Defense Issues: Volume 11, Number 4-- It's Time To Dream Again We need a vision for the future. We need to decide where we want to be in 10, 20 or 50 years. If we cannot envision a future different from the present, we cannot achieve a future different from the present.
Volume 11, Number 4
It's Time To Dream Again
Remarks delivered by Edwin Dorn, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, at The Citadel Greater Issues Series, Charleston, S.C., Feb. 8, 1996.
Thank you. Today I would like to talk with you about change. Change. The inexorable march of time. The future.
Many of you are in college, anticipating what you'll do when you graduate. To some of you, everything seems uncertain, up in the air. You probably think that things once were more predictable, and for some people, they were. A generation or so ago, if you were among the fortunate, you finished school, went to work in a well-established company, and 40 years later you retired with a gold watch and a good retirement fund.
And how did you find a job? Well, many of the big companies came to you; they'd set up booths in the student union. Or you might find a job by word of mouth. A friend or relative might drop by your house and say,"Hey, they've got an opening down at the plant." Of course, those who didn't have contacts down at the plant were left out of this word-of-mouth advertising. But for those with the right connections, it worked well.
Things have changed. There are still lots of jobs out there, lots of career opportunities, but the opportunities look different. For one thing, you probably won't stay with the same company for an entire career. For another, lots of those big companies have broken up or are downsizing. Instead of one big national phone company, for example, we now have several regional companies and several long-distance carriers. Another big difference is that you'll be working with a much more diverse group of people than your parents and your grandparents worked with.
There also are a few people in this audience my age. Like me, you probably are worried about the long-term prospects for Medicare and Social Security, because somebody in Congress keeps threatening to cut them. It seems things used to be a lot more certain.
Nowhere have things changed more in recent years than in the area of national security. Today, instead of a cold war, we have a fitful peace. We have moved from a focus on one overarching danger to several diverse dangers. Today, we need a military that is extraordinarily flexible, equally capable of warfighting and peacekeeping.
For five decades, our nation competed economically, ideologically and militarily against a Soviet monolith. We equipped and trained our soldiers to fight Soviet bloc soldiers on the plains of Central Europe.
Less than a decade ago, Soviet bloc divisions were lined up facing NATO divisions in the center of Europe. But last year, U.S. and Russian units trained together on the plains of Kansas; and today they're helping to keep the peace together in the mountains of Bosnia.
Those are huge changes. They constitute nothing less than a redrawing the map of the world, and they call for a major reshaping of U.S. defense policy.
It takes time -- years -- to reshape something as large and complex as America's defense establishment. We have to make decisions about people, equipment and training. For example, it takes about a decade to design and build a modern nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, and it takes about 25 years to develop a Navy captain capable of commanding that carrier. So in DoD, we have to think ahead -- way ahead.
When the evil empire collapsed, we could have said, "All right, we've done our job. Now let's go home." And some people wanted us to do that. They wanted us to pull our forces out of Europe and the Pacific, to cut our active military dramatically and revert to an essentially militia military defending fortress America.
The Bush administration resisted that; so does the Clinton administration. Why? Because we are a great nation, the sole remaining superpower. We have worldwide economic and political interests to protect. We also have values that we want to share with other societies -- democracy, free enterprise, human rights.
And we as a people are moved by the suffering of others. When the television news carries pictures of war, of starvation, of unspeakable brutality, we Americans ask ourselves, "Isn't there something we can do?"
Several times in recent years, we have been moved to do something about war or injustice or natural disaster in some distant country. We assembled an international force under a United Nations mandate to rout Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. We kept tens of thousands of people from starving to death in Somalia. We helped restore the legitimate, democratically elected government in Haiti. And now, we are trying to give peace a chance in Bosnia.
What we've done -- what we're doing -- takes a generous spirit. It also takes vision, a sense of the nation's greatness and of the obligations that flow from world leadership.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. In December of 1993, I had the pleasure of meeting several soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division, which is based at Fort Drum, N.Y. They'd just returned from Somalia. As you'll recall, in the fall of 1993, 18 of their comrades had been killed in a firefight on the streets of Mogadishu.
I asked one of the soldiers, a young, ramrod-straight sergeant, how he felt about our Somalia involvement.
