The Moral Equivalent

Reading Time: 7 minutes

The newspaper offices were filled with hushed tension, as they had been most of the week since the Twin Towers fell, when the pagers went off. Ruth jumped at the sound while Fred grabbed at his belt in response to the vibration.

Ruth was about to go off duty, and Fred on. Normally they’d meet at – 30 – across the street, but that seemed wrong now. They were grabbing a quick coffee in the cafe between shifts.

“MANDATORY MEETING WAR ROOM 14-SEP-01 0900. ALL HANDS. ALERT THE TROOPS.” Fred read aloud to Ruth before she could fish in her purse for the pager.

“Who’s it from?” she asked.

“Unsigned,” Fred said. “But come on, who else calls mandatory meetings for the troops in a war room in military time?”

“The General? He’s in Florida.” Owner Michaelangelo Generali, publisher emeritus, was officially retired now. He had changed his residence and carefully spent more than six months of every year in his new home state to avoid Connecticut taxes.

Victor Vancoller, Generali’s longtime devoted aide, was passing their table with his plain, tall black coffee. “It’s true,” she said. “He’ll be here tomorrow morning.”

“But how?” Ruth stopped her. “All the airports are closed.”

“By car. He hired two drivers to bring him up here.”

Fred frowned. “Through D.C. and New York? The roads are a mess.”

“They’re routing inland, on the interstates through western Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. It’s a longer route, but still open.”

He executed a brisk left-face and advanced toward the door, carefully sealing the cap on the cup.

Ruth and Fred stood and looked at each other. “Well, we have our marching orders,” Fred said. “I’ll pass the word to the night shift.”

Ruth nodded and headed back to the newsroom to catch her staff before they all left for the day.

The War Room

That night, after the Morning Sun had gone to bed, Fred wandered along the second-floor balcony corridor to the rear of the building, where two doors, one from either side, opened into the large conference room. That was its official name, although everyone knew it as the War Room. Fred guessed it was a wink and a nod to their leader.

Conference room photo by Pixabay on
The War Room — in better times, used for training, conferences and community events.

The room sat about 250 people, which would have qualified as “ALL HANDS” a quarter-century ago, when he first joined the company. It was barely half that now, what with competition for circulation and advertisers and the pinch from the rising price of newsprint. Newspaper chains were gobbling up the independents, cutting costs and quality as the industry continued its perilous slide.

That’s what had brought about the last all-hands meeting Fred could remember. The General had convened the troops to say that instead of closing the afternoon paper, he was going to pit The Sun and The Star against each other in a friendly rivalry. “It’s like lawyers,” he told the staff as he announced the joint operating agreement. “One attorney in a town will starve. Two can each do a thriving business.”

With that, The General had announced his retirement and appointed Don Duquesne, managing editor of the Morning Sun, as publisher. Ruth was tasked with the Evening Star, with news and opinion pages catering to the city’s Democratic majority. Fred succeeded Don to head the conservative Morning Sun.

It had worked for nearly a decade. So why the war council now, in the middle of the biggest news of the century–what people were calling 9/11?

Marching Orders

The next morning, Fred joined Ruth and Don at the big conference table on the stage. Except for Vancoller, the three of them were probably the only ones who had seen The General since he left for Florida. Retirements and staff turnover meant that most of the newspaper staff now were young — what was being called Generations X and even Y — in their 20s, 30s, early 40s. They knew The General mostly through legend, as a World War II veteran and a former Army general.

Fred knew the truth. Generali was old, but not old enough to have been a general in WWII. Fred wasn’t even sure he was ever a general at all, although he certainly was an officer. Fresh out of West Point, he had been stationed in Italy during the war because he knew the language. From there he continued as a career soldier and served in Korea, the so-called forgotten war. He retired from the Army at the end of Dwight Eisenhower’s second term, saying he couldn’t think of serving under any other commander-in-chief. That’s when he started his second career as a newspaperman.

The room fell silent as the stage door cracked open. Ruth gave Fred and Don a fleeting smile. They knew that “the troops” knew The General as a military man, a larger-than-life figure. They were expecting George C. Scott in front of a giant flag. Only Ruth, Fred and Don knew how much larger than life that image was.

Old soldiers never die

Vancoller opened the door and, standing at attention at the post, held it for The General to enter. Don rose and hurried to greet them, but the old solder declined his offer to help. Instead, he drew himself up to his full five feet and walked slowly to the podium. Generali stepped up on the platform and adjusted the microphone downward. Fred almost expected him to greet the class. With his tufts of gray hair, tortoise-shell glasses and tweed jacket, he looked more like a professor of history, emeritus, than a warrior.

