Speech by George F. Will at US Naval Academy on 24 January 2001

Forrestal Lecture Series, U.S. Naval Academy, January 24th, 2001 Guest Speaker: Mr. George F. Will

EMCEE: Good evening. It's my pleasure tonight to welcome Mr. George Will to the United States Naval Academy Forrestal Lecture Series. Mr. Will was born in Champaign, Illinois, and attended Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, Oxford and Princeton where he earned his Ph.D. He has served on the faculty at Michigan State and Harvard.Since 1974, Mr. Will's columns have been syndicated by The Washington Post. Now, they are syndicated in almost five hundred newspapers in the United States and Europe. In 1976, he became a contributing editor for Newsweek magazine. And in 1977 won the Pulitzer Prize for his work in newspaper columns.Recently, the topics of some of Mr. Will's columns have been: cloning, the drug war, and the presidential election. Mr. Will is also an avid baseball fan. Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming Mr. George Will.

<applause>.

MR. WILL: Thank you, thank you very much. It is true that I only write about politics to support my baseball habit, and during the questioning period questions on baseball are welcomed.Tonight, however, I have escaped from Washington, which, as you know, is an enclave surrounded on four sides by reality, and come here to talk to you about the nature of the military and the nature of its relationship with the changing, not all together for the good, American culture.


I want to read you something said by several of our leaders recently. The first is from a graduate of this fine institution, Senator John McCain. "It is," said the Senator, "a fundamental proposition that armed services can truly serve a democracy only if they are a reflection of that society and are impacted by the same social trends." What I wish to do tonight is respectfully disagree with that.

A recent Secretary of the Navy said something very similar. "As American society changes," he said, "the naval service changes with it. That's not bad. That's the way it's supposed to be." Again, I respectfully, but emphatically, disagree.

We're told all the time that there is a large and growing problem and that there is a need to close the gap between the military and civilian society." I think that the gap is healthy and the gap is necessary, that the gap must exist in any society and, in a sense, especially in a democratic society. That is because the military must be an exemplar of certain virtues that will, at any given time, seem anachronistic and it is a function of the military to be exemplars.

I was noticing the other day -- I don't know if I'm allowed to speak ill of the Army <laughter> -- I was noticing the other day The New York Times ran a story about a new Army recruiting campaign. Now, I thought it was bad enough when the recruiting slogan for the Army was, "Today's Army wants to join you!" This is the lead paragraph in The New York Times the other day, "In the most sweeping revision of its marketing practices in two decades, the Army this week will scrap its memorable advertising slogan 'Be all that you can be,' and replace it with one intended to appeal to the individualism and independence of today's youth. An 'An Army of One.'"

They adopted this, they say in the story, because people thought the military was dehumanizing. And the Army has decided to stop advertising so much during professional football games and advertise more on Friends, The Simpsons and something called Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. <laughter> Now, I don't know what this "Army of One," is going to do for our country, drawing from that particular audience, but I had thought that one of the points of the military was to counter the somewhat excessive individualism of our society, to preach and teach and practice selflessness. I seem to recall something important about unit cohesion. Instead, we now have even the military talking the new-age language of self-actualization. We live, it is said, in a "me, now" age. "I want things for me, and I want it right now," and it is said the military must close the gap between the "me, now " society and itself.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I have a simple thought for you, and I believe every public speaker should have one emphatic clear point, and you are about to hear mine.

I should tell you, as a matter of digression, that my model as a public speaker is the late Conrad Hilton, the hotel magnate who, late in his life, appeared on The Tonight Show, then with Johnny Carson, and Carson said, "Mr. Hilton, you are a giant of American attainment, a legend in your time, you've built hotels all over the world, turn to that camera right over there, look your fellow countrymen in the eye and tell them the one thing, based on your life's work, that you would like your fellow countrymen to know." Like a great trooper, Conrad Hilton turned to the camera, looked America in the eye and said, "Please, put the curtain inside the tub." <laughter and applause> It was a practical and eminently sensible thought and mine for you is similarly practical, eminently sensible, and even, I should say, banal.