"Well, sir ," he said, "all I can say is, 'God bless America.'" He said it in a deep southern drawl, and immediately I thought I knew what he would say next. I thought he d start talking about how much better this country is than any other. I thought he'd speak bitterly about how we'd done so much for other countries and how they didn't appreciate it. I thought he'd make disparaging remarks about Somalis.
But that's not what he did. Instead, he said,"Sir, they sent us over there to keep people from starving to death, and we did that. They sent us over to build hospitals and roads, and we did that. Sir, we accomplished our mission."
And he went on, to point out that we were the only country that would have or could have done those things. We had the equipment and the trained people. More importantly, we had the generosity of spirit to help out in a land that nobody else cared about. We were willing to come to the aid of strangers.
One of the great joys of my job is that every year I get to meet thousands of people just like that 10th Mountain Division sergeant. They're men and women who are committed to serving their country, not just enriching themselves. They understand that America has a special role and responsibility in the world, and they want to be a part of it.
They're sailors who spend hour after hour on the storm-tossed deck of an aircraft carrier, doing the complex, dangerous tasks needed to launch and land aircraft. They're soldiers on a windswept dune in Saudi Arabia, working in 120-degree heat to keep their Patriot missiles in peak operating condition. They're Air Force doctors and nurses rushed to Panama to set up a field hospital to treat Cuban and Haitian refugees. They're reservists who are willing to be called away from their homes and jobs in order to help this country meet the obligations of world leadership. They are ordinary men and women who do extraordinary things.
My job as the undersecretary for personnel and readiness is to ensure that the rewards of their service are commensurate with the sacrifices they make. These men and women don't join the military to get rich, but they don't expect to take a vow of poverty either. So we have to make sure that their pay and benefits are fair. On several occasions, we in the Clinton administration have had to fight back congressional assaults on military pay and benefits.
The men and women of the armed forces exemplify the kind of can-do optimism that made this nation great. But I worry about something. I worry that this country's can-do attitude is being replaced by a no-can-do attitude. I worry that we focus more on short-run costs than on long-term benefits. I worry that we have become instead of a nation of visionaries, a nation of bean counters.
Let me tell you what I mean. I came of age in the 1960s. When I was in high school, President John Kennedy came to my hometown of Houston and gave a speech at Rice Stadium. He made a commitment: By the end of the decade of the 1960s, he promised, we would send a man to the moon and bring him back safely. That was a bold vision. This nation got behind it, and we made it happen.
I also remember a summer day in 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. stood at the Lincoln Memorial and inspired the nation to share his dream of racial harmony. And for a few years, following the passage of civil rights legislation, we made enormous progress. We eliminated legal segregation. For the first time, African Americans who had fought for this country in Germany and Korea and Vietnam had the right to sit at a lunch counter in downtown Houston and Atlanta and Charleston.
And I remember in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson promising to fight a war against poverty. For a few years during the mid to late 1960s, we made enormous progress on that front. We reduced poverty rates; we improved health care for the poor and elderly; we reduced infant mortality; we reduced hunger; and we reduced the number of people living in overcrowded, substandard housing. We helped poor children get a head start on elementary school, and we helped a lot of poor high school graduates go to college.
It has become fashionable to criticize the Great Society, but much that happened during that period was good. It helped people, it promoted economic growth, and for a brief shining moment, it brought us together as a nation. I don't think I would be where I am today were it not for the bold challenges that John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. inspired this nation to take on in the 1960s.
But then, some very bad things started to happen, and we began to lose our boundless optimism. What happened? First, our dreamers were slain. President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, followed in 1968 by Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. Next, the war in Vietnam distracted us, disheartened us, divided us and depleted our precious resources.
Later, the OPEC oil boycott of the early 1970s brought home the degree to which our nation's economic well-being depended on countries and on events we could not control. The realization that there were things we could not control was further enhanced by the Iranian hostage incident. By the late 1970s, many citizens and political leaders, frustrated by our inability to find quick fixes for social and economic problems that had been festering for decades, concluded that our efforts were doomed.
That combination of things -- the economic shocks, the divisive war, our inability to bridge the racial gulf, the slaying of our dreamers, all of that -- made us susceptible to a message which said, "Dream less lofty dreams." The corollary was, "Forget about the other guy, just look out for No. 1." We had moved, in the course of just a few years, from being visionaries to being members of the Me Generation. A can-do nation was turning into a no-can-do nation.
