Fort Report: Lift Her Up!
Upon a visit to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, I noticed among its many noteworthy qualities that the bucolic campus reflected a harmony, orderliness, and dignity, a call to something higher. Creating a sense of place as a message for the ages used to be the tradition in American public architecture.
In one of the Academy’s halls, a United States submarine commander named Howard W. Gilmore is honored. During World War II, Gilmore ordered his submarine to the surface of the ocean, and the crew came onto the deck. Enemy planes spotted the vessel and began a strafing run. The crew on deck scrambled back inside to go into dive mode. As one crewmember looked back, he saw Gilmore lying on the deck, wounded by the hail of bullets. Gilmore looked at the sailor and said, ‘Take her down!’” The Commander knew he would be left behind to drown, but everyone else would be saved.
Stories like this one appear repeatedly in our nation’s history. They detail the brave actions of honorable men and women who served an ideal far greater than any superficial distinctions that might separate them: that sacrifice for the just and enduring principles of America is a noble thing. In this age of anxiety and petty strife, it is worth reflecting on why we now find this so hard.
In the wake of World War I, poet-politician W.B. Yeats wrote:
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
As last week demonstrated, present-day Washington, as a microcosm of the nation, routinely exhibits a lack of political community. Partisan discord and dysfunction reflect the larger fragmentation across America. Market Fundamentalists versus Government Fundamentalists. Protectionists versus Globalists. Elites versus the Common Man. We lack a unifying spirit. Part of this fracture is driven by moneyed interests in politics. Part of it is driven by competing worldviews, earnestly derived, about the core of what it means to be an American. Part of it results from a lack of will and courage among lawmakers to move beyond these dispiriting constraints in search of higher ground.
Perhaps there is a silver lining. On a deeper level, the vehement animosity in the Capitol and across our country could, ironically, point to something good. Washington’s inability to rally around big and meaningful ideas, reflecting long-standing cultural and philosophical divides in America and seemingly intractable hostility, might signal a desire for resolution. After all, if no one cared, our situation would be far more dire.
If we can stretch to see the negativity as a search for solidarity, then we have a shot. Indeed, there might be a chance to recapture our democratic narrative, our special American identity by embracing something larger than the insistent demands of self, party, or narrowly-focused advocacy group. We are a country whose proper aim and purpose, whose very foundation is built on that which is good and eternal: fairness, self-determination, and the rule of law. Perhaps this combustible moment is actually a yearning to reconnect.
Or, maybe not. Perhaps it is too far-gone. We decide.
Yet, with all of these lofty sentiments, to successfully govern requires a consensus around core values. And, yes, it requires sacrifice, for our ideals, for each other, and for America. So that the center might hold. Right before Commander Gilmore died, he said, “Take her down!” Maybe the advice he would give our country today would be, “Lift her up!”