Hey there. Have a seat. I want to show you something special.
These are photos of my grandfathers, Bob and Bill. Both of them World War II veterans. My paternal grandpa, Robert Francis (Bob) Pickens, and my maternal grandpa, John William (Bill) May, fought in the European theater.
Their details and service records are hazy, as both men didn’t like to talk much about their time in the service and Bill passed from a heart attack way too early at age 45. But we do know that Bob was in the Ardennes Forest area of Belgium at the same time as the Battle of the Bulge. It was so cold that winter his feet literally froze while he was in a foxhole — leaving them damaged and achy for the rest of his life. Bill was also wounded — though it’s unclear to me how — and was awarded the Purple Heart as well.
Both members of the Greatest Generation, they also represented a good cross-section of America. Bill was a healthy mix of central European ancestry — most likely a descendant of Dutch and German immigrants. And Bob was half Chickasaw Indian and half a mix of Western European — particularly Scottish or Irish, as the blazing red hair on my Dad’s side of the family confirms.
Every Memorial Day, I reflect on these photos and their lives. I wonder what they’d think of current events or my recent government service and now small business ownership and I think about what I can do to honor their legacy and the future they left me. Though we swore the same oath to the same Constitution, their sacrifices and grit astound me — I doubt I’ll ever be able to work as hard for the cause of America as they did in the 1940s. We’ll truly never see another war like that or a generation quite as strong to rise to the challenge as they did. But we must try to meet the moment.
I think they’d have a lot to say about the sorry state of America in 2020. I think they’d sit us all down and give us a bit of a history lesson and a scolding over a couple fingers of whiskey (Crown Royal was Bob’s vice). So please indulge me while I channel them for a moment and reflect on where we are today and what we’re going to do about it.
First thing’s first, depending on when their ancestors immigrated, their grandfathers probably fought in wars too. The Civil War, all too relevant to today’s political climate, was fought to settle the question of slavery in American society and would have been raging through Oklahoma (then known as Indian Territory) on the Chickasaw side of the family a scant ~20 years after they were removed from Mississippi.
Make no mistake; despite the noise you hear today about “tradition”, “history”, and “heritage”, that war was waged by people willing to shed blood for the idea that enslaving human beings and treating them as property was an acceptable way of life. They believed in slavery enough to secede from America, form a new government enshrining that principle in its founding, and start the bloodiest war in our history in order to attempt to preserve it.
They were seditious rebels — traitors — who took up arms against America. They chose to fight and kill their brothers and countrymen rather than abide by and work out their differences through the political process of our representative democracy — they gave in to the passions of war. Some 600,000 Americans and Confederates and Indians died to put to rest once and for all the idea that slavery could be acceptable in a society based on true freedom. They rebelled against America, and, by God’s mercy and the unending determination of amazing men like Lincoln and Grant, they lost. And America was able to move forward — for a few decades.
Today, when I see Confederate or Gadsden flags being used inappropriately — or folks in an uproar about pulling down statues of Confederate traitors — I have no sympathy. The South lost. America won. To wave those flags, to revere those statues, and to participate in those rallies today is particularly unAmerican because Americans fought and died to put those symbols and the terrible policies they represented in the history books. To uphold and honor the most notable act of treason and sedition in American history is to affront the foundation of “liberty and justice for all” upon which this country is based.
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” -President Abraham Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address
In the 1940s, America was going through a phase, much like today, during which nationalism, isolationism and a they-aren’t-coming-for-us approach to our international neighbors were holding us back from trying to prevent Hitler’s effort to destroy the Jewish people and invade of half of Europe. A murderous dictator was on the loose with a level of power and popularity unlike any the world had ever seen and he was hell-bent on eradicating an entire race, fueled by his misguided aspirations for the so-called “Aryan race.”
Eventually, America came to its senses after the Japanese showed us that they were indeed coming for us. The United States joined the cause and my grandfathers both went to war and fought for their country in defense of a people and countries who couldn’t stand up for themselves. My grandpas were both lucky enough to return home, but they didn’t have much interest in discussing the horrors they encountered. Their memories and scars were living reminders with them each day of the pain they endured while defending the Jewish people against genocide.
I’m astounded and angered today when I see white nationalist rallies, swastikas, and Nazi flags being flown — in America, in 2020. There are terrible human beings in the strain of Alex Jones, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Richard Spencer espousing the doctrines of Hitler and, astoundingly, gaining a following from those who seem to reject the global consensus that the Nazi ideology should never return.
The Nazis were sworn enemies of America. They sought to kill or subjugate every last one of us because we stood up to them alongside our allies to protect the “least of these.” So it looks particularly ridiculous and dangerous today when foolish college kids rally in Charlottesville, throw Nazi salutes and defend the character of Confederate generals in some ill-conceived effort to assert their whiteness, or when grown adults shout “Heil Trump!” at a White Supremacist meetup mere blocks from the White House. Apparently, they don’t understand that their ancestors — less than two generations ago — fought and died so that Americans and the world could be free from such horrific ideologies. In a different time and place, people like me were locked away in camps with a pink triangle on their prison clothes. I doubt my grandpas could have conceived of that — but they were fighting to save their grandson from ever having to endure anything like that.
