A good offense is still best

From the United Kingdom comes evidence that defense isn't enough

Issue: "Ashcroft 2000?," Oct. 11, 1997

You can't travel around Great Britain for a couple of weeks without developing this sense: Vast amounts of this civilization's energy and wealth over the last couple of millennia have been devoted to defense.

It may be even longer-but the evidence from the Norsemen is relatively scanty. Yet certainly beginning with the Romans, who came not long after the time of Christ, the habit was to pile stone upon stone upon stone, in an incredible variety of architectural configurations, but almost always with the ultimate goal of keeping the bad guys out of where the good guys wanted to be.

In York last week, about 150 miles north of London and reported to be the oldest major town in England, I saw three major fortifications (Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and medieval) lined up parallel to each other, although discovered at different elevations through relatively recent excavations. The rock and brick work were different in each case, but the idea was basically the same. Make the foundations strong, the walls thick, the towers high, and the moats deep.

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But the even more profound message is this: None of it ultimately worked.

The three walls in York were lined up, just outside each other, with each trying to do successfully what the previous one had failed to accomplish. For all of human history, human beings have worked hard to defend themselves and their cultures in various ways. But without exception, each of those societies has in the end, sooner or later, given way to some other culture-sometimes better, sometimes merely stronger.

It's easy to concentrate on that "stronger" factor, especially when you stand gazing at the remarkably preserved but basically useless 12-foot-thick walls of the 900-year-old Hedingham Castle. But strength is such a relative matter. The thickness of the walls didn't matter much during World War II when Hitler's vaunted air attack kept the British awake night after night.

Then you pass the Royal Air Force base near Northallerton and duck as a couple of jets swoop by at supersonic speed, and you're reminded that no matter what defensive advances a society comes up with in one generation, the whole strategy of the enemy will change in the time to come. Living by defense alone will hardly do, for a good offense always ends up setting the pace for whatever defenses have been contrived.

A good Britisher, of course, would deny that the United Kingdom has survived through hundreds of years primarily on the basis of physical defenses. He would point instead to the less tangible but glorious facets of this society's democratic and moral underpinnings-like the Magna Carta, signed (a bit reluctantly) by King John in 1206; the establishment of parliamentary rule; the ideals and people-freeing concepts of the industrial revolution; and the relatively early outlawing of slavery a full generation or two before it happened in the United States. Who, indeed, can deny the rich heritage the once proud British Empire has bequeathed to the rest of the human community, not least because so many parts of that heritage were rooted in a Christian (and even Reformational) faith?

Yet it may be precisely at such a point that Britain now finds itself most vulnerable and defenseless. For if this society gets credit for very often leading the rest of the world in a moral or cultural manner, then it also deserves blame when it lets down its moral and cultural defenses. And if Americans think matters have gotten bad in their own country, many would be stunned to discover what's happening in England.

Very alien ideas, if not alien military forces, reign in England. Charles Darwin, not the great Reformers, remains the hero at Cambridge University. Islam is almost certainly a more potent religious force than is evangelicalism. In a society where separation of church and state is still an unknown concept, there's not much church left for the state to be separate from. On a typical Sunday in England, only five percent of the population is likely to be found in any kind of place of worship. That's a small fraction of the typical proportion worshiping in America-in a society where the Christian faith was once robust, the missionary spirit strong, and the Reformation directly affected sitting kings and queens.

If America has trundled down a road of moral decline, where the media regularly titillate their audiences' lowest appetites, those issues are even more acute in Britain. One of the Prime Minister's cabinet members has openly acknowledged his homosexual "marriage," while a leader of the Conservative Party last week roomed with a woman who was not his wife during a party function. Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher publicly criticized her fellow party member-and was laughed at by the nation's press for her criticism.

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