Daily Archives: January 20, 2010

“I have not yet begun to fight!”

Among all the depressing, defeatist, hand-wringing, and otherwise pathetic punditry on television and in print this morning in the wake of Martha Coakley’s upset loss in the Massachusetts election for Teddy Kennedy’s former seat in the U.S. Senate, The Christian Science Monitor had this headline (see above) in their online edition. I agree that there are lessons to be drawn from Coakley’s collapse, but not the lessons I’m hearing from all the usual talking heads.

It’s been nearly impossible to watch TV yesterday and today and listen to triumphant right-wingers crowing about the message that this election sends President Obama and the Democrats. Of course the GOP’s take on Coakley’s defeat is easy to dismiss. Today’s Republicans are a bunch of lock-step, talking-point spouting hacks whose analysis of everything in the last decade has been dead wrong. There are just two things the GOP knows how to do: keep their message focused and fight.

On the other hand, too many Democrats are already drawing the wrong conclusions from this debacle. And their messaging is all over the place. Conservative Democrats like Evan Bayh are using this moment as a call to centrism – which is code for a lack of political courage. And I shudder to think what a triangulating corporatist like Rahm Emmanuel is advising President Obama at this moment. I worry that Rahm, who was asleep at the switch in this critical Senate election (he’s supposed to be the White House inside politics genius), will also draw the wrong lessons from the loss of what should have been a safe Democratic seat in a very blue state.

Let me, then, suggest to my fellow Democrats four lessons in courage, and some bold messaging, courtesy of – no! not a group of politicians and pundits – but a quartet of American Naval heroes.

1. John Paul Jones: “I have not yet begun to fight.”

John Paul Jones is revered as the Father of the U.S. Navy, and his exploits in the War of Independence are legendary. But his greatest moment came when he snatched victory from the jaws of defeat on September 23, 1779.  In what has been called one of the bloodiest engagements in U.S. naval history. Jones, in command of the Bonhomme Richard, slugged it out with the 44-gun English frigate Serapis. The gun crews of the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis traded thundering broadsides until Jones’ ship was burning and in danger of sinking.

Yet, when the Englishmen requested Jones strike his flag and surrender, he replied in defiance, “I have not yet begun to fight.” The battle raged on for more than three hours, ending when the tide of battle turned, the Serapis surrendered — and Jones took command of the defeated English ship.

Sure, the loss of a Senate seat is a terrible blow – but it would be great to hear Harry Reid say something very much like, “I have not yet begun to fight.”

2. Captain James Lawrence: “Don’t Give Up the Ship”

Sometimes a courageous example can turn a cruel defeat into an inspirational moment that transcends that loss – and helps to fuel an ultimate victory — as it did in a dramatic naval engagement early in the War of 1812.

In 1813, Captain James Lawrence was in command of the frigate Chesapeake when he dueled the English ship Shannon at the mouth of Boston Harbor, barely a cannon shot beyond the shore upon which, two centuries later, Martha Coakley’s Senatorial hopes were sunk.

In a brief and brutal exchange of volleys at close range, the Shannon outgunned Chesapeake – and the two ships became so entangled in each other’s fallen rigging that Chesapeake could no longer fire at the English ship. Captain Lawrence gave orders to board the Shannon, but he was hit by an enemy musket ball and had to be carried belowdecks, mortally wounded. Before he was taken below, Lawrence’s last words to his officers were: “Tell the men to fire faster and not give up the ship. Fight her till she sinks!”

Although Chesapeake was forced to surrender, Lawrence’s valiant words served as a rallying cry for generations of officers and men in the U.S. Navy: “Don’t give up the ship!”

3. Oliver Hazard Perry: “We have met the enemy and they are ours…”

The immortal words of Captain Lawrence inspired his fellow officers. In fact, just months after the loss of the Chesapeake, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry honored his late friend Lawrence by having the motto “Don’t give up the ship!” sewn onto his private battle flag – which he flew during the Battle of Lake Erie.

During the battle on September 10, 1813, Perry’s fleet engaged a fleet of British warships determined to put the Great Lakes in English control as a prelude to a possible invasion from the north. Perry’s flagship, the USS Lawrence (named in honor of the martyred Captain James Lawrence) was destroyed in the battle – but did Oliver Hazard Perry simply throw in the towel and seek compromise with his enemies? No, by god! He had himself rowed a half-mile through shot and shell to transfer his command to the USS Niagara – carrying his battle flag with his buddy’s final words of defiance emblazoned upon it: “Don’t give up the ship!”

Parry's personal battle flag at the Battle of Lake Erie.

Perry won the Battle of Lake Erie, ending the threat of English invasion via the Great Lakes, and sent his after-action report to General William Henry Harrison. Perry’s message contained few words and, like the words of his fallen friend, they became legendary: “We have met the enemy and they are ours; two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.”

I’d love to hear President Obama call out the obstructionist GOP Congress with a statement as blunt and bold as “We have met the enemy and they are ours…” The right wing may defeat us in Massachusetts, but like Commodore Perry in his rowboat, we must transfer our efforts to the next stage of the fight and press on until we win the battle.

4. Admiral David Glasgow Farragut: “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

Stop worrying about the Coakley catastrophe, sagging poll numbers, what the GOP and right-wing pundits might say, or foot-dragging fears about your own re-election – just press on with a progressive agenda, keep trying to fix the stuff that Bush broke, fix the health care bill in reconciliation – and forget about bipartisanship. In other words,“Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

Just about every American my age has heard – and used — this famous phrase many times, but few realize that it has nothing to do with torpedoes as we know them, and that it was actually coined during the Civil War. Of course, the phrase speaks of boldness, courage, and defiant resolution in the face of grave danger – and this time the words were uttered by Admiral David Glasgow Farragut.

Farragut was the highest-ranking U.S. naval officer when he fought the Battle of Mobile Bay on August 5, 1864. Farragut was hanging from the rigging of his flagship Hartford, as his invasion fleet approached the entrance to Mobile Bay, Alabama, intent on sailing past the Confederate defenses and conquering the forts that guarded the Bay.

As the guns of the Confederate forts came to bear on the ships in Farragut’s fleet, the leading ship, the ironclad monitor Tecumseh, was destroyed by a submerged mine. (BTW — we call it a “mine” now, but in Civil War parlance, a tethered underwater explosive device was called a “torpedo”.) With Tecumseh knocked out of action, Farragut’s fleet began to drift in confusion under the guns of the Confederate forts. With disaster in the offing, as Farragut hung from the shrouds aboard the Hartford, he gave the orders, “Damn the torpedoes! Four bells! Captain Crayton, go ahead! Joucett, full speed!”

Farragut sailed his own ship Hartford into the lead — and across the mines, which failed to detonate. The rest of his fleet followed the Commodore’s bold example, ran past the guns of the Confederate forts, and hammered them into submission from a safe anchorage.

Farragut’s fearlessness and resolve — when all might have been lost — saved the day and immortalized his words. If I was President Obama, in command of our mighty Ship of State, that’s the order I would give to Reid, Pelosi, and all my officers. “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

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