During this important season of celebrating our nation’s independence, think about the many courageous stories throughout history that contributed to the freedoms that we enjoy today.
They serve as our collective legacy as Americans, and we should honor and remember the courageous sacrifices that were made. But what about our current generations? Are we willing to stand courageously and sacrifice to protect what’s most needed to preserve our freedom now?
At this point in history, the greatest threat to our country and our way of life is the breakdown of truth: People seem to value truth until it becomes inconvenient or embarrassing. Then, all too often, the ends justify the means, and the truth is shaded, hidden or completely ignored. There’s an epidemic of truth slippage in our culture today, and it’s steadily chipping away at our freedom more than we realize.
Having survived as a prisoner of war in Vietnam under the thumb of the Communist Party and its minions for more than five years, I'm particularly sensitive to this issue of truth. When we challenged their use of torture to gain untrue propaganda statements, they blatantly told us, “truth is whatever benefits the party most.” In other words, the ends justify the means. When our ethics are weak and we want to win, look good or protect our unlawful behaviors, our commitment to truth can slide right off the table.
In the Hanoi prison camps, we were led by some of the greatest leaders imaginable. What stood out was their commitment to be responsible, sacrificially do their duty even in the face of physical pain and mental/emotional suffering and then share exactly what they had done and the losses they had incurred. In my recent book, Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton, I wrote about these great leaders like Jeremiah Denton, Robinson Risner, James Stockdale, Bud Day and Kenneth Fisher. Among these giants of leadership and many others, there was no guile -- they courageously led with honor and set a standard that we would do well to emulate today.
Most Americans can sense when something doesn’t sound right, when decisions and explanations don’t make sense and when things aren’t working well. Deep down, we’re losing confidence that leaders and organizations are faithful to the truth and speak without guile. Spin has become a primary tactic in politics, and those who aren’t willing to spin are criticized for being poor politicians with no hope of winning. Is it possible for someone to tell the truth consistently and still get elected? Have Americans become so dulled to lies that they don’t care — or so eager to prevail in their ideological debate that winning is more important than truth?
Logically, one would think that if someone believed strongly in his own ideas, he would be happy to lay out the truths that support them for all to see. While that would be logical and rational, unfortunately, arguments presented to the masses are more often won by appealing to emotions. The communists built their entire propaganda operation on that premise; on a daily basis, we heard blaring through the loudspeaker the lie that “the U.S. bombing is killing mostly old folks, women and children.”
Reflecting on history, we can see that tyrants, crooks and incompetents use lies to achieve their goals because truth typically leads to proper accountability and justice — which they want to avoid. What honorable person wants to stand up and say, my goal is to get what I want at all costs?
So if truth is the cornerstone of freedom and we see it under assault at every turn, how can we preserve the foundation of our nation? I know from personal experience that to speak and live the truth requires a great deal of courage. When things get hard, when mistakes are made, when the road ahead is risky, it’s not easy to tell the truth when you’re concerned about your Image or power. But that’s exactly when the test of our character comes. Likewise, when we encounter those who are afraid to walk the path of courage, we must have the courage to call them out and hold them accountable for telling the truth.
History also tells us that leadership always makes a difference. Who will lead us toward more truth by example and by shedding the light of day into the darkness of lies? Decide now whether you have the personal courage to stand for truth. Our freedom is at stake.Retired Air Force Col. Lee Ellis, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, is president of Leadership Freedom LLC, a leadership and team development consulting company in Atlanta and the author of "Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton." Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions for editorials, available at this link.