The Booklet

Chris has turned his extraordinary blog into a booklet. You can download it here.

Book launch: Two Wheels and Two Questions: A Journey through America in Search of Personal and National Identity by PNSR Senior Associate Christopher Holshek

January 29, 2010

The Project on National Security Reform (PNSR) today launched Two Wheels and Two Questions: A Journey through America in Search of Personal and National Identity, a personal memoir by PNSR Senior Associate Christopher Holshek (Colonel, US Army, retired) reflecting on America and its place in the world. First written as a PNSR blog and then summarized in a Huffington Post article, “America and the Long Goodbye,” the book chronicles Chris Holshek’s reflections and experiences during an extended motorcycle tour across America following his retirement from the military in early 2010.

In addition to his work as a PNSR Senior Associate, Chris Holshek is a civilian civil-military adviser with the Defense Security Cooperation Agency’s Defense Institution Reform Initiative. While in the Army he served in civil-military operations in numerous positions, including command of the first civil affairs battalion to deploy to Iraq in support of Army, Marine and British forces, and as a staff officer for United Nations multinational peacekeeping missions. He participated in the development of Army, Joint, NATO, and UN policies and doctrine for civil-military, stability, and interagency operations, as well as contributed to the State Department’s recent Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review.

“Chris Holshek’s personal reflections on his 30-year service in the U.S. Army and his journey across America are personal testaments to why national security transformation is the critical question of our time” said PNSR President and CEO James R. Locher III. “They ground us in the reality of how our defective system affects the lives of real Americans and provides new thinking on how the national security system of the twenty-first century should function. I commend Chris for his selfless national service and his poignant insights that could help us transcend our current national security paradigm.”

In May 2010, newly retired Colonel Holshek set out from Washington D.C. on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle in search of the answer to two fundamental questions: “What does it mean to be an American?” And, “what does that mean for America and the rest of the world?” Chris rumbled through the American South and Southwest to the Pacific Coast and returned through the Great Plains and the American Heartland. His trip also had a detour, escorting some students from the George Mason University to the African nation of Liberia. In the book, Chris chronicles his many encounters, including meeting his uncle, a Vietnam War veteran, and bantering with a shrimp boat captain while oil from the BP well polluted the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Pondering his travels, Chris saw the value of seeing America from both the “outside-in” and the “inside-out.” He discovered insights into the American character in its national parks and presidential homes and gained an appreciation of the enduring flow of American history as he traversed the routes of the Transcontinental Railroad and Lewis and Clark expedition. The conclusions he draws are both thought-provoking and timely as the United States looks for national renewal, to reinvent its government through a national security transformation and to use its leadership to secure a safe and prosperous world for generations to come.

“I realized that, like America, I found myself in mid-life transition, as I wandered between the military and civilian worlds at home as well as abroad,” Chris noted.  “As I meandered through America on my Harley, reflecting both backwards and ahead in my life, it became clear I could never return to the structured and more predictable world of the military. That’s gone now, so I have to move on.”

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The Home Stretch – Is This a Great Country, Or What?

Once I left the Lincoln Boyhood National Monument in Indiana, I became progressively melancholic, for two reasons.

First, fatigue, both physical and mental, was setting in.  Due to the interlude in Liberia, I had compressed especially the return half of my journey, resulting in only a day off the handlebars from otherwise continuous riding since I had left California nearly two weeks prior.  At that breakneck pace, it was harder for me to keep up with this blog – something that I had decided to attempt only a few days before the start of the journey.  By this time, I had resigned myself to allowing greater time for qualitative reflection, taking the pressure off to gather my thoughts after the trip but surrendering the simultaneity of the experience – a “reality ride” for readers.  For those of you among the  disappointed, my apologies, as well as my thanks for hanging in there with me.

But life is full of tradeoffs, isn’t it?

The other reason for my mounting funk was the realization that this lifetime adventure was coming to an end.  As the last few hundred miles piled up on the odometer, I struggled to navigate between simply getting this over with and the desire to make the most of the last part and end the trip on a positive note.  Then there was the safety factor:  As with combat deployments, the most challenging and dangerous part can be the home stretch, because your mind is elsewhere and you’re tired.  Lack of attention to detail and situational awareness is the reason for most casualties.

Even hillbillies have a sense of humor. The sign on the barn in front reads: "Orlando Disney World Left Lane".

The scenery in Kentucky and West Virginia was nice, but not breathtaking.  There were no surprises.  West Virginia featured both the tawdry elegance of the hillbilly lifestyle, with trailers and cheap homes amidst wonderful Appalachian vistas, as well as the new, large and plush single family homes of the encroaching suburbs of the greater Washington area.  After leaving the hills of West Virginia, from Winchester, Route 50 continued through remarkably picturesque horse farms and colonial villages.  Yet, I took no pictures, as I had traveled these roads – and compared to the bigger experiences of the West, it was all becoming anticlimactic.  Somehow, it seemed the trip was already over.

The last 60 miles of the home stretch took more than two and a half hours, as traffic and traffic lights proliferated in 100-degree heat and humidity.  Twice I sought refuge in an air-conditioned convenience store and re-hydrated, conscientious I had survived heat stroke in Iraq.  The last stop was near the State Department, as the afternoon traffic jamming into the George Washington Parkway made the path of least resistance into the District, where I took another break to wait for the gridlock to sort itself out.

Welcome back.

When I finally eased the Wide Glide into the parking garage of my apartment building in Alexandria the evening of the first full day of summer, at the same spot where I started 49 days before, the trip odometer read a tenth of one mile short of 8,061.  For ten minutes, I stared at it, wondering what sense I would make of it all.  Rather than the two questions I started out with, only one loomed in my mind.

Is this a great country, or what?

Of course it is, and there’s no better way to gain comprehension of that than by going out and taking a look yourself.  You can read about this country, but until you’ve gone out and seen its immense richness, experienced its diversity, met some of its people, and traveled its roads, you haven’t experienced it.  As Goethe said:  “Go to foreign countries and you will get to know the good things one possesses at home.”  The detour to Liberia reinforced that.  However, I also had to take a look at what I had spent 20 of my last 30 years on away games helping to secure, and thus truly understand what I constantly tell other Americans – that most of them have no clue how lucky they are.  But that’s a conclusion each American must come to.  When John Steinbeck drove Rocinante around “a galaxy of states” in search of America the autumn of my birth year,  he also realized you can experience America only on a personal level, but because America in and of itself is a journey whose signposts are frontiers and whose destination is ultimately that of the world’s and therefore uncertain.

It is this uncertainly that plagues Americans more than anything else.  Americans are more worried than ever.  Sure, every generation seems to think the place, for one reason or another, is going to hell in a hand basket.  This time, however, it’s because they sense the country is in decline and that their way of life is changing for the worse.

Of course, America is in decline, at least in relative terms.  That’s to be expected, though, considering where the psychological point of reference is for most Americans – 1945, when “the greatest generation” had just won the greatest of wars, an anomaly in both scale and moral texture, leaving America as dominant in practically every measure of national power in a fairly predictable world, until 1989.  Even after the U.S. got rid of the Soviets, there was still no other place to go but down from the pedestal, because the world wouldn’t have it any other way.  Nature seeks balance, even in tumult, and the irregularity of a unipolar world would seek, as they say in the stock market, “correction”.

Many Americans are coming to grips, albeit not easily, with the fact that they are no longer clearly Number One – that the Chairman of the Board of Planetary Management may soon be unemployed (and that job too may be eliminated).  They increasingly realize they are less in control of things around them, because someone other than an American may have something to say about what Americans took for granted as sovereign decisions.  For many, that is a highly uncomfortable if not frightening thought.  Thus, an understandably natural response is to persist in denial and seek refuge in the “good old days”.  Even, for some, to be angry or throw a tea party.

The irony of America is that it has globalized the world but not itself.  9/11 and the Great Recession are seismic reminders of shifting tectonic plates in geopolitics – the end of America’s “splendid isolationism”, along with its dominance, in installments.

On the 11th of September 2001, two-thirds of my career was over.  The first ten years prior to that saw us all grappling with the sudden and unexpected end of the Cold War, searching for the next “Mr. X” and the big idea that would help us understand America and its place in the world while, by default, the United States became the world’s superpower.  So Americans had no sense of urgency about that conversation, even though things were changing more rapidly than realized – until then.

That evening, as the civil affairs team I led in an exercise in Germany stared in horror with scores of other dismissed soldiers at the science fiction like pictures of collapsing towers on the television in the dining hall, I filled a pregnant pause in the broadcast:  “Welcome to the 21st century.  The world has come to America; now America must come to the world.”  What I meant, however, was not with the clenched fist as much as the open hand.  It was our soft power that had ultimately defeated Soviet communism and cemented our alliances, and our hard power that underwrote it.  Instead, the U.S. went out like cowboys and cavalry looking for Indians.

Since 9/11, America and the world have been changing much more rapidly than the old paradigm’s ability to process it, compounding the anxiety brought on by the unintended consequences of our boundless reach for connectivity.  The world has become complex and interconnected, yet Americans still like their solutions simple and clear-cut.  They have yet to have that long-needed conversation.

My Political Science 101 instructor at New Mexico Military Institute noted that “true power is when you don’t have to care what anybody else thinks, says, or does”.  He was right.  When you’re at the top and have the (mis)fortune of American geohistory and a surplus mentality based on an abundance of natural, human, and financial resources, you can afford to be ignorant.  Now Americans can longer afford it, because of globalization and because, for perhaps the first time in its history, they will have to increasingly operate from the standpoint of resource scarcity and the need to compete head-on with others for those resources essential to maintaining its standard of living.  When one gentleman I met along the way told me he didn’t care about what was going on in Greece, I explained to him that he ought to because the contagion there could bring down the whole worldwide financial House that Jack Built.  And we were Jack.  (He didn’t get it.)

