On any given day, you might patrol with 15-20 American soldiers from your outpost through the grape fields doing your best not to trigger a booby trap that could blow off one of your legs. After making your way through the orchards, you might have ended up in a maze-like village composed of interconnected mud-walled compounds. The “streets” (although they were more like paths), might contain some mix of garbage, human waste, dead animals, or worse. It wasn’t uncommon to see children beating a stray dog (or each other) with rocks or sticks. From there, you might search a few targeted compounds and discover a wife or daughter badly in need of medical care, but unable to leave the compound due to any number of reasons. You might see a barefoot kid hobble towards you begging for a bottle of water. Groups of boys might try to pick your pockets (generally we’d rather have kids around even if they were trying to steal, because it meant we probably were not going to be shot at). From there, you might make your way back to your company outpost, careful to take a different route to avoid the risk of an ambush. You may get into a firefight, or you may have a grenade thrown at you from over one of the mud walls. Or the walk back might end uneventfully. After arriving back to your outpost, you might enjoy a “baby wipe shower” and a lukewarm Gatorade. If you were still in the village as the sun set, you might hear the Muslim Adhan (the call to prayer) being played over the loudspeakers attached to the local mosque.
In those moments, as the call to prayer crackled over the loudspeakers and the smell of death and decay wafted through my nostrils, I felt a level of homesickness that I can’t really describe. I could almost feel it in my bones. “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Like any good soldier, I buried those emotions down and continued the mission. Rinse and repeat for one year.
The violence, the smells, the sounds, and the corruption, were so radically different than life in America. If I could bottle a feeling, and administer it as a drug to anyone, it would be the feeling of coming home and being back in America. It was like being reborn. Our country, for all its warts and flaws, is incredible. When I first came home, hundreds of things that I previously took for granted jumped out at me as extraordinary. It was as if I was seeing things for the first time. My attitude and outlook were forever altered (for the better) after seeing what true chaos and despair look like. In fact, all the terrible things that occurred still serve as little memory dividends to remind me of how lucky we all are.
We collectively live in a modern miracle, yet we have an affinity and bizarre enthusiasm for criticizing America. I witness this every single day through conversations with clients. Things are not getting worse and that is a hill I’ll gladly die on. Uncertainty has always existed, but perhaps it’s more visible now. Goodness compounds slowly, yet we are so distracted by the daily noise of fear mongering and enragement that we barely notice.
Because we are so distracted by the headlines of the day, we quickly forget that we are the beneficiaries of the greatest system on earth. On a relative basis, we have a tax system that generally works. We have the rule of law. We have the best doctors. We have the best universities and the greatest companies in the world. Men and women generally have parity in their individual trajectories. Until young people from around the globe stop applying to Stanford and Harvard and instead apply to Peking University in Beijing, I don’t want to hear about America losing its hegemony. After all, Jeff Bezos can lay his head down at night without the fear of the secret police arresting him (the same can’t be said about Jack Ma). Our currency occupies 60% of the world’s reserve status and that isn’t changing any time soon (despite what the pundits might have you believe). We are still the most eligible bachelor in the leper colony. The pendulum swings from extreme optimism to despair, but usually the truth is somewhere in the middle. In fact, so much of what we worry about is a luxury in and of itself. I have a client that refers to such issues as “champagne problems.” I call them “First World problems.” There are always exceptions to the rule, but they are exceptions for a reason.
Nothing is new under the sun. As we age, every generation collectively gripes about how the country is going to hell. I’m here to remind you that it’s not. Our kids will go on to discover and do great things. They may face hardship, but by being born in America in the 21st Century, they already won the birth lottery.
On July 4, 1826, at the age of 90, John Adams lay on his deathbed while the country celebrated Independence Day. His last words were, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” He was mistaken… Jefferson had died five hours earlier at Monticello at the age of 83. Yes, Jefferson and Adams both died on Independence Day 50 years after they signed the Declaration of Independence. As John Adams closed his eyes for the last time, up the road in Quincy, Massachusetts at a granite quarry, the first railroad in the United States used horse drawn wagons to haul blocks of granite along its rails to the river, from where they were taken by barge to Boston for use in the construction of the Bunker Hill monument.
Even though their correspondence is rife with complaints about the upcoming generation, literally as they lay dying, Gridley Bryant, an engineer, began railroad operations in that granite quarry setting off a wave of innovation and economic prosperity not seen again until the advent of the internet. The moral of the story: it’s easy to be a pessimist, but progress is like compound interest – you don’t even notice it in the short run, but it’s mind-blowing when you step back and see what can be accomplished over long periods.
In no way am I implying that you shouldn’t question our system and our way of life. I’m also not implying that we should be lulled into a false sense of complacency and to rest on our laurels. But don’t continually sow the seeds of doubt to everyone around you and wear it like some sort of badge of honor. I’m not saying we are perfect, but there’s nothing wrong with America that can’t be fixed by what makes America great. I wish you could feel a fraction of how I felt when my boots were back on American soil. We are still the city upon a hill.