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In the prologue to his book, “The Savior Generals,” Victor Davis Hanson asks the question, “What wins wars?” Is it superior manpower, resources, strategic planning, or cutting-edge technology? Hanson explains that these certainly play a role, but they’re not always enough. Sometimes it’s the human element that makes the difference. On rare occasions, “generals and the leadership of single individuals can still matter more than these seemingly larger inanimate forces.”
Hanson is talking about military conflict, but this observation can be applied to politics as well, to the culture war we’re fighting. Americans are, in some ways, like the Athenians who fled their city, a once-thriving democracy, as the Persian King Xerxes torched it, killing or enslaving all who stood in his way. We’re not facing physical threats and our cities are not literally burning, but our way of life is just as threatened, our vibrant Republic is on the brink of annihilation.
When it comes to wars, we often hear about battles that have been won or lost, but Hanson points out that there are times when wars are “saved,” when generals “who in extremis rescued rather than started or finished a war.” Maybe we, like many nations before us, are at a point where we need saving. It’s not just a matter of defending our way of life, but rescuing it.
There certainly is a sense of desperation among conservatives and libertarians—not despair, but a heightened awareness that something drastic must happen now or we will never be able to regain what we’ve lost. We are facing an American crisis.
“These are,” as Thomas Paine wrote, “the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”
To overcome this crisis, to win, we must recognize that we’re in a war. A war against tyranny. A war against progressive philosophies that seek to undermine and destroy the foundations of our freedoms. A war against those who disregard our Constitution and rule by fiat, who treat our homeland like a whore to be ravaged at will, and who violate our privacy in the name of safety.
If we’re going to triumph, we need good strategies and wise tactics, but we also need a leader, a savior. Not a messiah in the soteriological sense, but a “savior general,” a leader who is willing to face insurmountable odds as Henry V did and recognize that when it comes to war, passivity, civility, and compromise have no place.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man as modest stillness and humility; but when the blast of war blows in our ears, then imitate the actions of the tiger; stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, disguise fair nature with hard-favor’d rage.
This band of brothers we call conservatives needs the kind of leader Shakespeare described, the tiger who will lead us to victory with hard-favor’d rage, with passion and determination.
But where will that leader come from? What does the savior general look like?
Hanson explains that savior generals didn’t come from the elite leadership, from the establishment. They were inevitably outsiders, usually common men, unsophisticated, but worldly wise and brave. They had “greater knowledge and insight, outspokenness, self-promotion, individualism, eccentricity.” These are the characteristics necessary for a leader to “galvanize dispirited troops and resurrect national will.”
History has shown, however, that these rogue leaders were often despised by the established leadership, inciting suspicion, spite, and envy. They were “outsiders well before their appointments,” and “even after their successes, most saviors did not enjoy the commensurate acclaim and tranquility that the moment of their military brilliance otherwise might have ensured.”
The Greek general Themistocles was one such leader. Experienced but never one to play well with others, he wasn’t the “ideal” man to save the Athenians from Xerxes’ armies. Yet, he did exactly that. Opinionated and strong, he stood toe-to-toe with other Greek generals who were prone to run rather than take risks to secure victory. He endured criticism and disrespect because he knew he was right. He understood the kind of war they were fighting and that they needed to make their stand at Salamis or their democracy would be lost. “Either win or cease to exist as a people,” he said.
Themistocles was a visionary, and, as Hanson writes, visionaries like Themistocles, like Churchill, are often “written off as alarmists and eccentrics by their contemporaries.” But history rises up in their defense. Wars would have been lost without men such as these.
We live in a time that cries out for this kind of leader. We weep over loss of freedom. We look to the future and see darkness on the horizon, not the bright light of hope our forefathers promised. We stand, as if alone, and feel hope slipping away with each new piece of legislation that speeds its way through Congress, with each speech given by a president who cares nothing for our national security or our national integrity, with each scandal that goes unresolved because no one has the courage to do anything about it. We watch helplessly as our churches are ridiculed and silenced and as our children cower before an intransigent school system that forces them to conform to its Orwellian ideals.
We grasp for leaders from our political party and long for one to rise up above the fray in the name of freedom, but all we hear are calls for compromise, consensus, and civility. But consensus is a luxury of peace. We are at war. A cultural war, but a war nonetheless. Like Margaret Thatcher so wisely said of consensus:
It’s the “process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values, and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects; the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead. What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner: I stand for consensus?”
What great cause indeed? Who fights for consensus, for compromise? No one. If that is your goal, you’ve already lost the war. You will continue to prop up GOP establishment figures who toe the party line. And you will lose. Everything.
But not everyone will toe the party line. Not everyone will sacrifice their faith, their hopes, their dreams on the altar of compromise. Some are willing to fight, to go forth in battle, to stand for their beliefs in the face of ridicule and lies. Some want to save this precious country we call home, a home fought and paid for with the blood of our countrymen.
Some of us believe, as Ronald Reagan did, that “democracy is worth dying for because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man” and “no arsenal, or no weapon in the arsenals of the world, is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women.”
As we look at what is happening to our great country, we are dispirited. Though we fight it, pessimism and hopelessness hang like a heavy cloud across the landscape, casting shadows on everything we hold dear. We wonder if we will ever see the light again that illuminates our majestic mountains and shining seas. We fear that city on the hill will flicker and fade forever.
But it is at times such as these, when “all is forlorn,” as J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, that “hope is born.” It is in this hour that salvation breaks forth, those dark moments before the dawn. This is when the noble rise and leaders are born if only we let them.
They don’t always look like a leader, polished and poised. Like Moses, their words often stumble, their learning not so grand. Like Themistocles, their parentage isn’t high-born and they don’t have degrees from hallowed halls of learning. They often come from obscurity, from an unremarkable past that has aptly prepared them to work hard without needing affirmation or praise. They don’t care about fame and fortune or public approval. They’re contrarians by nature. Mavericks. They are fighters, defenders, saviors. They are willing to lay down their lives for their country, put their reputations on the line, laugh in the face of a critical media, of condescending party elites, and stand for what is right.
If we’re going to win this war, we need a visionary, a rebel. We’ve had enough of sunshine patriots and summer soldiers who wilt at the first hint of winter’s chill. We need a savior general, a fighter willing to stand, unapologetically, proudly, simply, for freedom.