“The real enemy is arrogance.” —fictional Gen.  Mark Naird, Netflix “Space Force,” Episode 10.

Chester “Trip” Buckenmaier III, MD,
COL (ret.), MC, USA

Like many Americans, I thought we had reached rock bottom in terms of things going wrong for our society, but it appears we have begun to dig. The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have scoured the pleasant American veneer of union and equal rights under law and exposed this fiction as the true reality of our society. The reality being exposed is the unpleasant and deeply painful truth of institutionalized racism and wealth inequality that has plagued our culture since its inception with the signing of the Constitution. This is not to say we have not made progress. There is no denying that our struggle to form a more perfect union in this regard has advanced since the American Civil War; the first major surgery to begin the process of addressing racism through the abolishment of slavery.

Since the cataclysm of the Civil War, we have struggled to recover from the cancer of institutionalized bigotry, extending beyond the topic of race. There have been impressive successes: Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, same-sex marriage legalized in all 50 states in 2015 and the Women’s March in 2017 are some of the examples that stand out for me. So many have fought and sometimes given their lives to preserve this American experiment on our nation’s battlefields. So many have fought to not be judged solely by their race, whom they love, their gender, religion or their paycheck on our nation’s streets. Yes, as we have learned this week, those warriors have and continue to sometimes give their lives in pursuit of a more perfect union.

I have been inspired by those healthcare workers who, despite being our front-line fighters in the battle against COVID-19, still found time to peacefully protest the racial injustice that continues to lurk within our society. They understand, perhaps better than most citizens, that institutionalized racism and wealth disparity impact everyone in myriad ways. In the medical field, specifically, COVID-19 has exposed the inequality in our population’s access to healthcare, and I believe this is one of the reasons our nation has been hit so hard by this virus.

I have struggled these past few weeks. It has been difficult trying to process the horror of a Black man being suffocated to death by a member of a service, the police force, for whom I have great respect, and wonder how many times this has happened before, just not on camera. To process the militarization of the police in our free society. To process the peaceful demonstrations that seemed to decay, at times, into violence and destruction of homes and business in the communities that can afford this destruction least. To process the epidemiological realities of what will happen concerning COVID-19 spread due to all these mass gatherings. I am not coming up with anything profound.

I imagine many like myself have been sheepishly escaping television media by watching movies and sitcoms where people are gathering without fear of disease, without masks, in a world where the veneer of an equal and fair America is intact. Shows like “Designated Survivor” about an individual thrust into the American presidency through a massive act of terror whose decisions are only based on “what is good for the American people.” I refer to the show as “presidential porn,” since this seems like such an unrealistic fantasy. I also enjoyed watching “Space Force.” Anyone who has spent any time with a military bureaucracy will find this show hilarious. Like a train wreck, you just cannot take your eyes away. I was touched by a statement that the protagonist, Gen. Mark Naird, makes at the end of the last episode:

“Forget history, and you are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. Forget how bad polio was, and people stop taking vaccines. Forget how bad world wars are, and people start puffing out their chests. The real enemy is arrogance.”

The real enemy is arrogance. This last sentence has stuck with me for the past several days. Whether it is arrogance about race, wealth, gender, sex or religion, it is all decidedly un-American. Personally, I am going to work on my arrogance and try to become a better citizen of this country. Those who have fought and died for my right to become a better American deserve no less of me. I realize this month’s editorial is uncharacteristically short. Not because the topic is not important, rather the reverse, it is overwhelming. I, like you, have some thinking to do.