progress and came to the conclusion that if we had a few resources, we could probably go get that kid.

Later that night, at our evening meeting with the commanders we reported to, we gave them the situation and asked for the resources. And we were turned down. None were available. And trying to give it a go without them was a non-starter. I walked out of the meeting room with my stomach in a knot. I thought of what it was going to feel like when that woman came back the next day. When I had to tell her we couldn’t help. When there was no way she would understand that I just didn’t have the resources. And that ultimately it wasn’t up to me. All she would hear was that we couldn’t help her find her son.

My chief and I shuffled silently down the hall and out the door. When I turned towards the mess hall, my chief turned the opposite direction, back to our building. I asked where he was going. And he looked back over his shoulder without breaking his stride and said, “I’m gonna go get that kid.” He was surprised I asked. He took a few more steps and stopped and turned back to me.

“You don’t have to come.”

Then he turned and left. I stood there for a few seconds in moral limbo. And then I pulled the tin of Copenhagen from my cargo pocket, packed it, threw in a dip and followed after him. I could have ordered him to stop. But I knew he wouldn’t.

A few days later the boy was returned to his mother. How we found him without using the resources or without blatantly disobeying orders isn’t important. But we did. I called my wife that night and told her simply that we had done something good that day.

My bosses weren’t wrong. They made the proper and prudent decision. We weren’t there to do that job. And they really didn’t have the resources I asked for. And the risk to go it alone the way we would have without them was far too high. And if I were them, ten times out of ten, I would have made the same call they did. Because from where they were sitting, it was the right call. Because from where they were sitting, they couldn’t hear the fear in that boy’s voice. Or see the pain in that woman’s eyes when she heard it. And none of them were going to have to live with it for fifty years after that boy’s body got fished out of the river with no head and hands the way the last two boys that went missing did whose parents never came to us for help.

But what my chief understood immediately, and showed me the way so I could follow, was that sometimes, when the strong are far away from the pain and the suffering of it all, burdened by the grave responsibility to get it so right for so many, they forget some things. They forget that woman and her son were the unprotected innocent. And we were the strong. And sometimes, when we turn our eyes away from them for too long, we forget that those who need us most, are the purpose of our strength.

The strong are not strong because we can protect ourselves. You can do that by running and hiding. By never taking bold risks. By locking out the others. The purpose of strength is to be strong for others. Not for ourselves.

There is risk and consequence in action. You may lose all you have and all you’re ever going to have. But there’s consequence to inaction too. Some things once seen must be met with action. Like the voice of a kidnapped child. Or the picture of a father with nerve gassed children. The erosion in the human belief that the human purpose on this planet is for others, and that the very cause of strength is for the weak, is far more destructive than any material risk we’ll ever face when we choose to act.

They are the purpose of our strength. But sometimes, it’s easy to forget why we’re strong.

The Trump Trilemma

Dani Rodrik, the Turkish born Harvard Economist states that a nation may have two of the following three things: national sovereignty, democracy, or deep, global economic integration. It can have any combination of two. But it cannot have all three.

This is “Rodrik’s Trilemma.”

The logic behind why is somewhat complicated but can be reasonably explained as three forces pulling on one rope. Only two can pull at once to balance it. The third has nothing to grab on to.

One force, economic integration or, globalization as it’s called in the political world, is created when we reduce the barriers for trade of goods and flow of capital between nations. In order to have it, we reduce transaction costs; tariffs, import/export quotas, etc. When we do this, we inherently weaken some aspects of the control of the nation state and strengthen the input of global regulatory bodies in the sovereign affairs of the participating nations. The two sides pulling on the rope in this scenario are globalization and the sovereignty of a state.

If a nation desires globalization, it has to give up some power in determining its trade policy. If it wants more control over trade policy, it should be prepared to lose bargaining power in a globally integrated economy. The ebb and flow can be rationally managed and balanced to meet the best outcomes of the nation.

The trilemma comes in to play when that nation tries to do this while maintaining the accountability of democracy. In a deeply integrated global trade environment, an electorate has to have a focus beyond the nation’s own borders to ensure that it governs and makes policy in a way that effectively facilitates the global flow of goods and capital. In order to do this, the electorate must be willing to surrender, through democratic process, some sovereign power to global regulatory entities. They need to be able to do this in all circumstances even when, or especially when, the near-term outcomes of trade policy negatively impact the outcomes of the electorate.

Rodrik maintains that electorates don’t do this.

As a result, a nation wishing to maintain global trade integration and democracy must give up sovereign power to the global regulating entity lest the unwashed masses of democracy break the global economy with a tariff to protect their jobs. The tug of war then transitions between global trade outcomes and democracy. The more power the democracy has, the less integration we’ll receive. Sovereign control sits it out, surrendered to the electorate or the global regulatory entity.

