OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. — In July of 1776 the Declaration of Independence was signed. America had asserted its rights and beliefs, and it was no accident that the Battle of Long Island, NY came immediately on its heels in August. This “first” battle in which an army of the “United States” engaged was to be the largest battle of the war with approximately 60,000 on both sides.
As a test of strategy and tactics the battle was a mixed bag for the U.S. Washington didn’t anticipate the surprise attack made possible by the British use of “Jamaica Pass” and they surprised him at the rear of his forces and drove his army from the field. This was a challenging turn of events, nevertheless, despite this tactical failure; he prevailed morally and is credited with the courage to refuse to give up. He made a daring retreat by a nighttime crossing of the river and his army, all 9,000 troops, and their equipment, escaped to Manhattan to fight another day.
What lessons are there from this first great battle of the United States? For one, tactics and strategy are important but in the end, character and integrity may make the larger impact. In 1776 we were an unrecognized people in the world, confident in our cause but full of self-doubt in our ability, willing to bear arms but unquestioningly outgunned, thousands would volunteer to fill our ranks but we remained outnumbered by the British throughout the war.
Still, despite all these challenges, the personal integrity of Washington and his troops never led to morally questionable measures or outright war crimes despite what some movies might have you believe, and the moral discipline of the troops as a whole was noteworthy to onlookers. Moral authority was maintained and the people continued to support the cause.
Today, in 2013, based on the legacy of our founders, the United States is the most powerful nation on earth militarily, our government and our military are recognized the world over as having unmatched moral authority and generosity. When we deal with other nations, we are expected to look not just to our own interests, but also to safeguard the interests of those other nations. What country in history has shouldered such a standard? Do you think these nations expect China or Russia to act so nobly in their interests as they do when dealing with the U.S.?
It’s difficult to live up to such lofty expectations. We must consider that when people outside our ranks see members of our military acting contrary to our values, the contrast between what we say and what was done is glaring. The American public and the international community react with swift judgment against us for good reason. Don’t just think of Abu Graib, what about DUIs, or sexual assault? The response is emotionally charged not simply because of the crime, but also because of the smell of hypocrisy. The bad behavior of one or a few can tarnish the reputation of our military at large and even the whole of the United States and our national standard of right and wrong is betrayed. Lives can be lost on the highway or even to a sexual assault when a person’s spirit is mortally wounded just as much as on the battlefield.
In General Washington’s time things were not perfect, still, a culture of personal integrity and personal morality, often guided by faith in the unchanging character of a moral God, was the standard that informed their actions. That is to say, they did right and avoided wrong because that was who they were, and they formed a nation that reflected them as a whole. They demonstrated that the surest path to a life of consistency rather than hypocrisy is to embody honor, respect and selflessness in a very personal way.
Nothing has changed. Today as then, the challenge is to be more than caretakers of a past generation’s legacy. If I am to be a man or woman of honor, I need to live a life defined not by selfish ambition or immediate gratification. Rather, I must be defined by selflessness integrity, moral courage, honor and, for me, a faith and commitment to the unchanging standards of God as well.
If I habitually commit myself to these now, when I’m faced with challenges in the future, I will hold to them, bringing honor to myself, my service, my country and my God.