As we move into the Thanksgiving weekend, I hope that we’ll all spare a few moments to think of the men (and they were mostly men) who fought to create this country. Heroism is out of fashion today. But a country can’t last long without heroes.

Elizabeth Kantor’s splendid new book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature has a terrific disquisition on our pathetic modern notions about heroism as compared with those of our forebears. This crops up in Elizabeth’s discussion of the Battle of Maldon, when the ancestors of the English nation fought all the hardier, and their courage was all the keener, because their physical strength was failing:

“It’s instructive to put the twenty-first century intellectual’s attitude toward the hero side by side with the attitude of his heroic-age counterpart.

“After the September 11 attack on America, Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman turned down a $3.6 million contract and trained as an Army Ranger – finding anew use for the extraordinary combination of intelligence and determination that had made him such a remarkable football player. On May 22, 2004, serving in Afghanistan with the Rangers, he was killed by friendly fire.

“Five months later, John Jota Leanos, assistant professor of Chicana and Chicano studies at Arizona State University (where Tillman had played college football) –and self-styled ?Xicana@public artist, performance artist, and cultural worker — distributed posters calling Pat Tillman?s heroism into question.

“Leanos suggested that while Tillman was a hero ‘to many of you,’ his death was more a shame than an achievement. ‘FRIENDLY FIRE’ screams the headline across the top of the poster. Next to Tillman’s picture, Leanos, speaking as if in Tillman’s own voice, complains,

               My death was tragic,
            My glory was short-lived
               Flawed perceptions
                     Of myself
                     My country
               The War on Terror
            Resulted in the disastrous
                     End to my life.

“In the last decade of the tenth century, Vikings sailed ninety-three ships to England and ravaged the Essex coast. At Maldon the earl Bryhtnoth and his men opposed their landing, Bryhtnoth was slain, and the Vikings won the day. The Battle of Maldon, written soon after this disaster, celebrates the heroism of the English in their defeat.

“The unknown author of this poem could, like John Leanos, be described as a kind of ‘public artist, performance artist and cultural worker,’ the public intellectual of his day. Also, like John Leanos, he believed that at least some of the deaths he memorialized were unnecessary: the results of mischance, of the cowardice of fellow soldiers, and even of a disastrous mistake arising from a flaw in the character of the English commander.”

The Battle of Maldon was a rout, but, with the earl dead, Kantor, soldiers “true to the end    
Shout out to each other to remember the vows they made to their lord, and to keep them. They know now that their only choice is disgrace or death.”

Disgrace or death? These are words calling from another day, not the day of John Leanos and his ilk, who mock the ideal of courage in battle or loyalty to a nation. They regard soldiers as uncritical cannon fodder, unless they turn against the war and go on TV to denounce U.S. foreign policy. Disloyalty, in other words, is the way to win friends among today’s public intellectuals.

Here is Kantor’s reply to this sorry worldview:

“Anglo-Saxon loyalty and heroism by no means depended upon uncritical enthusiasm for leaders, a la the Hitler Youth. As a matter of fact, the King of England at the time of the Battle of Maldon, the man Bryhtnoth refers to as his own lord, was a man known to later generations of schoolboys as ‘Ethelred the Unready,’ a rough translation of Aethelraed Unraed: Ethelred the Badly Advised, or Ethelred the Poorly Judging. This unflattering nickname is evidence that the English of a millennium ago were not blind to their rulers’ flaws. And, the Maldon poet places the blame for defeat squarely on the shoulders of Earl Bryhtnoth.

“But it doesn’t occur to the poet that the catastrophic mistake of the earl (any more than the poor judgment of the king, or the cowardly betrayal of Godric, or the ultimate futility of the English defense) diminishes the warriors’ heroism. Quite the opposite. Their deaths, their defeat, and even their betrayal by some of their companions (and in another sense by the pride of their own lord), make their loyalty and their courage more powerful. That’s not because the Old English poetry celebrates the unthinking obedience that our intellectuals associate with traditional loyalties (but that really has its home in modern totalitarian movements, including Marxism). And it’s not because the ‘death-haunted’ Anglo-Saxons had some kind of sick, ‘Goth’-style fascination with death and disaster. It?s simply because the hardest conditions are the ones in which the hero’s mettle is truly tested.”

Could our society, as it is today, brave the wilderness and create a country? Alas, I am not sure we could.