We could continue the analogy through all the potential combinations but the one material to the Trump-ism discussion is where we’ve insisted that global economic integration sit out the contest and let democracy and sovereign control of trade policy have a go at it.

Let the people pick the leader. Let the leader pick the economy that delivers for the people. Everyone else get in line behind America.

America First.

This path is sold easily after hard times like the Great Recession. Trump and Brexit are textbook Rodrik’s Trilemma occurrences. Globalism is the casualty.

Most economists agree, if not in magnitude at least in direction, globalism is a net economic positive. It increases GDP, decreases the cost of goods, and makes the world an “overall” more stable place. The global margin increases.

People don’t vote on the global margin. In America today, they don’t vote much on their individual outcomes either. They vote on their culture. And that makes globalism an easy target.

Much of the Trump-ism message is about transitioning the economics of globalism into a cultural message of nationalism. One of the great tricks of Trump-ism has been to align the negative economic outcomes for its political base with the culture of toleration.

About halfway through the first quarter of the 2017 Super Bowl, I began to get the feeling that the American consumer, or at least the corporations that sell to the American consumer, were not big fans of the inward anti-globalism focus voted into office with the Trump administration.

The global cultural mindset was everywhere.

Coca-Cola ran an ad with people from all over the world singing America the Beautiful in their native tongues. Budweiser told the story of Adolphus Busch’s immigration. 84 Lumber showed the first half of a story that had to be cut off and shown on the internet because it actually showed Trump’s dubious great wall of America.

The message was loud and clear. Americans associate positive sentiment with a modern, compassionate, global perspective. We feel warm and fuzzy about the idea of diverse cultures all longing for and participating in the American dream. That message was market tested and executed by multi-national corporations who spent $160K a second on airtime to deliver it. It was not an unintentional endeavor.

The commercials we were fed were about people and culture and diversity. And tolerance. They filled Americans with the positive sentiment ad companies love to attach to the brands they represent. Inclusion sells. The sentiment, though, is a classic example of a problematic progressive globalism trap.

The progressive globalism trap pushes the notion that globalism is about people and tolerance. And if you’re about people and tolerance (I am), then you are a fan of globalism. In reality, globalism as we know it, the globalism that’s actually materially impacting Americans, has almost nothing to do with people and cultures and everything to do with trade and money. The standards enforced by the World Trade Organization and the outcomes that reducing barriers to free trade have coincided with an era of tremendous global growth. It’s drastically reduced economic inequality across nations.

But at a cost.

That cost has been the re-distribution of wealth and the increase of income inequality within already wealthy nations like America. It’s a firm reality of economics. We grow other place’s middle class at some difficult to quantify expense to our own.

Additionally, the opening up of the international flow of capital allows money to move seamlessly from country to country. But that’s come at a cost too. That cost has been a financial interdependence that fuels global recessions without alleviating the need for sovereign nations to bail out institutions deemed “too big to fail.” The global community didn’t bail out the American financial sector or our automakers. America did.

At the same time, the open flow of capital has also allowed open competition for corporate earnings to drive the corporate tax rate down globally almost 50% in just a few decades in a way that makes America less competitive for internal investment.

The fair point that Trump-ism makes is that global growth and stability hasn’t come without a cost to America. And the cost has fallen heavily on an American working class that hasn’t realized that we transitioned from a manufacturing and production economy to a services economy two generations ago. While the benefits of that global growth of the second half the 20th century exist, the costs are easier to point to in the wake of the recession.

By aligning the economics of anti-globalism with the cultural phenomenon of nativist nationalism, Trump-ism trapped their opposition in a reality where one is either for diversity, or one is for America. One can’t be for both and have the economic interests of Americans as a priority. The only counter Democrats found in 2016 was a departure from capitalism all together of Bernie Sanders.

And we know how that went.

Cowardice is Not Our Way

The war started for me while I ate dinner in the  wardroom of my ship, a navy destroyer, floating in the Arabian Gulf within eyesight of the coast of Iraq. The phone rang at the captain’s seat. My roommate answered, said “ok” and hung up.

“Someone just flew a plane into the World Trade Center.” he said.

That’s all we knew. I went up to the bridge and took over the watch. Minutes later, the phone in front of the captain’s chair on the bridge rang. It was my roommate down below.

“Someone just flew a plane into the other tower. The towers fell.”

