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Col. Larry Wilkerson speaks at Sam Adams Awards ceremony honoring Jesselyn Radack and Thomas Drake

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LAWRENCE WILKERSON, FMR. CHIEF OF STAFF TO COLIN POWELL: I listened to Tom with great focus. And I realized about midway through his remarks, maybe about the 0.75 point, I realized that I’d probably be in jail or dead right now if it weren’t for the fact that those who would do it to me in this great country fear Colin Powell. Listening to Tom’s recitation of what the government did to him—and he’s not the only one I’ve listened to in that regard, but he certainly is the freshest in my mind and probably gave you the greatest amount of detail—I realize that if Colin Powell didn’t know where all those skeletons were hidden and therefore they’re frightened to death of him, I’d probably be in the same boat as Tom and maybe even in jail right now. That’s a very sobering thought for me to contemplate—not that it couldn’t come about anyway.

Powell’s coming out with a new book. I’m very interested in seeing what he says in there, especially in his chapter on the UN presentation on 5 February 2003, which he has said, and I’m almost quoting him, I shall always be remembered as the man who gave that presentation at the United Nations. I want to read that. I’m writing a book, too, and I’m going to have a chapter or two or three on that occasion also. So if nothing else, I want to check facts.

But I came here prepared to say one thing, and after I spent the afternoon looking at Tom and Jesselyn’s record, as it were, I decided I’d say something else entirely. I don’t even belong on the same stage with these two people. But I want to say something briefly that I think encapsulates how I feel about what they did. And I want to start by quoting one of our founding founders—or at least I consider him one, who’s probably more important than a lot of those founders whom we roll out every day on the Fourth of July and celebrate. His name is Thomas Paine.

I’m sure most of you out there at least are familiar with his one pamphlet “Common Sense”, and perhaps some of his other works. He once said it is the duty of the patriot to protect his country from his government. You know, think about that for a moment. John Adams said of Thomas Paine, “Without the pen of the author of ‘Common Sense’, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.” Washington himself took one of his little pamphlets, shortened the title, The Crisis, and had it distributed to all of his men. He even to those men whom he directly led—had it read out loud to them. We’re all familiar with the opening words of that pamphlet, but I want to read them anyway. “These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”

Payne was far ahead of his time. If you know anything about him, you know he was an advocate for the minimum wage, social security, and voting rights for non-land owners before others and in opposition to some of the founders we more relish and cherish, like Thomas Jefferson, and he utterly abhorred human slavery. And probably what would ultimately do him more harm and lose him almost all of his following was his increasingly public insistence that organized religion was farcical and even dangerous, ginned up for power and profit, and not for the one true God, in whom he, Paine, believed, and for whom he actually [incompr.] But it’s Paine’s rock-bottom patriotism that I really want to talk about for just a minute.

Now, how could I say that about a man who was born in England, served in America during the Revolution, was a member of one wing of the French government during the French Revolution—he was a Girondin—and died in America? In fact, his bones were disinterred in New Rochelle, New York, and shipped to England, and, frankly, we don’t even know where they are today. There are a lot of people who claim to have his head, others who claim to have a hand. But I think it’s fair to say that no one really knows where Tom Paine is, although there are memorials to him from New Rochelle to England to France. How can this man be patriot? He never pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands—and, incidentally, no founding father did either. And he would have refused, very rightly, to say “one nation under God”, not because he didn’t believe that there was a one and only true God, but because he knew that nations have no right or business invoking her name. And how can a man with such variegated allegiances—England, America, France, America again—be called a patriot or be invoked in the name of patriotism?

For me it’s easy, because the rights of humanity and what we hold so dear in this country rhetorically—freedom, liberty—were what he stood for. It didn’t matter what nation state—a man’s latest manifestation for codifying it all—it didn’t matter what nation state he happened to be in. He stood for these rights come hell or high water, in whatever manifestation, as I said, that man had seen fit to create, on the one hand, to protect those rights, and as we’ve seen here tonight very vividly on the other hand, to threaten those rights. He proclaimed, thus it is the duty of the patriot to protect his country from his government. Reminds me of a bumper sticker I saw at William & Mary which gave me a lot of heart at the time that I was feeling pretty low. It said dissent is the highest form of patriotism. It cheered me greatly to read that.

And that’s why the two people recognized here tonight, Tom and Jesselyn, are really patriots, and everyone like them. Everyone who is working diligently and hard and long hours, as most public servants do, to deliver a public service to the American people, whatever it may be, and doing it to the best of their ability is a patriot. And everyone who is doing it to abuse it, to abuse the power that’s accrued to them, for whatever reason, is not a patriot.

