As we settle in for the long haul in the war against terrorism, we are establishing the patterns that will determine whether that war secures or loses our liberty. Much depends on the kind of contribution average American citizens make to this effort. How can we help protect American liberty, and strengthen it in the process? Some history will help answer this question.

After the Second World War, the governing concept of American military policy shifted from mobilization to readiness, on the assumption that we had to be ready for conflict, on a relatively large scale, at all times. The shift was reasonable, made necessary by the persistent military challenge from the Soviet Union and the need to protect friends and interests around the globe.

Still, the shift might have alarmed earlier American statesmen. Many leaders in America’s founding generation believed that the maintenance of a large standing armed force in peacetime posed a direct threat to liberty. This concern contributed to our earlier national practice of mobilizing for war only when necessary, demobilizing when war ended, and in the interim maintaining just a modest permanent military establishment. But those days are gone. Today we must learn to maintain our liberty despite the apparently permanent need for large peacetime armies.

Another modern development contributes to the endangerment of liberty at home. Military thought in our time has emphasized the essential relationship between military power and the capabilities and characteristics of society as a whole. Economic strength, scientific and technological capacity, managerial ability, national moral confidence – all are seen as part of a comprehensive national readiness policy.

The pursuit of each of these components of national readiness can be conducted in ways that are helpful or harmful to our free way of life. Nazi Germany pursued them all, with great success, but in a way that enslaved the German people. American readiness – and effective prosecution of a potentially permanent state of war against terror – must be achieved in a way that strengthens liberty, not destroys it.

The most fundamental component of permanent American military readiness is the maintenance of the moral understanding that sustains our strength of will. If we get this right, all that is necessary to ensure liberty follows. If we get it wrong, nothing else will help. A morally confident American people, for example, will be economically strong and flexible. But a morally corrupt or servile American people will be unlikely to sustain the disciplines of creation and production that are the sources of national material wealth.

What, then, constitutes the moral readiness of America? It is composed of our national assent to a set of moral ideas, our living understanding of the history from which that assent emerged, and the habits of responsible freedom and self-government which sustain our life of responsible liberty today. These are the components of the moral walls and ramparts needed for our defense – and they are, it so happens, urgently in need of restoration and repair at this crucial moment in our history.

The first component of moral readiness is our national belief in the principles that constitute our common moral identity. These principles are summarized in the Declaration of Independence, embodied in the Constitution, reflected in the deliberations of our representatives and the writings, speeches and decisions of our leaders. We have debated them, sometimes defied them, much more often lived, fought and died for them throughout our history.

But to grasp these principles today, we must know the history that reveals them. We must ourselves be capable of following and understanding the thought that they represent. The study of our history, through which we exercise our minds to develop and maintain this capacity, is the second component of moral readiness.

Finally, effective knowledge of these principles requires practice, for moral truths are not real until they are embodied in the actual lives of men and women. The final and most crucial component of moral readiness is our everyday experience with the challenges, responsibilities and fulfillment of freedom. The lives we make for ourselves, together, make liberty more than an ideal, but rather a concrete and blessed reality.

A nation of people living in responsible and reflective freedom will be a nation morally ready to sustain the burdens of its own defense, however long or bitter the struggle. It will also be, secondarily but not accidentally, a nation fit to maintain the military, economic and logistical readiness for military struggle that are the more obvious components of preparedness for conflict. Finally, a nation morally ready to defend itself will be safe as well from the never sleeping ambitions of government to expand its control and diminish the responsibility of its people.

Only a nation that is morally ready for war can afford to let its government effectively prepare for war militarily and economically. We can face a future of permanent military preparedness confident that our liberty is safe, if we take up the task of moral readiness that is always the principle duty of a free people.

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