I hung up the phone and looked around the bridge at the other men. They were kids. So was I. My feet felt like they were frozen to the deck. A hand on my shoulder snapped me out of it. It was the captain. He handed me a yellow sticky with some coordinates and nodded to the chart table. A subtle order that started the war. Then he climbed up into his seat on the right side of the bridge and sat down.

That’s when I heard it.

Over the marine band radio, the ones we used to talk to the other ships and boats in the area. We heard laughing. And cheering. And music. As the towers fell, we heard cheers of joy.

A little over a month later, the first shot in the war rumbled out of the forward missile launchers of my ship. I watched it from the same place I was standing when the towers fell. That night, as I went to sleep, safe in my stateroom, I had two thoughts before I drifted off. The first was that we were at war with an entire region; maybe even an entire religion. The second was that I never again wanted to fight it from the safety of a ship.

The next day, my ship was on the cover of every newspaper in the world.

Two years later I returned to that part of the world as promised, with a with a very different group and had a very different mission. The details of the what and the who aren’t important. But what I learned is.

The end to a hard nights work in that life was always signaled by the same two things. The light purple glow on the horizon of the dry flat earth. And the wailing of the call to prayer. One morning, as the low droning sound of Arabic echoed from the speakers over the harbor, one of the young officers from the partner unit my team worked with looked at me. He was a Muslim. And he was born and raised in the area in which we were working.

He was a friend.

“I wonder what that sounds like to you Lieutenant.” He smiled. “It sounds like God to me.”

We weren’t far from where they cheered over the radio on 9/11 in distance. But things were different between him and I. They always are when you do the work to close the distance between people.

That’s the lesson I learned.

My team conducted dozens of operations to fulfill objectives of the Global War on Terrorism on that deployment. My Muslim counterpart, and his team of Muslims, Christians and others were shoulder to shoulder with me on every one. I’d go back a third time a few years later. Hundreds of missions that time. On every one of them, a Muslim was the first one through the door. Sometimes, they were the only ones through the door.

Lying in my bed in my stateroom, ten years earlier, I’d gotten it wrong. We weren’t at war with a region. Or a religion. We were at war in a region that had a religion. And the Muslim men and women that fought with me were fighting because the first countries that radical Muslim terrorists invaded, were their own.

I’m not naive. I know there are people over there that don’t love America. I’m confident that there were even men I fought along side who hated me, my country and what I represented. Some I’m sure eventually wound up on the other side after I left. But there are also people over there that are just trying to get through this life in one piece. And feed their families. And keep them alive. And they don’t give a rip about anything other than that.

We don’t have to do anything for them. They aren’t American citizens. They aren’t protected by the laws of America. And who does and doesn’t enter the country is every bit the prerogative of the executive branch of the United States Government, whose leader we just elected.

Much of America is just waking up to the fact that, in the domain of immigration, the actions of our previous leaders were governed more by the societal norms of decency, charity and global leadership than they were by laws. And when it comes to immigration, the president can pretty much do whatever he wants, within the bounds of the very few laws that dictate how we address other people in other places.

We’re all realizing now that the choice we made this November was that decency, charity and global leadership are no longer a part of the American message to the rest of the world.

And maybe that’s fine. Maybe we should be ok with that in order to preserve our safety and our way of life.

Maybe not.

Maybe we’re pretty safe right now. One third of one percent of murders in America come from terrorist related violence. No fatal terrorist attacks in America have ever been conducted by someone coming from one of the seven countries for which we just banned the entry of refugees. And we are several times more likely to drown in a bathtub than be killed by a terrorist.

And maybe our way of life isn’t so fragile.

We cast off the rule of the most powerful empire the world had ever seen by waging a bloody war against them because they taxed us without due representation. Over 22,000 of us were killed or wounded in a day at Antietam in a war to preserve our union and destroy the institution of slavery. We led the largest invasion in the history of man over the beaches at Normandy to free a continent we didn’t live on. And we put a man on the moon using slide rules and a pencil.

That’s our way of life. That’s America. We don’t hide behind a wall like a coward.

American Vision: Revised Edition

My mother’s favorite poet was Robert Frost. She kept a book of his poems with illustrations on our old wooden bookshelf in the living room of our house in New Jersey. There were a handful of books on that bookshelf that I would pull down and thumb through from time to time. One was a compilation of photographs of Lincoln. Another was an illustrated account of the Kennedy assassination. Another was the story of our accomplishment of space flight. They were huge books, about half the size of me with colorful pictures, worn dust jackets and coffee stains. She’d gotten them in college in the 60’s. They sat on that shelf for decades. Some of them are still there, though she’s long since passed.

