My parents took it hard when I announced after the September 11, 2001, attacks that I was leaving my law practice to join the Army. My dad knew what it was like to fight in close combat, and my mom knew what it was like to be the person left at home wondering about a loved one. My dad felt like God was punishing him for what hed done to his own father in 1968, when, to my grandfathers chagrin, he volunteered for Vietnam even though he had a valid draft deferment. Barely a year after that, he wound up in the jungle walking point, the most dangerous position in an infantry formation.
Looking back, joining the military was a natural decision for me. We had a very patriotic home that honored service. My parents taught us to be proud of our country and respect those who served it, a message reinforced at school and church.
I was too young to understand much about Ronald Reagans presidency at the time, but his tough-nosed, we-win-they-lose attitude appealed naturally to my boyhood instincts and patriotism. Even in a family and town with very few known Republicans, this attitude was widely shared.
Some of these early impressions were no doubt handed down. My grandfather served in the Navy in World War II and, to this day, one of the pictures my father displays at home is of him in his Dixie cup hat. My dad didnt talk often of his combat experiences, but he didnt hide them either. He spoke proudly of his two years in the Army. He had a natural fondness for public figures who had served in Vietnam?not a common feeling in those days?and a squad mate from Vietnam remains his closest friend.
Through months of strained conversations with my parents after 9/11, I often reverted to a simple question: How can it be a mistake to serve our country in time of war? My parents couldnt answer, partly because they must have known they had raised me to ask it in the first place. In the end, they came around.
Some of the lessons I learned in the Army and carried forward into life and politics are simply extensions of what I learned from my family, on the farm and in my little hometown of Dardanelle. As far back as I can remember, my parents, coaches and others stressed the need to face risk and pain courageously. Whether it was working cattle in a small corral or standing in the batters box against a particularly hard thrower, other kids and I learned you have to confront and overcome your fears to get the job done.
In the Army, many training exercises have little purpose besides teaching soldiers to tackle their fears. During the first week of basic training, we went to a rappelling wall. We learned to tie a Swiss seat, lock in the ropes, use our brake hand and so forth. We climbed stairs to the top of the tower and then bounded down the wall in pairs.
When it was my turn, I backed myself into the L-shaped starting position on the wall, but I was stopped by Drill Sergeant George Norton (who made an appearance in one of my campaign ads last year). Drill Sergeant Norton said, Cotton! Look up here, look me in the eye. Once I did, he said, Are you scared? I sounded off loudly, No, Drill Sergeant! Drill Sergeant Norton replied, Damn straight, Cotton! Were not scared of nothing! Now get down that wall, Cotton! I bounded down the wall, the first of many times I rappelled down walls, open-faced towers, mountain cliffs, even out of helicopters.
Despite all that training, I never rappelled once in combat, nor did any soldier I knew. But the point wasnt to teach a tangible skill, like marksmanship, that we would need in combat; the point was to teach us something even more valuable: to confront and overcome fear and risk. If a soldier cant rappel?or jump from an airplane or extricate himself from an underwater obstacle?in a controlled, safe training environment, how can we expect him to fight and win in the chaos of combat?
And thats just physical courage. As soldiers advance up the chain of command, we expect them to show moral courage, which can be even more difficult. Its easy to stay silent when a commander proposes a disastrous plan or when others engage in misconduct, but thats not what we expect from soldiers. Thats why leaders like Drill Sergeant Norton always said, Do the hard right over the easy wrong. Just like my dad always counseled the do-right rule.
Such moral courage is essential in politics and life. Elected officials often come in for criticism for pandering and flip-flopping, much of it justified, when they lack the courage of their convictions. In my earliest days in the House, Senator Tom Coburn gave me some sage advice. He encouraged me to stand firm for what I believe, regardless of the shifting winds of popularity. While we might find ourselves on the wrong side of public opinion on this or that issue, in the long run the people we serve would respect our convictions.
Courage is no less important outside electoral politics. We all face the choice from time to time between the hard right and the easy wrong. Most of us have made both the right and the wrong choice at different times, learning, if only in retrospect, that Thucydides was right when he said the secret to happiness is freedom, and the secret to freedom is courage. Whether its the freedom of setting out on a new career path or the freedom from a guilty conscience, courage is the prerequisite.
This brings me to a second lesson from life and the Army: There is no substitute for leadership. According to Army doctrine, it is not only an element of combat power, but the most dynamic, critical element. It infuses all the rest. Army education is one long training in leadership?a skill we all learned by doing. At Officer Candidate School, my class had approximately 150 candidates. Each week, we rotated leadership positions. The new leaders were trained and evaluated, while the rest of us were led. We were the exact same group week to week, just with different people in charge. In a week with good leaders, we accomplished our tasks, had time for meals and got a good nights sleep. In a week with poor leaders, we could barely march in a straight line.
The same thing repeated itself in the Army at large. I witnessed platoons and companies that were performing poorly and displaying low morale transform almost overnight when they got new officers and new sergeants. This happened in combat and stateside alike.
Leadership is just as dynamic and essential in politics as in the military. U.S.-Soviet relations in the 1970s had been largely characterized by the policy of détente, which in practice meant appeasement of Soviet aggression around the world. But when Ronald Reagan took office, he confronted the Soviet Union and said we could win the Cold War?and we did, just a decade later, without firing a single shot.
Of course, most people have also experienced how critical leadership is in our daily lives. We can get a new pastor at church or a new boss at work who completely changes what the Army calls command climate. Great leaders can provide renewed purpose, direction and motivation in all walks of life.
While these are just a couple of personal lessons from life and the Army, I believe theyre apt for our country, too. The world is desperate for strong and confident American leadership once again, as weve seen the chaos that follows when America tries to lead from behind. Which, by the Armys definition, is not leading at all.