The relative decline of the United States has been well underway for some time, set in motion by forces Americans themselves largely unleashed and mainly through technology.  The U.S. has been, in many ways, an incompetent imperial power – because it really isn’t imperial and because it has also, as I like to say, “screwed up in reverse”.  Just as the U.S. (more than anyone else) put an end to the cycle of great powers and great wars in Europe predicated on nationalism, making what happened in the 20th century nearly unimaginable in this one, it introduced a global “system of systems” that has encumbered a dominant power.  During its tenure at the top, it acted as the fulcrum of the sway of the global economic center of gravity from the Atlantic to the Pacific basin, changing the rules of international interaction along the way.  Yet, in many ways, contemporary Europe may be a model for international cooperation at the regional level.  What seems to be missing is a unifying concept with which individuals can identify that is the moral foundation, which is where America may come in.  Joseph Campbell was right – the organizing idea for a truly globalized and multicultural world is indeed the concept of the United States.

This is where Americans can take heart that they have much more to say whether their country is in real decline.  A good start is by knowing what you’ve got before trying to figure out what you might not have.  Play your strengths, then marginalize weaknesses.

As I recounted in Liberia, Americans are no better than anyone else, but they are luckier, beyond their geography and material treasures such as the national parks that preserve its “environmental power”.  While the United States still leads in many empirical measures, and while many of those advantages will be diminished regardless of the best efforts to maintain them, it will not be by these ways and means that the United States will most remain a leading nation when it is no longer dominant.

The foundation of America’s strength has always been moral.  Unlike most countries, America is about an idea, not a human category.   That idea of individual freedom is simple and universal, especially in its American format.  (Or, again to quote Goethe:  “Common sense is the genius of humanity.”)  In short: national values.  Values are what define national interests, which inform policy and strategy, which shape operational doctrine, which provide guidance to tactical decisions and individual actions.  At least that’s what I learned at the Army War College.

America’s values are what make the United States the exceptional, if not the indispensable, “nation-of-nations”.  This, more than anything else, is its enduring trump card – if the country carefully maintains it.  Beyond personal freedom, American national values are codified in three words, another simple yet sophisticated inspiration:  e pluribus unum, the unique amalgamation of both an immigration and assimilation culture, underwritten by the American ideal.  Even if China were to have twice America’s gross national product, it will never be able to pirate this societal code that has allure beyond shores and permeates America’s ability to constantly re-invent itself, its economic comparative advantage of innovation, or even its military as the largest, most successful multicultural institution in the world.  It is what differentiates “quality of life” from “standard of living”.  That doesn’t mean that America’s moral power has no competitors, or that other forms of power will no longer count, but if it nurtures it, the United States in this respect can have no peer.

It is this kind of American exceptionalism that will maintain America’s moral leadership in the world – not the kind that says it can set the rules that govern global interaction and then not have to follow them because it is somehow “special”.  Arrogance, after all, is a substitute for confidence, for which humility is its most sublime expression.

There are two ways to foster this moral power – and they begin at home.  One is that Americans renew their commitment to civility, treating others with respect, exercising more tolerance, and reinforcing its democratic societal values.  (More public opinion leaders could certainly help out here.)  The other is to learn more about civics and history, so that Americans better understand the founding principles that govern the relationship between the individual and the state and the society at large – responsibilities as well as rights.  Freedom, indeed, is not free and not everything is an entitlement as it is an earned privilege.  Serving your country is more about being a good citizen than donning a uniform.

And why history?  Because it helps us think more strategically, take the longer view, see the bigger picture, and thus help us to contextualize and process the overwhelming information battering us each day.  How can you know where you are or where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been?

It’s also time to hit the “refresh” button on the social contract in America and the relationship between the individual and the state.  Americans say they hate all the mud-slinging in Washington and the media and want better leadership, but they respond to negative messaging more than any other form.  It’s also hard to get good governance on behalf of a people who don’t show up at the polls, don’t want to pay taxes, want to keep their entitlements, and still want to reduce the national debt.  The Project on National Security Reform has it right:  It takes a nation to fix a government.

Americans can’t have it all, and they and their elected leaders can no longer afford their outsize self-indulgence.  While change must happen at the grass roots – another inherent strength of America being the democratic process of change from the bottom up more than the top down – the government’s role, for example, in education reform, is thus critical.  Steinbeck’s discussion of the presidency (and I would add, Congress) as being mostly about moral leadership, particularly in extraordinary times, is a relevant as ever.  As with most important questions of policy in America, it’s not either/or, but both.

By doing these things, the United States will become more of the country its worst enemies hate (but can’t compete with morally) and marginalize its greatest critics who assert that it doesn’t practice what it preaches.  Re-establishing moral credibility will also prevent the U.S. from diplomatic marginalization when more tangible means of power become less feasible – as long as U.S. policies reflect its national values as much as possible and are just as consistently explained and communicated.  Despite its reputation for Madison Avenue and Hollywood, however, “public diplomacy”  and “strategic communications” have not been hallmarks of American foreign policy.

Another major comparative advantage of the United States has been in what the Project on National Security Reform calls “human capital”, again with respect to national security but also in a larger sense.  Americans are still among the most productive and innovative people in the world.  Unfortunately, they have less and less the cognitive tools to compete with the rising rest.  In a word:  education, which can no longer be seen as a cost but an investment, as much in political vibrancy through renewed emphasis on what used to be called a “classical education” as in economic competitiveness through math, science, and technology.  America must generate creative as well as critical thinkers – artists as well as builders.  The good news is that much of the answer to the problem is in organization and approach, not in fiscal resources – as with health care, the United States practically outspends the rest of the word person for person on education, yet sees diminishing results.  Like many large and complex challenges, it’s more a matter of will than wallet.

That will not be easy.  Beyond mass denial, there are other obstacles to a more managed approach to America’s transformation to a multipolar, globalized world, albeit more in the American span of control.  They are again mostly psychological, but history gives other clues.  Consider this:  Since about the War of 1812, the American people did not have to care much about the rest of the world – they could afford to be ignorant; since 1865, the U.S. has won its wars, deterred its adversaries, and assured its allies through overwhelming industrial and technological superiority predicated on an abundance of cheap resources, cheap labor, cheap energy, and cheap capital – it could afford to be wasteful; and since 1945, it has been clearly the dominant power in the world – it could afford its 19th century view of sovereignty while everyone else became more internationalist.  All of those things have been coming to an end, converging in this first half of the nation’s third century and serving as the undercurrent to America’s emerging mid-life crisis.

Not having to care much about anything than the here and now also goes far to explain the mentality of my Australian friend’s “galloping consumption” and the expectation that the socioeconomic curve would always generally go up.  Thus, at all levels, Americans have increasingly lived beyond their means and asked their government to do more and more, its politics involving less and less of what the 41st President called “the vision thing” and lurching instead from crisis to crisis.  If Americans want to be more control of their destinies, they have to do a better job of keeping the big picture and the long view in mind in order to manage their expectations – and the most important way is to become a society that saves more and consumes less.

As anywhere, in West Virgina, one person's junk is another's treasure. This arrangenent if old rail cars, tractors, and other farm equipment looks like a sculpture garden.

Consumers think of the present, want instant gratification, and worry only about what’s in front of them; savers think both bigger and longer, i.e., more strategically.  Books more than bumper stickers.  They become more interested in what’s going on in the larger, more globalized world that affects them.  Thinking versus reacting.  If there’s one thing the government can do, it can introduce both financial and regulatory incentives that, at all levels, create more balance between consumption and savings and investment.  Get our businesses (and their shareholders) to go beyond the quarterly profit-and-loss statements so that they (and the country at large) can compete better in the global economy.

Despite the onward march of connectivity for which the U.S. has been the world’s engine, it’s become harder than ever to think globally and act locally, whether in national security or even economic life.  Instant communication and information overload, its latest manifestations in the Blackberry and the I-Pad, along with 24/7 media have flattened decision cycles.  Because there seems to be little time to process all this information (and Americans have less the cognitive skills to do that), as with their food, Americans now find it more convenient to have their news and information, like their food, processed.

But the greatest of all obstacles is America’s growing and paralyzing angst:  We have met the enemy and he is fear.  For a country whose founders and greatest personalities displayed remarkable moral courage and foresight, the United States, whether at home or abroad, has become a status quo country – more afraid of the future and nostalgic, perhaps in part because of its aging population.  At home, reform of any kind is nearly impossible because too many people have a vested interest in keeping things as they are.  Its foreign policy, in turn, is driven by an obsession with security over strategy, looking for “bad guys”, and preserving U.S. preeminence.  Many of my friends and colleagues from abroad tell me, whenever they have visited the United States in the past few years, they see a country less optimistic and more anxious – less characteristically American.

America cannot long remain the land of the free if it is no longer the home of the brave.

Feeling similarly overwhelmed and in need of perspective, as the civil-military and public affairs officer of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, a job I held as young captain with a small staff with responsibilities equating to those of two senior majors on the staff of division headquarters, I drew and hung a cartoon on my office wall that read:  “You can eat an elephant a bite at a time; but, you cannot eat a whole herd of elephants a bite at a time.”  As a civil affairs officer later on, that became understanding that managing expectations is the first order of business, and to do a few things well rather than many things halfway.   It took the United States a few generations to descend into its emerging predicament; it will take some time to get out of it.  But you have to start sometime and somewhere, and today and where you are is just as good a place as any.

One of the reasons I joined the Project on National Security Reform is that it takes this sober, long-term approach to a central issues than will determine the fate of the United States in the 21st century – revising the national security system to more effectively position the United States to maintain its leadership role in the world and secure its way of life while more effectively using precious resources, as “whole-of-government” and “whole-of-nation”.  By doing so, it believes this can help lead to better and more effective government generally.  The margins of error are too narrow, the stakes and consequences too high, and the opportunities too great to keep doing business any other way.

