Once a year, we Americans set aside a day for a feast of thanksgiving. It is worth remembering — and, may I suggest, taking time to discuss with the family and friends gathered at the Thanksgiving table — to whom and for what we are thankful.
First and foremost, we owe a debt beyond measure to those who, in every generation since America’s founding, have put their lives on the line to keep the rest of us safe within our borders and our homes. At this moment, such men and women are far from their homes fighting an enemy whose goal is to make us submit — to them, their laws, and their authority. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of Iran’s Islamist revolution, put it succinctly: “People cannot be made obedient except with the sword!”
We can argue about the best strategy for defeating these sworn enemies of America and the West — of Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and moderate Muslims. But we should not be debating whether to be a bit more obedient; whether to appease this enemy; whether we can, through soft words and conciliatory deeds, make ourselves inoffensive to him; whether this conflict is our fault, at least as much as his.
Nor should we still be describing this global conflict as “overseas contingency operations” against “violent extremists” — phrases that cloud meaning and obscure understanding. The simple truth: Just as Nazism arose from within Germany, and Communism from within Russia, today radical and bellicose ideologies, movements, and organizations have arisen from within Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other Islamic countries.
“It is not Bush’s war, and it is not Obama’s war,” Lt. Gen. John F. Kelly, a U.S. Marine who fought in Iraq and lost a son in Afghanistan, told the Semper Fi Society in St. Louis earlier this month. “It is our war and we can’t run away from it.”
General Kelly, his son, and others like them make it possible for Americans to sleep peaceably in our beds. They also make it possible for us to enjoy freedom. And, pace Kris Kristofferson, freedom is not just “another word for nothin’ left to lose.” It is the foundation upon which this still-young nation has been built and all real progress rests.
Most of us would like to see freedom spread to all corners of the world. Is that a form of cultural imperialism, an attempt to “impose our values” on others? On the contrary: If it is not altruism to want others emancipated from bondage, what is? And we Americans, for all our imperfections, are a singularly altruistic people. Tell that to your children. If they repeat it at school, they will probably annoy their teachers. Good.
Enlightened self-interest is another reason to promote freedom. Most of us understand that, over the years ahead, liberty will either advance or retreat around the world. If it retreats, if a sea of tyranny laps at America’s shores, our children and grandchildren are less likely to retain the rights and opportunities we cherish.
Those rights and opportunities have produced enormous bounty, for which we also should be thankful. In a country where working hard and assuming risks can lead to great rewards, creativity flourishes and produces material gains that, over time, are spread widely.
Campaigning in 2008, Barack Obama told an audience: “We can’t drive our SUVs and eat as much as we want and keep our homes on 72 degrees at all times . . . and then just expect that other countries are going to say okay.” Count me among those who do not give a tinker’s damn whether other countries — especially countries in which enterprise and entrepreneurship are discouraged — are “going to say okay.”
The truth — and for this I am thankful also — is that America is the nation most likely to make it possible for people in other countries also to have full bellies and warm homes and mobility.
We will do this — as we have been doing it — by finding ways to make farmland more productive than could have been imagined a few generations ago. We will do this — as we have been doing it — through science, technology, engineering, innovation, and invention. We will do this — as we ought to be doing and with much greater urgency — by developing alternative transportation fuels that are not in the possession of despotic regimes seeking to defeat and dominate us.
We live in uncertain times. In the early 20th century, terrorism meant a bomb thrown into a carriage. Today, it means a passenger jet slammed into a skyscraper. Tomorrow it could mean the detonation of nuclear devices, the use of biological weapons to spread dread diseases, or even cyber attacks on our electronic infrastructure.
In the past, we fought godless enemies who killed without remorse. What could be worse than that? An enemy who believes the God he worships commands him to slaughter “infidels,” an enemy who loves death — his own and even that of his children. If that is not evil, nothing is.
Should we be thankful for this enemy and this war? No, but perhaps we can be thankful for the fact — and I believe it is a fact — that we Americans, most of us, or at least enough of us, are equal to the challenge we face. In giving gratitude we also accept obligation. “As much has been given us, much will be expected from us,” Teddy Roosevelt once said. “True homage comes from the heart as well as from the lips, and shows itself in deeds. ”
So enjoy the quintessentially American folk festival of Thanksgiving. Carve that turkey, spoon that cranberry sauce, slice that pumpkin pie. Tell those gathered round the hearth what you’re thankful for and what you’re willing to do to protect the blessings of liberty bestowed by the Creator and defended by the bravest among us. And, when the holiday is over, get back to work — because there’s a lot of work that we Americans need to do.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and Islamism.