The Great Idea of Texas

Last weekend I was honored to spend some time with the Texas Rangers (lawmen not ballplayers) at their annual foundation meeting in Waco. I recounted a story of when I was a boy growing up in France. In 1960, my father, an Air Force Colonel, was transferred to Fontainebleau as part of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE). Overseas we had no television, so I grew up reading comic books. The French bookstores carried Superman, Tin-Tin (a French character) and the Lone Ranger. To me, as a boy far away from home, the Lone Ranger represented everything that was good and noble about being an American.

Some people don’t realize that the Lone Ranger was, in fact, a Texas Ranger. He was “Lone,” not because he enjoyed working by himself, but because he was the sole survivor of a group of six Rangers who were ambushed by the dastardly Cavendish gang.

The Lone Ranger taught me and millions of other kids around the world that it’s not enough to be strong, brave, or a straight shot. That being willing to fight – and perhaps die – isn’t enough. That you need a moral code, a set of principles worth fighting – and perhaps dying – for.

Among other things, the Lone Ranger believed that to have a friend, you have to be a friend. He held that all men are created equal, and everyone has within them the power to make this a better world. He believed that God supplied the firewood, but it’s up to us to gather it up and light it. And sooner or later – somewhere, somehow – we all must settle with the world and make payment for what we have taken.

Finally, the Lone Ranger believed that all things change but truth – and truth alone lives on forever.

The masked man from Texas was a pretty good comic book hero to grow up with. And when one day Dad (my real life hero) told us we were moving to San Antonio, Texas, I couldn’t have been happier. I already knew that Texas was a special place to be.

In over fifty years, nothing has changed that belief. 

My military career took me all over the world. And wherever I went, the people I met – from the youngest Afghan girl to the oldest African villager – shared a common view of Texas and Texans. Texans, they understood, are men and women of character and integrity. Strong-willed, independent, bold, risk-takers who sit tall in the saddle, help the weak and downtrodden, get up when they were knocked down, and never complain about their struggles. 

To them, to millions like them, and to me, Texas was more than a place. It was an idea.

There is an old quote from the earliest of Ranger Commanders. When asked about the Ranger ethos he said, “They did right because it was right.”

That quote should be seared into the heart of every lawmaker, doctor, teacher, soldier, student – every citizen of this great nation.

Doing the right thing because it is the right thing is a Texas tradition.

For 37 years as a Navy SEAL, I did my best to carry that tradition, that idea of Texas with me every step of the way. I wasn’t alone. Wherever I went – and I went almost everywhere – I met bold, proud Texans.

In 2009, I was visiting Wardak Province – a desolate area surrounded by mountains, one of the roughest neighborhoods in Afghanistan. As I stepped off my helicopter, a convoy of Humvees pulled out from behind a tree line. Much to my surprise, they were flying both the stars and stripes and the Texas Flag. Not only that, the Humvees were adorned with actual longhorns – where they got them, I have no idea – as well as stickers from UT, A&M, TCU, and Baylor. Instead of Kevlar helmets, these soldiers wore Stetsons. 

Because anyone can wear a helmet, but only a Texan can wear a cowboy hat in combat.

Turns out, the outpost I was visiting was run by soldiers from Texas. And spending the day with them, I learned that these Texans had managed to both subdue the enemy and earn the respect of the locals. I visited with the village elders and they spoke of the soldiers as Texans, as cowboys and, no kidding, as Lone Rangers.
I believe that the character, the spirit, the very idea of Texas is more important than ever. The nation and the world need women and men of moral courage, who stand up to bullies, step up to challenges, and do right because it is right.

To me, that’s what it means to be a Texan. But I hasten to add you don’t have to be from Texas to embody these qualities. To my mind, you can be a “Texan” without ever setting foot in the Lone Star State.

When I see young girls in Afghanistan standing up to the Taliban so they can get an education and build a better future for their country, I see Texas. 

When I see three men on a Portland train, rushing to the aid of young girls they’ve never met – an act of heroism costing two of them their lives – I see Texas. 

When I see the people of London, and Manchester in the United Kingdom standing up for themselves and for each other, carrying on with equal parts grit and grace in the wake of the recent terror attacks, I see Texas.

When I see the men and women in the military, from all 50 states, swearing an oath to the Constitution and putting their lives on the line every day, I see Texas.

Finally, when I see young women and men pouring into our academic and health institutions, determined to make a positive difference in the world, I see the future of Texas – the state and the idea.

Because of all the great Texans who came before us, the qualities I’ve associated with Texas since I was a little boy have endured, generation after generation. But while they are in a sense the birthright of every Texan, they are not set in stone. 

Ultimately, Texas will stand for whatever Texans stand for. 

In fifty or one hundred years, what will people think of, when they think of Texas? Will they remember, “that all things change but the truth?” Will they always do the right thing, “because it was right?”

That’s up to us; all of us who call ourselves Texans.

Thank you, as always, for reading. I’ll write again soon.