The First Lecture: First Principles of Being American (Updated)

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“Can you tell me how many nations…in the History of the World…have sent armies, and sacrificed their men’s lives, to rescue the people of other countries?”

16-17 year-old kids are a tough room in any generation. That’s because every generation is different, so you never know what you’re going to get when you meet them as a group. They are often very smart but also skeptical about older people who try to tell things they don’t know, unless presented to them under special circumstances.

A classroom is one of those circumstances, So one you have them there, you have to reach up and grab them.

The good news is that Veterans, unlike almost anyone else in America, have  street cred no other group of Americans have.

This “First Lecture” is designed to demonstrate how you can do this simply by 1) being a Veteran and having seen and done things they haven’t and 2) telling them something really extraordinary about their country and their heritage they would never have heard anywhere else, and possibly never believed had it not come from a Veteran or at least a certified teacher.

And you will have done your country a favor, for they are learning these things anywhere else.

These kids are almost old enough to enlist, so think about how you looked at the world your junior-senior year in high school. Most will come to your class because they have to be there, not because they want to be there.

I went down that road for a few years in a small city college with some tough inner-city kids in the early 90’s, who also didn’t want to be there. They knew they had to be there or they couldn’t get their degree.

This opening lecture is how I grabbed them. Over five years, it worked every time.

In order to win them over you need to make what you are teaching them to be relevant in their lives, as they see it now, as 16-17 year olds. You need to plant seeds that will stay buried in their sub-conscience forever, arising only when the subject arises again in later years.

You will be teaching those kids things that were taught to generations of Americans in public schools before 1970, in basically this same way, but are hardly mentioned any longer. And there are colleges today that openly refute all sorts of things about America’s history that you must know to refute.

If we do this right, in another generation, those anti-American professors will be washing dishes at TGI-Fridays.

People who don’t like “America-as-founded” have tried to put a stop to that process of passing our heritage on, which the people of America, since the early  1800’s, demanded be a part of public school curriculum.

You first task is to get the students in front of you hooked, since if you can get them hooked, they won’t have to be pushed out the door to come back a second time.

*    *   *   *   

There are no rules as to how to handle your classroom. I like the lecture method, where I stand and they sit. There are hundreds of years of reasons why this is the chosen best way for people to teach people younger and less experienced than they are.

Expect there to be adults in the classroom as well, both observing you and how the kids react to you.

The things I have written for you here they will have never heard it before. And the things you will teach them will beg several questions. And some future lectures will be based on those. Spin-offs. At the end, below, I’ve listed some of those topics, previews of coming attractions.

We are not just teaching American history and American government, but also American culture and its moral foundation, and how those things have blended to make America unique.

It’s the American culture and moral foundation we are trying to save.

This is not a script, unless you want it to be. With any luck you’ll get to give each of these lecture 5-10 times a years.

*   *   *   *

Walk into the classroom, write your name on the board, and introduce yourself.

They’ll already know you’re a Vet. That’s your street cred with them. So act military and stand tall (unless you’re in a wheelchair). Kids have a high degree of respect for wounded Vets but are also conditioned to have a certain level of pity, too. Your enthusiasm for what you’re teaching will disabuse them of this notion.

State you are a Veteran, and tell them your branch of service, and also the number of years you served. Remember, 17-year old kids were born after 911, so even the blowing up of the Two Towers are ancient history to them. If you served in a war zone tell them where. But don’t go into too much detail, for kids love war stories. You’ll have plenty of time to tell them your MOS and the sort of things you did or saw there in chat sessions after class. They’ll have all sorts of questions.

Then turn back to the board, and draw a heavy black line across the board, left to right, over 20 feet.

At the far left end put a heavy mark and marked it “3000 BC.” and draw a little pyramid underneath it. Then walk to the other end and with another heavy stripe, mark it “2019”.

Then, at a point approximately 1/3rd of the way back toward the center, make another hash mark, and write “BC-AD”. (I prefer the old dating system, but you may be more comfortable with BCE and CE. since most kids are taught this way. Just keep in the back of your mind why that old system was around for over a thousand years. The subject will come up, for religion has much to do with America’s identity, and why so many now want ti changed.)


This takes all of 2-3 minutes. The you turn around and simply say

“This represents 5000 years of human history”

You then turn around and make another hash mark close to the 2019 end mark, maybe a couple of inches and mark that “1787, USA” and say:

“This was when America was born, 1787, when the Constitution was written. We won the Revolutionary War about five years earlier.”

Then turn and fill in the names of great civilizations, and empires.


Then you finally turn and face your students, and ask:

“OK, how many of the great civilizations that cover this 5000 years of history, from the Egyptian pharaohs, who built the Great Pyramids, through the Greeks and Romans, then the great kings and empires of Europe…

“Do any of you know how many of them ever sent their armies to free an oppressed people?”

