The past few weeks have offered a number of sobering reminders. From the fifth anniversary of the cruel promise of President Bush's declaration of "Mission Accomplished" in a war that instead has become one of the longest and costliest in American history; to the Chinese government's rapid response to the Sichuan earthquake victims which highlighted our continued failure to respond to Hurricane Katrina; and the fortieth anniversary of Bobby Kennedy's assassination, we were repeatedly reminded that we are a nation that has lost its way.
At the same time, author Andrei Cherny and Barack Obama offered hopeful reminders of the nation we once were and could be again. In his new book The Candy Bombers, Cherny recounts a "story of America at her best" with the inspiring tale of the first battle of the Cold War in which the United States responded to a Soviet blockade that sought to starve West Berlin's 2.5 million citizens into surrender by launching a daring and near impossible airlift. Over the next fifteen months, U.S. and British planes delivered 2.3 million tons of food and supplies, with planes landing every minute at its peak. By today's standards, that would be more traffic than any world airport and equivalent to the traffic for Toronto, Miami and San Diego combined.
By making the impossible a reality, the U.S. forced the Soviet Union to back down and, as a result, West Berlin would stand tall as an oasis of freedom and hope and a symbol of western resolve throughout the Cold War. More importantly, as Cherny notes "[n]ever before--or since--would America be so admired around the world and stand so solidly on the side of light." Yet sadly, an April BBC poll reported that 72 percent of Germans now view the United States as a negative influence on the world stage.
While it is a remarkable story, the Berlin Airlift is part of an extended era when Americans rolled up their sleeves and responded "yes, we can" to whatever challenge we faced. For example, General Lucius Clay, who was one of the central figures in the Berlin Airlift, also played an important role in the Eisenhower administration's development of a national highway system in which the government built over 40,000 miles of highways and over 55,000 bridges in less than twenty-five years.
The can-do nation that soared from the depths of the depression to the mountains of the moon has withered to a Wal-Mart nation that foolishly believes we can maintain our global leadership and economic standing on the cheap. As our failure to rescue our own citizens from Hurricane Katrina plainly demonstrated to a shocked world, we are no longer the nation that accomplishes the impossible as we now struggle with the mere possible and expected.
The London Mirror reacted to our miserable response to Hurricane Katrina by noting that we were witnessing the "humbling and crumbling" of America, a point illustrated last year by the tragic collapse of the I-35 Bridge connecting Minnesota's Twin Cities. Tragedies such as this will only increase since we have reduced our investment in infrastructure from 3 percent of our gross domestic product in the early 1970's to less than 1 percent today. This has and will continue to result in major traffic delays, electricity blackouts, the spread of illness through contaminated drinking water and the collapse of bridges, levees and damns with potential catastrophic consequences. We somehow believe it is more important to spend over a trillion dollars on repealing taxes on those inheriting more than $2 million than to spend a nearly equal amount to close the existing infrastructure funding gap.
Max Cleland noted that while it has been said "poor is the nation which has no heroes. Poorer still is the nation which has them, but forgets." Andrei Cherny reminds us of forgotten heroes from a time when Americans stood up and said "yes we can" to the challenges they faced; but their sacrifices are being squandered by an America that now answers "what's in it for me" or is content to pass their challenges to future generations.
With Barack Obama winning the Democratic nomination -- something which only recently was considered impossible for an African-American -- and the nation responding to his call of "yes we can;" there is hope that this may change. Obama has energized voters like no other candidate since Robert Kennedy and has the potential to harness this energy to revive our sense of duty and the boldness to believe that anything is possible. As the number of Berlin Airlift veterans dwindle, there is hope that a President Obama could honor these forgotten heroes in their lifetime by restoring what they bravely built -- "our image as the last best hope on earth."
UPDATE: There is an old riddle, "what has a mouth but does not speak? A river." This week, however, the Mississippi River is speaking loud and clear about our nation's infrastructure, as over 30 levees may be breached by its rising waters by the end of this week - with the breach of one levee in Meyer, Illinois threatening to flood a 47 square mile area. Damage from the flood will be measured in the billions and already is fueling inflation in food prices due to crop losses.
Had this been the result of a terrorist attack, the nation would be teeming with outrage and demanding action. This would be especially true if they knew that future "targets" included the 125-year old Brooklyn Bridge which carries over 125,000 cars daily, Sacramento's levees which threaten to put California's capitol under as much as twenty feet of water or Kentucky's Wolf Creek Dam which could flood the city of Nashville - all of which are at risk.
But since this is not the result of terrorism, the issue will quickly pass with few demanding action. This was the case last year after the collapse of the I-35 Bridge connecting Minnesota's Twin Cities (which like one in four bridges in the U.S. was structurally deficient or obsolete), as two-thirds of Americans opposed increasing the gas tax which funds the Highway Repair Fund in order to address this problem.
Ultimately, however, this problem is not about money but instead is about values and leadership. Every action or even inaction has a price of some form that must be paid. The Candy Bombers remind of us of an era when our leaders and citizens recognized that there was a price to be paid to maintain our global standing, unlike today's leaders who hope that a $600 tax refund will numb us into a false sense of complacency. The muddy waters of the Mississippi are delivering a message to today's Wal-Mart nation of the cost of such complacency.