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Repairing our fractured country

Most Maryland delegates to the Republican National Convention embrace Donald Trump as the party's nominee but there are still signs of the internal strife. (John Fritze/Baltimore Sun video)

On July 9, 1991, I was one of the newly minted plebes of the United States Naval Academy's Class of 1995. As we stood in formation in Tecumseh Court to take the oath of office as midshipmen in the U.S. Navy, we chose as our class motto: Non sibi sed patriae — "Not for self, but for country." We were a diverse class, young men and women hailing from every state in the Union. We were conservative and liberal, religious and agnostic, representing almost every ethnic group of our nation. And over time, we also learned that we were gay and straight. In short, we crossed virtually every boundary marking the divides in the American body politic. But we were united by a common desire to serve our country.

We were commissioned as officers in the United States Navy and Marine Corps in 1995, and in the years since then, our bonds of trust as a class have grown immeasurably stronger. They were strengthened by our service together as young officers at sea and in combat. They became unbreakable as we returned to the Naval Academy Chapel over the years to attend each other's weddings and funerals, sharing the joy and grief of a life in service together.

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Recently, I have become gravely concerned about the current state of America. Like many of my classmates, my service around the globe has shown me the tragic consequences that have befallen countries unable to overcome their internal differences to advance their common good. As such, I believe that it is essential that we find ways to return civility to our discourse, compromise to our politics and compassion to our communities if we are to continue to form "a more perfect union" as the founders intended.

So, I invited members of my class from Annapolis to meet in Washington on a balmy Saturday evening this July, 25 years after we took our oath of office, and talk about the state of America. I knew that we would not agree on everything. Yet mindful of our commitment as young midshipmen to one day "assume the highest responsibilities of … citizenship," I wanted to see if we could use our common bonds of trust to find a way forward through our country's current divisions.

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It was a powerful evening. About 30 classmates came from across the country on a week's notice. Many others could not make the journey but sent messages of support. Just like that day in Tecumseh Court a quarter century ago, our group that evening was comprised of men and women who reflected the ideological and ethnic diversity of America. As expected, we differed sharply on a variety of issues. At times the conversation was tense. But by the end of the evening, we understood each other's perspectives better and our considerable mutual respect grew even more.

To maintain the greatness of America, it is not enough that a precious few are willing to show courage on the battlefield when confronting a mortal enemy. Many more Americans must show the courage necessary to engage constructively with their fellow citizens with whom they may disagree.

I hope that others will find their own diverse communities of trust to talk to each other about our nation's challenges. The hard work of strengthening our country must be done face to face, with each of us going out of our way to understand each other better.

There is so much more that we can do to heal the rifts that divide us. We can call together our old friends from sports teams in high school or college. We can invite for dinner the parents of the children who go to school with our kids. We can talk and listen to each other. If these conversations are anything like the one my classmates and I had, everyone will not agree on everything. But we will start to strengthen the fabric of our society before it tears irreparably. Most importantly, we will honor the sacrifice of so many who have given so much for our country by insisting on our national motto E pluribus unum — "Out of many, one."

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Reuben Brigety II (esiadean@gwu.edu) is dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University and a retired U.S. ambassador to the African Union. He is a member of the United States Naval Academy Class of 1995.

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