Before the decision was made in the summer of 1945 to use the atomic bomb to end the war in the Pacific, the U.S. government planned for a massive invasion of the Japanese islands. Estimates at the time said that up to half a million American lives could be lost. Still, it was a risk our leaders were willing to take in order to decisively end the bloodiest war in recorded history.
In 1945, America’s military and civilian leaders were poised to take that gamble not because they were in any respect foolhardy. Rather, they understood that in war, winning comes not to the timid but to those willing to assess and weigh the cost of defeat against the value of victory and act boldly. Today, 75 years later, it seems as if few in our government would be willing to engage in that calculus and act accordingly.
“Risk” — when did the term come to be considered a four-letter word; something to be avoided at all costs? During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, governments at all levels are mandating measures that are supposed to minimize the risk of individuals becoming infected with the coronavirus, even though the overall risk of most people catching the virus and dying from it is extremely low.
While certain measures to guard against becoming infected with the virus make sense especially among the elderly and already-infirm population, many border on the absurd.
Just days ago, for example, officials at the Veterans Administration decreed that this Memorial Day, Boy Scouts would not be permitted to place flags on graves of fallen veterans at national cemeteries, for fear of someone becoming infected by taking part in such outdoor activity.
Then there is Dr. Anthony Fauci — on whose every word the mainstream media seizes as if issued from Mt. Olympus – who opined that the simple and ancient greeting gesture of shaking hands should be forever banned.
The cost to America’s economy as a result of the measures by federal, state and local governments in response to the coronavirus pandemic is incalculable, but easily in the trillions of dollars. Entire industries are facing not just temporary but permanent shutdown, and our national debt is skyrocketing.
Tracking America’s development from a small littoral power to one spanning a continent and influencing events in every corner of the globe demonstrates the premise that risk is an essential component of progress; without which an industry, an economy or an entire society stagnates.
It is highly unlikely that Gen. George Washington would have attempted his daring and consequential raid on the Hessian troops headquartered in Trenton, New Jersey, if he had applied 21st century risk calculus before setting out across the frozen Delaware River on Christmas night in 1776.
Were Thomas Edison, whose accomplishment place him high on history’s pantheon of great inventive minds, a child of this 21st century instead of the late 19th and early 20th in which he lived, the many scientific and industrial breakthroughs resulting from his tireless work would have been stifled by bureaucratic limitations and embedded risk-aversion.
When did we lose that pioneering spirit; one that enabled a weak neophyte country to defeat the greatest military power in the world? When did America forget that the advancement of any meaningful endeavor – economic, scientific, medical or military – involves risk and cost?
Perhaps that breaking point can be neatly chronicled in a particular event, such as the trauma of “losing” the Vietnam conflict a half century ago. More broadly, America’s loss of innovative courage and its embrace of risk-aversion may be ascribed to what Bruce Cannon Gibney describes in his 2017 book, “A Generation of Sociopaths,” as the emergence of a leadership class totally absorbed in short-term satisfaction with minimal cost or effort.
Regardless of what brought us to this point, if America continues as a society no longer willing to advance if doing so carries with it a degree of risk, then the legacy of freedom bequeathed to us nearly two-and-a-half centuries ago and defended by many thousands of lives in the decades following, will be lost not only to us but to the entire world.
Bob Barr represented Georgia’s 7th District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003 and served as the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia from 1986 to 1990. He now serves as President of the Law Enforcement Education Foundation based in Atlanta, Georgia.