To throw a Nazi salute or fly a Swastika is patently unAmerican. These symbols are drawn from a belief system from the 1940s that need never reemerge. And the legacy of both my grandfathers testifies to that. These weak displays of white nationalism (read: bigotry and racism) are disrespectful to their memories, their service, and their sacrifices for us. They cannot be allowed to continue and certainly cannot be allowed to gain a foothold in 21st century America.
Luckily, their recent efforts have been met with equal resistance from the sane people of America who, for example, chanted “Nazi scum, get out!” to Yiannopoulos and made it clear he wasn’t welcome at a local pub in New York City .
Once that great conflict finally ended and post war lines were drawn up at Potsdam, the battle shifted to another 50 years of strife against our one-time allies: Russia.
I don’t remember much about the politics and government of the 1980s, since I was so young. But, I do remember my Grandpa Bob’s admiration for President Ronald Reagan. As a military man, he loved that Reagan “rebuilt our military” (his words) and was tough on Russia during the Cold War.
The Space Race and nuclear Arms Race defined those decades — neck and neck in a struggle between America and Russia to prove who had the best technology and strongest military — almost from the very minute that Berlin fell.
Much later, Reagan, in Berlin, famously exclaimed, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” and the remaining scars from WWII began to heal. Of course, we’re familiar with the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent effort to rebuild and re-establish Russia’s international image. Ever since then, they’ve revived their attempts to challenge our status as the last remaining superpower. One need look no further than Ukraine or Syria to see two areas of proxy wars where Russia is slowly exerting its will while the U.S. can do little without risking major confrontation.
In a 2012 presidential debate, then-Governor Mitt Romney called Russia America’s №1 geopolitical foe. I recall thinking he was crazy for claiming that at the time; most of America, certainly many other Democrats, brushed this off as ignorance on his part — a lack of contemporary understanding of international relations. But — as it turns out — he was right. Unknown to the public at the time, Russia was on the cusp of launching an unprecedented and sophisticated cyber attack against America just one election cycle later. And we, as a country, were wholly unprepared for this frontal cyber-assault.
And that’s a huge concern for our national security that we still haven’t addressed, likely because the incumbent ruling political party doesn’t view it as a threat since it helped their electoral fortunes in 2016. But as a technologist and former public servant, I do not see Russian cyber-attacks as a challenge that America cannot confront. We created the internet and we can damn sure be the best at it if we resolve to confront that threat head-on and secure our digital borders and assets properly.
But there are two massive concerns beneath the immediate threat of Russia: 1) just how effective the social manipulation of roughly half of America has been to divide us and 2) the ever-increasing evidence that Russia has a willing ally inside the ranks of the American government and its citizenry.
That brings us to today. Evidence continues to pile up that shows the Trump Campaign was in cahoots with Russian assailants for months before the election and well into the transition in 2017. The Senate Intelligence Committee, chaired by Republicans, confirmed this in clear terms with the final volume of their report on 2016 election interference. Clandestine meetings between the President’s lawyer, his family, and many members of his campaign have now come to light. Additionally, the policies issued from President Trump’s administration have largely reinforced the increasingly evident truth that he’s soft on Russia, most likely because he owes them nothing less than the presidency itself — if not his own personal “fortunes”.
Perhaps he thought, like the rest of us, that there was no way he would win. But that didn’t stop him from working with them — and the seriousness of the threat has only increased in magnitude since he’s become president. The clearest and most recent example of this is hard evidence that Russia placed bounties on American soldiers — and Trump has remained entirely silent.
Now, all the facts have yet to come in, and it will likely take us decades to untangle all the corruption. But it’s not hard to draw one conclusion from what we do know today: that Donald J. Trump accepted assistance from a foreign government who Mitt Romney characterized as “America’s №1 geopolitical foe” so that he could further his own political and financial future. The anti-American, unpatriotic betrayal of those actions are astounding and very likely criminal.
But that’s not where our national shame around this episode ends. In a normal world, we would have a strong Congress, regardless of controlling party or personality — asserting its critical constitutional duty to check the executive branch and getting to the bottom of these things to secure our our national security interests, the sovereignty of our elections, and preservation of our democracy. But the past two years have seen the unique confluence of events where the biggest check on a compromised executive, impeachment and removal from office, was discarded by the U.S. Senate under control by the same party as a corrupt president. Instead of serving as a buffer and check for Trump’s unconscionable actions, they’ve been using the chaos he creates to distract from their slow advancement of GOP policies they’ve sought to implement for years.
Party loyalty and opportunities to advance policy objectives are not valid excuses for congressional inaction or dereliction of their constitutional duty. If Trump’s actions are as unAmerican as they appear to be, a normal Congress of free-thinking and patriotic Americans — regardless of party — would be outraged over such treachery. But instead, we’ve seen the Republican Party play dumb, distract from, cover for, and even act in concert with Trump’s White House to lie to the American public. When given the opportunity to examine and punish this behavior— and do something about it by removing Trump from office — the Republican Senate chose to look the other way during impeachment.
