This is election day eve 2010. I hope you enjoy this short story.
A WARTIME CAROL
President Obama settled into his couch in the Oval Office, watching for the third time a speech he had made earlier in the day. On the screen, he walked onto a stage erected at an army base. He wondered why the audience was so… less than enthusiastic. “Must be a military thing,” he mused “they are always such a stoic audience.”
As the speech drew to a close, Obama mouthed along to the words that he spoke on the television “As Abraham Lincoln said ‘In this great struggle, this form of Government and every form of human right is endangered if our enemies succeed. There is more involved in this contest than is realized by every one.’ And that is why we must pull our troops out of the Middle East. Their government is at risk and we have no business endangering American lives trying to impose our will on their people. We may not agree with their style of governing, but we must accept it. If we had done so from the beginning, they would never have attacked us on September 11th. Let me be clear, I am not blaming America for that tragedy, I am simply saying that we could have avoided such an unprecedented attack.” Satisfied that he had gotten his message across, the President switched to MSNBC to see what the American people thought of his speech. While listening to the dulcet tones of Keith Olbermann, Obama drifted off to sleep on the sofa.
He awoke with a start, glancing around the room, and saw Abraham Lincoln standing near him. Obama sat up, smiling, and Lincoln said to him “Hello, Mr. President.”
“Abraham,” sighed the president “I can’t believe you are here. You’re my hero, I talk about you all the time.”
“Yes,” said Lincoln “I have heard that you often speak of me. Unfortunately, you misconstrue the meaning of everything I say. Although, like you, I never wanted a war, I did understand that it is sometimes necessary in order to create a stable and lasting peace. Wars can free people, make them safer. When you undermine the mission, you undermine the troops. These are the very men and women who are fighting to protect freedom, and that is unacceptable.” Obama looked at him, bewildered. He blinked.
“What are you saying? That I should abort the mission and bring the troops home?” Obama asked. Lincoln shook his head with a sigh.
“No, Mr. President. You need to do that which needs to be done. You need to make an unpopular decision because it is the right thing to do, and trust history to prove you right. You need to look after those who look after our country.” At Obama’s bewildered stare, he continued “In three days, you are scheduled to give a speech on the wars in the Middle East. Before that time, you will be visited by three veterans who gave the ultimate sacrifice to protect America. Hopefully they will be able to get through to you better than I could. God bless you, and God Bless America.” With that, President Lincoln vanished. Obama looked around the room, telling himself it must have been a dream. With a shrug, he headed off to give his next speech.
Later that night, President Obama lay in bed, dozing as he read The Audacity of Hope. Feeling cold, he reached for a blanket only to realize that the window was open. He crossed the room to close it, but a hand reached out to him and suddenly Obama was flying through the night. Landing gently, he looked around trying to get his bearings.
He found himself in a snow-covered valley dotted with hastily built wooden structures. As he watched, men dressed in strange uniforms seemed to be going through military drills. Was this one of those reenactment groups? He looked to his escort, who was also dressed as a soldier. “What is this place? Who are you?” He asked, his breath creating an icy cloud in the air.
“Private Daniel Lyon, Continental Army. The year is 1778, and we’re at Valley Forge.”
Obama shivered “It’s freezing out here.”
“Indeed it is, Mr. President. I brought you here to show you what we revolutionary war soldiers were willing to endure for the sake of freedom. The freedom that seems to mean nothing to you. You’re complaining about the cold, but you’re bundled up in your cashmere robe and your fleece-lined slippers. Look at the soldiers, see what they have.”
Obama looked around at the ragtag group. These men were wearing worn uniforms, and many had only cloth wrapping their bleeding feet. They were gaunt, as though they hadn’t had a decent meal in weeks.
“What are they doing?”
“Training. In a few months’ time, we will move on from here and continue the fight for freedom. We must ensure we are a better army when we leave Valley Forge than we were upon arrival.”
Obama watched the men as they stoically went through their paces, training in the snow. He imagined that these men had homes, families, things to get back to. Why wouldn’t they just leave? How could morale be this high?
As though reading Obama’s thoughts, Lyon continued “When we arrived, we were a weary bunch of men. We had been fighting against men who were better trained and better equipped than we were. There were those who would have given up. We all probably thought of it at one time or another, but we knew that that for which we fought was bigger than any one of us. We couldn’t subject future Americans to a tyrannical government. They would not be taxed beyond reason and taken for granted as we had been. It is beyond what a reasonable man can endure. So here we wait, cold and hungry, and here we train to give us a better chance at victory. We would not sacrifice freedom for our lives, let alone our comfort. This army is made up of volunteer militias, Mr. President. We are here because we choose to be here.”
Obama considered what he had just heard, and felt sadness well up inside of him. If only they had considered a more diplomatic resolution, they surely could have worked out their differences.