It is, as I say, that as American society becomes more individualistic, more self-absorbed, more whiney, in a sense, more of a crybaby nation, as I am bound to say on occasion, it becomes doubly important that the gap between the military and society remain substantial.

We've just gone through a very interesting presidential election. It was said it was bitter. Ladies and gentlemen, that was not bitter. A hundred and fifty years ago we were arguing about slavery. That was bitter and divisive.

Fifty years ago the names of royal American politics were, Douglas MacArthur, Joe McCarthy, Alger Hiss, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Treason was in the air. That was bitter politics.

Thirty-five years ago, we argued over whether African-Americans should be allowed to vote and enter restaurants. Those were bitter politics.

Thirty years ago, we argued about a ground war of attrition in the mainland of Asia. Those were bitter politics.

Twenty years ago, a man who described the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" was inaugurated president, replacing a man whose Secretary of State said Leonid Brezhnev, the head of the Soviet Union, "shares our dreams and aspirations." Those were bitter elections.

There's no bitterness to speak of in America today. There's only an astonishingly low pain threshold. <laughter>

We just went through a Christmas retailing season, and all the papers said we had a bad, disappointing, sad, terrible Christmas retailing season. The Christmas retailing season this year was slightly better than last year, and last year's Christmas season was the best in ten years.

You heard NASDAQ had the worst year in its twenty-nine year history. After that worst year in its twenty-nine history, the NASDQ is sixteen percent higher than it was two years ago.

It is said that one day last fall, October 12th, the stock market lost three hundred and seventy-nine points--3.6 percent of its of value gone in one day! The sell off started minutes after Home Depot, great retailing chain, announced that its growth would be four percent instead of seven percent. Now, I don't know when four percent growth became a national calamity. Well, the trouble is expectations were for seven percent! Well, who sets expectations? Stock analysts. What do stock analysts sell? Stocks! They sell expectations. The country is becoming slightly neurotic. <laughter>

Last summer, you may recall, we had a slight up tick in a gallon of gasoline's price. Why, at one point, the price of a gallon of gasoline in America soared to about forty percent of what it is in Europe. <laughter> So, the government of the United States, that exists to "feel our pain," tapped the strategic petroleum reserve, which exists to protect this country against a major interruption of supplies, but was used instead to knock a nickel off a price of a gallon gasoline. Think of this country, Americans driving around in their Lincoln Navigators, lurching, barely making it from one gas station to another <laughter>, sipping designer water that costs a lot more than gasoline <laughter> and talking on their cellphones to one another about how they are suffering. <laughter>

This is a country, ladies and gentlemen, in which the number of households with a net worth of a million dollars has doubled in the last five years. One in fourteen American households now has a net worth of a million dollars! Think of the changes this country has gone through.

In 1939, '40 and '41, when the clouds of war began lowering over Europe, Congress passed conscription and had to stipulate the physical requirements for a young man to be eligible to be taken in to the armed services. Three of them were: a young man had to be a minimum of five feet tall, had to weigh a minimum of one hundred and five pounds and had to have twelve of his original complement of thirty-two teeth. A commentary, let me tell you, on nutrition and dentistry during the depression.

As recently as 1951, and '53, Americans lived in homes with outdoor plumbing. As recently as 1975, eighty percent of the American people had never, once, traveled by air. In 1975, an IBM mainframe computer cost 3.4 million dollars. Your fifteen-hundred dollar laptop is about a thousand times more powerful.

If there had been a comparable improvement in the price and performance of an automobile, an automobile today would cost two dollars and would go six hundred miles on a thimble full of gasoline. <laughter> And we would all be on our cellphones complaining about the thimble full price. <laughter> This is a country that is spoiled...badly spoiled.

I mean, think of the changes in health care in our lifetime, in our last century. It has been commonly said, and not untruly, that it as not until about 1910 that the average visit to a doctor did more good than harm. At about that time, Oliver Wendell Holmes, the great supreme court justice, said, "I firmly believe that if the whole materia medica could be sunk to the bottom of the sea, it would be all the better for mankind and all the worse for the fishes." <laughter>

At the turn of the last century, one in four American children died before age fourteen. And if your child got diabetes, you watched the child go blind and die. We live in a wonderful, wonderful time to be alive. And we use our leisure time to complain. You would think we would have learned from the terrors of the last century: not to complain, and, on the other hand, not to be complacent about the world in which we live, which holds a good many terrors and furies worse than the high price for a gallon of gasoline.

