On This Memorial Day, We Are Unmaking America

Soldiers salute the playing of “Taps” during the Flags-In ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, May 25, 2017. (Reuters photo: Kevin Lamarque)
Remember, in combat, fellow Americans who find themselves political adversaries are brothers.

By now it’s an old cliché. Any movie about American fighting men has to include a collection of walking stereotypes. There’s the guy from Brooklyn with the crazy accent, the guy from Kentucky who’d never been outside his hillbilly town, and then there’s the Puerto Rican, the guy swearing at his buddies in Spanish. They come from all walks of life, would never associate together in the “real world,” and yet they end up tighter than brothers, ready to die so that their friends can live.

But here’s the thing — stereotypes are often grounded in a degree of reality. Spend time in the modern American military, and sometimes it feels as if a movie come to life. You do see people who’d never encounter one another, ever, in civilian circumstance — maybe even people who’d hate one another if they met any other way — bond together tighter than brothers. They do lay down their lives. They really are ready to die so that their friends can live.

Perhaps that’s why some of the most thoughtful veterans I know can seem a bit more detached from politics than those who haven’t spent time downrange. They know what an enemy looks like, and he doesn’t look like the reporter on MSNBC or the Democratic congressman from the district next door. These veterans certainly don’t have less conviction about the issues, but they hold that conviction against the backdrop of a different — and larger — perspective.

I thought of this reality when I read General James Mattis’s comments to Dexter Filkins, one of our nation’s best national-security writers. In the middle of a long profile of Mattis, Filkins writes this:

When I asked what worried him most in his new position, I expected him to say ISIS or Russia or the defense budget. Instead, he said, “The lack of political unity in America. The lack of a fundamental friendliness. It seems like an awful lot of people in America and around the world feel spiritually and personally alienated, whether it be from organized religion or from local community school districts or from their governments.”

Remember, these comments aren’t coming from a “kids, just get along” preschool teacher but rather from one of America’s most courageous and fearsome warriors. A man who’s called “Mad Dog.”

I fear that General Mattis is right. There is a profound lack of unity in America. In fact, let’s ask a key question: Is there a single significant cultural, political, social, or religious trend that is pulling Americans together more than it is pushing us apart?

SLIDESHOW: Flags In at Arlington

The fragmentation of media, geographic separation, and the natural unwillingness to expose ourselves to unpleasant ideas means that many of us live in bubbles, where we not only don’t truly know those who disagree but we often can’t even truly understand the facts or arguments that inform their perspective.

The politicization of everything means that even sports broadcasts are increasingly tainted by political controversy, and the menu of television shows you watch is almost as predictive of your voting behavior as is the county where you live or the church you attend.

Intolerance of faith and ignorance of religion means that our first liberty — religious liberty — is typed with scare quotes, as if assertions of this fundamental freedom were somehow inherently bigoted and disingenuous. Political controversies are treated as battles between the forces of light and darkness rather than as what they typically are — contests between flawed people seeking many of the same goals.

Americans often hate their political opponents so much that they’re willing to reflexively defend gadflies, conmen, and even thugs on their own side.

Indeed, Americans often hate their political opponents so much that they’re willing to reflexively defend gadflies, conmen, and even thugs on their own side rather than concede an inch to their ideological foes.

What we lack is context. What we need is perspective. A long time ago — before I went to my officer basic course and before I deployed to Iraq with the best people I’ve ever known — I said something extraordinarily stupid. In a speech to conservative activists, I declared that the “two greatest threats to America were jihadists overseas and university radicals here at home.” Then I said, “I feel called to fight them both.” What grandiose nonsense.

As I spoke those words I had lived in Cambridge, Mass., and Ithaca, N.Y. — two of the most liberal university towns you’ll ever encounter. I had friends there. My son was born in Ithaca. I had liberal colleagues who shouted me down and called me a “fascist” for being pro-life, but I also had liberal colleagues who treated me with great respect and even helped mentor a young law student and young teacher. Some people were unhinged and intolerant. More were kind and generous.

Then, in 2007, I went to Iraq, and I saw “jihadists overseas.” They massacred entire villages. They cut the heads off their enemies, filmed the executions, and celebrated their kills like fans at a soccer game. They blew themselves up outside restaurants, and then, when first responders raced in to save the wounded, they’d send in another bomber, just to make people suffer more. They raped women to turn them into suicide bombers, and they shot babies in the face to shock families into submission.

That’s what you call “perspective.”

Each and every Memorial Day should remind us — in the long row of tombstones marking the graves of Americans from every race, creed, and religion — that we remain in this thing together, and even as we use strong words and speak with deep conviction, we will, at the very least, seek to understand opposing views and, always, defend for others rights that we would like to exercise ourselves.

General Mattis is a thoughtful warrior leading the most powerful military in the history of the world, and he sees what we all see — that the society he defends is fracturing even as it remains strong in the face of outside threats. When it comes to our national future, we are the problem. We are unmaking the nation that our forefathers made.


Slideshow: Flags In at Arlington

Slideshow: Arlington National Cemetery

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