In five years I never got an answer. The students only shifted in their seats uncomfortably, until I raised up one finger.

“Just one.”

Shock and awe.

Then I turned to the board and just an inch to the right of the 1787 hash mark, made another hash mark, downward, and mark it

“1860, the American Civil War”.


“That’s right. 1860-1865. After 4850 years of civilized history in this world, it would be this brand new country, the United States of America, just 75 years old, who would do what no country had ever done, and that was to send soldiers, almost all them volunteers, mostly farm boys and townies, from Vermont and New York to Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois to take up arms to liberate people they had no family relationship with, people they had never even seen in real life.

“They weren’t even the same color.

“Why did they do this?

“For those young men, the only way America could be kept together was to free those slaves.

“And 400,000 of them would die doing just that.

Now you may or may not get some backlash. Your kids may not agree, if only on general principles. I’m told by people who’ve coached and taught both age groups for over 20 years, Generation Z is not like Generation Y (Millennials), so it’s a mystery as to how they will react when you tell them this.

But in the 90s, all of my students, not a few but all, were stunned when I told them this story. But that was 25 years ago. You’ll be plowing new ground. (What feedback you get back from them will be important in how we draft new training programs. That will be important to us.)

Keep going.

“Why would it take over 4800 years for nations to figure out that human life had value?

“The great Egyptians conquered territories, they never liberated them. They didn’t free people, they acquired them. As did the Persian, Chinese, and Indian empires. Some kings were brutal and harsh, others kinder. But they all owned everything.

” Then later there were the Greeks. They dabbled in democracies in several city-states, but which also had kings and legislatures. That led up to the great empire of Alexander the Great, followed by the Romans, who gobbled up most of Alexander’s empire and were in charge of Israel at the time of Christ. Pontius Pilate was a Roman. Rome started out as a Republic with a Senate, but they lost power to a Caesar in the years just before Christ, and those Caesars conquered territories that covered almost all of Europe

“After Rome fell, the Age of Kings would cover Europe, only they were tribal chiefs, mostly barbaric Germans, who conquered each others’ territories, calling themselves “kings”, adopting the trappings of the last kings of the Romans, which ended around 500 AD.

“These were called the Dark Ages, and they lasted nearly 1000 years. They have been the basis for dozens of popular films about barbarians since Arnold Schwarzenegger played “Conan the Barbarian” in 1982. Popular Goth music and fashion, even hair styles, came out in that period. Real Goths were much uglier.

“How many video games can you count that were based on this period of history?

“The Dark Ages morphed over into the Middle Ages around the 11th-12th Century, as the kings cared more about how they dressed, trying to appear more royal.  and ambitious. The Frank king Charlemagne inked a power-sharing agreement with the Roman Catholic Church in 800 A.D. whereby the kings would grant protection for the Church, plus a piece of the action; land grants, rents, royalties, etc. and easy access to the peasants, with the power to keep all competing religions out.

“The Church would also serve as the kings’ front office managers, since it would be a few centuries before the kings would learn ro read or write, or how to eat with a fork instead of a Bowie knife. The Church did most of their paperwork, contracts, marriages, birth records, and ledgers, and especially deeds, since the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne, kingdoms were based on the ownership of land was based entirely on the ownership of land, and who owned what.

“Every knight with a castle “owned” a large acreage of land with hundred of peasants who farmed, a few soldiers. But that knight owed allegiance to a baron above him, with a even bigger castle, and they all owed allegiance to a king, and all the records of that land, and every peasant who lived in it, was kept safe by local members of the Church.

“This was called the Feudal System in which ALL the land of Europe would be owned by just a few individual kings and their royal house, and that virtually none of that land could ever be sold to anyone outside the System. It lasted for nearly 1000 years, and kept all people but the royals in bondage to the land. Everyone lived or died at the whim of the royal lords.

“Under that system, “the people” (called serfs) all belonged to the land, so that if one baron lost his land to another baron in a war, or just by gambling, the serfs only switched owners. They had no power or right to go find a nicer, gentler lord.

“The Feudal System began coming apart in 1217 when King John of England, (of Robin Hood fame) signed the Magna Carta allowing some Englishmen to own their own farms, granting them rights as landowners, (unheard of by royals on the Continent) thus changing the role of the Law, and private property, even the prerogatives of the Church, that would eventually change Europe forever. 

“But the Magna Carta would put England about 200 years ahead of the Continent at becoming “modern” where human liberty was concerned.

“This is important to know because it would largely be from England that America was founded, 400 years later.

