Update: Doc’s comment reminds me of the example of (link gone since Smash went dark) Lieutenant Commander (sel) Kylan Jones-Huffman, USN, killed in Al Hillah in 2003. Rest in peace, shipmate.
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I just noticed that Thieves of Baghdad is on sale at Amazon. It’s a book I’ve consulted more than once; it’s the story of the right man at the right time, one hell of a read, and it resonates with me. Here’s a long quote from COL Matthew Bogdanos’ excellent book:
Confronted with serious threats to civilization–whether cultural theft or terrorism–how do we respond? Do we come back at it with the reasoned and compassionate consensus of the whole-foods collective or with the mindless savagery of the lynch mob? Ideally, neither. Instead, we must come at the homicidal rage of the one and the senseless disregard of history of the other with hard steel, informed strategies, and a rock-solid code of acceptable behavior for ourselves. Yet today’s cultural bifurcation tries to force us to choose only one or the other–the inert idealist or the mindless brute.
Historically, the life of action and the life of the mind (or artistic sensibility) have always been two halves of a single whole. Today, when we conjure up the classical Greek ideals, we think of philosophy and art, but even in their greatest contribution to aesthetics, Greek society was all about agon–competition. Each year in Athens, the presentation of new plays was such a competition, with Aeschylus, Spohocles, and other vying for the prize in playwriting. But agon does not mean hostility. In most every boxing match since the ancient Olympics, you’ll see the guys hug each other after the last round.
Consider Aeschylus–the first and in many respects greatest of Greek tragedians–famous today for his masterpiece, the Orestia trilogy. That is not, however, how he saw himself. The inscription he wrote for his own gravestone mentioned not his theatrical renown, but what mattered most to him. “This gravestone covers Aeschylus…The field of Marathon will speak of his bravery, and so will the long-haired Mede [Persian] who learned it well.” In his eyes, he was a warrior first. Sophocles was elected one of Athens’s ten generals. Xenophon led ten thousand Greeks on an epic march out of Persia and then wrote an equally epic masterpiece describing their Anabasis. Socrates, the father of modern thought, fought with conspicuous bravery at Delium, Amphipolis, and at Potidaea. He also worked from time to time as a stonecutter, reminding us that a little blue-collar experience can be an instructive counterweight in a life spent with books.
As recently as the nineteenth century, General Sir William Butler, knighted for bravery, published author, and accomplished painter, said a “nation that will insist on drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking done by cowards.” Lord Byron, “rock star” Romantic poet, died while fighting for Greek liberty against the Turks. Winston Churchill, a product of the Royal Military Academy, fought hand to hand against the dervishes of the Nile, was a hero of the Boer War, served as first lord of the Admiralty, won the Nobel Prize in literature, was not a bad painter, and will be remembered as perhaps the greatest statesman of the modern era.
Nor is this a feature of Western civilization only. Under Bushido, the code of the warrior, a samurai was expected to excel as much in poetry and calligraphy as in his swordsmanship. A revered seventeenth-century samurai text held that to focus on only the martial arts is to be a “samurai of little worth.” Indeed, the most treasured mode of artistic expression for the samurai–valued for its serenity and simplicity–was the Cha-no-yu, the tea ceremony.
But the mechanization in World War I turned the warrior into a lamb for the slaughter, and it turned officers into bureaucrats. The draft and consequent democratization meant dilution, and the profession of arms ceased to be a profession. After Vietnam, recruiters were kicked off campuses, and except in the American South, the military, and alongside it the military code of honor, dropped in social cachet to about the level of chewing tobacco. And the idea of a promising person going off for a stint in the service became only slightly more common than going West to become a cattle drover. All of this contributed to the “culture war” that has left us with red staters and blue staters, yelling at each other on TV, unable to find common ground or arrive at sensible policies.
The fact that honor is a word now rarely used without irony costs us in other ways as well. To be an “idealist” is to be considered something of a flake. So what we’re left with is the idealization of wealth and comfort, justified by Calvinist piety. It is worth remembering that when Socrates was condemned to death, it was for the crime of impiety, or as Voltaire put it, of being “the atheist who says there is only one God.” A couple of thousand years later, another Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis, said, “In religions that have lost their creative spark, the gods eventually become nothing more than poetic motifs or ornaments for decorating human solitude and walls.”
And the warrior’s code has decayed along with those gods. There are things worth defending other than self, but the idea of the warrior as that defender has become another antiquated concept. And so the warrior must exist in parallel with the everyday world, John Keegan tells us, but is not of this world, and always follows at a distance. The warrior’s ideals, like the warriors themselves, are forced ever farther to the margins of society.”
There is more of this, and it’s wonderful stuff. Most of the book, however, is a “there I was” story that’s a ripping yarn.
By the way, the Butler quote is pretty interesting (from this symposium lecture led by this Army guy I heard about later on):
Indeed, there are countless admonitions about the value of soldiers also being
scholars. The most famous, perhaps, was British General Sir William Butler’s remark in 1889,”The nation that insists on drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man,” he wrote, “is liable to find its fighting done by fools, and its thinking done by cowards.” That caution is familiar to all of us; however, of relevance to us today is the context in which Butler offered it, and which I didn’t know, in fact, until preparing for this presentation. Butler’s admonition was, in fact, offered in a biography of Charles Gordon, while writing about the need for a military commander to be prepared to lead civil reconstruction after a battlefield victory.
What they said.