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Christopher Holshek

Christopher Holshek

Posted: January 20, 2011 10:43 PM

The media commemorations of the inauguration of the 35th president of the United States this week range from the nostalgic and wistful to the hopeful. Many reflect on the past and what might have been, suggesting how much America has declined in the time between the first Catholic and first African-American chief executives. In that span of time, America went from number one in just about everything to number one in hardly anything. We look at our country and its international standing with an ever-growing sense of national insecurity.

Kennedy, of course, most represented the eternal and ethereal promise of American reinvention and renewal, as well as the belief in and participation of especially youth in government. Now as America finds its way in a very different world that makes, for example, his exhortation to us to "ask not... " seem archaic and impossible to imagine being uttered today, we may wonder what there is of relevance that this president told us then that can help us approach this newest of frontiers, which Kennedy already recognized as more moral than physical.

There are calls for renewal of many kinds, among them to maintain our position of power by restoring the kind of economic and technological prowess that the United States enjoyed as it ushered in the era of the "military-industrial complex" Kennedy's predecessor warned us about as he left office, and which persists today. As in response to Sputnik, we look to "strengthen education and human capital" and "enhance science, technology, and innovation" in order to preserve our economic competitiveness and prosperity, which the current National Security Strategy identifies as the "wellspring of American power."

We should, however, also remember that the foundation of American strength is moral -- it's what we are about that makes us a unique force for good in the world. And that world we find ourselves in today is less about "hard" coercive power and more about "soft" persuasive influence, less about American dominance and more about American leadership, less about defending the country against threats and more about engaging partners and opportunities to find what we Americans famously call the "win-win." It's not just because these approaches are more appropriate in the interconnected world we Americans largely created; it's because we are rapidly running out of the ability to pay to put soldiers on various corners of the globe indefinitely, looking for bad guys.

As a civil affairs soldier for more than a quarter-century, I intrinsically understood that security, especially the kind we must now create, was more a function of art than science. Even our most celebrated military leaders, such as Robert E. Lee and George Patton, were more artists in their trade, as Eisenhower and Marshall were soldier-statesmen. They were well aware of Napoleon's famous dictum that, in their line of business, "the moral is to the physical as three is to one."

Even in the business of economics this relationship is true. America's greatest comparative advantage is no doubt the ability of its dynamic, multicultural society to create and innovate. Entrepreneurs are artists, and even the geekiest of inventors must think synthetically more than analytically to recognize a new way of doing things. And yet, this remains a nation that takes "experts" for granted and finds little to no (economic) value in philosophers and poets.

Just a few months before my retirement last year, I came across a remarkable speech Kennedy gave at Amherst after the passing of Robert Frost and less than a month before his own demise. What particularly caught my eye:

In America, our heroes have customarily run to men of large accomplishments... The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation's greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us... Our national strength matters, but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much... When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment... The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state.


Although I have long felt we have overlooked the potency of our cultural strength and the role artists have played and must continue to play if the country is to remain viable and relevant in the world, I have never seen the connection between art and national security articulated in such a way. In our endeavor to again make America anew by, for example, bolstering our human capital through education and other incentives, as Kennedy realized, we would be wise to strike a more conscientious balance between builders and artists -- both of which we will need to secure our place in a safe and prosperous world for generations to come. Builders make things; artists make sense of them. Builders bring things to form; artists contextualize them. Builders are conscientious of risk; artists are enamored with opportunity. Builders improve upon the past; artists create new futures.

And, as did Kennedy:

I look forward to a great future for America, a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose. I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our national past, and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future... I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all our citizens.

And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well. And I look forward to a world which will be safe not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction.


Christopher Holshek, a recently retired Colonel, U.S. Army (Reserve) Civil Affairs, is a Senior Associate at the Project on National Security Reform. His latest publication, "Two Wheels and Two Questions: A journey through America in search of personal and national identity", is available at: http://twowheels.pnsr.org/