It’s a foregone conclusion that a Republican-controlled Senate will not act on the President’s treachery. So it’s up to us, as concerned Americans, go to the polls in November and to elect people interested in accountability and national security. Don’t get me wrong, I am a die-hard Democrat, but I recognize we have failings of our own. However, the magnitude and criticality of this moment demand that we drop party concerns and considerations. At this point in our nation’s history, there are two camps: one made up of those who swore to protect and defend America against enemies foreign and domestic, and the other: those who knowingly colluded with a foreign government and those who aid and abet them on a daily basis and refuse to hold them accountable for those actions.
Technology, cable news, and social media are not entirely to blame for this. This comes down to a matter of where you stand as an American — whether you think our elections should be a sovereign action free from external influence or election in which it is okay to accept stolen information, financial assistance, and to act in concert with unprecedented cyber attacks our country has ever seen so that the favored outcome of our geopolitical adversary — the Kremlin — would be cemented by the electorate.
We are under attack from both within and without. The aim is simple — sow division among the American people. Our enemy knows that when we are united we are unstoppable. The only way they can diminish or defeat us is if we let them tear us apart internally so badly that we can’t come back together as a country — as President Lincoln said: “a house divided.” We must step out of the corners of whatever petty policy arguments we used to fight about and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our fellow Americans if we’re going to combat and cut out this cancer off the heart of our country.
The time for party support and American politics-as-usual has passed. We have entered a moment when, much like my grandpas’, it is time to pick a side yet again: are you supporting America, her Constitution and the ideas that they uphold, such as all men (and women) are created free and equal, with unhindered access to the pursuit of happiness under our flag? Or are you repeating the latest cable news talking points, espousing “heritage”, willingly sharing Russian disinformation on social media, or looking the other way and abetting a president and a political party who have compromised their ideals and allegiance to America as they selfishly side with our enemies?
The time has come to choose: it’s either Trump or America.
The Confederacy betrayed America. The Axis betrayed the world. Our arsenal and clout as a superpower were established over 50 years of going toe-to-toe with Russia to keep them in check. And, abhorrently, we now have political leaders in America who have sided with Russia against the country they claim to love and serve — Donald Trump and his Republican Party have betrayed America.
Epilogue for Losers and Suckers.
News broke this week — and I say broke, but really it just confirmed things we’ve known in our heart-of-hearts all along — that Donald Trump has no respect or understanding of military or public service and he is patently unfit to serve as the American Commander in Chief.
We already knew it was weird in 2018 when Trump skipped a visit to a cemetery of WWI soldiers in France on the occasion of the one hundred year anniversary of the end of the war. He cited weather and poor visibility, yet Angela Merkle and Emmanuel Macron made the trip in the rain. General Kelly represented America on that trip.
At first we chalked it up to vanity and Trump’s typical weak-will, but as the Atlantic has reported — which is confirmed by multiple other outlets and networks — yes, even Fox News — that Trump views Americans who gave their lives on the field of battle as “losers” and “suckers”. Of course he would have no interest in honoring those he views with such disdain.
He showed us his heart in 2015 when he belittled John McCain saying: “I like people who weren’t captured.” He showed us again in 2016 when he bullied a Gold Star family on his way to receive the Republican Party nomination for President. And again when he called George H.W. Bush a loser for getting shot down in WWII.
But beyond the vulgarity of these episodes — the public and private bashing of folks for political effect, the final straw is revelation that Trump standing at the grave site of Robert Kelly, the son of Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly, in Section 60 of Arlington Cemetery in 2017 said to his father, — literally standing right beside him — “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?”
That base level lack of empathy, disregard, disrespect, and disdain for military and public service is an immediate disqualification for elected office in this country.
You don’t get to come back from that in American politics. I pray there’s a reckoning and some justice on the other side of Trump’s time in office. But hopefully him once again bearing his craven heart at the feet of war dead is enough to shake America from this fever-dream of nationalism and partisanship enough to give him his walking papers in November.
The memory of my grandfathers and the honor and respect of their public service demands it.
They didn’t cite bad weather when they deployed to Europe to fight in trenches and freeze their feet and end up wounded. They weren’t suckers for going to stand up for our allies and the marginalized and our own national security interests. And the friends they left behind on those battlefields certainly weren’t losers for not coming home.
The anger and dread I feel from this news compels me to speak out and act. I am more resolved than ever to put in the effort my grandfathers would be proud of to bring accountability back to Washington so we can begin to put this shameful chapter in our history behind us. I exhort you to join me. After four years of this disgusting political sideshow, our country is still more polarized than ever. But we must move forward as Americans — regardless of party — together.
Let’s honor our ancestors this holiday break— taking a moment to thank them for their hard work and sacrifice so we can live in the country they had in mind when they went to war. And then let’s get back to work putting American political leadership back into the hands of people who respect Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice to keep us free so we could exercise our right to vote.
November is coming.
Note: I wrote the bulk of this piece in the summer of 2018 when America was literally on fire with racism. After reflection, I deemed it too incendiary to publish at the time. But with the recent expositions of the true cowardice and disdain Donald Trump has for our American soldiers and war heroes, the very least I can do to honor my grandfathers is use my voice to speak up. I hope you will too.