Editor’s note: Below are the video and transcript to Pete Hegseth’s talk at the David Horowitz Freedom Center’s 2016 West Coast Retreat. The event was held April 8-10 at the Terranea Resort in Palos Verdes, CA.
During my time in Iraq, like in Guantanamo Bay and Afghanistan, I kept with me a quote printed on a piece of plain paper in a durable black plastic frame; put it where I slept in each place. The quote was by Teddy Roosevelt in 1910. He said it on April 23 in France. Many of you know it as “the man in the arena” quote. Now, I’m going to read it for you tonight.
Teddy Roosevelt, speaking to an audience of 3,000 French elites at the University of Paris, said these words. He said, “It is not the critic who counts, it’s not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who was actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly. Who errs and comes up short again and again because there is no effort without error and shortcoming, but who does actually strive to do the deeds. Who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions. Who spends himself in a worthy cause. Who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid soles who know neither victory nor defeat.”
At many turns in my life, I ask myself those very questions. Am I striving valiantly? Is my face marred by dust and sweat and blood? Am I spending myself as you are here tonight in a worthy cause? Am I daring greatly? Am I in the arena? The book that I wrote aims to ask that question of all Americans and American patriots. Are you in the arena because our fragile and periled American experiment, now more than ever, needs you? We are just that, an experiment, as you know. An experiment in self-governance and human freedom. You all know the Ronald Reagan quote, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” You don’t pass it to the next generation in the bloodstream.
In many ways the courageous work of the Horowitz Freedom Center is the argument of my book. It’s an unapologetic call to arms to fight for our great republic against the elitist, progressive left at home and against gathering enemies of freedom abroad, whether they be political or violent Islamists, authoritarian regimes, or post-modern globalists. All enemies of free peoples, all gathering, and all exacerbated after 7 years of Obama.
Now, this book includes experiences I’ve had in Iraq and Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, the Ivy League, Capitol Hill, and wonderful segments with Chris Matthews on Hardball. But this book is not a memoir, and it is not a biography. I am not a state senator from Illinois in 2004, and these are not dreams from my father. You might say that I don’t have the audacity to think that I should be writing a memoir at the age of 35 years old, and I don’t. The book is also not about Teddy Roosevelt. The Rough Rider story has been told; both the good and the bad. As a conservative, I submit the work with no illusions about Teddy Roosevelt’s leftward lurch from Republican reformer to founder of the progressive party. His Bull Moose candidacy in 1912 gave the world the unconstrained utopianism of Woodrow Wilson. You might say Roosevelt did plenty of his own failing while daring greatly. Instead, the namesake of the book, “In the Arena,” centers around a 140-word quote that personally propels my life and, ultimately, an 8,750-word speech called “Citizenship in a Republic” given in 1910 that, if heeded, could powerfully propel America into another dangerous and uncertain century. See, if getting off to a good start or a strong start is important, then few people are more responsible for making the 20th century an American century than Teddy Roosevelt.
From his charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba, to his circumventing of the globe of the Great White Fleet in 1908, to his agitating for American entry in World War I, while Woodrow Wilson called for peace without victory, Teddy Roosevelt was the living, breathing, gritty exemplar of a young, strong, and free America at the dawn of a 20th century. Yet here we are, at the dawn of a 21st century, standing on the backs of the men and women who, over the course of 240 years, made America the greatest, strongest, and freest country this world has ever known.
Yet if you’re like me when you look at the cultural rot that we’re experiencing and the gathering threats abroad, especially after 15 years of difficult wars that some of us have seen and our generation has certainly seen, we wonder whether the 21st century, the century of our kids and grandkids — my three boys, Gunner, Boon, and Rex, 5 and 3 and 6 months and none of them sleeping — you wonder whether it’s going to be an American century. Because rest assured, if the 21st century is not an American century, it will not be a free century. History is never over and it is not inevitable. After World War II, Great Britain took a knee and handed the keys of the free world to its younger sibling, America. And I submit this to you: If we were to take a knee now, who do those keys go to? International institutions? The Chinese? Islamists? The answer is quite clear – not to advocates of freedom.
