It is not a few deaths roving the world around him that make a hnau miserable. It is the bent hnau that would blacken the world. C. S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet
We have been slow to accept the fact that a great democracy cannot fight a war opposed by the class that controls the public rhetoric. This class, the editorial writers, movie-makers, and television producers oppose not only the present war but all wars, and that on principle. Their principle is not simple pacifism, nor is it doubts as to the justice of any modern, technologically enabled, ideologically inspired war such as one might find among thoughtful Christians.
One of the deepest fault lines in our civilization separates those who believe in standing up to evil, both in ourselves and in the world, and those who believe that evil is nothing more than a failure in communication to be solved by dialogue. The keepers of the pubic rhetoric tend to the latter. They believe this not so much from a deep commitment to pacifism as from a kind of psychological utilitarianism that is partly personal as well as robustly theoretical. The public culture of the mind is largely represented by word-happy secular progressives who write, report, do theater, and make movies. Typically these were not the boys who put their bodies on the line on the playing fields of Eton or anywhere else, but those more at home with words, happy organizing debates, publishing the school paper, and producing the school play. Often those who inhabit a world of words will have little sympathy for those who heed the call of battle on Friday afternoon. This bifurcation is, of course, not universal, but it is typically twentieth-century American; the Greeks thought real men wrote as well as fought. Not so, at least not characteristically, in our civilization.
But ironically, later, boys good with words will turn into men with the power to represent and persuade. Thus the rhetoric of the civilization will fall into the hands of a class of persons many of whom believe on experiential grounds that courage, standing up to things, is seldom successful; they after all have become powerful with words.
Why did the Duke faculty so quickly condemn the lacrosse team? Because the members of the lacrosse team were just the kind of people known to enjoy contests and even conflict, quite capable of brutalizing the powerless. It is not an unjust appeal to arms, but any appeal to resolution by the courage of the field that the wordsmiths consider misguided.
And the commonplaces of modernity have provided a theoretical basis for their conclusions. If mankind is good, only corrupted by laws and traditions, then firmness, conviction to the point of sacrifice, reason-governed aggression, even on behalf of truth, is always a problem, never a solution. The only solution is better understanding, for conflict is always a failure of sympathy, insight, and dialogue. Humans are only violent as a response to injustice; understand, remove the injustice, and peace will prevail.
With the national rhetoric in the hands of media persons possessed unshakably of these ideas, it is impossible that the United States will have what can properly be called a victory in Mesopotamia or anywhere else. For the keepers of our public rhetoric the war was misguided from day one, not principally because it was the wrong war but because it was war, and those who participate in it are not heroes but either victims or villains, either innocent boys unnecessarily sent into battle by callous, power-hungry seniors or raging killers.
We are now thoroughly imbued with that point of Hegelian philosophy which teaches that things unsuccessful must have been wrong. This idea, that victory and success are self-justifying, is the darkest side of the dark proposition that whatever is, is right, which really means: whatever can be effected is right. If Napoleon were a creature of the twenty-first century, instead of being imprisoned on St. Helena by the victorious English he might have been tried by a French court for leading the French armies into a disastrous war with Russia. Instead of being buried as the glory of France beneath the dome of Les Invalides, his bones might have been flung over the cemetery wall. If Leonidas were our contemporary, he might have gained, instead of a monument at Thermopylae, obloquy for leading the best of the Spartans to defeat and death. This must be if valor in the service of right does not matter, only success.
And underneath the relegation of valor to the cellars of historical imagination is a new understanding of the death of the valorous. The Greeks were notoriously obtuse about exactly what happened to the ordinary man after death, but they knew that soldiers were welcomed into the Elysian Fields and made honoring their memory a civic duty. Simonides spoke for every Greek: “Glorious is the fortune, noble the end.…Bear witness, Leonidas, the Spartan King who leaves behind him a great crown of valor, and undying renown.” For Romans the way to the stars was courage in battle. In the Middle Ages the knight was bound for life with God because, willingly, he would lay down his life for a friend.
“It is sweet and right to give one’s life for one’s country” was written by a race that knew two things. Bitter, bitter it may be, but those who had thus given their lives, if they did so for justice, have also fulfilled them in a way that those who live to old age may not achieve. They also knew that God welcomed good soldiers to a greater life.
On the eve of D-Day in 1944 President Roosevelt led the nation in a prayer that included these words of supplication for the brave men who would die on the Normandy beaches: “Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy Heroic Servants, into Thy Kingdom.”
Perhaps this world is gone forever but we ought not let ourselves believe that when courage in battle is rendered impossible, whether by psychology, technology, or other circumstances, any other kind of courage will long survive.