“Why didn’t you take your grievances to King George?” he asked “Explained the situation, negotiated for freedom?”
Private Lyon looked heavenward, as though seeking patience. “We did, Sir. Unfortunately, war was the only way to secure our freedom. To protect our God-given rights, we had to take up arms against the British. We fight this battle so that future generations will not have to do so.”
Obama nodded, grateful that diplomacy had changed so much in the more than 225 years between then and now. Surely Americans today would never think of taking up arms against their government. They would never have reason to go to such extremes. These days, we have the constitution to provide general guidelines and, when it didn’t seem to make sense to him, he’d just work around it. America sure was lucky to have Barack Obama looking out for her.
Private Lyon shuffled his feet awkwardly for a moment before speaking “Excuse me, Mr. President, but might I ask you a question?” At the president’s nod, he continued. “Will you remember what you’ve seen here today? This is what America is all about. These are regular men willing to sacrifice everything to give their children a better future. A future of freedom. Please don’t forget, and don’t let America forget that this is something for which real patriots fought. Never let them take their liberty for granted. We must remain ever vigilant, or the flame of freedom will slowly dwindle. Please don’t let that happen. Will you remember?”
The president looked at him with condescension. The poor fella didn’t realize that, in the twenty-first century, that was a pretty old-fashioned way of thinking. Freedom was all well and good, but it wasn’t the only concern.
Reading Obama’s expression, Private Lyon was disappointed, knowing that the President had not taken his words to heart. With a shake of the head, Lyon reached out to hold the President by the sleeve and they were once again flying through the night.
Obama was set down on his bedroom floor with a thunk. His feet sank into the deep carpeting and he looked around. The window was closed and there was no sign of Private Lyon. There wasn’t even mud on his slippers to suggest that any of it had really happened, but Obama couldn’t shake the thought that it had. He told himself he must have just somehow fallen asleep where he stood. Of course, Lincoln had told him that three veterans would come visit…but Obama had assumed that they were coming to thank him. No, this must have just been a bad dream. He climbed back into bed and wondered if the ghosts would appear.
He was relieved when he awoke in the morning to discover that it was full daylight and, as far as he was concerned, he had been not visited by one single ghost. Maybe the visits by Lincoln and Lyon had just been dreams after all. At least, that’s what he told himself.
Obama’s day was business as usual. The regular schedule of press conferences, interviews and magazine shoots seemed to fly by, yet Obama was distracted. He had lost his place on the TelePrompTer a few times, and he just couldn’t find his rhythm wondering when and where his first ghost would appear. Even if they would appear.
In the afternoon, Obama wrapped up a meeting with Reid and Pelosi. They agreed with him on all kinds of ideas he didn’t realize he’d had, and promised to move forward with his agenda. He took Bo outside to toss the Frisbee around and get some fresh air. The Frisbee flew into the air and Bo ran after it, speeding towards the Rose Garden. Obama jogged behind but found himself in a desert rather than in the Rose Garden. After a moment, he realized that he was in Iraq. He recognized it from pictures he had seen in the New York Times and the few days he had spent there in person to rally the troops.
A soldier was walking towards him, and Obama squinted to make her out in the harsh glare of the sun. He could see the heat shimmering above the sand and already felt himself sweating. Obama tugged at his collar and rolled up his sleeves as the woman approached. “Welcome, Mr. President. I heard you would be arriving today, I’ve been expecting you. I’m Lieutenant Jessica MacKenzie. President Lincoln asked me to show you around, answer any questions you may have. I understand that you visited the Revolutionary War last night, and now I’d like to give you a glimpse of what is going on in Iraq.” Obama was beginning to accept that Private Lyon’s visit was real. Why would he be in Iraq, though? Understanding dawned.
“Listen, Jessica, I need to get something off of my chest. This war…well, I know we shouldn’t be here, and I’m working to bring you home as soon as possible. President Bush was completely out of line. I’m sorry you’re here, Saddam Hussein wasn’t the one who attacked us.” He stopped, satisfied that this was the message Lincoln had wanted him to send.
“With respect, Mr. President, neither did Hitler, but it didn’t stop America from fighting in Europe. The thing is, sometimes you need to take on the entire problem to prevent it from spreading. Not only was Saddam’s regime spreading hatred of the west, of everything we stand for, they were even killing their own people. Genocide is genocide and we must stop it from spreading to protect ourselves as well as to help others. We don’t mind being here, Mr. President, but we will mind if you don’t let us finish the job. We don’t want our children to have to come back here and fight again.”
The President looked at her, considering all that she had said. “But what about diplomatic measures?” he asked in a weak voice.
