Last summer, I marked my retirement from the Army by embarking on an 8,000-mile, 150 butt-on the-seat hour motorcycle tour of the country I had spent 20 years abroad helping to secure and defend. As John Steinbeck did the year I was born, I wanted to get a sense of what was going on in America other than through the media prism, to answer questions of personal and national identity, and just to take a look around. Moreover, it was a way to turn the last page of a long chapter in my own story -- returning to retire exactly 30 years later to the day where my military career began at New Mexico Military Institute and closing a big circle while thinking about what the next adventure might bring. A long goodbye.
You can read about this country all you want, but until you've gone out and seen its immense richness and diversity, met some of its people, and traveled its roads, you haven't experienced it. "Go to foreign countries and you will get to know the good things one possesses at home," Goethe advised. For me, however, as a "national security professional", it was the other way around, as I had learned to see the United States as much from the outside-in than the inside-out.
So the trip helped me fully understand what many others who have spent so much time in the world's trouble spots constantly tell other Americans -- that most of us have no clue how lucky we are. But that's a conclusion each of us must come to. You can really experience America only on a personal level, because America in and of itself is a journey whose signposts are frontiers and whose destination is ultimately that of the world's and is therefore uncertain.
It is this uncertainty that plagues Americans more than anything else nowadays. They are more worried than ever. Sure, every generation seems to think the place, for one reason or another, is going to hell in a hand basket. This time, however, it's because we sense the country is in decline and that our way of life is changing for the worse, and that our institutions -- above all, the government -- seem incapable of dealing with circumstances increasingly beyond their control: National insecurity.
Of course, America is in decline -- at least in relative terms. That's to be expected, considering the psychological point of reference for most of us is 1945, when the "greatest generation" had just won the greatest of wars, leaving America dominant in practically every measure of national power in a fairly predictable world. As the lone superpower after 1989, there was still no place to go but down from the pedestal, because the world wouldn't have it any other way. Nature seeks balance, especially in tumult, and the irregularity of a unipolar world is seeking, as they say in the stock market, "correction".
So, when you've been the Chairman of the Board of Planetary Management for so long, it's a rude awakening to find out that you're no longer the majority shareholder, that you may have to follow the rules you yourself set up, and that others now have more say in Board decisions. Just look at our precarious position with China as we try to get them to play fair economics while they own more and more of our debt. For most of us, our decline is a highly uncomfortable if not frightening thought. Thus, an understandably natural response is to deny it and seek refuge in the "good old days", as many conservatives (and some liberals) would want us to do. Even get angry and throw a tea party.
During my trip, I recalled what my political science instructor at NMMI noted: "real power is when you don't have to care what anybody else thinks, says, or does". He was right. When you're at the top and have had the (mis)fortune of American geohistory and a surplus, consumption mentality based on abundant natural, human, and financial resources, of course you don't have to care.
Now we have to care -- and not just because of globalization. For the first time in our history, we increasingly have to operate out of growing resource scarcity -- including finances -- and compete head-on with others for those same resources essential to maintain our standard of living (which, by the way, is not the same as our way of life).
In the span of my career in uniform, America and the world have been changing more rapidly than the bandwidth of our old paradigms to process it, compounding the anxiety. I started out as an armored cavalry officer, patrolling the border between two Germanys as the first line of defense against the Soviets, then became a civil affairs officer helping to win hearts and minds and build nations, immersed in a world that is more complex, uncertain, and interconnected. This was a fortunate twist of fate for me, as I learned up-front that solution sets and morality play in the real world were not in the 30-second sound bites, bumper stickers, and instant feedback our popular culture overwhelmingly prefers. We could subscribe to that when we dominated. Now, we're saying goodbye to all that.
The greatest obstacle to that process is America's paralyzing angst -- we have met the enemy and he is fear. For a country whose founders and greatest leaders displayed remarkable moral courage and vision, seen in their handiwork around the country, the United States, at home and abroad, has become a status quo country. More afraid of the future, it is nostalgic and cynical, in part because of us aging Boomers holding to the belief that the prosperity and power curves would always keep rising.
At home, reform of any kind is nearly impossible because too many people have a vested interest in keeping things as they are. Our foreign policy, in turn, is still driven by an obsession with security over strategy, looking for "bad guys", and preserving U.S. preeminence based on the big-war mentality and big-hammer reflexes of our military-industrial complex -- just throw more money at the Pentagon. Many of my friends from abroad have told me, whenever they have visited the United States the past few years, they see a country less optimistic and more fear-driven -- less characteristically American.
America cannot long remain the land of the free if it is no longer the home of the brave.
The irony of America is that it globalized the world but not itself -- we are victims of our own success. Yet, it amazes me how insular we try to remain, although 9/11 and the Great Recession are seismic reminders of shifting tectonic plates in geopolitics -- the end of our "splendid isolationism", along with our dominance, in installments. There are signs we are adjusting, but will it be too little, too late?
Beyond its national security "system", created in 1947, the United States is in serious need of another operating system update in government, the economy, education -- just about every facet of our society. We've known this for some time, but we can't seem to summon the collective will because it means we must leave our comfort zones -- and we just haven't come to a consensus yet how to get there. Perhaps we can get a better grip on it by better understanding the big picture and the long run.
As I rode across what Steinbeck called a "galaxy of states", I realized that, like America, I found myself in transition, in mid-life, from one Weltanschauung (way of looking at the world) to another. As a Reserve officer, I wandered between the military and civilian worlds at home as well as abroad. As I meandered through America on my Harley and looked both back and ahead, it became clear I could never return to the structured and more predictable world of the military. That's gone now, so I have to move on. Not necessarily forget the past, but just learn from it. That is, after all, the role of history: How can you know where you are, where you may be going, unless you know where you've been?
Another thing I learned along the way is that, when faced with adversity and not knowing what to do next, a good start is by looking at what you've got before trying to figure out what you might not have and might need. Take stock. Count your blessings. Remember how lucky you are.
That was the purpose of a trip that took me as much as I took it.
As I learned from 20 years abroad, we Americans are no better than anyone else. Just luckier. As the "nation of nations", we still have a lot going for us, and if we play our cards right, we'll be fine. Perhaps more of what we set out to be in the first place -- a polyglot people constantly facing frontiers and their challenges, reaching for connectivity, as I realized when traversing the routes of the Transcontinental Railroad and the Lewis and Clark Trail. It's just that those boundaries -- and connections -- are more psychological, social, and virtual as we reach our physical limitations, as anyone in mid-life knows. As in the Levi's ad: "there are frontiers all around us". Most of all, in our minds.
America is on a journey that ultimately connects its fate with that of the rest of the world. That, at first glance, is fraught with risks and dangers -- but also opportunities. Multiculturalism may have failed in Germany, but it can't afford to fail here. If past is indeed prologue, then Americans should have little to dread than their own unwillingness to embrace and navigate this future. We fear what we do not know. So we must learn more about the world around us, and thus ourselves. Look back and then ahead; look outward, then inward.
The real frontier is internal. And that entails a journey, for each and all of us -- to reconcile ourselves to our past, say goodbye to it, and look more resolutely towards a future we can still very much shape, if we seize the moment.
Get out and ride.
Christopher Holshek is a recently retired Colonel, U.S. Army (Reserve) Civil Affairs and a Senior Associate at the Project on National Security Reform. To read more about his travels and reflections, go to: http://twowheels.pnsr.org/