I decided to contribute to that cause not just because of its gravity, but because I feel that I was fortunate enough to have led the kind of career, in my first 30 years, that gave me insights that should be more commonplace among our national security professionals and, indeed, many Americans in general in the next 30 years.  I have taken many journeys and will no doubt take many more – and the thing I have learned more than any other is not to fear the journey because I am not sure of its outcome.

If past is indeed prologue, then Americans should have little to fear than their own unwillingness to embrace and navigate this future.  We fear what we do not know, so we must learn more about ourselves through knowing more about the world around us – real connectivity.  The ultimate frontier is internal.  And that entails a journey, for each and all of us, as Joseph Campbell advised:

We have not even to risk the adventure alone.  For the heroes of all time have gone before us.  The labyrinth is thoroughly known.  We have only to follow the thread of the hero-path.  And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god.  And where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves.  And where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence.  And where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.

Get out and ride.

After walking the labryinth in Grace Cathedral, San Francisco. It was fascinating that, while I seemed to be walking it randomly, it turned out to have an order and symmetry in the end. I don't know about you, but that's how a lot of things in my life have worked out.

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The Heartland – The Paradox of American Leadership

After a long day’s ride through South Dakota, turning directly south from Sioux Falls to pick up the Louis & Clark Trail again in Iowa, I thought I had seen enough with the emotional visit to the Wounded Knee Museum.  Looking forward to a quiet, relaxing stay at a (yet unknown) hotel in downtown Sioux City, I knew something was out of the ordinary with about 50 or so motorbikes parked in front when I pulled in.  Having charmed my way to getting the last room available (there’s something you learn after a quarter-century as a civil affairs officer), I discovered that I had come upon the 11th Annual Awesome Biker’s Nights, fortunately only a few blocks walk away.  I ambled through historic 4th Street, which had become a pedestrian area bordered with streetside food, drink, and souvenir vendors, and a handful of rock and metal groups on big, high-tech stages playing over the din of Harleys and “crotch rockets” trying to out-rev each other as they cruised at walking pace among the crowds.  Boys, toys, and noise.

With my ears still ringing the next morning, I made my way further south past huge corn and grain farms that left me no doubt – I was in the American heartland.

I was ad-libbing the trip from this point on.  After making stops at Omaha, Nebraska and Kansas City, Missouri, where after having my picture taken with my bike at its “place of birth”, I enjoyed a delicious steak, some great live blues music, and easy chatter with other patrons.  What else in the middle of America?

In front of the Harley-Davidson factory in Kansas City, where my 2010 Dyna Wide Glide was built.

As I embarked the next day for St. Louis, I made an unexpected stop at the Harry Truman Presidential Library in Independence, and realized right away I wouldn’t be in eastern Missouri until much later that day.  After visiting the Reagan Library on the West Coast, then seeing Mount Rushmore at the foothills of the Rockies, I thought I had seen enough of presidents this trip.  But this was well worth the stop, and it reminded me that I had not really finished my thinking about leadership in America.

This mural at the entrance of the Truman Presidential Library near Independence, Missouri, is a romanticization of the frontier culture Truman's family came into.

Harry Truman was among the most underrated of presidents.  Sure, he may not rank among the greatest – with Washington, who set the tone of dignified humility and so many other precedents in our national leadership style; Jefferson, who codified American political philosophy in the Declaration of Independence and, through the Louisiana Purchase, insured U.S. domination of the North American continent; and Lincoln, who preserved the Union and re-defined the meaning of freedom, as well as set in place the final pieces of the definition of the United States as both a transcontinental and thus (eventually) global power.  It’s clear that the United States has been fortunate to have had such great leaders; but, it has been just as fortunate to have had a number of them like this heartland president.

Truman, as we know, became the 33rd President under unusual circumstances – after the death of the longest-serving president in the middle of the greatest of wars, whose own great work was unfinished after steering the United States through the Great Depression and World War II, and who loomed larger in the pantheon of national leaders.

Starting with that disadvantage, Truman’s presidency was quickly beset with one situational challenge and contentious issue after another in a time of great transition and anxiety – the decision to use the first atomic weapons; the postwar reconversion of the economy marked by severe shortages and numerous strikes that nonetheless resulted in the rise of the U.S. as the world’s most prosperous nation and the locomotive of a world economy defined by Bretton Woods; the division of Europe, the rebuilding of Germany and Japan, and the unprecedented maintenance of a large, standing U.S. military forces overseas; the Berlin Airlift and the National Security Act of 1947; the Marshall Plan and the Cold War strategy of containment; the founding of the United Nations and NATO; the Korean War and the sacking of General MacArthur; and so on.  Amidst this plethora of crises and turning points, Truman nonetheless exercised leadership and wisdom along very much the same lines as his more famous predecessors, with history as his eventual arbiter.

At the Truman Library: "If we wish to inspire the peoples of the world whose freedom is in jeopardy, if we wish to retore hope to those who have already lost their civil liberties, if we wish to fulfill the promise that is ours, we must correct the remaining imperfections in our practice of democracy. We know the way. We need only the will."

While I was aware of these events as illustrative of the Truman years, until I came to Independence, it was not known to me how important a role, for example, Truman played in the initiation of the civil rights movement, beginning with the de-segregation of the military.  In fact, Truman’s stand led to the split of his party when Southern Democrats walked out of the 1948 convention (since then, the region has been largely a Republican stronghold).  Truman, of course, won an improbable election that year, as if to defy a political cartoon at the time that jabbed:  “Would you rather be right or be President?”  Turned out he was both.

Serendipity again at play, I came across these passages in John Steinbeck’s America and the Americans on the paradox of American leadership:  “In reviewing our blessings, we must pay heed to our leadership.  It is said that we demand second-rate candidates and first-rate Presidents.  Not all our Presidents have been great, but when the need has been great we have found men of greatness.  We have not always appreciated them; usually we have denounced and belabored them living, and only honored them dead.  Strangely, it is our mediocre Presidents we honor during their lives.”

“The relationship of Americans to their President is a matter of amazement to foreigners [my own 20 years abroad substantiated this for me].  Of course we respect the office and admire the man who can fill it, but at the same time we inherently fear and suspect power.  We are proud of the President, and we blame him for things he did not do…”

“We have made a tough but unwritten code of conduct for him, and the slightest deviation brings forth a torrent of accusation and abuse.  The President must be greater than anyone else, but not better than anyone else.  We subject him and his family to close and constant scrutiny and denounce them for things we ourselves do every day…  We give the President more work than a man can do, more responsibility than a man should take, and more pressure than a man can bear.  We abuse him often and rarely praise him…  he is ours, and we exercise the right to destroy him.  To all the other rewards of this greatest office in the gift of the people, we add that of assassination…  It would be comparatively easy to protect the lives of our Presidents against attacks by foreigners; it is next to impossible to shield him from the Americans…”

The difficulty of being an effective president has only increased, now perhaps to a critical point of dysfunction.  What encumbers the ability of a president, for example, to launch any major initiatives, outside of the most dire of circumstances, or push through any major legislation remotely resembling comprehensive reform, is the 24/7 media world of flattened decision cycles – holding even the most trivial issues to mass scrutiny but not lending to examination of the larger issues in any degree of depth; shortening the flash-to-bang time between initiatives and implementation among a public with shrinking attention spans; and thus prohibiting absorption, reflection, and gaining of context by either the public or its servants.

The other is the incredibly complex processes in especially the executive and legislative branches that characterize the contemporary governing process.  With respect to the interagency system alone, the Project on National Security Reform recognizes, in Forging a New Shield, “…no leader, no matter how strategically farsighted and talented as a manager, could have handled these issues without being hampered by the weaknesses of the current system.”  It’s hard even to be lucky, let alone good, when the deck is stacked against you more than ever.

Continuing with Steinbeck:  “It is said that the Presidency of the United States is the most powerful office in the world.  What is not said or even generally understood is that the power of the chief executive is hard to achieve, balky to manage, and incredibly difficult to exercise.  It is not raw, corrosive power, nor can it be used willfully…  The power of the President is great if he can use it; but it is a moral power, a power activated by persuasion and discussion…”

It was entirely appropriate these latter insights came to me at this time, in the heartland, because, as I learned at the Reagan Library, no president can succeed if he cannot connect (or communicate) with the American people – especially in the core of the country.  With respect to Truman, Steinbeck’s understanding of the power of the presidency being largely moral also struck a chord, as Truman often took a moral stand on many of his decisions.

As someone who spent more than a dozen active years with Toastmaster’s International, starting in Germany in the Reagan era during my own formative career years, it has long been apparent to me that the most effective leaders, from the sinister to the saintly, have been effective communicators.  Many, such as Churchill and Lincoln, were great storytellers.  Not long ago a friend of mine shared an interesting quote from, of all people, the late American professor of computer science and human-computer interaction Randy Pausch that is a good tip for leaders of democratic societies or multifarious organizations like the UN, or those involved in peace operations:  “Do not tell people how to live their lives.  Just tell them stories.  And they will figure out how those stories apply to them.”

One of the more interesting displays at the Truman Library was an interactive exercise involving what influences decision-making at the national executive level, typified in four factors: interest groups and public opinion (although I would separate these two); personal values; recommendations of policy advisors (i.e., political factors); and, the long-term national interest.  The decisions, of course, that we most hold up to history usually feature the fourth and second.  Yet, the reality is that the first and third dynamics wield the greatest weight.  Thus, the decisions that reflect true political genius somehow accomplish the more important while addressing the more immediate.   Considering the near-impossibility of managing the American republic and leading the American people, the fact that there are dozens of such great decisions that mark the history of the nation is little short of a miracle.