“We tried them. They didn’t work! Sometimes, when you’re dealing with evil, diplomacy just won’t work. Saddam had been uncooperative with the UN for so long, it was obvious that he was abusing diplomatic means as a stall tactic. Meanwhile, he was ruling as a tyrant and murdering innocent people. We need to help free these people, help them to have the opportunities like you and I did growing up. We have something in common, Mr. President. We came from humble beginnings and made something of ourselves. Do you think there are those kinds of opportunities here in Iraq? Don’t get me wrong, I can’t wait to get home but, until the job is done, I am staying right where I am.”
“We can’t just fight everyone that we disagree with, Jessica.”
“No, but if we show our strength, our willingness to defend freedom, maybe we won’t have to. We are sending a very clear message to the world that we will not be threatened, and that we will respond to aggression with strength. That is important far beyond Iraq. It is so important that I am willing to stay here until we succeed in freeing these people.”
Obama tried another tack. “That’s very admirable, Jessica. I’m sure most service members can’t wait to get home, though.”
“Well, every branch of the service has been consistently meeting their reenlistment goals the past few years. We really do believe in this mission, Sir.”
Obama took a moment to soak that in. He thought about the speech he was giving in a matter of days, a speech in which he would lay out a plan for bringing the troops home. Surely MacKenzie couldn’t be right. It was time to hand over control to the Iraqi people and get out of there. He could admit to himself, in the privacy of his own thoughts, that it was hard to tell what would happen to those people. It was likely that their future held punishment for helping the Americans and a new dictator to rule them with fear. This new leader would probably even tell them that the west didn’t care about them, had left them to fend for themselves and foster more hatred of our way of life. Well, he figured, the Iraqi people couldn’t count on America to solve everything, they would just have to figure this one out for themselves. Obama knew that he was universally loved, so he wasn’t afraid of possible propaganda against him. The sound of a Humvee approaching shook the President out of his reverie. He turned towards the sound, only to find himself looking at Bo, proudly carrying his frisbee through the rose garden. Warily, Obama checked his surroundings, but everything seemed to be completely normal. Even the secret service detail wasn’t alarmed, which seemed to be their natural state. Shaking his head, as though to clear what he had seen, Obama headed back to the Oval Office to meet with his writers regarding the big war speech coming up.
The following day, President Obama boarded Air Force one to have a quick lunch with UN leaders on the state of the Middle East. He’d fly back to New York in a few days to meet with Al Gore on global warming, (sorry climate change, he corrected himself) but each meeting deserved its own trip. He sat back in his seat, and propped his feet on the seat facing him. He pulled out his BlackBerry and prepared to answer some e-mails, but soon found his thoughts drifting to his visits from Lyon and MacKenzie. Could Lincoln have been right, could these have been visits from ghosts? Was it possible that these ghosts might be right, that war was sometimes the only way? It didn’t seem possible, but maybe there was something to it. He’d have to discuss that with his cabinet when he returned home. Text needed to be uploaded to his TelePromTer ahead of speech time, so he’d have to meet with his speechwriter soon if he wanted to tone down his anti-war, apologetic rhetoric. Nervously, Obama twisted the top on and off of a bottle of Pellegrino, completely forgetting to take a sip. With a deep breath, he pushed these thoughts from his mind, took a gulp of water, and focused his attention back to the BlackBerry.
Obama couldn’t make sense anything he was seeing on the screen. It looked more like a radar screen than an inbox. Confused, he looked up. Not Again, he thought to himself, realizing that he was in the cockpit of a fighter jet. It looked space-aged and innovative, with 3-dimensional holographic gauges and dials. Some of them measured things he had never even heard of. However, they blinked on and off and there was too much static to read anything with any degree of certainty.
He turned to the pilot, ready to get this next ghostly visitation over with. At least, this time, he had the comfort of knowing that this would be the last he would have to endure. The pilot said to the President “Just one moment, Sir, we’re nearly ready to land.” Obama saw the aircraft carrier approaching.
They came screeching to a stop, and the pilot turned to introduce himself. “Captain Daniel Lyon, Sir, of the American Air Force.”
“You mean the United States Air Force?”
“No, Sir. The year is 2176, and states were eliminated more than a century ago in favor of a strong central government.”
“Maybe you’d better fill me in on what I’ve missed.”
“In the twenty-first century, we sank deeper and deeper into debt to China. Around the turn of the twenty-second century, they called in our debts and we simply couldn’t pay them. Our economy grew weaker and weaker as we tried to keep up with the payments, and now China is seeking to exert control over our country. Nearly all available resources go to them, which doesn’t leave much for us. The American people rose up and decided to take our country back for ourselves. Now we are a country at war, once again fighting for freedom.
“Mr. President, we are in the middle of the Second American Revolution. 400 years ago, my ancestor fought against Britain, and now I’m fighting against China. A different enemy, but the fight is very similar. We want freedom. We simply want the government to leave us alone, let us live our lives.”
