"Whole in your duty of the moment"
Dag Hammarskjöld is compelling on the topic of duty because he never stopped questioning its meaning and probing his experience of it. There was no dry boundary around something called "duty". At times he viewed it analytically as a network of responsibilities and shared values linking the members of a team, however large. At other times he viewed it intimately, psychologically, as a willing persistence subject to pressures of many kinds. He spoke with himself in one way about it—nearly as a poet, certainly as a religious person; and spoke with others, notably UN colleagues, in a way somewhat cooler but no less felt. His own discipline was to pour himself into his activities as secretary-general: "one with your task, whole in your duty of the moment", he wrote in 1957 in his journal at a difficult time.
During a press conference in Stockholm, some five weeks after taking up his post as secretary-general in spring 1953, Dag Hammarskjöld found simple, touching words to describe his state of mind. His nomination and election had caught him by surprise—there had been no discussion beforehand:
A soldier may react when unexpectedly drafted. But once in the fight for what he finds to be essential values in this life of ours, he is just happy.
(Public Papers 2, 42)
Five years later, accepting election to a second term as secretary-general, he expressed thanks to the General Assembly through words that convey the same willingness, unchanged, although he now knows the duties and hazards of the office:
Nobody, I think, can accept the position of Secretary-General of the United Nations, knowing what it means, except from a sense of duty. Nobody, however, can serve in that capacity without a sense of gratitude for a task, as deeply rewarding as it is exacting, as perennially inspiring as, sometimes, it may seem discouraging.
(Public Papers 3, 663)
Hammarskjöld’s journal makes clear that as events moved on he had new insights about duty and the fulfillment of duty. The following three entries are of this kind: an insight, a self-reproof, a call. Not long ago, the first was cited among his watchwords by an American CEO.
Your position never gives you the right to command. It only imposes on you the duty of so living your life that others can receive your orders without being humiliated. (Markings, 105)
Only if your endeavors are inspired by a devotion to duty in which you forget yourself completely, can you keep your faith in their value. This being so, your endeavor to reach the goal should have taught you to rejoice when others reach it.
Do not look back. And do not dream about the future, either. It will neither give you back the past, nor satisfy your other daydreams. Your duty, your reward—your destiny—are here and now. (Markings, 157)
Hammarskjöld’s analyses of duty, though naturally focused on United Nations issues, can reach farther to suggest applications to today’s concerns. The following two are representative. His colorful notion of ‘explaining in all directions’ captures his endless concern to further negotiation, to sustain dialogue.
I do not conceive the role of the Secretary-General and the Secretariat as representing what has been called a ‘third line’ in the international debate. Nor is it for him to try and initiate ‘compromises’ that might encroach upon areas that should be exclusively within the sphere of responsibility of the respective national governments.
On the other side I see the duty of the Secretariat to form, in the first instance, a most complete and objective picture of the aims, motives, and difficulties of the Member Nations. Acting in that knowledge it is our duty to seek to anticipate situations that might lead to new conflicts or points of tension and to make appropriate suggestions to the governments before matters reach a stage of public controversy. (Public Papers 2, 93)
Is it not the duty of the Secretary-General, to all the extent that he can, and it is difficult sometimes, to be objective—not impartial, for that is a…rather sterile and neutral word. And being objective means necessarily to try and explain the viewpoints as well as one can and as deeply as you can understand them, and to explain them in all directions. (Public Papers 2, 483)
In the Congo crisis of 1960-61, the United Nations was torn apart along Cold War lines, and sound principle often conflicted with obvious fact. In his confidential communications with Rajeshwar Dayal, who led the UN peacekeeping and administrative effort in the Congo at a crucial phase, Hammarskjöld often weighed issues of duty and expediency:
We are in the middle of an extraordinarily complicated and indeed politically dangerous situation. I believe all we can do is to fall back on our right and duty to stand firmly on Charter principles as overriding all other considerations, even if this would lay us open to allegations of partisanship—perhaps even from both sides. (quoted in Dayal, Mission, 146)
This is Hammarskjöld, and so we should hear from him about war and peace and moral risk. The following few words could be inserted without change into today’s most important international conversations:
Only in true surrender to the interest of all can we reach that strength and independence, that unity of purpose, that equity of judgment which are necessary if we are to measure up to our duty to the future, as men of a generation to whom the chance was given to build in time a world of peace.
(Public Papers 2, New Year’s Message 1953, 209)
It is our duty to feel moral responsibility for a war in a remote part of the world as strongly as we would feel for a war in which we ourselves, or those dear to us, were directly threatened in a physical sense. (Public Papers 2, 256)