This week we will celebrate America’s 237th birthday. There will be flags flying, fireworks and barbecues. Americans will honor military and veterans units marching in local parades. We will remember the Continental Army and fledgling Navy who persevered against long odds to make America the remarkable country it is today.
But it wasn’t just the Continental Army and the Navy that struggled and sacrificed to win our independence. There were also our Founding Fathers, the members of the Continental Congress. Immediately preceding their signatures on the Declaration of Independence are these noble words: “(W)e mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
And that is just what they did. Seventeen of the 56 signers fought in the war, and many lost their homes and businesses to vengeful British soldiers. Five signers were captured, and one died after release as a result of mistreatment while a captive. Another’s wife suffered the same fate. Others had sons captured or killed in battle.
They knew the cost of signing the Declaration and they paid it. And none surrendered their sacred honor.
COMPARED TO THOSE revolutionary times, being a politician today is a breeze. Salaries and benefits are excellent, and most make more money after leaving the Congress than they did before. Their fortunes are enhanced by their service, not sacrificed.
No longer do we ask politicians to pledge their lives. But we still ask the military and first responders to do that. The firemen and policemen who died in the Twin Towers and the military men and women who died in Iraq and Afghanistan provide recent inspiring examples of heroism and sacrifice for their fellow citizens.
What do we ask of Congress? We ask them to pledge their honor. We insist they take an oath, that says in part, “I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”
Military officers take the same oath, and enlisted men and women a similar one. But the military and political cultures developed since revolutionary times have diverged dramatically. The military culture has changed less. Honor is required, courage is revered and speaking truth to power is necessary. Difficult decisions are to be embraced, carefully considered, and then made quickly. The ultimate goal is mission accomplishment while simultaneously protecting your squad, wingman or shipmates.
The political culture is strikingly different. Honor is optional, courage is risky, and prevarication is acceptable. Difficult decisions are to be avoided and kicked downstream. Congressional districts are carefully crafted by partisan state legislatures to ensure the ultimate goal of re-election.
One reason for the recent divergence between military and political cultures is the diminishing percentage of members of Congress who have served in the military. Fewer and fewer have gone through the rigors of basic training, the perils of combat or long separation from home and family. They have never forged the bonds of comrades in arms.
Only 18 percent of today’s Congress has military service, while as recently as 1977 it was 80 percent. Back then, the veterans of World War II and the Korean War dominated Congress.
America recognizes the disparity between the Congress and the military. For 16 consecutive years, the military has rated first in Gallup’s annual poll of confidence in America’s major institutions. Congress came in dead last, with only 10 percent of citizens having confidence in Congress. In the 41-year history of the Gallup poll, no institution has had such a dismal performance.
NOT ALL POLITICIANS are cowardly, nor is everyone in the military courageous. But Washington politicians work in a tainted culture in which party leaders capture the well-intended and marginalize the courageous. For those politicians who put their constituents ahead of re-election, put country ahead of party, lead instead of follow and speak the truth even when unpopular, we thank you. You have the character to help lead us out of today’s political malaise threatening America’s future.
On Independence Day, between hot dogs and fireworks, remember with reverence the signers of the Declaration of Independence 237 years ago, and the sacrifices they made to set America free. And hope that once again America may be blessed with political leaders of selfless courage who do what is right for the country rather than what promotes their own re-election. Such men and women must be found, supported and elected to lead this great nation.
(The writer is a retired U.S. Navy officer. He lives and writes in Savannah.)