Lyon and Obama climbed out of the cockpit and made their way to a ready room. Over the next couple of hours, he laid out the situation in pretty stark terms for the President.
“Captain, as advanced as your equipment looks to me, it sounds like it is far inferior to what the Chinese have, and even I can tell that it is in disrepair. How did this happen? We were the most powerful country on Earth. The last remaining superpower.”
“Well, Mr. President, it started back in 2009. Defense budgets were cut, new technology was considered non-essential and we gradually fell behind. This gap grew wider and wider until we were no longer a superpower. Now we’re left with old weapons and old equipment while the Chinese have the best of everything. Since you pushed through the Climate Change Reforms in your third term, we haven’t been able to build any factories. Even those which already existed have been torn down by now. We don’t even have the infrastructure to build equipment for ourselves, we just have to rely on what we already had.”
“Well, I never thought I’d say this, but maybe it’s a good thing Americans have the right to bear arms.” Said the President.
“Well, Mr. President, you actually revoked that. The weapons we have are what we were able to sneak into this country, or what people buried and hid over a hundred years ago when you banned all privately owned firearms.”
“With lesser equipment and antique weaponry, why do you think you can win? Why fight?”
“We think we can win because we have the fire. We are fighting for something that we believe in, and it’s not just for us. We used to be that shining city on a hill, and the American armed forces want our country to return to that. We need to create a better country not only for us and our children, but so that the oppressed have a safe haven.” He glanced at the clock. “Mr. President, I wish I could stay and talk with you further, but I need to go back up now. Care to join me?” The President nodded silently.
As the plane rose into the sky, the president was lost in thought. Suddenly, the plane shuddered and began to fall back towards the ocean. Lyon looked panicked, sweat trickling down his brow. “We’ve been hit by the Chinese. We’ve been hit!”
“Where? I didn’t see another plane.”
“Advanced cloaking devices. The Chinese planes are virtually invisible.”
“Get a parachute!” The president screamed
“We ran out of those years ago.” Replied Lyon “Brace for impact.”
The President braced himself as the plane hit the water. Suddenly, a flight attendant was walking towards him, in his regular seat on Air Force One. “Sorry about that, Mr. President. We had a little unexpected turbulence, but we should be out of it now.”
The president took a shaky breath and waved her away. He was not entirely surprised to be back on Air Force One, but he was surprised at the thoughts racing through his head. It seemed as though he was having a complete change of heart, that maybe his opinion wasn’t necessarily the right one. Maybe war was sometimes the only way to achieve peace, and maybe freedom was the only way to ensure that it lasted.
When Obama returned to the White House, he immediately summoned his advisors and speechwriters. They were surprised that he wanted to meet so late at night, but he had said that it was essential to the next day’s speech. As they took their seats around the large conference room table, they could tell that something was up. Obama look excited and nervous. What could this meeting be about? The speech for tomorrow had been written for days, it was already uploaded to the TelePrompTer.
“Thank you all for coming on such short notice, but I’m afraid that this couldn’t wait. Tomorrow, as you are already aware, I am giving a speech regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Serious rewrites are needed and we need to get to work.” His staff shifted nervously in their chairs and shot each other covert glances. Nobody looked directly at Obama.
“Mr. President” one of his advisors started hesitantly “We’ve discussed this. It really would be political suicide for you to give the speech as you originally wrote it. If you say that President Bush should never have gotten involved in those wars and that you’re pulling all troops out immediately, your approval ratings might have a temporary bounce, but they are bound to decline as the situation in the Middle East deteriorates. Your numbers are already too low, Mr. President. More importantly, there’s no telling how many innocent people in those countries will die if we leave them in chaos. It is extremely likely that we would end up back there in a few years. Maybe we can come up with some kind of a compromise…?”
Obama cut him off. “That’s not at all what I had in mind. I have some new content to run by you.” With that, he laid out his new talking points.
The next morning, the world heard Obama’s speech. It was like nothing the public had heard from him before.
He began “Abraham Lincoln wrote in a letter to Henry Pierce ‘Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it.’ If we were to leave the Middle East, we would be allowing freedom to be denied to others, and we would not deserve it ourselves. It is time to make some changes.” With that, he set out new plans for Iraq and Afghanistan, including more troops and increased funding.
Obama’s speech signaled the beginning of a new era for America, a move back to what the Founding Fathers intended. As Americans lived out their dream of freedom, government was simply there to ensure that things ran smoothly. It took time, but the system worked as it should. There were those who wished for the old ways, who wanted to pass the blame and rely on government. In time, however, it became clear that the American way was the best way to live. America had her freedom back thanks to the veterans who reminded the President what freedom really means.