"...do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic..."

"For the good of the Air Force, for the good of the armed services and for the good of our country, I urge you to reject convention and careerism..."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Maxwell AFB, April 21, 2008

"You will need to challenge conventional wisdom and call things like you see them to subordinates and superiors alike."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, United States Air Force Academy, March 4, 2011

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Secretary Gates and Russell Crowe

The movie Gladiator is one of my all time favorites. It's a simple Hollywood movie with standard archetypes found in an action movie yet I think it's very relevant. In the movie, Crowe plays the part of a dutiful General who fights valiantly and commands the respect of his men. Yet he's a simple man who longs for the beauty of home, of family, his wheat fields and apple orchard. In one scene he gazes at a small bird that lands on a tree before scampering off into the air no doubt symbolic of the freedom for which he yearns. Crowe's face then changes and he gives the order to his men on the line to prepare to "unleash hell" on the enemy formed before them. He is a great military commander yet his longings are not for blood, battle, or advancement but rather for a simple life of freedom and family. He is not unlike Corporal Desmond Doss who, after earning the Medal of Honor, refused to let his story be made into a Hollywood movie and instead spent his last days tilling the soil in relative obscurity.

Crowe's character is loyal to the Caesar who gives him one last charge upon his deathbed. The Caesar is concerned that the ideals of Rome, something that must be spoken with a whisper lest they vanish, he says, have been supplanted by corruption and politics and greed. He tasks his faithful General to restore Rome's ideals and to restore power to the people.

In comes the political son who conducts himself like the very worst executive officer with his flattery and scheming and skillful knowledge of politics. In an act of treason, power is taken by the calculating son of the Caesar who kills his father and has the General placed under arrest. He then leads Rome into an era of unprecedented corruption masked and diluted by state sponsored distractions and entertainment. Gladiator fighting takes center stage and leads to Crowe's character yelling to the crowd at one point, "Are you not entertained!?"

Why is this movie relevant to my view? Well I must first admit that a comparison between Rome and the United States is anything but novel and I'm no expert on either. The sad decay of ideals and the rise of corruption that led to Rome's demise are discussed frequently, however, by those concerned with the path our nation has taken over the years. I must admit I find the comparison resonating. I am fearful this same decay is happening in our own fragile republic and I see little trace of ideals in the decisions of those with power. Of course the cynic can argue that our nation's ideals have not significantly changed and that pure power motives have been at the root of our politics for decades if not longer. I remember posing this question to a prominent federal judge while having dinner at his home. I was asked what concerned me the most as representative of my generation. While I may not have represented my generation faithfully, I stated my concern was with the utter lack of integrity and service I perceived with increasing frequency among leaders in corporate, political, and even military America and I asked the judge if he thought my concern was valid or rather the result of me paying more attention as I got older. The judge responded that, despite his decades on the bench, he had never seen as much corruption as he currently witnessed.

This brings me to our Secretary of Defense and his call for uncommon courage and cultural transformation. I believe that he, like the Caesar tasking the General, is calling upon the military to stand in the face of corruption and wrong doing to restore our ideals of integrity, honesty, and professionalism. Like Crowe's character faced, however, there is legitimate risk. The careerist calculating political natured among us are threatened by such reform and their interest is not in ideals but simply in power and control. They will bring the republic to its knees if not challenged and there will be no fields of wheat, no liberty, and no peace for our families if they are successful. While as military officers we respond to such themes on the silver screen in movies like Gladiator, we must ensure these themes are not limited to entertainment and cinema. We must not allow ourselves to feel courage and heroism while sitting in the stands of the Colliseum only to leave and conduct our lives more as the cowardly traitor who watched as Rome burned around him.

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