You see, ideas fade, countries lose their way, armies lose, demographics overpower, free markets can be gamed, and entire generations of young people can be seduced to believe that we can elect an avid socialist who honeymooned in the Soviet Union and believes breadlines are a good thing – Bernie Sanders.
History is not over. History is never, ever over, which is why when I read the entire Roosevelt speech from 1910 entitled “Citizenship in a Republic,” I felt like it was a great frame to make an argument for restoring America today. Using the words of Roosevelt, I make the argument for two central things we need in America today: good citizenship at home and good patriotic leadership abroad. Good citizens and good patriots. Citizenship and leadership. In his own non-PC way, before there was such a thing as PC, Roosevelt posits a simple thesis with massive implications. The average citizen must be a good citizen if great republics are to succeed. (I get Marco Rubio mouth, so I have to take a drink.)
The average citizen must be a good citizen if great republics are to succeed. Not great rulers or even great citizens. Good citizens that understand what makes America great. Good citizens are the only antidote to big government. The smaller and more selfish the citizen, the larger and more unchecked government becomes. As history shows us, good citizens who understand truly why America is exceptional and special, are the thin line between freedom and tyranny. Good citizens understand that our rights come from God, endowed on us by a Creator, not by a government. Governments are constituted to protect those rights, not give them to us. That we have freedom of religion, not freedom from religion, and that we are a country of laws, not of men, whether we are Democrats or Republicans.
So, who is this good citizen? It’s not just voting or jury duty. It’s not protesting or do-gooding. It’s not a showing up at your city council meeting. What I love about what Roosevelt talks about — what we need today is good citizenship — he uses the word “efficiency,” which we usually think about when we think of light bulbs and starting pictures. He says it’s focused on gritty and homely civic virtues. He lays out four values of a good citizen – they work, they work hard, they earn their keep. Before telling others what they should do — and they look with shame upon those who don’t work and could. They fight. He calls them a strong and virile people. Masculine spirit, strength, vigor, and power. The ability to hold your own.
See, today we talk a lot about bike helmets. We don’t talk a lot about fighting the barbarism of, say, female subjugation in the Middle East or massacres of Christians where the wussification of America is in full effect, it is. That’s why my kids never wear bike helmets. He talks about children as a third aspect of a good citizen. Not just good children, but lots of children. He talks about the willfully barren — not the physically barren; there’s some that can’t have kids — but those that decide because kids are inconvenient, they’re not going to have them. Well guess what? In other parts of the world, people are having lots of them. In fact, in Afghanistan, my interpreter, his name was Esmatula — a good friend of mine, a Muslim, not radical — said to me in a long, late-night discussion — we were talking about Islam and Christianity and religion. He said, “It is inevitable that Islam will rule the world. The Prophet foretold it. We’re have ten kids and you’re having one.” And he just said it matter-of-factly. I mean, it’s a fact that the most common boys name in London today is Mohammed. If you take a long view, things can change. We’re worried about the last tweet. They’re thinking about centuries.
The fourth aspect of good citizenship is character. Faith, common sense, fidelity, duty, honor. George Washington said famously in his first inaugural, religion and morality are indispensable supports for republics, which of course, we all know. After you face inward, you can face outward and deal with things like equal opportunity. We are not for equal outcome, but if we don’t strive for equal opportunity, then I think we do fail citizens of this republic.
He warns also against four seductions of our culture. Four things that seduce our citizenry away from those core value of work, fight, kids, and character. First is believing in rights only before duties. See a self-centered citizenry is far more conscious of rights than they are of duties. It’s called dependency, called fundamental transformation, which is precisely what this administration has done. We’re seduced by the perfection of man. The belief that we become blind to our own shortcomings; that we are not fallen. Therefore, we’re not honest about the nature of human nature. We lunge and grasp for utopia that’s never attainable.
The third is moral relativism. There’s no right or wrong and there’s no home team. Victor Davis Hanson and others talk a lot about military history. If you look back at World War II and you looked at what the folks like the New York Times would write, they would write favorably about our efforts. In 2004, if you remember, Abu Ghraib, the prison scandal, not only did they write about it, but they made sure it was on the front page for 32 straight days outlining the ills and the sins of the American effort. The home team is gone because we’ve ceased to know what we believe in and project it.
