#146 – Dick Bernard: Armies of One

Wednesday of this week a good friend from the old teacher bargaining days, Paul, met me for coffee at a St. Paul restaurant. He, his wife and I talked about many things, and part of our time was about the raggedness of today’s political conversation in this country, even within “birds of a feather”.
Among other meanderings was the recollection of how difficult negotiations really is for those idealists who actually do the bargaining. Not only is there the obvious disparity in positions between the formal “sides” – in our case, labor and management; even more difficult was the internal “scrum” of priorities within the group we were charged with representing. Individuals and small special interest groups within the union made the process even more difficult…and this was totally off the visible screen for most. It could be brutal.
Yesterday, another good friend and I “talked” a bit on-line about how President Obama has done this first year in office. Jeff is in international business and the very nature of his work is constant negotiations, representing producers in this country in dealings with consumers in other countries. His is the same process that involved Paul and I, only a different venue.
Jeff and I bantered back and forth for a bit about the President’s performance, in baseball terms. “[He has] the “potential to hit .425 in Major League baseball…call me disappointed.” “Your response leads to a question: is there a common definition in this country about what is a political “hit” leading to the .425?” “People got excited with his promise…and promises…now he supports [something else].” “So, “People”? Some think he hit a double; others think he’s struck out; still others would toss him out of the game…it gets complicated really quickly, eh?
I thought to myself: the baseball metaphor doesn’t work too well here.
Then, late in the afternoon came an out of the blue e-mail from a fellow I know only from e-mail, who I hadn’t heard from in a long time, whose common interest with me is genealogy and a cultural group newsletter I used to do. “Bonjour Dick…just curious…were you ever in the military?…if so, when and in what branch?” The question was completely out of his and my ordinary context. I answered the question in more detail than perhaps he expected: yes, U.S. Army, 1962-63, peacenik, etc., etc. Maybe I’ll hear from him today on what made him curious, maybe not.
The assorted “threads” above, plus others, got me thinking about the that old, odd Army recruiting phrase: “Army of One“, which at some point replaced “Be All You Can Be” and in turn was replaced in 2006 by “Army Strong“.
Having been in the Army, “Army of One” made absolutely no sense from an operational point of view. An “Army of One” would be an Army of Chaos. But at the time, it was probably the only effective way seen to get enough of our Nation of Individualists to volunteer for service: “I’ll come in, but on my terms” was their demand. That probably lasted through the first day or two of basic training and they learned the truth….
Here we are, in 2010, where we seem, too much, to be a “Nation of Ones”, regardless of ideology. The whole is much, much too complicated, so we tend to fixate on a single issue or aspect of the Whole, and make it our non-negotiable demand. As my negotiator friend and I learned long ago, in much smaller contexts, that kind of bargaining simply does not work. Sooner or later, a resolution for the whole needs to be found, that will also satisfy the other “side”. Absent that, chaos.
So, we elect a new President, and immediately challenge everything he does, every decision he makes, and even his supporters call him a failure because he didn’t single-handedly and immediately resolve all of the very real problems that were on his plate coming in.
I think President Obama understands this conundrum. We should too.