Once I left Independence, it was imperative I had to learn more about perhaps the greatest of presidents, considering what I had already learned about his role in the building of the country in the midst of its greatest crisis.   Once I crossed back into the eastern United States in St. Louis, rather than go to Springfield, Illinois to see the Lincoln Presidential Library, it turned out fortuitous instead to visit his boyhood home in Indiana.  The reasoning:  if the presidency is mostly about moral leadership and the ability to connect with people, then what other way to gain insight into this outstanding historical figure than to go where he spent his formative years, between the ages of seven and 21, when his character was forged and his core values formed – as with most of us.

Situated about 20 miles south of Interstate 64 near nothing of remark other than the town of Santa Claus (yes, there really is one), the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial is perhaps the most thoughtfully laid out of the national sites I had seen on this trip.  Beginning with the Visitor’s Center, and the nine relief sculptures outside depicting Lincoln’s trademark quotes, you can talk a walk through the woods that the young future president wandered through, reaching the cabin site memorial that approximates his home and, perhaps most importantly, well conveys his rather humble beginnings.

"Have faith that right makes might and in that faith let us to the end dare to do our duty as we understand it."

As it was a quiet day at less busy time of year, I was grateful to spend nearly an hour sitting on the stoop of the cabin discussing the 16th President, and presidents in general, with an exceptionally well-informed and dedicated docent who explained he had read about 40 books on Lincoln – who himself had only read little more than a tenth that many when he was there – the Bible, of course; David Ramsay’s Life of George Washington and Ben Franklin’s autobiography (which ignited his interest in politics and presented him with role models); Aesop’s Fables and Pilgrim’s Progress (which helped the young man develop his moral compass, optimism about America, and knack for storytelling); and a few others, including books on ancient history.  These literary influences are reflected in Lincoln’s speeches, two of which – the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural speech – are considered among the most essential studies in American civics.

After the fascinating conversation with the caretaker of the cabin site memorial, I paced the Trail of Twelve Stones marking significant moments or phases, reflecting on the journey of his life and its legacy, then climbed back on the Harley to resume the route to Kentucky, the state of Lincoln’s birth.  A pit stop at a service station turned into another of a handful of impromptu conversations experienced during this journey, this time over a sandwich and a soft drink, with a local business owner who observed what the much more educated docent made just a short while back.

She held to her belief that most presidents, as most politicians, are well-intentioned and more competent than we give them credit for, and that the we are at our best when we move to the center, when “common sense” prevails over emotion.  While our politics have always been contentious and bitter, especially in today’s more venomous climate, I recalled to her one of the sayings on the exterior of the Visitor’s Center meant for a more perilous time, yet no less appropriate:  “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.”

Nowhere else was this a more appropriate thing to appreciate than in the heartland.

The inscription on the wall near the Trumans' gravesite reads: "All I want for history is the truth". Amen, Harry.

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The Great Plains – Real Americans

As impressed as I was with the quiet, uninhabited enormity and grandeur of the Rocky Mountains, coming down from as high as over 12,000 feet in elevation into the wide open spaces of Montana and into eastern Wyoming into South Dakota, the territory once known as the Great Desert – the Great Plains – was no less awe-inspiring, not really because of its immensity as much as its surprising richness.  It is anything but plain.

After California, the South, and the Southwest, the Great Plains appears to be the next region in America to take its turn at economic and social transformation.  From Sioux Falls down to Kansas City, tracing much of the early Lewis and & Clark expedition route, for the last 10 or so years, these former frontier towns have seen strong job growth in high-paying jobs in energy, professional and business services, science and engineering, and agricultural products such as soybeans and specialty grains, prompting an influx of population from the rest of the country.  Still, these states are not exactly the diverse metropolises of the coastal areas.  Pending the new census results, South Dakota’s population is barely 600,000.  And although the region maintains the among the highest percentage of college graduates, at around one-third, and the lowest unemployment rates in the country, at less than 4%, it is also about 90% white.

After limping into Billings from the torrential rain and wind encountered at Yellowstone and slipping between low-pressure systems sailing across the Montana sky the next morning, I aimed for Deadwood, South Dakota that day, after seeing Devil’s Tower and at least making an appearance in Sturgis, where every August thousands of bikers from around the world overwhelm the area for the largest bike fest in the world.  (Other than that, Sturgis has no claim to fame.)  I was looking forward to a couple of days rest in Deadwood.  On the way, I thought, I would stop off at Little Bighorn National Park to punch the history ticket and move on.  What I learned in southeastern Montana was far from perfunctory.   (John Lennon and John Steinbeck strike again!)

Most of us know the story:  On the 25th of June, 1876, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and five companies of his 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment were defeated at the hands of the Plains Indians – a combination of warriors from the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes.  The battle on the bluffs, ridges, and fields overlooking the Lakota encampments on the Little Bighorn River became the iconic event of the long struggle between European and Native Americans, entering into American and global folklore as a sort of Armageddon of the Wild West.

Often thought on a deadly scale of thousands, the battle actually claimed the lives of about 260 U.S. cavalrymen and an estimated 60 Indian warriors.  As the group I joined peered out into the expansive fields where the battle unfolded, we received an illuminating presentation from a well-read and enthusiastic park ranger (originally from Texas).  He was able to bring the battle to life with his blow-by-blow description and a colorful discussion of the personalities involved.  More captivating, however, was his insightful description of the overarching circumstances that led to an encounter of inevitable happenstance more than a premeditated conflict by either side.  Many wars, by the way, are as accidental as they are intentional.

Understanding this link in a chain of events helps to understand the complex history of a centuries-long clash of cultures that peaked in the decade following the Civil War, when settlers resumed their vigorous westward movement.  The U.S. government, recognizing the increasing hostilities being brought on by growing connectivity with the Indians (and, unfortunately more importantly, their lands) and the expense of having to fight them off as the Union Pacific laid track in the direction of the Rockies, signed a treaty at Fort Laramie, Wyoming with the Lakota, Cheyenne, and other tribes of the Great Plains in 1868.  A large area in eastern Wyoming was designated a permanent Indian reservation, thought “bad lands” because they had no apparent value to the government at the time.

Entrance to the Badlands National Park in South Dakota. Called "bad lands" by white men because there was no gold, nor could be farmed or used for grazing cattle.

As long as the Indians stayed on the reservation, the government would protect them “against the commission of all depredations by the people of the United States”, as well as provide food – the motto being it was “cheaper to feed than to fight the Indians” (as well as make them dependent on the government for their existence and thus prone to comply with its terms – a typical insurgency and counterinsurgency tactic, by the way – if you control the food supply, you control the population).

When I saw this at the Wounded Knee Museum, I recalled where I had seen "food as a weapon" to control, manipulate, or subjugate populations among insurgents and counter-insurgents, in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan, and Africa.

The arrangement, unfortunately, did not last long.  In 1874, as the U.S. descended into the Long Depression after the collapse of an overheated economy, gold was discovered in the Black Hills, the heart of the reservation, bringing in thousand of eager miners.  Undermanned in the wake of a massive post-war demobilization to return it to its traditionally negligible strength, and with no police forces to speak of on the frontier, the U.S. Army was unable to prevent their encroachment.  Efforts to purchase the Black Hills from the Indians (who had no concept of land ownership) met failure.  In growing defiance, the Lakota and Cheyenne left the reservation and resumed raids on white settlers.  In December 1875, the commissioner of Indian Affairs ordered the tribes to return before the end of January or be treated as hostile forces.  Following their non-compliance, President Grant (who of course knew much more about war than diplomacy) ordered an expeditionary force (the 7th Cavalry) to enforce the order.  The rest, as they say, is history.

The timing of the battle was also critical.  The defeat at Little Big Horn as the U.S. was celebrating its centennial in the midst of economic calamity, called a “massacre” in the press, sent shock waves throughout the United States and prompted a strong military response that eventually led to Wounded Knee.  Custer, a flamboyant and popular war hero, was brevetted (i.e., promoted three grades) posthumously to major general and martyred along with his men.  As the docent explained, it was “kind of a 9/11”, conjuring a similar kind of response on a continental scale as was done on a global scale 125 years later.

Stones marking where members of the 7th Cavalry fell at "Custer's Last Stand" (Custer's body was found at the spot marked by the black-plated stone).

There are certainly many other parallels – the shock/anger/send-in-the-cavalry sequence seen before and after in American history, the media hyperbole and “how-could-this-have happened?” mass introspection, and the reflexive choice of overwhelming hard power made trademark by the recent victory of the industrial North over the agrarian South.

There are, of course, exceptions.  Among the most important was that the armies involved were rather different.  Interestingly, as at the Alamo – another complete defeat provoking a war rally response, a large ratio (44% in this case) of the nearly 900 poorly fed, poorly equipped, largely illiterate, and poorly motivated troopers at Little Bighorn were foreign-born, the largest group from Germany.  Of the American-born, the largest contingent came from New York, the country’s most populous state.  Since 1972, the U.S. military has been all-volunteer, increasingly professionalized and resembling more of the best of what America has to offer – a remarkable and perhaps irreversible transformation that occurred during the 30 years of the span of my own career.

Another is that the U.S. military has become what John Nagl’s counterinsurgency treatise, Learning to Eat Soup with an Knife, calls a “learning organization” – with the ability to learn lessons from operations faster than the opponent and thus stay ahead.  While the Indian wars could certainly be described as “asymmetric” counterinsurgency operations, the U.S. Army at the time was little concerned about learning – especially after the Civil War, it clearly possessed superiority to the enemy (who could less run and hide on the plains then as Al Qaeda can now in Central Asia’s mountains).  It was simply a matter of time when the U.S. government would get around to subduing them.  Hence, the approach to the Indians was conveniently an extension of Russell Weigley’s description of The American Way of War as the execution of a “strategy of annihilation” – brute firepower and death and destruction to include to the civilian base.  No “hearts and minds” campaigns nor need for precision-guided munitions when it came to the Indians.

