On the morning of October 21, 1805, a force of some 33 British warships sailed in two columns toward a 41-ship French-Spanish fleet – the teeth of Napoleon's Navy – off Spain's Cape Trafalgar. The allied fleet commanded by Admiral Pierre Villeneuve was of course larger. But Admiral Horatio Nelson, commanding the British force, possessed the better tactical mind and perhaps the most superbly trained gun-crews in the world.
As the British ships neared the range of the enemy's guns, Nelson – aboard his flagship, HMS Victory -- ordered his signal officer to hoist a series of telegraphic flags, sending a message not only to his subordinate commanders on his other ships, but to all of his anxious sailors and Marines who -- at that very place in time -- were bracing for one of history's epic sea battles.
The message, sent just before noon, was simple:
“England expects that every man will do his duty.”
That may seem trite and clichéd to our 21st-century eyes and ears. But only because that nine-word sentence was so stirring then, it would be uttered countless times in some form or fashion over the next two centuries.
Of course, this is not 1805. Most of us are not British, and probably none of us are standing on the upper gun-deck of Nelson's flagship. But in a sense, Nelson's signal on that fateful morning could easily serve as a resolute message for all of us today. It certainly does for me: And perhaps the most important of my New Year's resolutions for 2008 is a renewed commitment to my personal acceptance of “duty,” the responsibility I have to my country. In fact, all of us must accept some variation of Nelson's declaration as having been spoken to our own hearts if we hope to have any chance of defeating the enemy.
We are today fighting a global, asymmetrical war against terrorism: The battles are not as dramatic as that which unfolded off Trafalgar, but they are every bit as deadly, certainly more complex, and potentially far more disastrous for the entire world if the bad guys win.
So what constitutes our duty as we go into the new year?
First: We have a critical general election before us. In November, we will have the responsibility of electing, not only a president, but a wartime commander-in-chief who will carry the nation – in many ways, the world – forward in the face of vigorous new military expansions from Beijing to Moscow, the emergence of new military powers, nuclear proliferation, international terrorism (from terror networks like al Qaeda and its affiliates to terrorist armies like Hezbollah), and radical Islam's increasingly sophisticated methods of global propaganda.