This past Saturday marked fifty-five years since I joined the Air Force. In those fifty-five years, I’ve been involved in some aspect or another of this nation’s security apparatus, both in uniform and doing various things since I retired. My wife says I’ve flunked retirement five times—and I guess that’s right—but something always keeps drawing me back.
In those fifty-five years, I’ve worried from time to time about the threats that face this nation and various aspects of our cultural evolution. But I must tell you I think I’m more worried at this moment in our history than I’ve been in those fifty-five years. Not so much worried about the external threats to the nation, although there certainly are some that are very worrisome. Yet, what bothers me the most is that we have somehow lost our ability as a nation to come together and to solve great problems. We’re in a paralysis of sorts—everybody’s writing about it and everybody’s talking about it, but nobody seems to know exactly what to do about it.
David Ignatius had a wonderful column last week in the Washington Post about the Thatcher Revolution and how Britain was once in a similar paralysis. He described the two unwitting partners to that paralysis, the labor unions and the wealthy leadership of the Tory Party. What Thatcher did was to weaken those two powerful institutions in such a way that she could build a true, broad middle class.
Now that’s a model that is similar to ours. It’s not the same, but it rhymes. What Thatcher had was strength, conviction and commitment—and that’s the real word, commitment. Against all odds and against terrific opposition she managed to do something permanent, in a powerful way, for the UK. And they’re better for it to this day.
So commitment: let me tell you my definition of that word. I have to go into my own background. I think in my war—and for all young men that go to war—the war they’re in is their war, no matter what kinds of wars the nation has seen before.
Millions of other men went to Vietnam just like I did, but I was in a little cadre of fighter pilots that took the war to the enemy in the North. And we did it at a time when we didn’t have precision-guided munitions; we didn’t have smart bombs; we didn’t have smart airplanes; and some would say we didn’t have very smart pilots either. But we did what we had to do: We took our weapons into the jaws of the enemy and stuffed them down his throat.
We took flights of four, sometimes multiples of four, but the basic unit was a four-man flight, leader and three wingmen. And we went into the target area low and fast. It was the leader’s job to find the target, and the wingmen protected his flanks and his rear. When the leader saw the target he called it, and then he pulled, left or right, and he popped. He pulled up, as we called it seven or eight thousand feet, to roll in on his target, with the wingmen falling into trail behind him. Then four things had to occur—in space, in time, with absolute precision—to be successful. The dive angle, nominally 45 degrees, could be anything as long as you calculated it before and set your bombsight accordingly. Then air speed: coming down the chute, accelerating fast to arrive precisely at a delivery altitude, a release altitude. Having made a thousand tiny corrections to get his bombsight, his “pipper,” exactly on the target or the offset point from that target. Now that’s not a trivial task.
But it’s not what you had to do, that I want you to understand. It’s what you couldn’t do, if you were to be successful. What you couldn’t do was to take evasive action, to jink, to make yourself difficult to hit by those who were shooting at us. And there were a lot of people shooting at us in the great big shooting gallery of the Red River valley. And so, we taught young guys coming in what we must do, what we believed, and what became sort of our creed: We said from the top of the pop to bomb release, “Son, your ass belongs to Uncle Sam.” That’s commitment. It’s not heroism, it’s nothing else, it’s commitment—deadly serious commitment, to a morally significant enterprise. It was not only commonplace, it was near universal.
This nation needs a political class of leaders who have commitment of the kind I’ve described. We wouldn’t ask them to risk their lives, necessarily, but we would maybe ask them to risk their reelections. Unless we can find that kind of commitment, that kind of leadership, I don’t know how we’re going to solve these great problems that we face today. But maybe it’s the optimism of the farm boy from Iowa, in the middle of a drought, believing it’s going to rain any day now. I think the cavalry might be just over the horizon.
Joe Klein alerted me two years ago to something I had missed, even though I’ve been to Iraq eight times and Afghanistan four. In his Time piece on the next greatest generation, he describes how a generation of young men and women in these two very difficult wars, formed in the fire of that crucible, have come out of that experience hardened and disciplined, but with a special kind of feeling for each other, and feeling for the importance of the nontrivial, working together and spreading out across America.
Captains, lieutenants, majors, lance corporals and buck sergeants; they’re involved in all kinds of things. They trust each other, they work with each other, they’re results oriented, and they’re not very happy with the way Washington works, or doesn’t. They’re disgusted with the politically and strategically ill-conceived and ill-conducted wars that they fought. Some are pro-war, some anti-war, but all support the objective of getting things done. They’re nowin veterans’ organizations, helping the disabled and disadvantaged. They’re entrepreneurs, mayors of towns in Iowa and Texas, working in disaster relief efforts in Haiti or Joplin, and some are starting to come into national politics—but not yet enough.
I believe, and this is my optimism, that this may well be the generation that breaks the paralysis. Find them, identify them, support them, encourage them to run for office—and make Washington not the problem, but Washington the solution.
General Charles G. Boyd (USAF, Ret.) is the Starr Distinguished National Security Fellow at the Center for the National Interest. He is a highly decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, in which he was held prisoner for 2,488 days.
This article is adapted from an address General Boyd delivered on April 10, 2013, upon being presented with the Center for the National Interest’s Distinguished Service Award.