Of course, the final is the death knell in republics, which is class warfare. See, once the left tries everything else and it doesn’t work, then it’s got to be somebody else’s fault. Of course, things like diversity and tolerance and equality, which are decent in and of themselves, become ends instead of means. The end of the republic is at hand at that point, so you have to start with citizenship.
I bet you expected me probably to come up here and talk mostly about Iraq and Afghanistan and ISIS and the military and all the things I’m most passionate about, but without citizens who all hold their own and understand what American exceptionalism really means, you can’t muster what it takes to defend freedom. You can’t defeat our enemies in long and difficult wars that require understanding who you are and what you believe. You have to start with citizenship. In fact, in the book, because Roosevelt is speaking to a French audience, I talk about France. In pursuit of their secular utopia, they’ve gutted their own military to pay for their welfare state. They’ve opened their borders wide open, and they thought history was over. Instead, now they’re riding the high seas of a very uncertain and problematic future.
Roosevelt talks about good citizens and then he talks about good patriots. What do good patriots do? They defend America. They defend our sovereignty. They fight for the cause of freedom. Good patriots unapologetically fight wars to win them. Is that a novel concept, fighting wars to win them? Roosevelt warns about citizens of the world and those whose international feelings swamp their national feelings. Sound familiar? America has been led by such a citizen of the world for the last 7 years, who doesn’t believe that America is exceptional. If he has one goal, it’s to undermine us, and Dinesh D’Souza has laid this out so powerfully and perfectly. All that he has done is to level us out, is to bring America down as many pegs as possible. Talk to our enemies and soften our ties with allies. He seeks for us to coexist. Have you all seen that bumper sticker? Does it send you blood pressure as high as it does mine? See, Bush was a “cowboy.” He was a “bumbling idiot.” His war on terrorism was “simplistic.” Obama, a “peace maker,” a “smooth sage,” an international “man of nuance.”
Obama and his fellow coexist adherents, they coexist with what they think they know. They apply the lessons they learned in academia. The causes they championed in ivory towers to the world. See, progressive elites, like Barack Obama and the kids I went to school with at Princeton and Harvard and are going to school in these coddled cocoons that they are today, are eventually forced to emerge from their ideological cocoons only to find out that there are lots of people and lots of countries and lots of ideologies who don’t want to coexist. Even with a progressive America led by someone as culturally sensitive as Obama. But, what do progressives, like Obama, do when, instead of coexisting, enemies of freedom like ISIS saw off the heads of journalists and massacre groups of Christians and blow up airport terminals in Brussels? What happens when instead of coexisting, the enemies of freedom want to expand their sphere of influence in the south China Sea or in eastern Europe, or what happens when instead of coexisting, radical enemies of freedom want to accumulate permanent nuclear weapons capabilities and violate agreements, while denying the Holocaust and reiterating the desire to wipe our allies off the map? What happens when instead of coexisting, the Islamic state throws four gay men off a five-story building in Iraq at the same time the president is lighting up the White House in rainbow hues of solidarity?
At this point, Barack Obama’s brain, and the brain of the American left, literally reads “does not compute.” Unilaterally disarmed by decades of “coexist” moral equivalency, the modern American left is incapable of confronting unspeakable evil. They can’t face threats with faces, which is why they face faceless threats like climate change. Because they’ve got to fight for something. They can’t fight the real evil right in front of them. What they do is, rather than calling out those threats, or heaven forbid actually confronting them, they look around for the mutual understanding mediation groups and global climate change solidarity marches that they so eagerly and self-righteously facilitated as graduate students and community organizers. Except this time, they’re in charge. They’re the policy makers. They’re the negotiators. They’re the commander-in-chief. As such, they lunge at the international equivalence of their campus comforts. They seek an impossible global consensus. They work for peace agreements that are utterly detached from military realities. They declare the need to negotiate without preconditions. They unilaterally withdraw from tough wars without caring about the outcome because we just need to end the war. They dismiss growing threats as the “JV team” and unilaterally declare no boots on the ground. They apologize profusely for past sins. They provide nonlethal aid when it’s the lethal stuff that the guys on the ground actually need. They seek the moral high ground by leading from behind, and they declare the use of violence, of course, is just so 19th century. They try to coexist with a dangerous, backwards, fallen and chaotic world, and (surprise, surprise) it doesn’t work.
