Magazine | July 11, 2016, Issue

Call to Arms

In the Arena: Good Citizens, a Great Republic, and How One Speech Can Reinvigorate America, by Pete Hegseth (Threshold, 304 pp., $28)

There is a dreary sameness to all too many conservative books. They reflect on America’s cultural, economic, or strategic decline, collect outrageous stories of leftist abuse, and then blame the other side of the aisle for America’s woes. We hear of the Left’s assault on religious liberty, the Left’s war on free speech, and the Left’s hatred of Western civilization. There is certainly value in understanding the Left’s actions and ideology, but it sometimes seems as if conservative publishing has devolved into a contest to see which pundit can write this year’s “progressives wreck America” best-seller.

Pete Hegseth’s new book, then, comes as a tonic. It was inspired by Theodore Roosevelt’s celebrated 1910 speech “Citizenship in a Republic” — the speech in which Roosevelt declared, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better,” and extolled instead the “man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again” and “spends himself in a worthy cause.”

Hegseth is inspired not just by this passage but by the entire speech, and he uses it as a framework for an analysis of our troubled times and as a striking personal challenge. Are you “in the arena”? Are you spending yourself in a worthy cause? Are you striving valiantly? While the book isn’t a memoir, Hegseth does reflect on the lessons he learned during deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and during political battles here at home. It’s a good-spirited and very personal lecture, in which the words “I was wrong” appear far more than they do in the typical political book.

Building on Roosevelt’s observation that great republics require good citizens, Hegseth outlines an ecumenical vision of the “virtues and duties” of citizens. While Hegseth is unabashedly Christian, his virtues are the ones honored across religious traditions. He challenges Americans to be devoted to their work, to be willing to fight for their values, to raise large families (more on that in a moment), and to develop strength of character, specifically the character traits Roosevelt advocated — including “self-restraint, self-mastery, common sense,” and “courage and resolution.”

Hegseth argues that large families (which he defines as those with three or more children) are a check against self-indulgence. Children “humble you, teach you, and keep you grounded.” Hegseth echoes Roosevelt’s condemnation of the “willfully barren” — those who, for the sake of self-actualization, choose not to have children. It’s a counter-cultural message, especially in an era when many progressive ideologues argue that having kids is a form of planet-destroying excess and even decry parents as “breeders”; but that’s exactly why it’s thought-provoking and necessary.

It’s one thing to exhort people to “be brave” or to “sacrifice more,” but Hegseth goes one step farther, with specifics: Have more children. Volunteer to fight for your nation. Step into the arena at work and at school. He reminds us that it’s not our thoughts or our hashtags that make us good citizens: It’s our actions.

After outlining the virtues of the good citizen, Hegseth contrasts the actions and beliefs of the “good patriot” with the Left’s moral relativism and its “citizen of the world” ideology. Here he draws on his experience in Iraq and Afghanistan to demonstrate how to separate reality from wishful thinking. He shows that, contrary to the nostrums of the Left, there are no easy answers to the threat of jihad. While his policy prescriptions lack the punch of his personal reflections, his views are thoughtful and informed. They constitute a useful reminder that — in both the clash of ideas here at home and the clash of civilizations abroad — conservative ideals fail not so much for lack of intellectual strength or emotional clarity but for lack of men and women in the arena. The problem of relative American strategic decline and cultural malaise is one that begins in the mirror, not with the Left.

His central point is that a sense of entitlement or grievance is incompatible with the virtues of good citizenship, yet creeping entitlement is taking hold even in America’s more conservative subcultures. Our economy stagnates . . . because of China. Our religious liberty disappears . . . because of Apple or PayPal. Our personal economic prospects worsen . . . because of immigrants. And while no one argues that external forces are irrelevant to national or personal vitality, Americans still retain an enormous amount of autonomy. Families can still do much to shape their own destinies.

Yet we live in the age of the victim. Asking for virtue is called “victim-blaming,” and noting that even the most disadvantaged of Americans enjoy opportunities that few in the world can comprehend is called “poverty-shaming.” We’re all helpless in the face of “larger forces,” and only our technocratic masters can save us now.

The answer lies in the arena — in the fight. Yet no fight is without risk. Hegseth could have lost his life in Iraq and Afghanistan, and stepping into the arena at home can carry its own consequences, but it’s imperative that we pause and reflect on our personal course. Are we bitterly choosing the path of least resistance, feeling helpless in the face of larger cultural or political forces? Do we blame others for our dashed hopes? Hegseth writes that every night he examines himself, asking whether he’s doing all he can. We should want our faces to be marred by (sometimes literal) dust and sweat and blood.

Hegseth closes with an admonition he received when he was only 19. A Vietnam vet looked him in the eyes and said, “Pete, whatever you do, don’t miss your war.” Those words apply to military conflict, certainly, but also to the cultural and political challenge of our time. America’s great tragedy is not that its citizens are fighting for virtue and losing. The great tragedy is that so few fight at all.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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