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A Rising Sun

by Jay Winik
April 30, 2018

Jay Winik is a writer and one of the nations leading historians. He is currently the Historian In Residence at the Council on Foreign Relations. 

In looking at the military today, we inevitably are drawn to history for context. To be sure, we live in uncertain, chaotic, and dangerous times. Abroad we have the looming specter of an increasingly belligerent Russia; of rogue regimes racing to develop a nuclear weapon, North Korea and Iran; we have the heart-wrenching sight of innocents dying a ghastly death from nerve gas in Syria. At home, we have a populist and controversial president, the two parties at each other's throats, and the fear by some that democracy itself is under assault, if not withering away or dying. We also have a government that at times appears paralyzed. And there is the axiom that a government stretched at home, will invariably have difficulty supporting the military abroad. On its face, this does not bode well. 

Is America up to this challenge? Are the danger signs all around, not just for the military but the American people as a whole?

In truth, history tells us that as a nation and a people, we are strong, stronger than the current political debate or nightly news would have most people believe.

America has weathered daunting crises before. It has survived strong presidents and bad ones, tough times and good ones. It has survived the Shays rebellion, the French Revolution, and the burning of the US capitol; a great civil war that tore us asunder, taking some 620,000 lives, an incalculable number. It survived World War I and World War II, Hitler, Nazi-ism and the Third Reich; and the Great Depression. It survived the tumult of the Korean War and agony of Vietnam and racial strife; and too, 9/11 and the seeming quagmire of Iraq.

Throughout, America has flourished. It's a remarkable story. Democracy has been strong, and democracy has prevailed. In a sense, however, it has never been easy. Think of George Washington as commander-in-chief at the beginning of the Republic. Confronted with the French military juggernaut that threatened to turn its might on America, Washington could feel himself aging day-by-day, that is, when he wasn't angrily swearing up a storm in cabinet meetings. Consider Abraham Lincoln during the Battle of the Wilderness, months after the great turning point of the war at Gettysburg. His hands clasped behind his back, his head bowed, with boxer’s circles lining his eyes, he roamed the halls of the White House muttering over and over to himself, "I must have relief from this anxiety or it will kill me." It almost did. The Union lost some 52,000 soldiers in a mere six weeks during the Wilderness campaign, nearly as many as America lost during the entirety of the Vietnam War. Or consider Franklin Roosevelt who as commander-in-chief was so genial, so confident and composed, always stoical. Yet when called upon to take the phone in the second floor Oval Office when he was given an update on the beginning of the North Africa invasion, a prelude to D-Day, his hand was shaking he was so anxious. Nonetheless, General Marshall would later tell him, "the light of battle is in our troop’s eyes.” 

History tells us who we are, where we come from, where we might be going. It is not an exact guide, but it certainly is a barometer of the future.

With American military men and women fighting abroad for our safety, we feel democracy is safe.

Is it?

Whether democracy feels strong, or whether it is under threat from at home or abroad, history also tells us – as does the constitution – that democracy is not necessarily forever. We need to fight for it. We need to lobby for it. We need to treasure it and abide by it. And we need to believe in it.

One is reminded here, of what Benjamin Franklin said at the close of the Constitutional Convention. He pointed to the President's chair, and wryly remarked, "I have often in the course of the session looked at the sun behind the president without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now I have the happiness to know it is a rising and not a setting sun."