The result over the past 7 years has been an incoherent maze of American intervention, nonintervention, surges and withdrawals, negotiations, high stakes raids where the first thing they do is run to the New York Times to tell them all about it, and trades with terrorists. Now a few different labels have been used to describe this schizophrenic Obama foreign policy. Namely, lead from behind, don’t do stupid stuff (it’s a family program), and strategic patience. Taken together, they are fundamentally incoherent. They mean nothing. Except in their desire to lessen American influence and power.
Under Obama, America gets intervention in Libya, but no red line enforcement in Syria. You get a politically motivated surge in Afghanistan, and then a politically motivated full withdrawal in Iraq. You get negotiations with our enemies in Iran, but a worse relationship and an undercutting of Israel. You get a supposed pivot toward China, but only nonlethal aid against Putin in Ukraine. You get the Bin Laden raid and the Bowe Bergdahl Rose Garden swap.
What America actually stands for today is unknowable because America’s leadership doesn’t actually believe in America. So, as good patriots looking for answers after 7 years of Obama, what do we need to do? We need to unapologetically, physically, morally, and rhetorically be the leaders that America has always been. We need to be willing to name the enemy. Everyone that says, “Why do you always talk about naming the enemy?” Because until you name the enemy as Islamism, whether it be violent or nonviolent, political or extreme, any form of it, you can’t actually defeat it, and then you’ve got to be willing to fundamentally crush that enemy. Use all the means at your disposal to send it into the ash heap of history. You need to fund your military. You need to loosen rules of engagement. I see Louie Gohmert here, who’s a good friend of mine with Karen Vaughn and the Vaughn family, and talks powerfully about the rules of engagement that are getting our war fighters on the battlefield killed because they’re not able to do what they need to do in the face of a vicious enemy. We need to stand by our allies and stand by freedom dissidents around the world. We need to be resolute.
In this book, what I write about a lot is the Iraq war, an experience that I was a part of before the surge and went back to see how it was different after the surge. The Iraq war is an example of what America got right when we got it right. When we showed resolve in the face of a difficult moment, in a dark moment. When we knew we weren’t doing it right, we doubled down, defeated an enemy, crushed the enemy. Joe Biden, in 2011, said it would be a resounding success, Iraq. Don’t take my word for it. Take Uncle Joe’s word for it in 2011. It was headed to be a success for America until, of course, as David said, we did a sham sofa attempt and abandoned that mission. I think until we stand up as conservatives and Republicans and say the rise of ISIS, the chaos that is Iraq and Syria, lies at the feet of Barack Obama and that administration — not what was done in Iraq and not what was done through the Iraq surge. We just stand confidently in that and learned the lessons of what America can do when we commit, as opposed to what happens to America when we retreat
We can’t do any of this without citizens. Otherwise a war-weary public will pull the plug. Our enemies know that our weakest point is our exposed domestic flank. It’s public opinion, as we learned during the Iraq surge.
I’ll just close by saying I used to say all the time that I fought or that I fight, that Jason fights, that folks fight so that our kids don’t have to. It’s a comfy platitude. I wore the uniform. I want to fight to slay the dragons of my day so that the next generation doesn’t have too. I don’t say that anymore, never will again. I didn’t fight so my kids won’t have to. I fight knowing my kids are going to have to as well, and it is my job to infuse in them the values and the virtues and the grit and the citizenship that informs their desire to contribute to this American experiment. They may carry a rifle, they may be a patriot in a classroom, fighting in their community or the public square, but we are not cogs in an American empire. We are called to be engaged, good citizens in an ongoing experiment. Nothing short of that will allow for American leadership necessary to ensure that the 21st century is an American century.
We stand at the doorstep at another Woodrow Wilson, a man who was, as he said, on the precipice of World War I, too proud to fight. Obama emanates that exact same sentiment. When he was agitating for America leadership in World War I, Teddy Roosevelt was called the “Bugle that woke America.” We, of course, as you all know, must be awoken again today.
I want to thank each and every one of you for what you do. May we continue to lock shields. We need to enter this arena together and fight for America. God bless you. Thank you.