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Stopping by Woods On a Snowy Evening By Robert Frost

I remember the picture of a tree on the page with Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. It looked like the tree in my front yard. I would read that poem over and over again. There was something about the end of it that just stuck in my head. The part about the woods, “lovely dark and deep.” And the part about life, “miles to go before I sleep”, twice said.  There was beauty in that described moment of peace. And the realization that it was fragile and fleeting and that there was work ahead that made it more so. One last breath of fog in the cold night air while your feet stay still in the snow. And then it’s back to the business of life. Less beautiful. More permanent.

Life moves on. The future is our only constant. And no matter how beautiful or still or comfortable the peace of now might be, you cannot stay in it. The instant you realize it is the now you’re experiencing, it becomes the past. And you must move on. There’s work to be done.

Elections aren’t what make democracy great. They are a messy, imperfect means to an end. Accountability is what makes democracy great. And elections are the best measure of that accountability that we have to do that thing that is so hard to do. Since the days when we wandered out of the woods and onto the planes and further still over the horizon, the process of choosing who we allow to leads us has been hard, costly and not always for the best. The way we do it in America has yielded strong outcomes for centuries though. But it is not what makes us great. The greatness comes in between. After we choose. After we begin our journey again. We’ve got quite a bit of road ahead of us to cover. We’ve got miles to go. No sleep in sight.

There is a world beyond our current myopic focus. Our politics or the Jihad of a small group of foreign, hateful, religious zealots have distracted us. The world is about to remind us that those things weren’t quite the magnitude of threat we’ve faced in the past. What lies ahead, the rhetorical promise of a new arms race and the rise of an eastern power with enough resources to dominate the world for centuries, are far more serious threats. Threats that will force us to remember a time when Russian field commanders had nuclear weapons release authority for the payloads being placed in Cuba, 90 miles from our shores. Or when global imperial powers had the capacity to cripple our military with equal or greater military might of their own. And nothing the last president did, or the one before him or the next one is at fault. It’s the ebb and flow of a global species in which there is rarely a singular power that remains singular for very long.

It’s time to pick our heads up. There are sails on the horizon. And we’ve got work to do.

It’s been 45 days since the American people elected Donald J. Trump president. And it’s another 30 until he is sworn in as the 45th president of the United States of America. We’ve had enough time to reflect on what the election says about us. And what it says about the state of our political discourse. And what it says about our culture. We’ve taken our deep breath in the cold dark woods. And it’s time to move on. And it’s time to move past the what and why’s of what happened. It’s time to ask the better question. What do we want from a Donald  J. Trump presidency? What do we want for America? The answer is pretty straight forward.

I don’t want him to fail. I don’t want him to be the disaster that would prove secretly delightful to those of us who so strongly opposed his candidacy. That justification can only come with four years of failure. Four years of worse outcomes for the American people. Four years of a weaker country amidst the backdrop of a rising China and a belligerent Russia. I don’t want that and neither should you. What I want out of a Trump presidency is the same thing I would want out of any presidency. Success.

Success is a weak word. It hasn’t done the work. The work of success begins with a narrow vision of what right looks like in the end. And if you don’t have one for America, then you haven’t done the work.  And you don’t know anything about the effectiveness of her direction. And if your vision is 1950’s American, it’s a bad one. Success starts with a vision. So I’ll share with you mine. Because a great 21st century America needs to start moving forward in earnest. A great 21st Century America accomplishes the following, no matter who sits in the oval office or what ideas they have about America and her people:

  • 25 Million new jobs created over the next ten years. China is on the hook for ten million a year. They’re still in catch up mode. We can win with a quarter of that.
  • Balance the federal budget by 2030. If you refuse to accept any other outcome, it can be done. But you are going to have to re-define your reality of taxation and government services. If you can’t, your future is already decidedly less great.
  • Eliminate fossil fuels within 75 years. Not through regulation. Through innovation and a better way. 100 years from now people need to laugh at their grandparents for digging dead things up from the ground and burning them for power. Pay attention to what Elon Musk is doing. And root for him to succeed.
  • A complete overhaul to modernize American infrastructure by 2025. I don’t mean repair. I don’t mean upgrade. I mean build again. Better, more innovative, more American. We win with better things and a better way of life.
  • Manned space flight to Mars by 2035. If it sounds silly, then I’d ask you what happens when a people reach their ceiling? They atrophy, or they blast through it. I’m for the latter. Again, watch Musk.
  • Put science, treatment and doctors back at the center of American healthcare. Get shareholders out of the game. Do that in any sustainable way possible.

That’s not an exhaustive list. You could probably find other things. But it’s a start. And we have to start. That’s what a vision looks and sounds like. That’s what making 21st century America great looks like.  It’s more than a red hat and a snappy saying. It’s hard work.

