Maj. Gen. Patrick Brady

Independence Day is a good time to reflect on what it means to be an American. This very topic was central to President Reagan’s farewell address; he in fact used those very words – what it means to be an American – and pleaded with all of us to instill the answer in our children. What it means to be an American, of course, begs the question – are we exceptional?

President Obama said he believes in American exceptionalism just as Brits believe in British exceptionalism and Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. He might have used a better example than the Greeks, but his point is clear. Exceptionalism is subjective. My home country is no better than any other; exceptionalism is based on sentiment and can’t be objectively measured. I disagree.

American exceptionalism is defined in the Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy as: “a term used to describe the belief that the United States is an extraordinary nation with a special role to play in human history; a nation that is not only unique but superior.”

I do believe we meet that definition, that we are exceptional, that we are hardwired differently than other peoples. I believe we have played a special role in history, that we are unique and superior as a nation and that we are a gift to the world – and that is not just a sentiment, I believe it is supportable by facts.

In fact, I believe that we are beyond exceptional; we are indeed the last best hope of mankind. Does anyone believe the Brits or the Greeks or any other nation is the last best hope of mankind?

American is exceptional because we are a uniquely courageous people, a uniquely compassionate people and a uniquely competitive people – and we have been a good people.

Alexis de Tocqueville in the 19th century was the first to call America exceptional – he also said America is great because America is good. Goodness is the indispensable element of our exceptionalism and ties the other three together.

A courageous people. Americans agree with William James on courage. He wrote: “Evident though the shortcomings of a man may be, if he is ready to give up his life for a cause, we forgive him everything. However inferior he may be to ourselves in other respects, if we cling to life while he throws it away like a flower we bow to his superiority.” Americans admire courage and believe that courage in all parts of our humanity, mental, physical and spiritual is the key to success in life.

Life is not fair; we are not born equal, certainly not in terms of ability and opportunity. But Americans realize that in the manner which really matters, we are born equal; that is, in terms of courage – we can have all the courage we want. You can’t use it up. Americans know that they can go as far in life as their courage will take them and that God will give them all the courage they need. Once we are locked on to courage as the key to success in life, we understand that mediocrity and failure are the result of choice, not chance. Courage belies victimhood.

American courage is also the source of most of the freedom in the world, the courage of our leaders, our people and, most of all, our military

I am often asked what the source of courage is. The short answer is faith. I have never known anyone with enduring repetitive courage who was not also a person of faith. It is well-known that we are a nation of faith, and that explains the great courage of our people – it also explains their goodness.

It was the confluence of Christianity and a desire for freedom that brought us the Declaration and the Constitution. It is the American Constitution more so than any other governing document that unleashes the fruits of courage in what we call free enterprise, based in individual initiative unfettered by outside interference, which has produced unsurpassed prosperity. Christianity taught that there is no liberty without morality; that there are no little people, each person’s dignity was the equal of the booted and spurred who had saddled much of the world. The God of Christianity was the source of our rights, not the robed and perfumed elite who declared and denied rights on a whim.

A compassionate people. We are measurably the most compassionate people in the world. Americans give billions annually to charities, at home and across the world. No individuals give more than the Americans. We also adopt more children than the rest of the world combined. Who is at the forefront of every natural disaster on this planet? Who gives more for the medical needs and poverty of all peoples?

A word of caution on compassion.

I believe there is danger in the promotion of unwarranted self-esteem, the shielding of children from the fruits of failure. Failure is healthy; it is the necessary stepping stone to success. When we subsidize failure and focus on security rather than opportunity, when we are more concerned that our programs are compassionate than that they are fair and successful, we guarantee failure. A false compassion may also be shade for the roots of socialism.

A competitive people. More so than any other nation, we have been a meritocracy, and that fosters and is souled by competition. We are a people who believe we should be free to pursue happiness, but we also find happiness in the pursuit – in pure, unfettered, joyful competition. Winners are courageous and competitive. We are free to compete as equals in the marketplace of ideas and industry. Success in America has been a function of ability and hard work more so than any other factor.

Despite the demonization of the rich by some, my experience with the wealthy in America is that they are smarter than I am, work harder than I do, are more competitive than I am and only sometimes are they luckier than I am. And most of the wealthy I know are very generous –and for good reason, many of them know what it means to be poor. And it is a fact that many of the most successful people failed more than those who are considered failures. They kept competing; the failures quit.

I believe most failures result from a lack of courage, an unwillingness to compete. But there are some who feel they deserve more of the American dream than they, by hard work, have earned. They want equal outcome for unequal input. Many of these people want a handout. And a great danger to America is that politicians have learned that they can bribe these people.

Tragically, government bribing leads to addiction. It forms a relationship between our people and our government that is similar to that between a drug dealer and an addict. A controlling government is like a dope peddler, they seek to grow the addiction of the people, to build their dependence which grows the power, the ultimate aphrodisiac of evil, the power of the government.

And some of the bribing takes the form of quotas, by which one person benefits because of race, gender, etc. – not just ability or hard work – over another, better-qualified person because of his or her race, gender, etc.

This is not only unfair, it is insane. Government bribery, quotas and other non-merit-based programs lead to socialism, or worse, and will destroy our competitiveness and eventually destroy America.

Finally, I believe the key to a successful future is a strong belief in our exceptionalism. We cannot survive unless we continue to grow patriots, young people who believe in our exceptionalism, who prove their love for America by supporting and defending her.

What does it mean to be an American? The answer is that it means to be part of an exceptional people, a people who have been a blessing to the world and will continue to be so as long as we remain a good people, a people of courage, of compassion with a government dedicated to the immutable truths of the Constitution of our founders, a government that allows free and unfettered competition in a market governed by merit, individual initiative and hard work.

If we fail, it will be because we commit suicide – we lose our courage and become cowards, we lose our compassion and become greedy and self-centered, and we lose our competitiveness and become socialists. But we will lose all these only if we lose our goodness.

I did not do America a favor by my 35 years of service – God did me a favor by allowing me to be born in the most exceptional nation on the planet.


Patrick Brady, a retired U.S. Army major general and helicopter pilot, was awarded America’s highest decoration, the Medal of Honor, for a series of rescues during the Vietnam War in which he used three helicopters to rescue more than 60 wounded. At the end of the day his aircraft had over 400 holes in them from enemy fire and mines. In two tours in Vietnam he flew more than 2,500 combat missions and rescued more than 5,000 wounded. Some pundits recognize him as the most decorated living veteran. His website is GeneralBrady.com.

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