“The European Middle Ages would begin to change, in part due to the kings’ inability to manage their own money, and the rise of a merchant class, who managed their money much better. Since the Feudal System was built on the ownership of land, no one ever gave much thought to ownership of other property, or that one could become wealthy by the making, buying and selling of property. Think of cars and cellphones today. In the Middle Ahges they called this “chattel” (Write this down on the board.)

“By the 15th Century, after centuries of wars with each other, and fighting over the Holy Land with Islam, and finally, a reform movement in the Church, called the Reformation, splitting the Church in two, where it remains today, the royals in Europe retreated to their several castles, began wearing fancy clothes with lace handkerchiefs stuck in the cuffs of their jackets, and generally living idle lives sniffing snuff and playing lawn tennis…

“…and decided to build new empires by invading foreign continents, such as Africa and North and South America, instead of the European neighbors.

“But one of those foreign expansions was not by a king seeking conquest but by several private groups of investors, mostly from England, settling along the North American Atlantic coast. They were made up of several religious communities who would earn their keep by largely farming.

“Within two centuries those colonies would join together to form their own nation, at which time the history of the world would veer off the course it had been on for 4800 years. For you see, there suddenly appeared a country that was owned by no king, and only by its people.

” The first time in history, and what made this unique was the type of people who made up this new nation. Although all were English subjects by the laws of England. even before the colonies had won their freedom in 1782 at Yorktown, all of Europe knew them as “Americans” and not Englishmen.

“A totally need breed.

“The world was turned upside down, for every king in Europe knew what would happen if the people in their kingdoms ever got a taste of that.

“The first thing they would lose would be the belief in the Divine Rights of kings, that God somehow preferred this sort of king-system for mankind. That would all finally be ended with World War in 1918, but the clock started ticking in 1787 and the birth of America.

“Still, the belief in absolute power and royal prerogatives would continue, just under different names; Dictator, El Supremo, Emperor. Even the most ideological would designate themselves “Democratic Republik” or something like that making it appear that they were working on behalf of the “the people”. 

“Why would out-and-out dictatorships have to go to such lengths to pretend to be democracies?”

“Before America was born they didn’t have to go to any length, or put on any false face, to make it appear as if they sincerely liked their people.

“They always looked down on people as chattel, to do what they were told to do.

“We’ll look into those false faces later on.”

Turning back to the board, repeat your central theme::

 So, in 5000 years only one nation had ever sent its soldiers to free oppressed people. 

And it has done it more than once.

Then draw this, stretching out the 230 years of our history,:


(If you were in a college classroom, you’d have to batten down the hatches, for here many students might take you to task, since many will have fathers, uncles, brothers who have served in some of those wars. And in many of our public schools and universities, all America’s military conflicts are taught as imperialist invasions. Just remember, you job here is to give your students a heads-up as to what they will likely encounter in college (by way of indoctrination and peer pressure) so that they will be able to defend themselves, and even challenge more obnoxious professors.

(Note that I’ve excluded World War I as a war of liberation, even though we did lose over 100,000 men, and in a very short period of time, and it was to defeat an evil empire of sorts. Woodrow Wilson wanted America to join the war because he believed if we could help end the royal system in Europe so we could then proceed with a new world government, the League of Nations, which would replace them. (This would happen only, America would refuse to join the League, dashing Wilson’s dream)

(Britain declared war because of a string of silly alliances between royal cousins, that made no sense at all. When the Hapsburg royals of Austro-Hungary declared war on Serbia for allowing the murder of their Archduke in Sarajevo, all of Serbia’s allies had to declare back, causing Germany, and its other pals, to jump in on the side of the Austria.

(This vane silliness brought about the deaths of 9-11 million military casualties alone, and was called the “War to end All Wars”. Only it was just a prelude, a first act, for, in part because of the way the Versailles Treaty was implemented the guns of war would only be silent for awhile before Europe and Asia would be right back at it, only Fascism and Communism would replace royal alliances as the new cause for conflict.

(And World War II would take more than double the lives of WWI, estimated at 3% of the total world population, approx. 69 million. By comparison the War to End Wars of World War tragic black comedy.))

Brifely walk you students through these wars where America rescued people:

“Officially, our American Civil War was a war to “preserve the union”. That’s how the Government and the Press saw it. But the South seceded when Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860m, and the principal plank of his new party, the Republicans, was to end slavery. When the South left, Lincoln stated that the purpose of his presidency was to “restore the Union”. But in the hearts and minds the four million farm boys who enlisted it was to free the slaves, for that’s generally how they were taught in church and at home.

“As for World War II. for America and England that war was for national survival. All the rest of our allies were largely under occupation by the Germans and Japanese.

“World War II also was not a war to liberate all the countries the Germans, Italians and Japanese had conquered.

“Only we had to to defeat them.

“Still, there are graveyards all over the Pacific, France and Italy, where thousands of American soldiers are buried, and French and Italian people still lay flowers on their graves every year.