There’s something refreshing about turning away from the messy footprints behind us that got us where we are and turning towards a goal. It’s cathartic. Because you spend time thinking about what you want. So much of American mind-space for the last 18 months has been focused on what we don’t want. It’s time to move on. And move forward.

If you’re one of the tens of millions of Americans who the president elect alienated with his campaign rhetoric or personal behavior, I’m not going to ask you to just get over it. But I am asking you to have a vision for what you want. Not simply what you don’t. And it’s entirely fair to assume that in order to realize that vision, it’s mandatory to build some foundation of unity where Americans aren’t living in fear of each other or the government. And if that can’t be done with Mr. Trump, then step one on the vision, is choosing a new leader. So be watchful. We are a nation of people. But we are a government of laws-laws that exist for the betterment of our people. No one is above them. We didn’t elect a king. Only a president.

It’s time to get going now. Feet moving over the snow again…miles to go before we sleep. Miles to go before we sleep.

War is a Choice

War is a lot of things. It’s brotherhood and sacrifice and heroism. It’s one man giving his life to save others. It’s an entire society mobilizing towards a common and just end. It’s the free people of the world drawing a line in the sand against the encroachment of tyranny and casting it into the dustbin of history. It’s a struggle, to the death, in the name of good and freedom and liberty.

These are the things we need to believe about war in order to fight it. And service towards those ends is what we need to believe in order to honor those we ask to fight it for us. Because if you can’t then you run the risk of being reminded of exactly what war is.

Beyond the abstract visions that we sell ourselves to do it, war is a very real and terrible thing. War is the taxi driver in East Timor taking me 20 minutes out of our way to show me the sea wall on which his parents were lined up and shot. It’s the cooler sitting next to my desk full of the body parts of a teenager who blew himself up. It’s me looking at it uneasily, waiting for the technicians to come and take it away to try to identify him. War is the dozen women and children he killed the day before at a funeral. That’s what war was for me. I got off easy.

Because war is much worse.

It’s the 40 thousand civilians—men, women and children- killed by Nazi bombs from the sky in England during the blitz. War is the 300,000 Chinese killed in the Rape of Nanking. War is the 120,000 civilians killed during post invasion Iraq. And now war is the death squads going house to house in Aleppo killing women and children by the dozens. War is all of those things. Whether we sell those parts, or not.

War is one other thing. It’s a choice.

No matter how much we spin it. No matter how much we believe that our safety and the future of our society is at stake, war is always a choice. If the forces of evil are at our doorstep, inside our borders, marching on the capital itself, the movement to fight is a choice. Sometimes it’s the best choice. Sometimes it isn’t. But the iron die is never actually cast, no matter how much we need to believe it was. And the progression towards arms is never inevitable.

War is always a choice.

We point to the isolated atrocities of war as outliers. We think of them as extreme and rare cases to plug into our overall calculus of choice. They give us comfort, knowing there will never be another like it. There was only one My Lai massacre. There was one Abu Ghraib. There was only one Batan Death March. There was only one Andersonville. Those singular events are isolated. And they will never happen again. But the consistency of those sort of events are as much a part of modern war as artillery or tanks or ships. Rest assured, when we mobilize and march to war, someone somewhere will be sitting in their house in fear, having never lifted a finger to harm anyone, and they will be killed. It might be a stray bomb. It might be an accidental target. It might be a death squad or a chemical attack.

Sometimes it’s our fault. Sometimes it isn’t. But it’s going to happen. And it happened because somewhere someone chose it to in the name of something reasonably sellable-security, democracy, capitalism. Though the specifics of the horror are impossible to predict, the certainty of horror is not.

Aleppo has fallen. And the aftermath, death destruction and human tragedy in the streets, is the ultimate end to how modern cities fall in war. It was no different in Berlin. It was no different in Fallujah. And it wouldn’t have been any different in Tokyo, had we not avoided it by annihilating others from above with nuclear destruction. There will be blame to go around. There will be calls for war crime inquiries. And there will be calls for us to act.

To volunteer once again.

Man is a sentient, warring animal. We are capable of committing horrible transgressions in the name of our interests. And we are capable of feeling every ounce of pain it gives us. And now, as the grim events in Syria play out on our televisions and our social media feeds, we need to feel it. All of it. Because we should never miss the opportunity to account for the true costs of war. All of its death and suffering and cruel unfairness. And balance that against the true weight of our gains. And reflect honestly about what side of the ledger holds the most value.

So don’t turn away too quickly. And don’t point to other peoples as unique in their destruction. This is a habit of man. But it’s also a choice. And in these times of fresh tragedy, it’s important to remember that when we decide what to do next.