Deeply woven into the American spirit is a “can-do” attitude. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. There’s plenty of dysfunction in modern America, but beneath it all is a resolve that only stiffens in the face of adversity.
This strength of character has philosophical underpinnings. The nation’s founding cohort — the men who fought for its political independence and framed its Constitution — shaped their estimations of human nature by absorbing the works of classical realists such as Thucydides and Hobbes. But perhaps most influential was Niccolo Machiavelli, commonly maligned in contemporary culture as the definitive inspiration for sinister manipulation.
The noted Florentine historian was actually the operator of a more balanced and tempered mind than is commonly understood. His core message was pragmatism. This passage from The Art of War, a Socratic dialogue published in 1520, echoes remarkably through American lore.
If, during the battle, some accident befalls you which dismays your soldiers, it is a most prudent thing to know how to dissumulate and divert them to (something) good, as did Lucius Sulla, who, while the fighting was going on, seeing that a great part of his forces had gone over to the side of the enemy, and that this had dismayed his men, quickly caused it to be understood throughout the entire army that everything was happening by his order, and this not only did not disturb the army, but so increased its courage that it was victorious.
It’s a remarkable passage in which Niccolo tacitly admits that realism is for the elite. Everyone else is to wander in the fog of deceit, actively manipulated by those with more information and power.
But in the American tradition, this passage and its countless progeny have seeded a more general theme around persistence and determination, even against long odds. Better to rally and have a chance than to despair and cower in certain defeat.
You can find examples of this irony-laden ideal threaded through the American story, with outcomes casting a long shadow.
Robert McNamara and Gen. William Westmoreland incessantly told the American public that the war in Vietnam was going swimmingly. All along, they knew we were risking national humiliation. Arguably, masking the truth prevented the strategic adjustment that could have turned things around or at least limited the damage.
Decades later, a steady succession of star-spangled mouthpieces told us the same sort of thing about Iraq, when it was clear as early as the spring of 2004 that we’d stitched ourselves into an inescapable defeat. Prompt honesty might have saved lives, not to mention trillions of dollars in American treasure.
Air Force aficionados will recall Gen. Mark Welsh’s testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2016, when he notoriously professed that morale in the service was “pretty darn good.” Anyone in a blue uniform capable of making steam on a mirror knew better, and the Chief of Staff’s dissonance rang in the ears of airmen like an audible contagion, tightening the tailspin.
Norv Turner led the Washington Redskins to many a fast start but refused to change his offensive scheme, play calling, or game strategy when the team serially stumbled in midseason. In his 6-year tenure, despite a fat payroll and immense talent on both sides of the ball, the Redskins made the playoffs only once and lost in the first round. Turner’s belief that trying harder would be good enough sealed his organization's fate.
And of course let’s not overlook the example in high politics. In the lead-up to the 2016 Presidential election, Democrat Party leaders refused to acknowledge that Hillary Clinton’s candidacy was a flammable propellant setting alight the Republican base. While party poobahs shielded against the uncomfortable chill of Bernie Sanders by cuddling up to normative arguments which registered with a diminutive sliver of the American public, electoral Rome burned. The loudest barbarian through the cindered gate is now sipping whiskey in the Oval Office, all because Hillarites over-subscribed to Yes We Can.
Clearly, Machiavelli’s genius was not universal. Sometimes, a little truth goes a long way. Sometimes, “We Suck” is better for the organization than “Yes We Can.” The lucid truth emerges eagerly from the counter-examples.
Then Brig. Gen. Tony McAuliffe famously advised soldiers surrounded at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge that they were surrounded, cut off, and would not be getting resupply or relief. “Yes We Can” would have rung hollow. Instead, his message was “We’re Screwed.” It worked. His men appreciated the honesty, internalized just how hosed they were, and drew inspiration from the fact that they were most likely going to die, and would be measured by how many enemy assholes they managed to take with them. The rest is history. Or as they say in the 101st Airborne, “the rest is misery.”
Steve Jobs serially castigated his core design team at Apple, basically telling them they were subject to digital cuckolding by industry competitors. Some recoiled from his coarse approach and left the company. These individuals are difficult to name, despite the natural notoriety of setting pins in so many bowling alleys. Those who hung tough became legendary. They are the decibel in the ear of America because they were able to accept that they weren’t entitled to flotation atop silver-brimmed clouds of adulation.
Jimmy Carter famously told us all we were gripped with malaise. He was the original genius canary who saw the greed and avarice of unchecked money traders gaining an unnatural and undeserved advantage over publicly constructive markets. We didn’t listen. Just over a quarter century later, as Carter predicted, the entire economic system nearly collapsed. We then started listening, even if Carter got sparse credit.
There’s an unequalled value in truth-telling. It’s how we get better. As a graduate of the US Air Force flying community, I’m an adherent to the aircrew debrief culture. We plan, then we fly, then we scribble down our notes. Then, critically, we gather and process our lessons, accepting that we were not perfect in execution and asking how we might improve next time around. Individuals who can’t absorb such a critical culture are shown the door.
This culture eschews the “everything is fine” ethos. Everything is almost always not fine. Something is always broken. There is always an opportunity for more upside. We can always get better.
For generations, Americans and their elected minions have praised and embraced the ideal of an informed and active electorate while cherry-picking history and philosophy for examples justifying elite ownership of the ends-to-means equation. With elites owning strategy, the rank-and-file have been left to shake their pom-poms. This has not paved a good road.
Turns out that believing everything is fine is the most certain way to undermine that very belief. This paradox is an emblem for the American notion that we can overcome any obstacle through the power of positivity, while all along we know things are not quite as solid as they seem.
Tony Carr is an American writer, manager, veteran, and strategist. He is a former combat pilot and squadron commander with an M.A. from George Washington University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. Tony is the founder of The Colosseum Blog and writes from Manchester, United Kingdom.