In 1910, forty years after the Franco-Prussian War, forty years of remarkable peace in Europe, a book published by a man named Norman Angell became an international bestseller, one of the first such. It was called The Great Illusion. His argument was that the "great illusion"--that we now recognize was an illusion--was that nations could not benefit from war. Therefore, he said there would never ever be another war. That was 1910.

President David Jordan of Stanford University said, and I quote, "The great war of Europe, ever threatening...will never come.... The bankers will not find the money for such a fight, the industries will not maintain it, the statesmen cannot.... There will be no general war." Mr. Jordan said that in 1913, one year before the Guns of August that began what was, essentially, a thirty-year European war.

Today you may have noticed, there are similar predictions of eternal peace. And against those making those predictions, some people must stand and say that great nations are always living in the war years or the inter-war years. Now, I know the American people generally tend to say, "Well, so far, so good...so far, so good." "We're getting along just fine." "Don't really need much of a military anymore, don't need weapons systems ... so far, so good." It reminds me, as almost everything does, of a wonderful baseball story -- it's true, too.

In 1951, there was a pitcher named Warren Spahn. Some of us are old enough to remember Warren Spahn. He is the winningest left-handed pitcher in the history of baseball. He was pitching in 1951 one day for the then-Boston Braves against the then-New York Giants in the then-Polo Grounds. And the Giants sent up to the plate a rookie who was 0-for-13. It was clear the kid could never hit big-league pitching...it was a little kid named, Willie Mays. Spahn stood on the mound, sixty-feet six-inches from home plate, fired the ball and Mays crushed it. First hit, first home run! After the game the sports writers went up to Spahn in the clubhouse and said, "Spahnie, what happened?" Spahn said, "Gentlemen, for the first sixty feet that was a hell of a pitch!" <laughter>

Trouble is, in the life of nations, as in the life of a baseball game, it's not good enough. "So far, so good" is not a prudent way to conduct your life as a nation. We are a nation that has to be constantly reminded of what George Orwell said, "We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm." We are not a nation that likes to hear that. We are a pacific nation conditioned by broad oceans between us and dangers and two peaceful neighbors. All the more reason why we have to be reminded that the world remains a dangerous place.

There was a recent poll -- I do hate to keep picking on the Army, but I must. There was a recent poll that showed that thirty-two percent of the men in the Army and fifty-five percent of the women in the Army disagreed with the Army's focus on war fighting. <laughter> And that's before it became "An Army of One." <laughter> Well, that's what happens, I suggest to you, when you have a society in which very few people have much experience with the military.

At one point during the last administration, we had a president, a director of the Central Intelligence Agency, a Secretary of Defense, a Secretary of State and a National Security Advisor of the president--all five had zero military experience. There are fewer and fewer veterans in Congress today. The veterans of our foreign conflicts are aging. The average World War II veteran is about seventy-eight today, and there are thousands of World War veterans who die every day. The average age of a Korean veteran is sixty-eight. Vietnam veteran, fifty-three.

Think of something else. Harvard, in the four years of the Second World War, lost six hundred and ninety-one of its students. Harvard, during the twelve years of the Vietnam War, the Class of '61 through the Class of '72, those twelve classes, lost twelve people combined.

We are developing, in a sense, a society that is strange to the military and the military is strange to it. Well, we were told after all, the title of a famous book published recently, that we have reached the end of history. The author of that book, a very intelligent man, did not mean there would be no more events, but he did mean that we had reached the end of history in the sense that there were no more fundamental arguments. That the American model had been accepted around the world, the dispersal of decision making, free markets, pluralism--we heard that before, remember, from Mr. Angel in 1910 and President Jordan in 1913. Well, it was part of the belief. It is a recurring American belief, a belief really born with the 20th Century.

