We remember today those who died for our country. Here is the proclamation establishing Memorial Day (reprinted in the Washington Times).
In past Memorial Days we have noted on Inkwell the tendency to regard members of our military today as victims, a phenomenon captured so well in a post by D. G. Myers on the Commentary blog:
American culture has become a victim culture, more comfortable with commemorating slaughter than heroism.
Myers traces the shift by comparing the martial spirit of Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” published in 1927, to the anti-Americanism of anti-war poet Robert Lowell’s “Ode to the Union Dead,” which Lowell read aloud at a Boston arts festival in 1960. Neither Myers nor I am talking about the Civil War but only about the sprit of two poems and how they reflect on valor: Tate’s is stern and elegiac-we bow our heads in “commemorial woe,” while Lowell focuses on the state of race relations in the United States a century after that great conflict. One is heroic, one is not-though both poems have heroic subjects (Lowell was writing about the famous 54the Massachusetts Infantry, a black unit led by Robert Gould Shaw and in which two of Frederick Douglass’s sons served).
Reflecting upon a memorial to the regiment that led a bloody assault upon Battery Wagner, Lowell is angered by the state of race relations in America a century later; “the terrible injustice, in the past and the present, of the American treatment of the Negro is the greatest urgency to me as a man and as a writer,” he explained afterwards.
God knows that America’s treatment of its black citizens ought to stick in the throat of more than just Boston. The novelist Walker Percy once called it America’s original sin. But perhaps not every day on the American calendar should be victims’ day. Perhaps not today at least. Colonel Shaw and the soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts were not victims, even if-as Lowell is careful to note-“Two months after marching through Boston,/ half the regiment was dead.” The men were heroes, and deserve to be remembered as heroes.
Lowell’s poem expresses an ignoble sentiment. But you see in his poem the kernel of another troubling belief, one that is, I think, at the heart of the way many look at American military might: We are not worthy of acting militarily to preserve this flawed society. These men and women whom we remember day gave their lives for an inhustice-riddled society. This is an extremely dangerous view that leaves our freedom and our allies unprotected.
This means that America doesn’t lead but follows-instead of upholding the glorious values that philosophers began to develop on a high hill in Athens, we send men into battle for some vague notion of “international” values. What about our values? War in this view is transformed from saving our values to humanitarian intervention. President Obama did have some nice words for our values on his recent trip to England. It came after making nice with Islamic values which, for all their beauty and value, have not been a beacon of freedom in the world in recent years. Does the president know the price of our values? Charles Moore reflects on President Obama’s recent trip to England:
This week, in Westminster Hall, Mr Obama spoke at the ancient heart of the imperialism which he eschews. Eloquently and generously, he explained how the rule of law had been developed “in this very hall”. He touched on all those subjects of British history – Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, Adam Smith, Winston Churchill – about which, nowadays, Americans know more than we do. Our alliance, he said, derives from sharing values even more than sharing interests.
This was all nicely said, and by no means untrue. But, as I listened, I found myself asking that basic “Who’s winning?” question. Is Mr Obama a brilliant example of Anglo-American civilisation’s ability to reinvent itself, or is he a figure of its silver age, providing a poetic commentary on its decline?
In order to answer this question, one needs to know who, in his view, is winning. In the course of his speech to parliamentarians, the President sidled up to this problem. India, China and Brazil, he said, were “growing by leaps and bounds”.
But this did not mean that Europe and America were in decline: “…even as more nations take on the responsibility of global leadership, our alliance will remain indispensable to the goal of a century that is more peaceful, more prosperous and more just”. It’s a win-win situation! The non-European world gets richer and freer by embracing Western values, and the West no longer has to be nasty to anyone.
This is an attractive vision. But if America and Britain export only values and leave the dirtier stuff to others, what happens if the rising powers decide that, now they’ve got the guns and the money, they don’t need our values? China devotes its international energies not to human rights (which it detests), but to grabbing raw materials and securing trade routes. African dictators love China, because it sets no ethical conditions on its dealings with them. While the British and Americans die in Afghanistan, the Chinese enrich themselves and President Karzai’s associates by extracting copper there. They are also very popular in Pakistan, helping to run its ports and strengthen it against India.
There is something about President Obama’s exclusive reliance on the most idealistic bits of Western civilisation which reminds me of Harold Macmillan’s idea that Britain should be Athens to America’s Rome. It contains within itself an admission of defeat. And it leaves out the most difficult bits.
The men and women whom we celebrate today know about the difficult bits. Their heroism colored and uplifted a civilization-and, by the way, they preserved that civilization.