At the Battle of Gaines’ Mill, in late June of 1862, John B. Hood’s Texas Brigade delivered a ferocious blow against a strong Federal line that provoked from Stonewall Jackson this elegiac tribute, when he came to behold the carnage it required of the victors: “The men who carried this position were soldiers indeed.”
They were soldiers indeed because these men marched across a swamp under savage fire with their weapons unreadied. Their casualties were staggering, yet they never staggered; and the force of their boldness, when finally combined with a great volley of musketry at short range, broke the Union line. It was General Lee’s first victory. They were to distinguish themselves again in battle, many times, not the least of which was the charge they made on the second day at Gettysburg against the Federal far left, down in the Round Tops and the aptly-named Devil’s Den — a charge that, in the end, could not hold the ground gained, but earned its way into memory by way of the courage it demanded of these men.
What is it in men that gives them the power to accomplish such deeds? What is it that grants them the capacity to march calmly across a field of hot flying lead, while their comrades fall with shrieks of agony on either side?
It is one of the things that, despite all the terrors of war, forbids us to condemn it utterly. It is the high noble virtue called in the older parlance fortitude. It is courage.
Among recent films — and I daresay film is the best medium for depicting raw fortitude — the final episode of The Lord of the Rings delivers an unforgettable depiction. Arriving near the gates of the White City, and in rear of the great host of Mordor’s Orc army, the Riders of Rohan, the Rohirrim, make their Ride. Horns sound to announce their arrival, the enemy turns in some disarray to receive their charge, and streaks of sunshine gleam over their shoulders. The king’s words are minimal: he does not really need to inspire these cavalry-men, for they know well what awaits them.
“Arise! Arise! Riders of Théoden! Spears shall be shaken, shields shall be splintered! A sword-day! A red day, ere the sun rises!”
As the charge begins, the men chant Death! They do not fear it, and many of them will meet it here today. This gallantry is felt — profoundly felt, I thought, for the scene is masterfully rendered — and the viewer is again taught that valuable lesson, which if he was lucky he learned long ago, that not everything in war need be wicked and black.
We do not, as a rule, teach military history in this country. We teach that wars happened, that they were terrible, what they accomplished, or failed to accomplish, or inflicted; but we really do not teach how they were fought, or who fought them and why. This fact probably goes a long way to explaining why our young men are so historically ignorant. The one sort of history that will reliably move boys to that excitement with learning which is alone capable of inspiring them, has been removed from our curricula.
Meanwhile, in the public media, our soldiers in the field have become mere types in the Liberal caricature of Victimization. They are characters in a hackneyed drama. The stories we tell of them all, or at any rate most of the stories, ring with despondency and helplessness; or with mere stale partisanship. In film the trend is almost worse: American soldiers are regularly portrayed as madmen, dupes, degenerates, or heartless criminals. And alongside this spiritual degradation, we strive ever more eagerly to turn our military institutions into playgrounds for social experiments. The educational neglect makes the fighting man incomprehensible; the rendering of him through the ideological lens of victim makes him contemptible; and the social innovation imposed on his tradition undermines his virtue.
There are, in every society, men who actually like the job of fighting and will excel at no other. War must be recognized as their vocation. This is a fact. Judge it how you like, it must acknowledged. It is one of those most ancient of political problems that such men cannot be destroyed, transformed, or ignored for long; but they may be disciplined into useful and honorable service; and it is a measure of the character of that society how well this is done. For the pitfalls are countless, usually reducing to an alternative of either (a) effective military power and systematic cruelty, or (b) feebleness and foreign subjugation. Fortitude is exalted, and the other virtues are abolished; or fortitude is abolished, and the others rendered impossible. But fortitude can be harnessed. We might almost say it can be baptized. There have been soldier-saints.
It is a joy to learn how successfully Americans have avoided the many pitfalls of this martial instinct in men. We have not come close to perfection — nay, far from it — but we have for the most part avoided calamity; and we are excelled by almost no other society. What a glory of our tradition that our fighting men have been so honorable in victory and defeat! The tragedy of the Civil War, for example, was in the wickedness that made it unavoidable, not in the wickedness with which it was conducted; for by and large it was conducted justly and even magnanimously. There was honor in abundance, on both sides. Of how many other civil wars can the same be said?
This noble American achievement is being steadily undermined. The sappers have been at their grim work for some time now. That our military has endured as long as it has, is a testament to the tradition upon which it stands, and to the men it has trained up to continue that tradition. But it is the meanest of follies to assume that what is precious is also indestructible.
It is tempting argue, at this point in a sketch like this, that the problem is the Feminization of the military. But this is too facile. The failure here lies primarily with men: men who allow their sons to be treated like girls; men who fail to honor women, and thereby teach no honor in their descendents; men who will send their wives and sisters to war to satisfy their itch for abstract equality. I would like to ask those who have made their peace with women in combat (which is our de facto policy today, considering the absence of any true “front line”) if they really think the history of human warfare is conspicuous for its respect for women. Think hard on that. That it is conspicuous for rather the opposite should give some indication of how profound our achievement is: the fruit of the long, pain-staking, patient, to be sure imperfect, but noble work of our ancestors stretching back over centuries upon centuries. The honor code that made the American fighting man one of the few exceptions from the rule of pillage and rapine as a concomitant of war, is the same code that stands in implacable opposition to abstract gender equality. Erode it with incessant innovations and you may unshackle a monster.
In the event of such a catastrophe as the final loss of the Western code of jus in bello, will there be any accounting for the innovators whose ministrations robbed our fighting men of their virtue? Doubtful — for there is none for the innovators who, for instance, robbed our inner cities of the precarious but real order once achieved and enforced, now lost, perhaps forever; or for those who emancipated pornography and now wail and gnash their teeth at its rotten fruit at, i. e., Abu Ghraib.
Our armed forces still produce Stonewall’s “soldiers indeed.” My friend Jeff Emanuel has documented some, and there are many, many more. But it is to be doubted how long this will remain true if we cannot muster a fortitude of our own sufficient to stop and reverse the depredations inflicted on our martial tradition.