Admittedly, the approach also owes to bigotry.  Most European Americans, to include the president at the time, felt the Indians were primitive savages who needed to be civilized and Christianized, although a few more enlightened Americans (among them, George Washington) thought these nature-loving peoples had a culture from which European-Americans could learn a few things (especially today, considering the importance of environmental power).  Joseph Campbell observed that the Europeans who came to dominate the North American continent, as Judeo-Christians, were essentially an anti-nature culture who took the Cartesian adaptation of science to control nature to the extreme of a Faustian bargain with technology, giving us for example nuclear weapons.  Recalling Steinbeck’s observation of the “savage” and “thoughtless” approach to the land noted in my earlier discussion of the National Parks, it is no wonder European-Americans, by and large, looked upon the Indians, who saw themselves as part of rather than outside of the ecosystem, with disdain.

Signs persist of that lingering prejudice and our failure to reconcile ourselves fully with the some of our treatment of the most original of the continent’s tenants – as a whole nation of Americans.  The Indian warrior memorial at Little Big Horn, for example, came just a few years ago – more than 90 years later than the monument to the U.S. 7th Cavalry dedicated at the start of the 20th century.

After two days of recovery in Deadwood, which in 1876 was a thriving frontier town of about 2,000 offering many conveniences then known to much larger towns, I began to make my way for what I anticipated would be a long and boring ride across the prairie. Wrong again.  South Dakota’s topography unfolded surprisingly, starting in the foothills of the Rockies in the Mountain time zone, then across the more predictably nearly endless plains, then to lush, hilly areas in the Central time zone that suggest you have, in just one day, gone from West to East.  It wasn’t all the setting for “Dances with Wolves”.

The Indians largely object to the widespread use of references to their culture among American sports teams, first because they were never really asked and second because it has nothing to do with their culture. In addition to their lands, their identity is one more thing they feel the white man has stolen from them.

As at Little Bighorn, I was moved by an unexpected stop at a the small, privately-run Wounded Knee Memorial Museum in Wall, South Dakota – brought to my attention by one among the incessant commercial billboards that litter the landscape along American highways.  Wall is about 90 miles to the north of the site of the final destruction of the Indian tribes as an independent civilization on 29 December 1890 and among the greatest of atrocities committed by the U.S. military against civilians.  I found it disappointing that the U.S. government can have National Historical Sites and National Parks on everything to include a Minuteman missile headquarters not far away from Wall, but not something like this.  I recalled explaining to a number of Germans when stationed in their country in the 1980’s – as they sought some moral relief in their process of coming to terms with their darker past by pointing out the U.S treatment of the Indians – that genocide was never the expressed policy of the government of the United States.  There was no comparison and thus no moral equivocation.  Still, if the Germans could face up to the commitment of some of the worst affronts to human dignity in their name by directly confronting their past, then this should be no issue for Americans, either.  If there can be a Holocaust Museum in Washington, then there ought to be a national site of some kind to Wounded Knee, the Trail of Tears, and other less proud moments in American political and military history.  Even the National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall provides little balance as such.

This is not only a matter of doing what is right.  It is a matter of continuing to restore our moral credibility and thus much of the soft power the United States very much needs as part of a more comprehensive approach to national security advocated by the Project on National Security Reform and others.  We must do what I suggested to John Nagl after presenting on his book while I was at the Army War College in 2006: As the U.S. military has been doing since 9/11 at the tactical and operational level, the United States must do as a whole-of-government, whole-of-nation – become a learning organization.  Keeping in mind Napoleon’s observation of the moral component in war (“…the moral is to the physical as three is to one”):  If we believe in the words of the ideals of America so succinctly stated in the Declaration of Independence – if we are sincere in communicating to the globalized world to which we also belong that we are about connectivity, not conquest, then we must demonstrate our commitment to our values in our actions and set the example, thus making ourselves truly exceptional.  Walk the walk and not just talk the talk.  Real patriotism, after all, is not what you feel; it is what you do.

What I saw on the Great Plains also helped me think about what being an American means and what America is really about.  While in Liberia, my accumulated experiences in helping to stabilize broken countries culminated in the realization that the most successful, powerful, and enduring societies have an inclusive sense of collective identity; those who make exceptions risk de-stabilization and disintegration – the loss of peace, prosperity, and freedom.  United we stand; divided we fall.

In my early years in Europe, whenever receiving a lecture from stodgier German neighbors on the importance of community values and need to respect, for example, the collective right to peace and quiet or on crossing the street illegally as setting a bad example to children, I would answer back by pointing out tolerance as the primary value in “real democracies” or that “where I come from, children learn to think for themselves”.  I must admit, I was hard on the Germans at times, much as I like them.  But I was also hard on others, like Liberians, pointing out that they should change their racist constitution that forbids anyone but “Negroes” to be citizens, vote, or own property (especially since the election of President Obama).  But I’m also as hard on Americans, if not more (because we should know better).  That kind of honesty is appropriate first at home and then abroad.

One of the historical ironies the docent at Little Bighorn pointed out in his lecture was that, to the Indians, who were the original inhabitants of the North American continent, the white European settlers were “illegal immigrants”, made even more poignant by a quote from Chief Crazy Horse posted at the Indian memorial:  “We did not ask you white men to come here.  The Great Spirit gave us this country as a home.  You had yours…  We did not interfere with you…  We do not want your civilization.”  In my comment to a speech this summer by the Mayor of New York on the swirl of controversy on the building of an Islamic community center near “Ground Zero”:  “If we have no confidence that our culture of inclusiveness can withstand its inherent risks, then we might as well hang it up and join the rest of the world.  And much of that, my friends, is not a very pretty place.”

And one of the greatest comparative strategic advantages that is unique in spirit and scale to the third most populous country in the world is in its cultural power, encapsulated in three short words:  e pluribus unum (“out of many, one”).  The immigration and assimilation culture that is at the core of the American way of life should be cultivated and strengthened, subject more to reason than passion.

As an American soldier deployed in the face of far more morally complex situations than those of past generations (and less than those who will follow mine), I often contemplated the small patch on my right shoulder (with the blue field on the right, facing forward into battle), and the special privileges and burdens placed on those who wear it.  Indeed, we are not on a level playing field – held to a higher moral and ethical standard for the encouragement of friends, the mitigation of foes, and the deliberation of the nonaligned.  It is unfair – we are no better, no more or less human than any of the others; and yet, we are called to higher comportment.  After all, we Americans set the bar.

As public servants, we either accept that task or move on to another profession.  As the citizenry that a soldier represents, we also either accept this or admit a lesser moral standard for ourselves, leaving our fate for others to decide, and not having the right to send these young men and women into harm’s way on our behalf, wearing that flag, to represent values that we believe should be spread abroad but cannot live up to at home.  We are either all real Americans, or none of us at all.

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From West to East – America as the Global Engine of Connectivity

Sometimes it’s better to take a view of something the other way around in order to gain a more comprehensive appreciation of what was done and why.

The Duke was also in the cavalry (well, he rode horses, in the movies; I rode a tank, for real).

After leaving Yosemite along a 15-mile 7% declining road winding along a steep mountainside, I made my way up Route 295 past Mono Lake and stayed at a great little Western-style motel run by a husband-and-wife team with a great sense of humor.  I dubbed my room the “John Wayne Room” as it was decorated with pictures of the Duke in especially his roles as a cavalryman, which of course reminded me of my formative days in uniform in the (armored) cavalry.  From Bridgeport, I bid a fond farewell to the Golden State, making my way up the scenic valleys leading me through Carson City and Reno, Nevada, where I turned eastward again along Interstate 80 – the path of the Central Pacific Railroad as it had hacked its way out of the Sierra Nevada Mountains from Sacramento.  And as I made my way “back East” to look at two of the most significant endeavors in America’s quest for frontiers on a global scale in the 19th century – the Transcontinental Railroad and the Lewis & Clark expedition – and recorded the second four thousand miles of my trans-American journey, I was fortunate to gather impressions of two of the most significant projects that defined America as a continental and then a world power from the opposite side of their general direction of development.

Stephen Ambrose, in Undaunted Courage, his seminal work on the Lewis & Clark expedition, noted that Thomas Jefferson, as the third president, exercised extraordinary vision not only in committing government funds to the controversial Louisiana Purchase, but in sending Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to survey the land and find a passage to the Pacific through the Northeast Territories.  Jefferson did this, like all great visionary leaders, for numerous cogent reasons, but chief among them was to secure the position of the United States as the dominant power on the North American continent.

In another other major work, on the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, Nothing Like It in the World, Ambrose reflects that Lincoln, as if in continuation of Jefferson’s thought – and in the middle of the Civil War – continued to encourage work on the project, not only to complete it, but to insure the unity of the nation and culminate its conquest of the West following the country’s own war of unification.  (At the same time, he purchased Alaska from Russia.)

These two critical projects, by the way, are prime examples of military involvement in nation-building.  Lewis and Clark, of course, were commissioned officers while performing an essentially military operation at the behest of the Commander-in-Chief, while a great many of those who led and managed the building of the transcontinental railroad were veterans of the Civil War.

These things I had already read and learned about before taking this journey; but, by coming in from the West to the East, I was better able to contextualize them as part of a continuous flow.  (It wasn’t something I had conscientiously planned; it just worked out that way.  Serendipity, indeed, is a wonderful thing.)

