After I retired from the military several years ago, I was lucky enough to become the dean of a graduate school of international relations — The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. I have a nice office with views over the highest part of the classic New England university quad, and every day I watch the young undergraduates walk to and from their classes. It is a wonderful place to continue serving, now in the world of education.
Leaning against the window on one side of my office is a somber photograph. It was taken a few years ago, when I was serving as supreme allied commander of the NATO alliance, based in Brussels in the heart of Europe. I was invited to tour Auschwitz, the infamous death camp outside of Cracow, Poland, by the chief of the Polish Defense Forces. In the photo, I am wearing the Navy’s service dress blue uniform as I walk under the wrought iron entrance gate of the camp, where at least a million Jews were murdered by Nazi fanatics and fascists. Above my head, you can clearly see the words, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” which means “Work will set you free.” A more awful motto for a death camp is hard to imagine.
People sometimes ask me why I keep such a depressing photo next to the window. The answer is easy: I keep it there so on a nice fall or spring day I can look at the contrast between the photo, connoting so much agony and injustice, and balance it against the gorgeous sight of young students passing happily on a beautiful college campus. And it reminds me of what everyone who has served in the US military knows: that we have our powerful military to fight against the forces of evil in the world who threaten us, those who would prey on the innocent and the weak, wreaking massacres like the Holocaust.
Our military exists to protect our nation and our allies from those forces who threaten our values: democracy, liberty, freedom of speech and religion, racial and gender equality. We execute these values imperfectly, but they are the right ones to hold. The United States is not interested in conquering other lands, stealing their natural resources, or enslaving their people. That is the work of those we must and will defeat – personified by the 20th-century Nazi fascists. The Normandy landing in World War II was probably the single biggest antifascist event in history — led by the US military.
It is therefore shocking and deeply disturbing to hear a president of the United States so clearly demonstrate his complete misunderstanding of the impact of his words in encouraging neo-Nazis and skinheads, like those who marched in Charlottesville, by failing to immediately, consistently, and utterly condemn them. I do not pretend to speak for the tens of millions of active duty, retirees, and veterans of the US armed forces; but I know in my heart that my fellow military members would gladly stand against those neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and any others who would shatter the values that are what truly “make America great.”
The current US four-star military officers who head the services have all squarely and unequivocally shown us they know why we have a military — to defend our values, not tear them down. In the wake of their commander in chief’s shocking press conference, each of them chose to publish clear, decisive statements disavowing racism and reaffirming the fundamental values they are sworn to defend.
When young women and men join the armed forces of our nation, they do not swear allegiance to the president, although he is the commander in chief. Instead, they swear an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” In the end, our Constitution is like a ship at sea, sailing proudly with the most important cargo in history: our values. The reason we have a military is to preserve that vessel, the Constitution of our nation. It sails today in choppy seas, and I for one am proud our military leaders know their duty.
Above all, I worry about the obvious disconnect between the values of our military and the sentiments that come across so often in the president’s commentary, most recently in the wake of Charlottesville. We need other national leaders — political, financial, business, academic, cultural — to stand together publicly in support of our values. Most importantly, we need the retired and active senior officers in the president’s inner circle to speak truth to power in support of our values in ways that may be deeply uncomfortable. That too is part of the oath they swear, and the heart of their duty as well.James Stavridis retired in 2013 after four years as supreme allied commander at NATO. He is dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.