“We saved them and even after 70 years, many are still very grateful.

“After WWII, within five years the United States headed an international alliance of nations send by the new United Nations to keep Communist North Korea from swallowing the democratically-elected South Korea. We lost 62,000 American soldiers, which was 83% of the total foreign casualties in that war.

“And the Korean War was a genuine rescue mission, for the South Korean Army could not have held out against the Norks otherwise.

“That was over 65 years ago and remarkably, there is a chance that the two countries may be reunited in our lifetime.” 

Since Vietnam was not a war of liberation but a political war, to stem the advance of communism, I’ve left that period open. It was poorly planned and managed, and chose to provide troops by drafting young men who had no future prospects. In the 1970s it was called “America’s last Liberal war,” put together by Harvard eggheads.

Still, some of our finest soldiers fought there and many enlisted simply becsaue they were American

“Americans were no longer drafted when 911 occurred. They all enlisted.

“On September 11, 2001 four airliners were high-jacked by Arab terrorists, two of them flying into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, land marks for many of us, but which none of you ever saw. Both those towers came down.

“Another jetliner crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, and a third went down in Pennsylvania, killing only the passengers and crew and the hijackers, because some of the passengers knew what they intended, so stormed the cockpit and forced the plane down in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, killing only those on board.

“They too were among the first “First Responders”.

“In all 2996 died.”

“And we launched immediate attacks in Afghanistan to find Osama bin Lade and his Al Qaida terror group.

“17 years late, we’re still there trying to help Afghanistan create a safe place for its people. And we’ll likely fail.

“And then we invaded Iraq in 2004 to end Saddam Hussein’s threats of weapons of mas destruction.

“We’ll talk more about both Afghanistan and Iraq in a military context later on in these lectures, but in the context of sending troops to rescue their peoples, that was not out primary objective.

“The final story has not been told on either of these countries, our troops are still there, although active fighting has dwindled to a fraction of what it once was, and US casualties are very few.

“But there is no more talk of either country becoming an active democracy, so, if that was our intention, our political leaders did a ham-fisted job of it.

“Our intentions there started out as noble but now, much like Vietnam, everyone just wishes they were home.

“But this idea of rescuing people began in 1860 and it seems to be in American’s blood, which leads us back to the original question:

“So why did it take 4800 years for the world to finally recognize the value of individual human beings?

“Well some would argue, they never really has. That it is still just an American thing.

“And it is directly related to our religious foundation, and our sense of volunteerism?

“America’s character is defined by it.

“So, Is America unique?

“Is America exceptional?

“You can’t understand the uniqueness of America unless you have a little understanding of how the world was “ordered”, set up, for the 4800 years before we were born.

“Once you get a feel of this, you can spend the rest of your lives studying this on your own. We’ll even give you a list of books you can read and keep on your shelf.

“Now I’m a veteran and was taught pretty much the way you are now. Little or nothing about America being special, as I’ve just described it to you here, is taught anymore.

“Over coming days, together we’ll go on a different path.

It was the same when I was in high school. Colleges are even more dismissive of the unique nature of America’s birth and existence.

Still, I volunteered for the military, just as my father did in for Vietnam, and my granddad did for World War II. Now They were taught a little bit about America and how the government works, or is supposed to, in high school, Civics, American History, but they likely slept through it.

Still, they retained much of what they were taught. Teachers were trained to plant seeds in students, so that when they head a term such as “freedom”, or “liberty”, those seeds would come to the front of the brain and they would be freshly remembered.

I didn’t read that somewhere, but my dad told me that. He said he’d heard but didn’t listen to how America was founded, but never paid much attention. Then, when he heard a colonel give a talk to his company at basic say some of those things, they all came back to him.

I don’t think schools teach that way anymore.

That’s why I’m here, and if you’re lucky enough to have heard some of these things at home, from your parents, or in Sunday School, where most of America’s moral teaching began those first two hundred years, you’re lucky.

We’re going to try to help you catch up with my dad, but I’ve got to tell you, you’ll be way ahead of your classmates in public school, for no one is bothering to plant a single seed in their heads about the specialness of America,

Any questions? Hands.

See you next time.

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See our Instruction Sheet for this Lecture Series at VeteransTales.org

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Email me, VassarB@gmail.com, and let know how you fared. Any criticism or suggestion is welcome. Leave a Phone number and times available, or I’ll send you a phone number so we can talk.

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About the Author:

Vietnam era Army JAG, Asia, 17-yr Cold Warrior in Soviet-China Bloc green zone, Been shot at and hit, but in crime, not war; twice-broken nose for lying (same fellow) hence good law school candidate; Could have been Somebody in Corporate world and politics, but at every crossroad chose to be a man with a tawdry past instead. Gave up law and am now a redeemed American.
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