A hundred years ago, science was in the air: Marconi, the Wright Brothers, Edison, Henry Ford. And there was a belief then that you could have political science as well. And if you just get the experts that we have scientific politics...well, you would not have any conflicts anymore. You would be at the end of history.

In 1912, we elected, as president, a man who, nine years earlier, was a founding member of the American Political Science Association, Professor Thomas Woodrow Wilson. We are hearing the same thing, again, today. Except instead of confidence in science, it's confidence in the new information technologies. The theory being that everyone will either be so busy playing video games on the WEB, or do whatever you people do, that we will get to know one another, and once we get to know one another, the world will get along. Of course, that's what they said in the thirties, and once we got to know Hitler, we knew we had to go to war. <laughter>

The fact is, very intelligent and prudent and sober men and women now look at the world and see a coming clash of civilizations. They see that what Marx predicted, which was that all the post-industrial forces in the world, particularly religion and ethnicity, would lose their salience in the modern world--Marx, as usual, was a hundred percent wrong. Religion and ethnicity convulsed the world almost more than ever before.

And this time, some of the clashes will be well-armed with weapons of mass destruction. Which means it is dangerous for a country like ours to have an extremely low-pain threshold, an extremely sentimental view of the relations between nations, an extremely delusional view of the dangers of the world being drained away, and, I must tell you, an extraordinary squeamishness with regard to the fact that the military exists to engage in violence. That is a particularly important squeamishness in an age of graphic journalism.

Let me tell you a story. September 17, 1862, is to this day the bloodiest day in American history. It was the Battle of Antietam, not far from here. About two days after the Battle of Antietam, a couple of men walked across the field carrying what was at that time a strange device. It was a camera. These were men from the Mathew Brady Studio in New York. They recorded what they saw on that field in Northern Maryland, went back to New York and, in a few weeks, had put on an exhibit called "The Dead of Antietam." The nation was never quite the same. The war had been a distant thing then and suddenly graphic journalism made the reality of war real.

Do you know that in the First World War, the worse carnage the world has ever seen, during the entire four years of carnage, not one photograph of a dead British, French, or German soldier appeared in a British, French or German newspaper? It was not until about 1943, and after a nine-month wait by the War Department, as it then was called, did Life Magazine publish the first photograph of a dead American soldier. Vietnam, as is well known, was the first television war, and it was not a good experience. Now, the rule is, it is sort of the Colin Powell Doctrine, that the only time the United States can use its military is when it can be over quickly, "quickly" defined as before Sam Donaldson gets there with a camera. <laughter>

This does not bode well for a country dealing with a still dangerous world. And the problem is that there are aspects of democracy, systemic problems with a society organized around the premises of democracy that tend to make it soft.

A French officer once said, "Democracy is the best system of government yet devised but it suffers from one grave defect. It does not encourage those military virtues on which, in an envious world, it must frequently depend on for survival."

Think of what the democratic ethos has become. It is materialist. It is individualistic. Its language is "rights" talk, the constant minting of new rights and the casting of every conflict as a collision of absolute rights, which means it is a litigious society govern by lawyers. When this year's freshman class in America's law schools graduates we will--at last--have, and aren't we proud, a million lawyers in this country.

Democratic society is hostile to hierarchies, hostile to authority. Hostile, in short, to the essence of the military organization, which is why democracies are ambivalent about the very idea of leadership. You know the word "leader" appears in the Federalist Papers, the great documents arguing for the ratification of our Constitution, eleven times--it was a derogatory term.

Democracies tend to think leaders are bad things because they reflect poorly on the people who need to be lead. Well, we know in our heart of hearts that the common man is fine. As Lincoln said, "God must have loved the common man, he made so many of them, but it is uncommon men and women, uncommon men and women who, when nations get in danger, as they invariably do, must come to the fore and lead."

And, again, it is hard for society to accept when society has decided that the worst possible sin is to be judgmental.

It is hard for a society to understand that when it believes that the Ten Commandments are really the "ten suggestions."

