Two Important Speeches (updated)

Neither of them by a President or aspirant to the White House. Therefore all the more worth noticing.

1) By Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense, to students at the Air Force Academy earlier this month. Gates' topic was "leadership," a theme that often provokes unbearable platitudes. After talking about leadership in combat he made this potentially platitudinous point:

But there is another kind of courage beyond the battlefield I want to focus on today and that is the willingness for you to challenge conventional wisdom and call things as you see them to subordinates and superiors alike.

He went on to back it up with some examples of genuine challenges to conventional military wisdom, winding up with this:

There is also the story of John Boyd - a brilliant, eccentric, stubborn, and frequently profane character who was the bane of the Air Force establishment for decades.  As with Mitchell, tact wasn't Boyd's strong suit - and he certainly shouldn't be used as a model for military bearing or courtesy. After all, this is a guy who once lit a general on fire with his cigar.

As a 30-year-old captain, he rewrote the manual for air-to-air combat and earned the nickname "40-second" Boyd for the time it took him to win a dogfight. Boyd and the reformers he inspired would later go on to design and advocate for the F-16 and the A-10.  After retiring, he developed the principals of maneuver warfare that were credited by a former Marine Corps commandant and a secretary of defense for the lightning victory of the first Gulf War.

It strikes me that the significance of Mitchell, Arnold, Schreiver, and Boyd and their travails was not that they were always right. What strikes me is that they had the vision and insight to see that the world and technology had changed.  They understood the implications of that change, and they pressed ahead in the face of incredibly fierce institutional resistance.

Background on Boyd starts here, with links to many other items. It is difficult to convey how astonishing it is to hear a Secretary of Defense recommend that future Air Force officers study Boyd as an exemplar. "Incredibly fierce institutional resistance" barely begins to describe what Boyd faced. I recall seeing Air Force generals of the 1980s live out the cliche of uncontrollable rage -- faces turning red, sputtering in their speech -- literally at the mention of his name. It was not so much that he challenged their judgment about weapons or tactics. They knew that he was at a deeper level challenging their ethics, especially the quest for promotion above all. Careerism will never die, in the military or elsewhere. But it really is a change to have the head of the Defense Department talking about it this way. See the rest of the speech for more.

2)  By Richard Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO, at the Institute of Politics at Harvard last week. Transcript here, from Time.com. The title was "Why Working People Are Angry, and Why Politicians Should Listen," and it was the clearest statement I've seen of the connection between a polarized economic structure and a polarized and hate-filled political system. For instance:

Mass unemployment and growing inequality threaten our democracy. We need to act--and act boldly--to strike at the roots of working people's anger and shut down the forces of hatred and racism.

We have to begin the conversation by talking about jobs--the 11 million missing jobs behind our unemployment rate of 9.7 percent.

Now, you may think to yourself, that is so retro. Jobs are so twentieth century. Sweat is for gyms, not workplaces.

For a generation, our intellectual culture has suggested that in the new global age, work is something someone else does. Someone we never met far away in an export processing zone will make our clothes, immigrants with no rights in our political process or workplaces will cook our food and clean our clothes.

And for the lucky top 10 percent of our society, that has been the reality of globalization--everything got cheaper and easier.

But for the rest of the country, economic reality has been something entirely different.

The speech goes on to explain what that something different is, and what the alternative might be.  UPDATE: YouTube video of Trumka's speech here:



The two speeches differ in topic but are similar in their deliberately and appropriately moralizing tone. A useful tone at the moment. Both addresses worth reading and publicizing.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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