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.
Second: We have a responsibility to learn as much as possible about the nature of our enemy: Not all are Jihadist suicide-bombers or rifle-wielding militants. Many of them are wittingly paid or unwittingly influenced non-Muslim agents. Some are Western apologists for radical Islamists. Others are Internet-based propagandists directly or indirectly working to influence and even manipulate Western news bureaus and editorial desks that we previously believed to be honest and objective. But we cannot thwart them unless we understand who they are -- their professional and international diversity -- their creative means and methods, and their relentless pursuits of their objectives.
Third: Pursuing truth, solid information, good intelligence, and a commitment to fight – no matter how nasty the tactics of the enemy -- are the only ways to win this war. Few of us, in our New Year's resolutions, will have an opportunity to be resolute in terms of gathering intelligence and actually fighting. We can only support those who are. All of us however may – and must -- commit to the pursuit of truth and solid information. We must be able to discern the difference between truth and propaganda. Truth in the current war can only be gleaned by an understanding and awareness of propaganda (anything repeated over-and-over until it becomes accepted as truth even when it is not): And propaganda can only be quashed by a meticulous examination of facts and an understanding of what – and how effective – disinformation is.
Fourth: We have a responsibility to our families, communities, nation, and future generations, to never give in. Never surrender. Never quit the fight, no matter how weary we grow physically or emotionally, or how badly we feel we've been beaten: And there will be times when it seems as if we are beaten, though we are not.
These combined form our singular duty. And duty should always be among the highest signal-flags flying above our life's work.
Hours after running up his now-famous flags – as the Battle of Trafalgar raged – Nelson was struck down by an enemy sharpshooter. As he lay dying, he learned of his great victory. England was saved; it's naval supremacy would last for another 100-plus years. Nelson's purported last words: “Thank God I have done my duty.”