When I first joined the United States Army Reserve in 1998, Bill Clinton was president of the United States. I didn’t vote for Bill Clinton, but he was my commander-in-chief. It didn’t matter that I did not vote for him. Some things are bigger than politics.
I was — and am still — deeply grateful to live in a country that is able to legitimately elect our leaders and has successfully conducted a peaceful transfer of power for centuries. These democratic institutions are a cornerstone of self-governance for all Americans. I have witnessed firsthand places around the world where that is not the case. I respect our system and I accept the results that are determined by the American people. Even if we don’t agree with the outcome of every election, we are blessed to get to chart out our country’s future with our individual votes and our voices.
In 2005-2006, I deployed to Iraq as a combat surgeon alongside soldiers of many different backgrounds. The differences did not matter. The most important thing was that we were all Americans. In the high-stress, danger-filled environment of a combat zone, you couldn’t care less if the soldier beside you was a Republican or a Democrat — you just want to know they have your back. We call it “got your six.” It’s a phrase that dates back to World War I, when fighter pilots would say “twelve o’clock” to indicate the front of their aircraft and “six o’clock” for the back. Heading into battle, the six o’clock position is the most open to attacks from the enemy, so when a pilot says they’ve “got your six,” it means they have your back. They’re watching out for you.
That’s the ethos our nation needs today.
I realize it is far from easy; it hurts losing an election. As Americans, we fight passionately for what we believe in and for the future we want to leave to our children. The direction we see our country going in feels deeply personal. Yet, after each election, part of the peaceful transition of power is that we accept the results and forge ahead. Our democratic institutions are greater than any one election. While we may remain sharply opposed over policy issues, we understand that all Americans – even those with whom we disagree — have an equal right to share their voice, cast their vote, and participate in our political system. That’s part of what makes us America.
What we cannot and must not do is fall into the trap of believing our fellow Americans are the enemy. We have many real enemies out in the world who hate what we stand for and want to destroy us; I’ve witnessed it firsthand. As Americans, we must have each other’s back. The only way for us to steward our democracy well and share our inheritance with the next generation is to come together – even when our side doesn’t win.
Hatred doesn’t work. I’ve seen hatred on the battlefield and on a baseball field when a gunman opened fire on me and a group of my colleagues at baseball practice in Virginia simply because he did not agree with us politically. Hatred blinds people, and convinces you there is no other option but to tear others down. That’s why the intensity of today’s often dehumanizing political rhetoric is so concerning. It’s a problem for all of us that after our most recent presidential election, so many Americans felt they had no other option but to immediately and quite openly set out to undo the result by any means possible.
The distrust of our foundational institutions – institutions that are supposed to bind us together as a nation – erodes our shared values and ethos. When we have nothing shared, everything is a zero-sum battle. I’ve been in war and I’ve studied war. In war, shared institutions whither, civil society erodes, and every facet of life is a battlefield. Society is defined by division. While tearing down institutions might be politically expedient to achieve short-term gains, the long-term impact to the integrity and sustainability of our nation is intensely damaging.
There is an election in less than a year. It is time for the efforts to overturn the last election to end. The American people are more than capable of making their voices heard, as they do every November and will again next year.
It’s time for us to come together as Americans and face the future, not divisions of the past. The result of democracy is that you don’t always get what you want, because the United States of America has never been defined by a single party or a single person in power. Instead, it’s a noisy and chaotic kaleidoscope of different voices and opposing opinions that has been ultimately unified and defined by our collective commitment to the ideals of democracy, rule of law, and the will of the people. At the end of the day, we’ve all got each other’s backs, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
My wish for our country this Christmas is that we would not forget that. At the end of the day, in one way or another, at one time or another, we’ve all got to have each other‘s backs. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Merry Christmas everyone!