He sounded that way, too, as he began to address a crowd not much past college age themselves.

“How many of you out there have read William James?” he asked. Peering over his glasses at a silent sea of puzzled faces, he turned to the head table. “No one? How about our Ivy Leaguers? Dartmouth man? English major?” he looked at Fred.

“No, sir,” Fred responded. “I majored in theater and 17th-century literature.”

“Oh, yes, very practical,” The General smiled. “How about the Columbia grad?”

“I studied journalism at NYU and Columbia J-School,” Ruth said. “I don’t think he came up.”

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on

Core lessons

“Too narrow a focus,” The General returned to gaze over his troops. “A liberal arts education is valuable, but only if it puts you on the same footing as other educated men and women. But universities don’t offer a core curriculum any longer. Those Harvard Classics? A thing of the past. That’s one of the things tearing us apart these days. We have no social literacy, nothing in common.”

He looked back at Fred and Ruth. “But now we do. After dickering and debating for all these years — right and left, Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal — we’re finally united. We are at war. And most of you don’t know what it’s like.”

He gestured to Duquesne. “Don, here, served in Vietnam. He knows about being a warrior. How many others of you were in the services?”

A couple of hands went up. The General nodded. “Good. Thank you for that. But you knew a peacetime force. The rest of the people in this room never had that experience, good or bad. No commonality. No core curriculum, as it were. Nothing to bring you together. No cultural literacy.

“The last real war we had was when Don was in Vietnam, but even then it was a war fought by the military, not by the nation coming together. If anything, it tore us apart. Since then, war has been something we as civilians don’t like to think about. It’s done by those guys in uniforms we hire to do our dirty work. We don’t get involved.”


He held up a dog-eared volume with a faded, nondescript cover. “That brings me back to William James. Psychologist, philosopher, social critic–your kind of man, Ruth. Back around the turn of the century–the last century, that is–James called for ‘the moral equivalent of war’ to pull the country together in the absence of a real threat. He and others like him called for a universal national service that would teach cooperation, nationalism, civic pride, patriotism …”

“Sounds like fascism,” Ruth whispered to Fred.

“… and, while seeking to avoid war, would prepare us as a nation to deal with it when it inevitably came. Now, what do you suppose that movement was called? Anyone? How about Ms. NYU-Columbia?”

Ruth shot a do-you-think-he-heard-me look at Fred, who only smiled. “That sounds like conservatism to me,” she answered The General, loud enough for him to hear.

“Back to the history books, Ruth,” Generali answered. “It was called Progressivism. Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were from different political parties, but they were both Progressives. Progressives weren’t the lily-livered liberals of today, the Al Gores looking for a new label. They came from both parties and formed coalitions to address the problems of the time. They wanted to pull the country together to solve social problems through modern techniques–education, workplace reform, trust-busting. They wanted to avoid war, but knew in their hearts that nothing else can bring a nation together the same way.”

“The moral equivalent of war,” Fred said. “Didn’t Jimmy Carter call for that during the oil crisis?”

“Exactly,” Generali nodded. “But he had no idea how to make it work. None of them did, really. Oh, Teddy built the Panama Canal and both he and Wilson started the national park system, but neither project brought the nation together as one. All that left Wilson at a disadvantage at the start of World War I. Teddy’s cousin FDR learned from that lesson, though. Common projects like the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression helped us prepare ourselves mentally and morally to win World War II.”

The invisible enemy

He looked around the room again. “Now we’ve got three generations, going on four–all of you good folks, and your children–who have never had a come-together experience. Oh, you’ve been scared, with the Cold War. You’ve been angry, with Vietnam. But you’ve never had to help each other to fight a common enemy. Now you do, and we don’t even know who that enemy is, exactly. It doesn’t seem to be a nation. It doesn’t wear uniforms or fight with conventional weapons. Don knows the invisible enemy is the hardest to fight.”

Duquesne nodded. “You can’t defend against people who look like your friends and the folks you’re trying to protect.”

“That’s one of the lessons we learned from the last war,” The General concluded. “The other is to prepare for the next time. But you can only do that if you win, and the only way to win is if everyone is on the same side. That’s what our country has to do, and that’s what we have to do as a business. So we’re changing strategies. Now, here’s my plan…


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