John F. Burns, New York Times
It’s been my great good fortune as a foreign correspondent for, dare I say it, nearly 40 years now, and of that, the great bulk abroad. And 32 of them with the New York Times, to have seen a great deal of the world at the expense of the Sulzberger family, to whom I am greatly indebted.
But a friend of mine, a great Italian journalist, who passed away about four years ago, Tiziano Terzani, whose career tracked mine in all kind of ways that we came to think was slightly mysterious: jailed in China, years in India. Tiziano used to say, when discussing all the places we had been, it’s not where you go, it’s what you bring back that matters.
So on the train from Washington today, I was trying to think, “What have I brought back from these distant places that might have any resonance here tonight?”
And I trust you’ll forgive me, because I carry in my pocket a British passport, if I tell you that one of the greatest impressions I have taken from my years abroad has been what America is in the world and how America impacts upon the world.
I think in many ways it’s an appropriate subject to address here tonight because of the tremendous adversity in which America now finds itself. And which the new president will have to address in January.
- The stumbling of many of the great institutions, the struggle to survive of many of the great institutions including the great institutions of journalism, my own not excluded.
- Two great unresolved wars. Which promise, at least in my view, no early resolution.
- And, across the world, a tide of anti-Americanism in recent years such as I have not known in my lifetime and I would guess probably has no precedent in modern history.
I don’t want to sound like a Pollyanna because these problems are real, and as I said the resolution of them will be hard. But I have emerged from my years traveling the world with a tremendous faith in America, and its ability to confront and overcome great problems. Wherever I have been as a correspondent, in the darkest days of apartheid in South Africa in Soweto; in the Soviet Union at the coldest time of the Cold War; in China during the cultural revolution; in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation of the Taliban; in Iraq under Saddam Hussein; and in the Afghanistan and Iraq of a period of American military occupation, America has always been a shining city on a hill. These are not just fine words that presidents pronounce on inauguration day, they are a reality. They remain a reality.
How much so, I think we can judge from the extraordinary elation across the world last Wednesday, when it had become clear who had won the presidential election. I personally, without taking position on the outcome of the election, thought that that vindicated my sense of what America is to the world.
Of course part of that elation had to do with the fact that a man of mixed race had been elected to the greatest elected office in the world. And in a world that is probably two-thirds not white. That was bound to excite tremendous enthusiasm. But I think it was more than that, I am sure it was more than that. The world in which I have traveled has this tremendous faith in America, in its democracy, in its sense of justice, in its tolerance, in its diversity, in the boundless energy of its culture.
It seems to me what we saw last Wednesday, and in the days that followed, was that what lay beneath this wave of anti-Americanism in recent years, justified or not, was an abiding faith and hope in America.
I speak of two particular aspects of that. One of them put in my mind by meeting Admiral Fallon tonight: The American armed forces. I met tonight, I met the mother of a Marine captain who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and I think it’s probably correct for me to say that if countries get the governments they deserve, they also get the armies, navies and Marine Corps they deserve. This is a great country, and you have very, very great armed forces, and I think I can speak for everybody who as a journalist has gone to war – in the last few years in the so-called war on terror and say that we returned with a tremendous admiration for the courage, the decency, the application, the endurance and the honesty of the American armed forces. And we all know here of course, that they have suffered their reverses. I need only mention words like Abu Ghraib and Haditha. But these are arrows in the back of extraordinarily brave men and women, who, it is my belief, having been embedded with the marines and the army in both of those countries, who leave behind, overwhelmingly, notwithstanding the things that go wrong and the errant bombing missions and the things you read about on the front page of the newspaper, leave behind them a record of decency of compassion, of innumerable individual acts of kindness which speak for the great country this is.
I also want to speak about American journalists abroad. It has been my privilege as an Englishman, or as my first city editor would’ve said a failed Scotsman (Laughter.) to have kept the company of people, foreign correspondents, Americans, of high sensibility and tremendous commitment and great courage.
It’s a wonderful thing to be here tonight amongst you, and to see laid out the kind of work which is being done by the ICFJ to try and transfer into places in the world which do not have a first amendment of the constitution, who don’t have privileges that we have, some of the benefits (and), some of the things we have learned, or as the military calls it “lessons learned.”
It’s a great thing in American life –“lessons learned.” It is institutionalized in the United States Armed Forces. The platoon is IED-ed (attacked with an improvised explosive device) at 0700 somewhere in the northeast Baghdad. Within 24 hours every platoon departing every base in the world will have been informed of whatever lessons there are to be learned from that. This is just a very small part of something I think that is very, very deep in the character of America and that is the ability and the courage to address the hardest of problems and to reinvent itself.
We’ve seen how, with some distinguished military leaders including but not exclusive to, General Petraeus, the American army has reinvented itself at war with very impressive effects in Iraq and we may hope in Afghanistan. But having worked myself now for 33 years for an American institution, I know that this is something embedded in the bones of Americans. And it’s that, as much as anything, that gives me confidence that this country will work its way through its present problems and will remain the shining city on a hill. And God grant that it may be so, because in a world without the political and military might of the United States exercised overwhelmingly for the good and not for the bad, a world without the generosity of the United States of individual Americans as well as of their government will be a darker, a much, much darker place. And God grant that it may be so. Thank you very much indeed.