jump to navigation

Different character for different war (Scripps Howard News Service) September 22, 2001

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.

Wasn’t it only yesterday that we ushered in the new millennium and the 21st century will such loud fanfare and high hopes? But in only a matter of months, we are already engaged in the first war of the new era. Our leaders have repeatedly warned that this is a “different kind of war,” against a secret enemy in an unknown location. Perhaps there can be no high tech first round knockout punch, as in the Gulf War, and instead we may need to gird ourselves for sustained combat against terrorism around the world.

Thanks to authors and filmmakers like Tom Brokaw and Tom Hanks, we have rediscovered the key to victory in the greatest of war of the last century: the remarkable character of that generation of Americans. I know it first-hand because I grew up in one of their families. Character traits like sacrifice, loyalty, faithfulness, modesty and deferred gratification come naturally to my parents after the World War II experience. It takes some kind of character to begin your adult life by marrying and then immediately separating for several years of war-time work for mom and life on board a ship for dad.

In the early going of this war, we have already seen some remarkable displays of character, and even heroism. Who could not have been touched by the stories of firefighters and police heroically battling to rescue New Yorkers in a collapsing building? Or by the thought of United Flight 93 passengers voting to take action, presumably storming the cockpit unarmed to spare the White House or Capitol? I was even moved by hundreds of members of Congress on the Capitol steps in the immediate aftermath, with danger still in the air, joining their voices in “God Bless America.”

But to win this war, heroism cannot end there. Americans must, in fact, display a new kind of character to prevail in this new type of war.

When the book is written on this generation of Americans, and its war against terrorism, what character traits will be found that helped sustain a victory? Of many that will be needed, let me propose two ways in which Americans must reframe their character for these times:

From instant gratification to patience for the long haul. This is truly the “now” generation. Through our advanced technologies, basically everything known to man can be zipped around the world in a matter of moments and billions of dollars change hands in a nanosecond.

Already impatience is welling up in the land. We want to get this enemy, and get him now. And we are already frustrated by the longer lines and slower infrastructure we know await us when we try to go back to business as usual.

But can we reframe out thinking and recognize that a complex war like this is not fought in minutes or hours, but perhaps in months and years? If, as President Bush suggests, the opportunity before us is to rally the world community and eradicate the threat of terrorism, that may be a long-term economic, political and military campaign. Can we reframe our frustration to an understanding that patience is part of our contribution to winning this war?

From “me” to “we.” Unfortunately we are also the “me” generation, focused mainly on meeting our own needs. But in the early days of this war, there are signs that we can break through to the “we” generation that can unite to win a war like this. Among our leaders, President Clinton immediately issued a statement in support of President Bush, and congressional leaders said, we are not Democrats or Republicans today, we are Americans. But this needs to trickle down to our whole society. We must carry forward with the spirit of rescue workers who set aside their own personal safety to rescue a fellow human being in dire need, and those who gave cups of water at the bridges and opened their homes to others. After all, World War II was not just won by presidents and generals, but also by people at home who saved gasoline and learned to build ships faster than ever before.

What a difference this could make in getting through the crisis, and in the sometimes frustrating and inconvenient days ahead. In short, this “different kind of war” is as likely to be decided by character as by weaponry. Let’s be sure America is well armed.

%d bloggers like this: