Remembrance and Resilience

Embers Vol 3: 4th of July, Fourth Turnings, & Fortitude

Days to Remember

I often wonder what historical events would have looked like with smartphones.

If 9/11 had happened a few years later, how would our memory of that day be different? (Also, what would be unchanged?) Another example is D-Day, partially because an entire set of undeveloped photographs from that seminal day was lost.

But the most interesting, to me, would be the American Revolution, and specifically the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

One of my hopes is that with advancements in VR, one day we’ll be able to recreate events like this. They’d pale in comparison to their full grandeur, but they’d help bring to life the passages we read in textbooks. Just like how soundtracks augment dramatic movie scenes.

What’s lost today is the sense of passion, sacrifice, and uncertainty that were likely palpable throughout the room on July 4th, 1776. I can’t really comprehend signing my name on a piece of paper and knowing that I was probably going to be hanged soon thereafter. But that’s what this country was founded upon. Standing behind what you believe to be right, and doing your part to fix the problem.

It’s easy to romanticize this, and I won’t pretend that this country hasn’t had its own atrocities and abhorrences. But the question that we can never know the answer to is simple: What would the world look like if this day never happened?

Your guess is as good as mine, but I’d wager that overall we’ve been better off because of it.

This year in particular seems important, because so much has happened in the past 15 months. The U.S., along with the rest of the world, is experiencing what will surely be a definitive set of challenges, changes, and conflicts that will be memorialized in future textbooks.

And yet, none of this should really be a surprise, not if you read a particular book published in the 1990s.

The Fourth Turning

Twenty three years ago, Neil Howe and William Strauss observed in their book, The Fourth Turning:

The next Fourth Turning is due to begin shortly after the new millennium… Around the year 2005, a sudden spark will catalyze a Crisis mood. Remnants of the old social order will disintegrate. Political and economic trust will implode. Real hardship will beset the land, with severe distress that could involve questions of class, race, nation, and empire… The very survival of the nation will feel at stake. Sometime before the year 2025, America will pass through a great gate in history, commensurate with the American Revolution, Civil War, and twin emergencies of the Great Depression and World War II.

The risk of catastrophe will be very high. The nation could erupt into insurrection or civil violence, crack up geographically, or succumb to authoritarian rule.

In 2020, America walked through that gate.

The past few years have been tumultuous. America stands divided, contemptuous for its fellow neighbors. There are plenty of problems to point to, and it just so happens that the pandemic exacerbated each one. It’s clear something’s deeply broken in our country.

Howe and Strauss remarked that every 20 years America enters a new era (a “turning”). They posit four types: the “First Turning” is an upbeat era of strengthening institutions; the “Second Turning” is an awakening, usually marked by social upheaval where the First Turning’s institutions face scorn; the “Third Turning” marks an unraveling —the weakening of institutions; the “Fourth Turning” is a crisis, a decisive era of upheaval where the old institutions collapse and new ones takes their place.

This generational worldview is something I’m deeply exploring, and will feature in future Embers volumes. Today, I’ll simply observe that we’ve entered a period of profound change, and as we begin to emerge from an abysmal pandemic, I’m reminded of one story in particular from the last Fourth Turning.

Fox’s Fortitude

In the early stages of World War II, the U.S. was violently exchanging blows with Nazi Germany. John Robert Fox, a U.S. Army first lieutenant, was fighting in Italy, where battles were blisteringly fierce.

Fox spent his Christmas in Sommocolonia. The next day, on December 26, 1944, the town was overrun by Nazi soldiers.

The American forces withdrew from the village as the Germans surged in. Fox sat perched on the second floor of a house, calling in defensive artillery fire. As the Wehrmacht soldiers continued attacking, Fox radioed the artillery to fire closer to his position, in what led to a deafening roar of explosions right nearby.

At some point, Fox realized the Nazis were going to overtake his position, so he did something bold: he ordered the artillery to fire directly on his position.

The soldier who received the message, Fox's close friend, Otis Zachary, was stunned. He knew Fox wouldn’t survive. Fox simply said, "Fire it! There's more of them than there are of us. Give them hell!"

The resulting artillery barrage killed Fox and approximately 100 German soldiers surrounding his position. Fox's sacrifice ultimately gained time for U.S. forces to organize a counterattack, and the village was recaptured by January 1, 1945.

Fifty-two years later, in 1997, Fox was awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military decoration for valor. Fox was one of six other African Americans who served in World War II that were posthumously given this award.

John Fox didn’t ask to be thrust into that position, but he stood his ground, went to work, and gave everything he had as he solved the problem. This fortitude is remarkable. It’s hard to fathom what went through his head in those last few hours of that fateful day. There’s nothing I’ve done that even comes remotely close to this type of bravery.

It’s worthwhile to reflect on the significance of today. Because we must remember that this country was never destined to succeed. Our history is built upon those who stood up and solved problems when they presented themselves, and had the fortitude to take action in the moments that mattered.

It’s easy to feel disheartened and overwhelmed by today’s State of Affairs, but I’m reminded that moments like this provide opportunity. We’re at a special point in history, and while there are many obstacles to face, this situation isn’t new for this country. Howe and Strauss talk at length about this in their book. The U.S. has seen terrible days, and yet it’s emerged each time, stronger than before. This isn’t necessarily revelatory, but it’s important to recognize nonetheless. Fourth Turnings act as a natural Winter, removing outmoded and outdated institutions and customs, while giving younger generations a chance to step forward and lead.

I’m optimistic about the future, and I’m certainly excited to do my part to help make a positive difference, even if it’s a small one. Not everyone gets the opportunity to write their name down like the 56 signees did 245 years ago. Realistically, most would lack the courage. But there are opportunities to make a difference, and that’s what I’m thinking about. There’s an abundance of things to work on, and I’m grateful that today we get to remember those who came before us, and sacrificed so much to make this country a reality.

Happy 4th of July, everyone.