It’s hard to overestimate the impact the railroads had on the development of the United States and its rise as a continental power.  From the 1830’s on, a national network rapidly took shape, much as the Interstate Highway system did in the next century.  By 1861, 31,000 miles of rail linked the eastern states, more than in all of Europe.  However, almost all of it was east of the Missouri and Mississippi Valleys.  The idea of a transcontinental railroad came from numerous sources, and not just from east to west.  By 1862, the young Californian engineer Theodore Judah had surveyed a route over the Sierra Nevada and persuaded wealthy merchants in Sacramento to form the Central Pacific Railroad, which Congress authorized that year to build eastward in the same act that chartered the Union Pacific Railroad of New York to begin along the route of the Mormon Trail laid a few years back, with the eastern terminus in Omaha, Nebraska.

The Central Pacific broke ground in January 1863 and the Union Pacific that December.  Neither made much headway, despite loan subsidies of $16,000 to $48,000 per mile (more than one to three million in today’s dollars), as well as 10 land sections for each mile of track laid (of greater interest to the railroads then).  With the country’s attention and investors’ profit incentives, labor, and material diverted by government contracts, there was little progress until the two railroad companies, in an exemplar of the free-wheeling business ethics of the 19th century, vigorously lobbied (or, perhaps more accurately, bribed) key members of Congress, in a second railroad act of 1864, doubled the land grants.  Once the war was over – and huge pools of unemployed laborers, managerial know-how, and capital were freed – work began in earnest.

Central Pacific work crews faced the rugged Sierra immediately, its mostly Chinese workers hammering out tunnels through the Sierra Nevada, sometimes at an agonizing eight inches a day.  With eight flat cars of material needed for each mile of track laid, logistics were a nightmare, especially for the Central Pacific, which had to bring in every rail, spike, and locomotive 15,000 miles around the Cape Horn (and later a case study to justify the building of the Panama Canal).

Meanwhile, the Union Pacific, which drew on Irish, German, and Italian immigrants for labor, Civil War veterans from both sides, ex-slaves, and even some American Indians, to cross easier but longer terrain, faced sometimes severe winds, thunderstorms and brutal winters, along with incessant attacks by Sioux and Cheyenne, creating an incentive for contract security forces. (Yes, Iraq and Afghanistan weren’t the first examples of private security companies.  And if the 24/7 media of today existed back then, the project may have not been completed as it was.  No one knows for sure, but estimates run between 1,000 and 2,000 as to how many workers perished in building that railroad line.)

By mid-1868, these polyglot work teams, drilled for precision track-laying by their mostly ex-army officer team chiefs, invented a pace far faster than anyone had originally thought.  Driven by land subsidy incentive, they began to pass each other for about 200 miles until Congress finally intervened to declare Promontory Summit in Utah to be the connection point, at the suggestion of the railroads driving on as much as 10 miles per day absent  government direction.  When it was over on 10 May 1869, the Central Pacific was credited with 690 miles of track; the Union Pacific with 1,086.

Seems that everything points to the Red Garter hotel and casino in West Wendover - the last gambling town before Utah (or the first one from the other side). Even "Wendover Will" helps out. American kitsch at it best. Barely visible in the far distance, over the salt flats, are the chain of mountains that cover the approaches to Salt Lake City. Those mountains are almost 100 miles away.

After breaking away from the route of the Central Pacific at West Wendover, Nevada (which offered a stunning vista over the Salt Flats to the mountains masking Salt Lake City, about 100 miles away), I crossed the saltine plain with two retired Air Force members I had met in Winnemucca, Nevada. (“Winnemucca”, Shoshone for “one moccasin”, is also where we shared a Basque meal at a restaurant that was the meeting place for the ethnic population there).  As we rode through Nevada and especially Utah, I marveled at the vastness of the West.  We were led by their friend from West Jordan (south of Salt Lake City) who afforded us the exceptional kind of warm hospitality that I had seen among other down-to-earth folks in my travels around the world, reinforcing my faith in humanity.  The following day, I headed north through town to take a look at the simultaneously religious, political, and economic capital city of Salt Lake City.

The Temple of the Church of Latter Day Saints in Salt Lake City, UT.

Joseph Campbell remarked how Salt Lake City was one of the few places where you could see, displayed in close proximity, the chronological progression of predominating values in the Western world, first with the spiritual world of the Middle Ages, the politics and governance of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and the industrial and commercial age we now live and work in, as the buildings correspondingly became the tallest – all within a few blocks.

True to this progression and order of values, as the spiritual center, the Temple constitutes the central point of Salt Lake City. The State Capitol, as the political center, is slightly taller and built just a bit later. The tallest and most recent structure is the nearby Latter Day Saints Administrative Building, which also oversees the substantial financial activities of the community.

Standing between two engines of connectivity over the railroad tie where the golden spike was driven on 10 May 1869 at Promontory, UT. My left foot is on the Union Pacific (eastern) side; while my right foot is on the Central Pacific (western) side.

Edging past the Great Salt Lake, I entered the open vista of northern Utah – a 100 mile diversion – to take a look at Promontory, and was more than glad I made the excursion.  It was not only seeing the final point of connection that helped me draw it into perspective.  It was a poignant quote from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in 1869 on the wall of the visitor’s entrance: “The journey across the plains was a great undertaking that required great patience and endurance.  Now all is changed… The six month’s journey is reduced to less than a week. The prairie schooner has passed away, replaced by the railway coach with all its modern comforts.”

I then rode back down the hills and gazed over the vastness of the area, noticing and contemplating the seemingly endless strands of barbed wire – the other great development back then that led to the closing of the frontier (in 1890) at least a century or so sooner than Jefferson had foreseen when he sent out Lewis & Clark only 66 years earlier.  (Barbed wire allowed great expanses of property to be claimed by ranchers – and taken away from the Indians).

This plaque marks the location of Camp Pleasant, where Lewis & Clark held up before pushing into much less known territory up the Missouri valley in 1803.

Another piece of the cognitive puzzle had fallen into place.  Much later on, as I came upon the site of Camp Pleasant near Chamberlain, South Dakota, to survey the Missouri Valley up which the Corps of Discovery embarked into unknown territory, my mind’s eye opened further.   It reached full aperture in Omaha, Nebraska, at the Durham Museum housed in the former Union Station, where I learned about Omaha as more of a gateway to the West than even St. Louis has been – the departure point for Lewis & Clark’s Corps of Discovery, the start of the Mormon trek to Utah in 1857, and the beginning point of the Union Pacific’s negotiation of the Great Plains.

And then the final pieces, again in the Durham Museum:  In addition to the Transcontinental Railroad and the invention of barbed wire, what really accelerated the settlement of the West and the formation of the United States as a continent as much as a country was the Homestead Act signed by President Lincoln in 1862, providing land grants for the farmers and especially ranchers who displaced the aboriginal population.

In this display at the Durham Museum in Omaha, NE, posters in English and French promising cheap farms and free homes under the Homestead Act.

My epiphany had arrived.  The push of the pioneers across the frontiers of the North American continent was, of course, another link in a chain of endeavors in the American experience to find and conquer new frontiers.  But then I realized:  In the first century of the history of the United States, these frontiers were essentially physical; by the end of the last century, they were becoming more abstract.  (Think the internet enabling this blog, perhaps the great game-changer of global connectivity, an endless cyber-frontier that is among the latest examples of the military’s contribution to nation-building.)

John F. Kennedy, in his acceptance speech for the Democratic nomination the summer before my birth, articulated this shift:  “We stand on the edge of a New Frontier—the frontier of unfulfilled hopes and dreams, a frontier of unknown opportunities and beliefs in peril.  Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.”

In the early 21st century, the United States is confronted with the opportunities and perils of the process of globalization.  As I traversed this continental country in reverse order of its development, it became clear to me that all of these efforts, extending into the 20th century on a global scale, were integral parts of a series of actions not acting merely on the impulse to expand, surmount an obstacle, or answer to a challenge (and Americans always seem to be at their best when challenged).

Rather, each and every one of these expansionary endeavors seems to have also acted on the impulse to connect, to unite, or to attach one place with another, or the past with the future.  America’s quest for frontiers was not about imperial expansion; it was about connectivity.  After it exhausted the frontiers of its own geography, the United States transformed itself into a truly trans-continental power to connect – not conquer – the world because it’s inherent existence depended on it.  The fate of this nation of nations is, in this way, extricable to the fate of the world, and vice-versa.

In other words, the history of the United States is, among many things, the history of a nation that, in many ways, serves as the global engine of connectivity – in space, in time, and most importantly in the world of ideas.  From its very inception, the United States was destined to fulfill this role.  This is America’s place in the world.

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The National Parks – Environment as Power

While in California, during one of my daily phone conversations with my Spanish girlfriend who works for UNHCR in Bukavu, Congo, I asked for her help on Spanish terminology as I look to improve my understanding of the language that has clearly become second to English in the United States.   My question that day was on the difference between “San” and “Santa” in name-places in the U.S. (Santa Fe, San Francisco, and so on).  Her explanation was (embarrassingly) simple: “San” was masculine; “Santa” was feminine.

“So does that mean Santa Claus is really a girl?”

And we Americans thought other countries were strange.  (America, after all, is the only place I know where you can drive on the parkway and park on the driveway.)

Once I left our family friends in Pleasanton, California, I was generally going eastbound, having reached the apogee of my journey.  Pleasanton (I learned from my girlfriend following my trip in the virtual spaces) was founded by John W. Kottinger, an Alameda County justice of the peace, and named after his friend, Union army cavalry Major General Alfred Pleasonton. A typographical error by a U.S. Postal Service employee apparently led to the current spelling.  In the 1850s, the town was nicknamed “The Most Desperate Town in the West” and it was ruled by bandits and desperados.  Main Street shootouts were not uncommon.  Banditos such as Joaquin Murrieta, upon whom the legend of Zorro is based, would ambush prospectors on their way back from the gold rush fields and then seek refuge in Pleasanton.  Now it’s a bedroom community for those seeking refuge between San Francisco and Sacramento.

