Water power gets all the credit, but word power does the same kind of job. Water can unleash the forces of nature. Words can unleash the forces of human nature.
Freedom-lovers from Minneapolis to Manila found energy and a stiffer backbone when, after the Japanese conquered the Philippine Islands, Gen. Douglas MacArthur said, “I shall return!” As indeed he did.
On Day One of that war President Roosevelt replaced American confusion with resolution when he told the American people, “We shall win the inevitable triumph, so help us God!”
The medical student knows the bracing effect of adrenalin splashing down across the liver. The political leader knows nothing of that, but he offers the same result when he faces east from the last few inches of free Berlin and demands, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Just as a business borrows needed capital from a bank because it has none, sometimes the leader has to “borrow” from the Bank of Hope.
When America found itself embroiled in World War II, the American garrison on tiny Wake Island consisted of a few hundred Marines and over a thousand civilian construction workers. They repelled the first Japanese assault. Don’t you dare yawn! They repelled the first Japanese assault! Before Wake Island was overrun the Americans had inflicted better than 10-to-1 casualties against the Japanese and sank four Japanese warships and shot down 21 Japanese planes. And those outnumbered Americans had no idea a war was – or would be – going on. The last message from the Marine commander was, “Send us more Japs!”
Not every quote had to make Americans jump and yelp and run out into the street and hug strangers. Some were low key. One of the atolls recaptured from the Japanese was Makin. Don’t tell me the radio-man didn’t smile when he sent the message to his superiors and the world, “Makin taken!” Sometimes mere terseness sent the American message through the American heartland and like a samurai sword through the enemy’s heart – something as simple as “Sighted sub; sank same”!
I guess my first education on the front lines of what mere words can do was when I interviewed Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, leader of the “Battling Bastards of Bastogne” during the Battle of the Bulge in early 1945. The Americans were surrounded by Nazi forces in that Belgian town and running out of everything except guts. The perpetual cloud cover prevented the air-drops that could have relieved them. A German general with an interpreter showed up waving a white flag and was escorted to Gen. McAuliffe’s headquarters in Bastogne.
“You have nothing; we have everything” was the Nazi keynote. “If you surrender immediately, your troops will enjoy warm food tonight and sleep in warm beds. Refuse, and you will all die.” Gen. McAuliffe replied, according to American media, “Nuts!” Hilarious interchange followed because “nuts” means nothing in German except “nuts”; it doesn’t mean “Up your gigi wit a wa-wa brush!” The German general shouted impatiently, “Ist das positiv oder negativ?” “Strictly negative,” replied a laconic Gen. McAuliffe.
The next day the cloud cover mercifully went away, and American planes resupplied the American troops who thereupon regained the offensive. I asked McAuliffe, “Was your reply really ‘Nuts!’ or was that a dry-cleaned version to better suit the taste of the times?” The general replied, “No. It was really just ‘Nuts!'”
During the Korean War, U.S. Marine Gen. “Chesty” Puller famously shouted out to his troops, “Men, they’ve got us surrounded. Don’t let any of them get away!” Tell me, do Nazis, Communists, Jihadists or assorted Bad Guys have lines like that? I don’t know. I haven’t heard any. For some probably biased reason, I don’t think so.
None of this is new. When Teddy Roosevelt was president in the early years of the 20th century an elderly American named Ion Perdicaris was kidnapped by Islamic terrorists in Tangier, Morocco. They pulled the wrong sow by the ear. Teddy Roosevelt ordered the following message wired to the Moroccan authorities: “Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.” Raisuli was the terrorist leader. That message was punctuated by four warships. Perdicaris was returned safely.
Strong words backed by strong deeds have the power to reduce the need for words or deeds next time.
I remember being lifted by those battlecries.
I weep for you, younger ones. When I needed it, I had Winston Churchill (an honorary American!) telling me, “We will fight them on the beaches. We will fight them on the landing grounds. We will fight them in the fields and in the streets. We will fight them in the hills. We will never surrender.”
And, back when American History was still taught in every school, every American could invoke John Paul Jones’ “I have not yet begun to fight!” or Adm. David Farragut’s “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”
That’s what we had when we needed it. What do you have today?
All you’ve got is, “We don’t have a strategy for ISIS.”
I was born into “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”
Now it’s more like “Speak eloquently, walk softly so you don’t break your toothpick”!
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