And that’s why I’m not going to cut this part out. I’ve shortened this considerably, but I’m not going to cut this out. I’m going to jump to the last page and I’m going to tell you, that’s why to me it is passing strange that many—if not now most—in this country associate patriotism with a cheerleader-like support of senseless wars, with the unquestioning acquiescence in the aggrandizement of territory and the oppressing of a people by a small state in the Middle East with purblind acceptance of unparalleled curtailments of precious civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism, which we’ve heard about eloquently from Tom tonight, and with the almost lemming-like acceptance that wealthy men and women have a right to rule the rest of us, indeed that without such men and women, oh, God forbid, all the rest of us would be poor, broken, and lost. That seems to be what my country has turned into. It is equally odd for me as a 31-year-old soldier that we stand in airports applauding returning troops from what seem to be endless wars, “support the troops” bumper stickers on our automobiles, and always try to contribute to worthy causes aimed at helping our veterans readjust to civilian life, odd until we realize that less than 1 percent of our some 300 million peoples are fighting in these wars or are even at risk of fighting in these wars. When I debated Christopher—I forgot his name now.


WILKERSON: No, not Hitchens


WILKERSON: No, the gentleman with cancer. Is it Hitchens? Yeah. When I debated him down at William—. I’ve got a terrible memory now. When I debated him down at William & Mary, one of the issues that we presented to some 700 students was war with Iran. And he had made the point that we should have taken out the ayatollah and the government in Tehran years ago and that we were late. We should do it tomorrow morning. And he was very eloquent in arguing. The only riposte I made was to say that it is a strategic asset—I know this is a soldier—to have the support of your people. It is a strategic asset that, in a democratic federal republic like ours, is absolutely essential to any hope of waging a successful war. And then I asked for a show of hands amongst the some 700 William & Mary students for all those who were willing to go to Christopher’s war, and not a single hand went up. I then asked for someone to go out to the closed-circuit TV rooms where we had other students and see if there were any hands there. There were none. I then said, my case rests.

To me this is one of the greatest travesties of this warmaking nation we all belong to today, that roughly 99 percent of us are not doing any of that. It doesn’t make what the 1 percent is doing right. It doesn’t make the policy they’re executing right. It just says something’s wrong, something is badly wrong. It is passing strange also until we realize that unmanned aerial vehicles—drones, in the jargon—are doing much of the killing now and somehow make the killing for us easier to take, even without—even if—without any due process, as was pointed out earlier. We happened to kill an American citizen. It seems to this soldier that the clapping at the airports, the sporting of bumper stickers in favor of the troops, and the outpouring of concern about their wounds, injuries, and deaths, all of which are understandable, and even praiseworthy, but they’re all the same cloth as our acceptance of this drone warfare. All of this is to salve our much troubled consciences, I hope, or at least to assuage the guilt we feel for having done it, if not for having been there with them. The contrary likelihood, that we accept, approve, and cheer this sacrifice in our names and this video game killing would be too damn despicable to imagine.

So I just want to say again that with Thomas Paine, I believe, the highest form of patriotism is what Tom and Jesselyn have demonstrated to us tonight. And I would simply say, as I do to most of my seminars and the young people who are going to have to take this challenge on, because, as I tell them also, we’ve screwed it up. I screwed it up. My generation screwed it up. We were not, as Eisenhower said in that farewell address that Tom referred to, a knowledgeable and alert citizenry. We did not ensure that the meshing of the national security needs and our freedoms and our liberties were protected. It is up to them and to those of you in this audience who are under 35, those of you who are getting your education and going out to work for institutions like the NSA, like the CIA, as many of my students do, or out to work for the Peace Corps or some other group that’s attempting to bring a better world into being, it’s up to you to change this. We’re leaving you with debt you can’t believe. We have so much debt right now that if we don’t do something about it very shortly, the interest payments alone will be the equivalent of the defense budget. That’s not in the far-off future. That’s just several years away, 2021, 2020. Seven hundred billion dollars in interest payments. If we don’t do something about this, you’re going to have to pay the piper. It’s going to be up to you to change what Tom so eloquently displayed to you tonight is happening to your country. I’m too old to do anything about it. Most of my generation has given up and is either sitting back on its laurels or playing with its grandchildren. It’s your challenge. It’s your country. It’s your republic to keep. And it’s going to be awfully, awfully hard for you to do so. And I darn sure hope you’re up to the challenge.


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Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy

Lawrence Wilkerson's last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.