It is hard for a society to believe, when it starts speaking as ours does entirely, the language of extenuation--the language that explains why people behave badly and why they should not be judged harshly for that.

We are becoming a society that revels in victim hood, that practices identity politics, that we should act in politics by our ethnic or sexual group, and that our group should be grievance groups explaining why we are victims and why we are owed something.

It is said that the danger we face in our society is that Americans will begin to feel that some Americans are morally superior to others. Well, I have a news bulletin for you: Some Americans are morally superior to others and, frankly, that is why you are here, on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Because you are training to be leaders. You are training to exercise judgment. You are training to be a hierarchy. You are training to be more than individualists. You are not here because you are materialists. And you are here to acquire a moral superiority.

We recognize it in sports in our society, and that's a good thing. But, we have to recognize it elsewhere. And I will tell, if I may, the greatest baseball story ever told, and it's true. <laughter>

About 1924 Rogers Hornsby, the greatest right-hand hitter in the history of baseball, was at the plate. There was a rookie pitcher on the mound, and the rookie was quite reasonably petrified. The rookie threw three pitches that he thought were strikes, right on the edge of the plate, but the umpire said, "ball one, ball two, ball three." The rookie got flustered and shouted in, "Ump, those were strikes." The umpire took off his mask, looked out at the pitcher and said, "Young man, when you throw a strike, Mr. Hornsby will let you know. <laughter>

It is a good habit of our society to recognize excellence. In the Hornsby case, if he didn't swing it was not a strike. It was that simple. Hornsby had become the standard. And I trust what we try to do in the military academies is to produce men and women who want to be, as Hornsby was, the standard. Well, we certainly better.

Now, there are some very good signs that America is hungry for what this institution specializes in: hungry for honor, hungry for sacrifice, hungry for something larger than individualism and materialism. Look at the reception given to the movie Saving Private Ryan. Look at the astonishing success of Tom Brokaw's book The Greatest Generation. Look at the astonishing hunger for the books of Stephen Ambrose, about D-Day and the rest. A hunger, a palpable hunger, and that is healthy. Because in its heart of hearts, this nation knows how much it has depended in the past, and will one day again depend upon you. And how much, even in peacetime, it depends, not just on the military to keep the peace, but to deterring the envious and the aggressive. The country, in its heart of hearts, knows that it needs its society leavened by the small numbers in the military who hold up a sense of the way you honor a country.

I want to read you something. This is a story told by a foreign diplomat who was in his own country overseas, and he had occasion to visit the United States Embassy in the capital of his country. This is the story he tells: I arrived a quarter to six, after official office hours, and was met by the Marine on guard at the entrance to the Chancery. He asked me if I would mind waiting while he lowered the two American flags at the embassy. What I witnessed over the next ten minutes so impressed me, that I am now lead to make this occurrence of part of any ongoing record of this distressing era. The Marine was dressed in a uniform, which was spotless and neat, he walked with a measured tread from the entrance of the Chancery to the stainless steel flagpole before the Embassy and, almost reverently, lowered the flag to the level of his reach where he began to fold it in a military fashion. He then released the flag from the clasp attached to it, stepped back from the pole, and made an about face and carried the flag between his hands, one above, one below, and placed it securely on a stand before the Chancery. He then marched over to the second flagpole and repeated the same lonesome ceremony.

After completing his task, he apologized for the delay, out of pure courtesy, as nothing less than incapacity would have prevented him from completing that task, the simplicity of which made the might, the power and the glory of the United States of America stand forth in a way that a mighty wave of a military aircraft or the passage of a super carrier, or a parade of then thousand men and women, could never have made manifest.

One day it is my hope to visit one of our embassies in a far away place and to see a soldier fold our flag and turn to a stranger and say, "I am sorry for the delay, sir. I had to honor my country."

In a time not hospitable to the military virtues, a time not hospitable to identifying virtues, let me tell you: You honor your country by being here and going where you will go next. And you honor me, by allowing me to return twenty years after my first visit for a Forrestal lecture to pay what, I hope, is a compliment that many others will pay you.

Thank you for hearing me out. <applause>