IN his address to Congress last month, a jubilant President Bush praised the American men and women of Operation Desert Storm for their honor and valor. "They set out to confront an enemy abroad," he said, "and in the process, they transformed a nation at home." Part of this transformation is evident in the support the nation has shown for the military during the war and in the celebrations now that they are coming home. The divisiveness and confusion of the Vietnam war years seem to have been, at last, put to rest.
But beyond patriotic support and healing celebrations, the successful conclusion of the Persian Gulf war has reawakened in Americans a spirit of community that has long been eroding in our national life. Although there were differences among Americans at first about the degree of US involvement, once battle lines were drawn those differences were set aside, and both as a people and as a government we pulled together for a common objective.
What can we make of our victory? What are the lessons to be learned? Bush saw a sense of self-discipline and urgency in our conduct of the war that he exhorts us to "bring to the challenges we meet here at home." Columnist Robert J. Samuelson attributes American success to a "culture of competence" often "conspicuously absent in government and business." Samuelson notes: "When America succeeds, it succeeds because individuals take responsibility and institutions are held accountable."
Self-discipline, a sense of urgency, willingness to take responsibility and be held accountable for one's actions - in our private lives and public institutions - do not come about by fiat. They come from communities of families, the corporate work place, religious institutions, government offices, schools, the playgrounds, and the streets where we live. People incorporate values to the degree they are attached to or care about their community.
In the wake of assassinations, the Vietnam war, and Watergate, America's faith in the institutions and values of its community was deteriorating. Idealistic campaigns for individual rights gave way to the more self-centered demands of special-interest groups and political action committees, and the cynicism and greed epitomized by the savings-and-loan scandal.
A history professor I know used to say: "In most of the world people have to fight for their piece of the pie. If I get my piece, you may get none. In America, we just make the pie bigger, so nobody gets left out." Historically, the American way of "making the pie bigger" has always come through attachment to community and to the institutions that make up that community - never through a benevolent bureaucracy. We have learned that throwing money at a problem does not solve it. We have also learned that ignoring it does not make it go away.
A small child living in substandard housing, attending an ill-equipped school, observing the flashy life-styles of drug dealers, and exposed to random street violence, is not growing up in a "culture of competence." It's not hard to see how such a child will grow up detached from many of the values that have traditionally held Americans together.
The president has called for a "new world order," where the weak are protected by the strong and where fledgling democratic institutions grow and flourish. We need to cultivate that new order here at home, as well.
On his domestic agenda, Bush puts getting the nation's economy moving again in first place now that the war is over. Like self-discipline and taking responsibility, a strong economy demands that we begin to believe in ourselves and the worth of our community once again. Turning our economy around depends on our ability and willingness to work hard, take pride in our work, and make what we produce competitive in world markets.
No one takes lightly the loss of American and Iraqi lives resulting from Operation Desert Storm. No one denies the sweetness of victory nor the pride we feel about the American military forces. But the real legacy of the men and women of Desert Storm is bringing us home again to a shared community of generosity, pride, honor, and excellence.
The poignant vignette Bush recalled of the American soldier, calming terrified Iraqis with the words "It's okay. You're all right. You're all right now," comes from that sense of belief in community, of belonging, that has long held this diverse society together. We all need to look around us at the child, the worker, the executive, the welfare mother, the homeless on the street and begin to say, "You're all right now." And, then, we have to act responsibly within our own communities - at home, at work, in the street.