Walking around in any kind of military uniform was a risky proposition for a young man in the late 1960s. Whenever I sported my own Army uniform (I was in the Army National Guard at the time), I knew I was sure to attract critical commentary
from dozens of less than well-meaning citizens. I was never especially amused by these comments, but I was a big boy, and I was sure of my purpose. So I learned to shrug off most of it and take it all in stride—save once.
On this particular occasion, the insults leveled at both country and mother were of a character so utterly lacking in ordinary human sentiment or sympathy—as well as being entirely unprovoked
and cruel—that I could not bear them with my customary stoic reserve. I popped this long-haired coward on the nose with a
left-hook. Intuitively, I waited for his counterattack, knees shaking in both anticipation and residual anger. But the return punch
never came. Instead, the hippie dropped to his knees cupping a bleeding nose and then quickly scrambled away whimpering like a frightened dog.
It was then that I discovered an act of justice—though often
bothersome, disruptive, and unpleasant in its necessity—can feel good in the execution. I didn’t get a chance to experience this lesson on a grander scale, but I came to appreciate it nonetheless.
Even so, it is a far cry from President Reagan’s appreciation of the defenders of freedom at Pointe du Hoc.
But there are many ways to learn an appreciation for bravery.
Sometimes, we learn from our students or—more incredibly—from our own children.
Vicki and I—along with our daughter, Rebecca—went down
to Parris Island in June to watch our youngest, John Winston, graduate from Marine Corps Boot Camp. It was a striking display, fully in keeping with the Marines’ understanding of themselves as
one of the world’s greatest fighting units. There—before the gathered
masses of proud (and relieved) parents, friends and assorted relatives—was an assemblage of strong and alert young men and women. They were full of the vigor of youth in full bloom. Awakened ambition gave a glint to their eyes, and they stood erect in the height of their physical perfection. They marched in perfect
formations, and they marched as one—revealing no missteps but only conviction, self-confidence, and the spirit and soul of the
Corps. They knew they now merited the title Marine, and they were justly proud.
Isn’t it interesting how we remember that Patton stopped Rommel in North Africa, that Marlborough defeated the French at Blenheim, that Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo… but it was the Marines who won at Guadalcanal, Belleau Wood,
Iwo Jima, Chosin Reservoir, and Khe Sahn. It has been said that if the Marine Corps didn’t exist, someone would have to invent it. I am sure that it is true. For, in it we have a physical manifestation of the principle E Pluribus Unum—a coming together of many disparate
elements in order to create a force for good in this world.
The recognition of this kind of camaraderie and excellence—if not
uniquely American—is certainly perfectly American.
Sometimes I think we are too conscious of the many ways that human beings can be low, base, and foolish. It takes effort to remind ourselves that we are capable of great heights, great thoughts, great actions, and great virtue. We all know this on some level and, at our best, we act according to our soul’s demand for that excellence. But we have to test ourselves by doing hard things—things that are equal to the excellence we yearn to be near. This lesson is sometimes learned in the breach. That is, sometimes it is the grinding call to perform tasks that seem beneath our dignity—the petty and the mindless things that intrude in the course of one’s life—that awakens in us a sense there must be something more. It was so for John who—though earning A’s in all of his hardest classes while he was at AU for three semesters—managed to get an F in something called “Introduction to University Life.” I asked him
how he could do this since I knew that a first grader could pass this one credit class. He just said he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
It was a fine thing being at Parris Island. We got a sense of the pride and the excellence of the Corps, how much they value their own, and how deep is their love of country. The Colonels who
addressed the families spoke of the country’s need for the virtues of their sons and daughters, and of the Marines’ need for the country’s free and democratic heart. These were good and effective and, of course, entirely American speeches. They reminded us of the
warrior virtues necessary to secure the peace and defend the Constitution.
On the heels of these ceremonies, John came home for a ten-day visit. Every time he wore his uniform in public—whether it
was on the trip home as we stopped in restaurants and gas stations, or at the airport where we saw him off back to base—there were
dozens of people approaching him to thank him for his service. A baggage handler pulled us out of line and said, “I’d be honored to
take you first. I know what you men do; my youngest is also a warrior.” He refused a large tip. Vicki wept (more than once) when other women would look at her, knowingly, and thank her for bringing up a Marine. One said, “He does the hard work so my children can play. I just wanted you to know that I know this, and I am grateful.”
In case you haven’t noticed, this is not the 1960s.
Peter W. Schramm is the Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center and a professor of political science at Ashland University.