I keep hearing people -- members of Congress, political pundits and policy wonks -- talking about what we Americans cannot do. I keep hearing about the investments we cannot afford to make, the lives we cannot uplift, the commitments we cannot fulfill. It's depressing. The no-can-do crowd sounds like a bunch of accountants dividing up the remaining assets of a bankrupt corporation.
Well, I do not believe that this country is bankrupt. We are a great country filled with people who, when we share a dream, can achieve great things. It's time for us to come out of our shells. It's time to embrace change and be more positive about this country and its future.
Look at the economy: Growth is up, productivity is up, employment is up. The unemployment rate is going down, and so is the federal deficit. The economy is growing at a good clip: real gross domestic product grew at 3.3 percent in 1995. Productivity continues to rise. In 1994, output grew 4.4 percent, the largest increase since 1984! Employment continues to grow: 8 million new jobs have been created since December 1992. Unemployment is down: It's at a five year low, 5.6 percent.
So I ask myself, if things are going so well, how come so many people feel so lousy? Why do opinion surveys show such low public confidence in the future? A couple of reasons, I think.
One is that our economy changed in odd ways during the 1980s. Relatively high-paying manufacturing jobs were being replaced by relatively low-paying service jobs. At the same time, a wave of corporate mergers and acquisitions and restructuring had the effect of increasing the stock value of companies without increasing the number of jobs or of the number of things produced. As a result, we actually saw a growth in income inequality during the 1980s. The rich got richer, the poor got poorer, and the middle class got squeezed.
So for a lot of people, economic growth has not brought prosperity. A lot of us are like those boats people talk about all the time -- the boats that are not able to rise with the rising tide. Indeed, when the tidal wave of business restructuring struck in the 1980s, a lot of us got swamped.
But there's another reason many of us are feeling lousy. It's because so many people are telling us we should. They keep telling us we're bankrupt. They keep telling us what we, as a nation, cannot do.
Well, if you believe that this country's best years are behind her, then they are. If you believe that we can't get out of this rut, then we won't get out of this rut. I, for one, believe that this nation's best days are ahead. I, for one, want to focus on the future and the many opportunities it holds.
We Americans have always had a very distinctive view of the future. In most of the world, the view has always been that tomorrow will be pretty much like today, just as today is pretty much like yesterday. That's the way things were. If your father was a goatherd, then you would grow up to be a goatherd. If your mother was a member of the royal court, then you would grow up to be a member of the royal court. If the Montagues and the Capulets feuded during your father's generation, then you were honor-bound to continue the feud in your generation.
We Americans have always had a very different view. We believe that tomorrow will be different -- indeed, that it should be different -- from today. We value our past, but we do not seek to live in it. We cherish our traditions, but we don't wallow in them. We understand that history is about where we've been, not about where we're going. We know that we cannot find our future in our past.
We believe that we can settle the wilderness, that we can end racial oppression, that we can cure dread diseases, that we can put people on the moon. We believe that we can do almost anything if we unite behind a common purpose.
But in order to do anything but complain, we must replace our preoccupation with the short term with a willingness to invest for the long term. We must abandon this "Look out for No. 1" attitude with the realization that we're all in this together. We have to replace the can't-do with the can-do.
We, as a nation, need a vision for the future. We need to come together decide where we want to be in 10 or 20 or 50 years. As the Bible tells, where there is no vision, the people perish. If we cannot envision a future different from the present, we cannot achieve a future different from the present.
I think we need to ask ourselves: Do I believe in this country's greatness? Do I support leaders who bring us together -- and reject those who spread bitterness and spite? Can I embrace change? Am I willing to join hands with my fellow Americans and walk toward tomorrow's light?
Bobby Kennedy once said, "Some people see things as they are, and ask, why? I dream things that never were and ask, why not?"
In that spirit, I say my friends, it's time to dream again.
Published for internal information use by the American Forces Information Service, a field activity of the Office of the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), Washington, D.C. Parenthetical entries are speaker/author notes; bracketed entries are editorial notes. This material is in the public domain and may be reprinted without permission. Defense Issues is available on the Internet via the World Wide Web at http://www.defenselink.mil/speeches/index.html.