This I Believe

Terry - Charlottesville, Virginia
Entered on February 1, 2007

I believe democracy is a prize won, not a gift delivered. The idea of a government being of the people, for the people will not survive if it is merely a proposition from afar, it must be an idea strongly held by those who would use it. Thirty-eight years ago I was an American soldier living in a village in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. I and my small team were there to advise and assist the villagers in local military operations and in the details of running a district government. We were engaged in counterguerrilla warfare, war in the village and in the tree lines and jungle. This was Special Warfare and I had been trained for it, not only in special tactics and administration, but in Vietnamese culture and language. I had arrived in Vietnam as prepared as that training could make me, and I, we, all of us took on a difficult problem.

The military side of our task was straight-forward. Village security came first. We ran a war of ambush by night and patrol by day. We went looking for the enemy and we attacked him in his sanctuaries. We showed the local soldiers and villagers that by taking up arms in their own cause they could have the security they hoped for. That job we could do and did; it was the government side of the equation that proved intractable.

Men can be inspired to fight to protect their homes, but teaching them to improve their government is a much more complex task. Governments exist in a matrix of history and culture often at odds with the basic tenants of what we think of as democracy. Improving a government can require village and province authorities, even national leaders to surrender their usual privileges and to put aside their traditional loyalties. My experience is, this will not be done lightly.

And overlying everything is the issue of corruption, of obliquity so pervasive it destroys a people’s belief in government, especially when that government is called democracy. Corruption destroys hope and builds cynics; it is a cancer neither quick nor easy to cure and it undermines all else that is healthy and hopeful. So when it comes to a people voicing a desire for freedom and democracy, we have to ask ourselves, how much is lip service and how much is deep determination? How many will abandon tribal prejudices, religious hatreds or ethnic discriminations? How many will forego their own petty corruptions?

My experience was in Vietnam, but whether in Vietnam or Russia, or Haiti, or, you know it, Iraq, we may wish democracy for a people, but only they can grasp it. I believe democracy is a flower that must be rooted and nurtured from within, not simply transplanted from afar. I believe we who have democracy and who have taken it for granted that every society desires it as much we do must realize that this, at its heart, is not true. I believe democracy is a prize to be won, not a gift to be delivered. This, I was taught years ago and this, I still believe.