What’s Wrong with the World

The men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.


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Soldiers indeed.

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.

Comments (6)

I think your point about the feminization of the military is that it isn't just that they let the women in and that messed everything up osmotically from there on out. Rather, there's been a concerted effort to PC-ize the military, and this effort has required not just permission but active pushing from men in positions of authority. I think you're entirely right.

And here I think it's interesting to ask _why_ the men in positions of power do these kinds of things. Don't they care about morale, the military ethos, etc.? I'm beginning to think maybe those doing the pushing really don't and that they think of it as "all image." They want the military to have a certain image and to serve in a certain ideological niche, and that's it. In terms of my other post, they don't want things--in this case, soldiering--to be themselves and be true to themselves.

Some years ago I had a long argument with a former friend about women in the military. I loaned him, by mail, the book _Women in the Military: Flirting With Disaster_. About a year later, he and his wife visited us, and he brought the book back. He said he hadn't read it. I couldn't understand this, and I still don't. But I recall in one of our arguments his saying that all of the things I was bringing up--morale, preparedness, effectiveness, fungibility of troops, etc., etc.,--were irrelevant to the people (he didn't exactly consider himself one of them) pushing for the expanded role of women in the military. From their perspective, the whole question was one of careers. The military was just a source of jobs, life careers, and to them, women should be "in on it." What appalled me was that this didn't upset him _more_ than it did. He just reported it as a brute fact, with something of a shrug.

When I was a young student, a wise and brilliant philosophy professor told me something I didn't want to believe. He said privately in his office in a discussion between us about humanity, "Without discipline, most men are beasts."

I thought we were closer to angels then.

I've often wondered, like Paul Cella, how men find the courage to march into the fire of lethal missiles, whether javelins, arrows or bullets. I know I quake at the thought of it. Especially when I am at the gun range and think about having to charge against all the fire that is being poured out by firearms that aren't even automatic, nor are artillary cannons and barrage.

Yet, armies are well suited to a certain kind of man who can bear discipline while not minding the bestial part of himself finding an outlet.

I remember reading about some soldiers in the Pacific in WW2 who were especially suited to going out at night to cross the lines and butcher and mutilate the Japanese they found. Other soldiers marveled at their nonchalance. They took no more thought about killing a Jap than they would about killing a chicken for dinner. In fact, they took more pleasure in it because they absolutely hated the Jap.

There are war lovers, and no doubt, we need them on our side and if I had to fight, I'd want some of them in my platoon.

Otherwise, war is groups of men saying goodbye to life, taking a throw of the dice, not wanting to be thought a coward, or so inured to suffering, hardened by their despair that they've given up all hope of surviving.

Yes, there is love, comradship, loyalty but how far can that carry a man? A year or years?

Good to see you, Mark. Thanks for the comment.

Hey, Paul. I like the new site and your company here. Saying the hard, true things with intelligence and deliberation.

I've been giving a lot of thought to holiness these days and how the very concept or imagination for the holy has completely outside the Public Square now. Even in God talk and religious political discourse.

For example, we'll never hear a Guiliani or Mitt Romney talk about, even in passing, the holiness of marriage. The concept - holy matrimony - no longer carries any resonance for most people, including Christians, it seems.

I've done a lot of back and forth with other Christian and conservative film critics, and the idea of movies reflecting the holiness of life in its most obvious aspects like marriage, sex, raising children, and in giving profound thanks for being is met with scorn.

For most, art is now all about emotion and drama, and comedy can be as vulgar as it likes just so long as it makes you laugh, even if it's involuntarily (everyone giggles at a fart in the right awkward place).

I miss the holy being as aspect of everyday life that people can nod to in passing, even if it's Voltaire tipping his hat to Christ as one gentleman to another.

I miss the fact that when people look at pregnant women or a mother and infant, they don't automatically think of the Holy; or that innocence in children has a holiness we ought to respect instead of creating the next Sponge Bob Pokemon piece of garbage to park them in front of.

I miss the fact that you never hear anyone say anymore that "cleaniness is next to Godliness." The very idea of linking God to personal hygiene seems atavistic, out of place.

Anyway, I've been writing movie scripts and in a small way, trying to insert holiness in slight doses when no one is looking, and in ways that don't jar.

One of the incredible things about Shakespeare is just how infused some of his dialogue is with holiness being something that must be considered or is taken for granted.

that innocence in children has a holiness we ought to respect

Lydia, heads up: The source of that respect comes through the recognition that such innocence is not a goodness in itself.

The very idea of linking God to personal hygiene seems atavistic, out of place.

I've heard say that the Dutch kept their sidewalks scrubbed and washed well. The Calvinists understood that pulling weeds was keeping sin out.

Nowadays, contemporary Americans think linking God to hygiene is too conservative, too religious, too political. Let it be neutral: all people know hygiene is good for you. And if you're teaching about hygiene in school, for God's sake, mind your integrity and leave out the God talk. After all,
Hygiene is the true public morality and main pillar of government social policy.

KW, huh?

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