Every sailor who stands watch in the pilothouse learns the COLREGS.
Known more commonly as the Rules of the Road, the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea are the maritime laws that govern all ships on the high seas, no matter how big or small, no matter what flag or nationality.
There are many regulations contained in the COLREGS, but the one that all bridge officers learn first is Rule 16: Take early and substantial action to avoid collision.
In a nutshell, what that means is this: look ahead, beware the dangers, take early decisive action to avoid danger and make it obvious so as to clearly signal your intentions to others. There is little that will hazard a vessel more quickly than to be an indecisive pilot, even doing nothing is better than being timid or reacting out of fear.
And in fact, take early and substantial action is the guiding principle of all military officers, no matter their service.
If you think about that for a minute, you’ll realize that this cardinal rule of the sea is also a pretty good guide for governments too.
The last post, Rage Against The Dying of the Light, discussed in general terms how republics die. If you haven’t read the post, I basically said that the irrational fear of totalitarianism and decline often unintentionally lead to decline and totalitarianism in one form or another. This isn’t the only possibility, decline, collapse, and chaos is another option. There are other things that can happen, few good.
When a nation, especially a republic, is young and dynamic, when its population in relation to the land it occupies is small and continuously expanding, then the problems are relatively easy to face. Expansion outpaces decay. Income outstrips expenditures. Energy and optimism outshine malaise and pessimism. Leadership outshouts indecisive clamor. A young nation looks out towards the future.
A young nation embraces change, an old nation fears it.
People are often that way too, it’s not age per se that defines who is young and who is old, but outlook.
Compare the hopeful wondrous attitudes of, say, the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, where despite the Great Depression the theme was “The Century of Progress” and the emphasis was on change and the brightly lit future, to … well, the United States hasn’t actually hosted a World’s Fair for more than three decades now. Consider that the dynamic young US once hosted those expos every few years.
Outlook, my friends, outlook defines both people and nations.
Hindsight is almost always 20/20. History shows repeatedly that all nations sooner or later reach a point where their populations become timid, fearful of change, static instead of dynamic, backward facing instead of forward leaning – and it is at that point where they being to decline. It’s that point, where historians place their finger on the timeline and say, here, right here was the beginning of the end. When that happens, the events described in Dying of the Light become far more likely. The population often becomes stratified into the haves and the have-nots and sooner or later it all falls apart.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Always there are turning points where, if a nation takes early and substantial action, disaster can be avoided.
Sadly, that rarely, rarely ever happens – like ships, societies have tremendous inertia and it takes a long and sustained effort to come about – but it can be done.
If you want to avoid the rocks, you need to be alert for the shoaling water.
You cannot mandate that alertness, that skill, that sailor’s weather eye. You cannot mandate that form of seasoned critical thinking, the type of reasoning that can see clearly into the future, that can understand the myriad details of navigation and effectively extrapolate the consequences of different actions.
No, you cannot mandate that kind of thinking.
But you can create an environment that fosters it.
Good captains aren’t born, they’re made.
It’s a common fallacy that great leaders are simply born that way. If that were true then military training would be very, very different. No. The actual truth of the matter is that while some folks are indeed born with the innate characteristics that give them a certain advantage as leaders – just as certain folks are born with the traits that make them better basketball players, or more insightful writers, or more skillful pilots – effective leadership itself is a product of education, training, and experience.
Good leaders are not born, they are made.
The same is true of good citizenship.
A ship can get underway without her Captain… but she won’t move one inch without a well trained and effective crew.
How do we save the United States of America from the fate that has befallen all other republics before us?
Americans have been sold a false bill of goods, i.e. that our country can only be saved by a great leader. You hear it all the time, we need a Washington, a Lincoln, a Roosevelt, a Reagan. We need great leaders in Congress, we need a Henry Clay, a Thaddeus Stevens, a Charles Sumner – hell maybe even a Tip O’Neil. We need a great leader to turn things around.
The strength of a republic is that its greatness does not depend on great leaders – only good ones.
And good leaders can be made - we do it every single day in the military.
In America, our leaders come from our citizens.
If you want good leaders, you’ll need to start with good citizens.
Because, see, the weakness of a republic is that its greatness does depend, greatly, on good citizens.
In the early days of Rome, young Legionnaires were admonished to come home from battle either with their shield or carried upon the same. In other words, strength of character matters, courage matters, duty matters. Return with your shield or come home carried upon it as the honored dead. No more, no less. Put another way, ask not what your country can to for you, but what you can do for your country.
When this custom declined, so did Rome.
Today, the strength and courage of our own Legionaries is not in question, but there is far more to citizenship in America than serving the republic in war.
Because, see, unlike Rome, our republic is not a hereditary one, divided into citizen and property, Patrician and Plebian and and slave. What makes us different is that we are all citizens equally and our republic is a reflection of its citizens. To say that our nation is in decline is to say that we are in decline – not just those on the other side of the aisle, not just those who are different, not just our neighbors of whom we don’t approve, all of us. That is what you’re saying when you say that America is in decline.
If we want to make America better, then we must become better citizens.
However, you cannot mandate patriotism.
You cannot mandate duty.
You cannot mandate honor.
You cannot mandate courage.
You cannot mandate critical thinking.
But you can create an environment that fosters it, that encourages it to grow, that makes it.
If you want a better nation, then you need to be better citizens.
Being a good citizen isn’t about being the biggest patriot. It isn’t about waving the biggest flag or a copy of the Constitution. It isn’t about which political party you belong to or which one is best. It isn’t about who you hate. It isn’t about who is more ethical or more moral or more righteous. It isn’t about which religion you believe in or what your skin color is or who you’re sleeping with.
You don’t have to be exceptional to be a good citizen, and being a good citizen shouldn’t make you exceptional. The same is true of nations.
Being a good citizen is knowing how your government works, how your nation works.
It’s knowing the history of your country, the good parts, the great parts, the mundane parts, and most especially the bad parts. Hiding the warts won’t make them go away. Rewriting history doesn’t make it so. Those that deliberately forget the terrible part of their past are damned to see their children repeat it.
It’s about educating yourself on the issues that affect you, your neighbors, and your nation – and by educating yourself, I don’t mean just listening to the uneducated pundits who say only what you want to hear. If you listen only to what you already “know” you’re not educating yourself. Education should sometimes hurt, it should change the way you think, the way you see the world – if it doesn’t, if it’s not painful, you’re not learning anything. Sometimes education is about letting go things you were sure you knew.
It’s about pushing your children to be more than you are. If your children believe only what you do, if they see the world only as you do, if they hate the people you hate, if they grow only until they are even with you and no more – then the republic can only stagnate. Young growing nations face change head on, they embrace it. Old dying nations fight change until the barbarians tear down the walls.
It’s about working together, all of us. It’s about looking out for each other, all of us. It’s about the strong helping the weak, all of us, else what is civilization for?
It’s about taking early and substantial action.
It’s about courage.
It takes courage to stand the watch.
It takes courage to face down the things you fear and hate.
It takes courage to embrace change, to be young, to be fearless.
It takes courage to have hope, to be optimistic, to believe.
It takes courage to be a good citizen.
But in can be done.