At Olmstead Pass in Yosemite National Park.

The ride across central California through the huge truck farms described in some of Steinbeck’s novels, (once again) over the aqueduct, and into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada was uneventful (although traversing Modesto was like negotiating a maze, due to numerous road construction detours).  What helped me balance my first impression of California, having entered in the south over the Mojave Desert, was its agricultural productivity.  What would complete my appreciation of its environmental diversity was Yosemite National Park, the first of the great national parks I would see in the West on my way “back East” (an interesting term).

In 1889, John Muir, then America’s most famous and influential naturalist and conservationist, and Robert Underwood Johnson, editor of Century Magazine, had growing concerns about the devastating effects of sheep grazing in the high country.  They launched a successful campaign to persuade Congress to set aside this area as a national park in 1890. On October 1, 1890, the U.S. Congress set aside more than 1,500 square miles of reserved forest lands, soon to be known as Yosemite National Park.

The Madison River in western Yellowstone National Park. Those small specs along the river are "tatanka" (the Indian word for buffalo). When William Clark explored this area, there were hundreds of thousands of them.

Yellowstone, which is mostly in Wyoming but overlaps into Idaho and Montana as well, was the next major park-way I rode through.  Established by Congress in 1872 and administered by the U.S. Army for a good part of its early years, it is the world’s first national park, evolving as a land-use model from merely a pleasuring ground and wildlife refuge to a biosphere reserve and World Heritage Site.  With over 1,000 miles of backcountry trails, it has more active geysers than Iceland or New Zealand, as the area was formed between two and 1.3 million years ago by volcanic eruptions, the most recent spewing out 240 million cubic miles of debris over its 30-by-40 mile caldera (or basin) in the heart of the park.

I was very surprised to see in Yellowstone, of all places, one of my favorite quotes over my career as a soldier who also tried often to be a diplomat. Very much the truth, by the way, which is why it's not an easy job.

The national park system in the United States became official under the pen of Woodrow Wilson in 1916, just prior to America’s entrance into the Great War in Europe, and with it the beginning of the end of America’s self-imposed isolationism and its rise as a global power, quietly signaled by its becoming the world’s largest creditor nation.  The initial impulse was in response to what Steinbeck calls the “savagery and thoughtlessness with which our early settlers approached this rich continent…  It was full late when we began to realize that the continent did not stretch out to infinity; that there were limits to the indignities to which we could subject it… Conservation came to us slowly, and much of it hasn’t arrived yet”, he wrote in the early 1960’s.

But it was Theodore Roosevelt, the celebrated conservation president, who had the greatest impact, extending well beyond his term as chief executive from 1901 to 1909. In that period, he signed legislation establishing five national parks.  Another Roosevelt enactment had a broader effect, however: the Antiquities Act of June 8, 1906.  While not creating a single park itself, the Act enabled Roosevelt and his successors to proclaim historic landmarks, historic or prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest in federal ownership as national monuments.  By the end of 1906 he had proclaimed four.  The first was Devil’s Tower, Wyoming.

Devil's Tower from the southeast.

He was also prepared to interpret that authority expansively, protecting a large portion of the Grand Canyon as a national monument in 1908. By the end of his term he had reserved six predominantly cultural areas and twelve predominantly natural areas in this way.  Later presidents also used the Antiquities Act to proclaim national monuments, 105 in all. Forty-nine of them retain this designation today; others have been re-titled national parks or otherwise reclassified by Congress.  The Antiquities Act is the original authority for about a quarter of the nearly 380 areas composing the national park system today.

Roosevelt perceived back then what today could be called “environmental power” – that conservation was not simply a moral act or an end in itself.  It was also a matter of national security and prosperity.  I had always wondered why he was the fourth president to appear on the face on Mount Rushmore; now, having seen much of his handwork and understanding its implications, I knew why.

In his seventh annual message to Congress in December 1907, Roosevelt noted that “…the conservation of our natural resources and their proper use constitute the fundamental problem which underlies almost every other problem of our national life…  As a nation we not only enjoy a wonderful measure of present prosperity but if this prosperity is used aright it is an earnest of future success such as no other nation will have.  The reward of foresight for this nation is great and easily foretold.  But there must be the look ahead, there must be a realization of the fact that to waste, to destroy, our natural resources, to skin and exhaust the land instead of using it so as to increase its usefulness, will result in undermining in the days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them amplified and developed.”

As I looked upon the great national parks of the West, I gained a greater appreciation of what Roosevelt envisioned.  Although only 3.6% of the territory of the United States is managed by the National Park Service, assisted by nearly 150,000 volunteers, and its budget is about three billion dollars per year, the parks draw nearly 300 million visitors at the same time, generating 14 billion dollars of economic activity.  But most importantly, 30-40% of those who see the physical grandeur of the United States are from foreign countries, contributing to a more positive image of America.  As soft power becomes increasingly important, and as it becomes more difficult to preserve the world’s natural treasures in the face of overpopulation and fierce economic demand (witness the disappearance of much of wild Africa), this comparative advantage the United States currently enjoys will become even more precious and take on new meaning.

Yes, this is California. In June.

After having seen snow and ice in California in June, battled torrential downpours after failing to witness a full eruption of Old Faithful, crossed the Continental Divide in a downpour, rode along windy, steep cliffs to gaze upon the vast and expansive vistas of the Rocky Mountains, with hardly a sign of human presence, and seen two of the greatest outdoor sculptures in the world, one natural and one man-made, it was clear to me that the country’s physical attributes alone make Americans a truly fortunate people.

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The Pacific Coast – Builders and Artists

Following my return from Liberia and the wonderful family get-together in Simi Valley, on Monday the 7th of June, I was road bound again.  It was good to be back on the Harley after two weeks.  Southern California, however, was anything but warm and sunny as I made my way to the Pacific Coast Highway, although the weather improved as I got out from under the “June gloom” of fog and low-lying clouds that never seem to deposit any rain.  After lunch at Pismo Beach, I stopped off at San Simeon and visited the State Historical Monument known as “Hearst Castle” the next morning.

The main quarters of Hearst Castle, with room for 115 guests. Modeled after a 13th century Spanish castle. The Egyptian artifacts are real, and believed to precede the time of Tutankhaman, about 3,500 years.

William Randolph Hearst, the great entrepreneur and newspaper magnate who defined the modern day influence of the media on politics, wanted to be known most as a builder.  One of many he had in the U.S. and Europe and the site of his boyhood camping playground, “La Cuesta Encantada” (the Enchanted Hill as Hearst named it) went over to the State of California after his death in 1951 and has been a money-maker since.  When I first saw its opulent Mediterranean Revival guest and main houses, its prodigious collection of art and artifacts from mostly Europe and the Middle East, it struck me as the ultimate in self-indulgence by a nouveaux riche American who could afford to spare no expense in materialistic acrobatics.  But, as I began to learn more about how Hearst and his chief architect, Julia Morgan, meticulously blended its style with the surrounding land, along with the carefully chosen and placed collection, I couldn’t help but agree with the architectural historian, Lord John Julius Norwich, that “Hearst Castle is a palace in every sense of the word”.

View to the Pacific from Hearst Castle.

Except that I would add it is a truly American palace, for hardly anywhere else could something so entirely new come from something fundamentally old.  I had also learned that Hearst, along with many other wealthy Americans such as the Fords, the Carnegies, Gettys, Rockefellers, and so on, collected artifacts and artwork originally obtained from European aristocrats who were broke or under pressure to abandon their belongings for political reasons in the 20’s and 30’s. In this way, a great many treasures were preserved that otherwise might have been looted or destroyed during the Spanish Civil War or World War II.

Although it is common knowledge that wealthy families in the United States, in recognition of their good fortune and what is now called “corporate social responsibility”, have organized and contributed to many charities and foundations, I was not aware of this cultural aspect of their largesse.  While the kind of generosity of, for example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is not unique to the United States and to the rich, this kind of American exceptionalism is still rather trademark and unparalleled in scale.  Jon Steinbeck, in his discussion of the nearly endless paradoxes of America and Americans, remarked that “…if we have enough of the gold – we contribute it back to the nation in the form of foundations and charities”.  I have often pointed out to many non-Americans that, for every dollar they see in humanitarian or development assistance from the public sector, there is anywhere between two to four times as much donated from the private sector.  Most of the largest and most well-established NGOs in the world are headquartered in the U.S.  Another characteristic comparative advantage of the United States, particularly in terms of soft power.  Much of this has to do with the unique relationship between the individual and the state in America, particularly in the deep-seated distrust of the former in the latter.

The Pacific Coast Highway approaching Big Sur.

During a short interlude as I departed San Simeon to take a look at the elephant seals basking in the sun at Point Piedras Blancas, I met up with another lone biker, a German fellow riding from Florida to San Francisco, and shared the ride with him up the “PCH” as far as my next stop in Monterey.  The ride itself posed a dilemma to either look at the magnificent scenery or run my bike off the steep mountainsides than ran directly into the Pacific.  It was also ironic to not only have seen my first zebras in the wild in California (and not Africa); additionally, I spoke more German on the West Coast than I had in years, between my extended family in Simi Valley (that is, the original immigrants, as the next generation, in characteristic fulfillment of the American assimilation ethic, hardly spoke enough to order a schnitzel) and running into numerous Central European adventurers looking for a taste of freedom on two wheels.

The stopover in Monterey had three purposes.  The first and least important was to take a look around one of California’s most prosperous communities.  The second and most important was to enjoy lunch with a dear friend and colleague from the Naval Postgraduate School, one of the rare serious historians on U.S. civil affairs and civil-military operations.  She pointed out to me that – beyond the more storied examples of the U.S. military’s involvement in military government and what is now called “stability operations” in Texas before it became a state, during Reconstruction after the Civil War, throughout most of the West as the frontier expanded across the continent in the 19th century, in the Philippines and the Caribbean in the early 20th century, and in Germany and Japan in the wake of World War II – Monterey, California had its own contribution to that history.

California's Consitution Hall in Monterey, which was the first capital of the California Republic until it became a (non-slave) state in 1850.

After the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 to end the war with Mexico, California was under military governance until General Bennett Riley, the seventh military governor, grew impatient with the inability of a Congress obsessed with the balance of slave and non-slave states to form a territorial government.  He took the initiative to convene civilian leaders for a constitutional convention in Monterey, serving informally as California’s first capitol.  The Constitution, written in both English and Spanish, also enabled what Navy Chaplain Walter Colton (for whom the constitutional hall is named) described as the “fecundity of the Californians” to be exercised in proposition voting – a unique aspect of California politics that persists today.  Less than a year later, in September 1850, California joined the Union as the 31st state.

For me, this was just another example of the paradox of the role of the U.S. military in nation-building, dispelling the argumentum of the “warfighter” class in the U.S. military since the first peace operations of the 1990’s that the U.S. military should not do “nation-building” and limit itself to more “traditional” roles such as combat and big wars.  With a media (and our political, economic, and cultural elites) now with hardly any military experience or depth of understanding of U.S. history, the common perception in the American public is that the military’s involvement in “stability operations” and nation-building is a new phenomenon.  Here again, the notion that the point of reference for U.S. national security engagements is World War II and the Cold War is eclipsed by examples of the military’s involvement in “irregular” operations going back for centuries.  In fact, the predominant form of military engagement in U.S. history has been in “small wars” as nicely depicted in Max Boot’s The Savage Wars of Peace.

Thus, one of the main problems with our national security establishment is that it remains dominated by the “military industrial complex” that President Eisenhower warned about, predicated on a big war mentality in a world of small wars, technology obsessed, budget-driven, overwhelmingly focused on major combat, and risk-averse.  The controversy, as in so many aspects of U.S. politics, is presented as “either/or” – either we are able fight wars or escort children to kindergartens.  It is not, however, been “either/or” but “both” (or in military parlance, full-spectrum operations).  Fortunately, policy and doctrine has begun to recognize that.  The paradigm, however, has not shifted until it’s reflected as well in budgets, programs, and operations.  As anyone in the policy business will tell you, the devil, as always, is in the details.

Some still resist this, based on weak and credible grounds.  The more specious, as I’ve heard for some time since the 90’s, is that the rules of engagement in places like Afghanistan are too complex and restrictive for the troops on the ground – he can’t be both a trained killer and a policeman.  My answer to that was:  try explaining baseball or (American) football to someone unfamiliar with these complex and rules-intensive sports known to most Americans, who incidentally live in one of the world’s most litigious societies.  To say the American soldier is unable to grasp such complex rules in the heat of combat is to sell that young person short.  What they need, more than the rules, is a greater understanding of the political-military and cultural contexts of their operations.  Some like myself have spent a good part of our careers in the field doing just that.  American service men and women are always at their best when they understand not what they’re doing as much as why they’re doing it.

(Sports are a good analogy, by the way.   For Americans, the world is more like baseball or football – set-piece with clearly define rules and “end states” and points-productive.  For the rest of the world, it’s like soccer – highly interpretive, free-flowing, difficult to follow, and often without a clear outcome.  Watching the World Cup has hopefully given some Americans more insight into how the rest of the world perceives the international order, although I doubt most have made that connection.)

The more credible reason has to do with risk.  Apparently, what seems to be occurring in Afghanistan with respect to the rules of engagement is that, the further down the chain, the more precautions leaders are taking in order not to find themselves in trouble – not with the locals but with their superiors.   A good part of this is explainable by the all-pervasive, 24/7 media environment we find ourselves in today, where the margin for error is small and unforgiving.  The temptation, therefore, is to error on the side of caution, creating and extremely difficult situation for regular forces and handing over a distinctly great advantage to irregular adversaries.

However, a great deal of this extends from the equally pervasive risk-averse culture the pervades the contemporary U.S. military.  I witnessed the development of this during the latter half of my own career, when in the days of the “peace dividend” pursued in the wake of the Cold War, the sharp drawdown of the military forces resulted in the “zero-defects” mentality that I saw at play in the Balkans, when American troops were subjected to byzantine (and often embarrassing) rules for “force protection”, which was Mission Number One for many senior commanders right up to and following 9/11.  Many justified this with the image of “Blackhawk Down”, perpetuating the near-myth that, after Somalia in 1992, the American public had no stomach for casualties in the half-wars of that time (and thus substantiating the Pentagon’s resistance to the commitment of American troops to the Balkans, Rwanda or anything else that did not resemble a “real war”).  Those were some of the darker days of my career, as I saw that, from a leadership standpoint, the Army did not get better as it got smaller – many who had talent and who were outspoken either left or were forced out among those competing for fewer promotions.   In other words, conformity was reinforced – the “yes men” stayed as the military has less room for iconoclasts.  Fortunately, some very exceptional leaders still made it to the top, and there are many fine flag officers leading our troops today.  Nevertheless, this aspect of the military culture still lingers – and the risk aversion is as much characteristic of career-conscious civilian leadership in, for example, in the State Department.

Throughout all of our government structure involved with foreign and national security policy, military and civilian, we need to emphasis risk management over risk avoidance, give them better tools operate in such environments, and do a better job in our information strategy to inform the constituent public at home and abroad on these risks.  The media in particular needs to help explain these issues in greater strategic and historical context, more than they may have felt obligated to do in an earlier time.

Over particularly the last third of my career, it has also become clear to me that, if we are to get the interagency balance right in terms of foreign and national security policy, then we need a fundamental understanding of the civil-military relationship in strategic, operational, and tactical senses, based on the civil-military relationship in American society, as described in the Constitution and throughout U.S. history; namely, that with the possible exception of major combat operations, the military is the supporting agency and the civilian agencies are supported (size does not matter here).  Statesman should always take precedence over soldiers.  Additionally, the role of the military is as an enabler to those agencies and their activities (such as “nation-building”) in order to work itself out of those (civilian) jobs (which, by the way, have not always been traditionally done by civilian agencies, as USAID, the UN, or NGOs did not exist before World War II).

My (not entirely singular view of civil-military operations) is really an application of the paradoxical concept of deterrence I once heard (to be able to fight in order not to have to): to be able to do nation-building in order not to have to.  The concept of civil-military coordination I had put in place in Liberia, also a model for the emerging UN military policy on CIMIC – emphasized that “it’s not about us; it’s about them”, and that “winning hearts and minds” is not the real goal.  Rather, civil-military coordination is about managing the interaction between civil and military players and, most importantly, the transition from crisis response and security operations to self-sustained development in such a way that minimized risks and structured local communities and nations as much as possible for success.  Teach them how to fish, not give them one (which by the way shows more respect and wins more hearts and minds longer term), and do a few things well rather than everything half-baked, less being more.

One thing that was clear to me in Liberia that will no doubt become even more salient in Afghanistan in the next couple of years – that when international military presence that underpins stability there is leaving, the trick is to shrink potentially destabilizing gaps in self-sustained capacity and confidence before the military’s ability to do this was too insignificant.  Security and development or coefficients of each other.

Cannery Row in Monterey, site of one of John Steinbeck's most famous novels.

The third reason to stop in Monterey was to see Cannery Row, the setting of one of the works (of the same name) of John Steinbeck, with Samuel Langhorne Clemens, one of my favorite American fictional writers.  From Monterey, I rode to Salinas and stopped in at the Steinbeck Museum, which proved to be very educational.   In addition to the insights I had forgotten since the first time I read Travels with Charley (which I have now re-read), much the inspiration for my own journey around America, I learned that Steinbeck had been a war correspondent, resulting in two books that I didn’t know of:  Once There Was a War and America and the Americans (which I am now reading).

Next to Mark Twain, Steinbeck is my favorite American fictional writer. This quote was very eye-opening, and prompted me to re-read "Travels with Charley", which I hadn't done since I was a teenager.

As I continued to Pleasanton and took a look at San Francisco, following what I had seen and thought about in Monterey, I began to think about the builders and artists in America, how they have shaped the country, and what that may portend for the future.  As I realized while riding through the Southwest, there is a great deal of tension in the United States between them, given that in this commercial republic of pragmatic, results-oriented people, science tends to garner much more socioeconomic status than art.  We prefer experts to philosophers.

And yet, the icons of American culture – from the Statue of Liberty to the Golden Gate Bridge (and everything between) reflect the triumph of fusing art and science.  This is similarly true of our national security and military culture – our most celebrated military leaders, such as Robert E. Lee and George Patton, were more artists in their trade, as Eisenhower and Marshall were soldier-statesmen.  Builders make things; artists make sense of them.  Builders bring things to form; artists contextualize them.  Builders are conscientious of risk; artists are enamored with opportunity.

Like many things I was reminded of on the Pacific Coast, they go together – not “either/or” but “both”.

The north tower of the art deco Golden Gate Bridge, a classic example of a combination of art and engineering.Just a few months before my retirement, I came across a remarkable speech by John F. Kennedy given at Amherst after the passing of Robert Frost and less than a month from his own demise.  Although I have always felt Americans have neglected the potency of cultural power and the role artists have played and must continue to play if the country is to remain viable and relevant in the world, I could not have articulated now it as well as he did then:

“In America, our heroes have customarily run to men of large accomplishments…  The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us…  Our national strength matters, but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much…  When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations.  When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence.  When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.  For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment…  The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state.”

And, as did Kennedy:

“I look forward to a great future for America, a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose.  I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our national past, and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future…  I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft.  I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens.  And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well. And I look forward to a world which will be safe not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction.”

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