TO DIE FOR
“The state of peace among men living side by side is not the natural state; the natural state is one of war,” wrote Immanuel Kant in Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch (1795). “This does not always mean open hostilities, but at least an unceasing threat of war.” Indeed, war is the natural state of man, and the history of the world is written in blood. In Leviathan (1651), the philosopher Thomas Hobbes evoked the biblical Ishmael when he spoke of the “war of every man against every man,” and a glance at Genesis 16:12 provides the archetype: “And he will be a wild man; his hand “will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.”
To observe that war is crucial to civilizational advancement is also to observe the following: that human beings have a larger purpose than simply living out their threescore and ten. That men are born to father children and defend them and their women against other men who would kill them or otherwise take advantage of them.1 That men understand that their enemy—on both the individual and sexual level—is other men, rarely women. That men are not in competition with women but with other men. That the measure of a real man is not how much money he makes (although that is one metric, to use current jargon) but what he has done in his life: how far he has sailed, how well he has loved, how he has raised his children, and how much, or little, they love him. What he has contributed to the historical record, what he has left in the way of posterity, and for posterity; his mark, whether it be empire or a simple X.
In other words, war is not only in our blood, it is our familial birthright and burden. Wish it away though we might, it is the inevitable result of the frictions among human beings and their political extensions, kingdoms, nations, and nation-states. No matter how we may pretend it doesn’t exist, erase the memory of our martial past, attempt to eradicate it, or deny its existence altogether, war—or its existential threat—is always with us, and will be until the day mankind vanishes.
It is fashionable today to regard war as the exception and peace the rule, but a simple glance at an unexpurgated and unbowdlerized history of the world—ancient or modern—quickly shows the essential nature of bellicosity and its importance to the survival of and, ofttimes, the advancement of the human species. War, or the specter thereof, is the principal means of scientific advancement, of territorial expansion, and of the defense of those personal, social, and political elements a society holds dear.
Every age, it seems, yearns for peace but—heeding the old Roman maxim, Si vis pacem, para bellum—prepares for war. This is no less true today than it was in the time of Vegetius in his famous tract, De re militari from the fourth or mid-fifth century A.D. The history of the West, from the end of the Roman Empire to the present day, attests to the truth of the observation. Just when we think that the great geopolitical issues of the day have been settled by force of arms, along comes Clio, the Muse of History, to remind us otherwise:
England has now been blest with thirty-seven years of peace. At no other period of her history can a similarly long cessation from a state of warfare be found. It is true that our troops have had battles to fight during this interval for the protection and extension of our Indian possessions and our colonies; but these have been with distant and unimportant enemies.… There has, indeed, throughout this long period, been no great war, like those with which the previous history of modern Europe abounds.… It would be far too much to augur from this, that no similar wars will again convulse the world; but the value of the period of peace which Europe has gained, is incalculable; even if we look on it as only a truce, and expect again to see the nations of the earth recur to what some philosophers have termed man’s natural state of warfare.
—Edward Shepherd Creasy, The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: From Marathon to Waterloo (1851)
Thus the view from mid-nineteenth century England, with the corpse of the Little Corporal safely entombed, breathing well-deserved lungfuls of fresh air devoid of gunpowder and the stench of rotting flesh and emptied entrails after the tumult of the Napoleonic Wars. And yet the preambulatory conflict of the Franco-Prussian War was only two decades in the future, and the unimaginable horrors of the First World War were already stirring in the souls of the artists, writers, and composers who could sense the slouching advent of the murderous beast but were powerless to stop it. As it turned out, the Treaty of Paris in 1815 was simply a caesura, the briefest pause in the historical record, before the harvest of death continued anew. Nothing, it seems, can stop the Kantian categorical imperative.
Because war’s price is too terrible to contemplate rationally, diplomacy has emerged over the centuries as a preferable alternative to physical conflict, and yet when diplomacy fails, war nonetheless breaks out. (The reverse is almost never true—except when the side that is about to lose begs for terms, almost always refused.) And then, men whose fallen fathers are still freshly in their graves, their widows still in weeds, their children barely out of knee pants, once more present arms and take to the battlefields, confident that their sons will willingly follow them into the smoke and haze and dust of death.
Why? Few are overtly in favor of war, and yet it has been a part of the human condition as long as there have been men to fight it. Indeed, some men thrive on it, and some require it in order to realize their passions and destinies. In American history alone, Washington was elevated by it; Grant was relieved from alcoholism and obscurity by it; Patton was transfigured by it and, when it ended, disappeared along with it. Some of history’s greatest figures saw it as an opportunity, but more often others regarded it as a sacred duty, a moral obligation. The proper use and management of armed might is one of the themes of Machiavelli’s The Prince: “Where there are good arms there must be good laws … whoever has good arms will always have good friends.”2
How retrograde, how antique to our modern ears this all sounds. And yet it is quintessentially male, the inherited patrimony of one of the two sexes, and the most fundamental defense mechanism against the loss of home and hearth and, most important, progeny. For war is at root a masculine engagement, undertaken on behalf of females and children—in large measure to win and protect the former and to ensure the survival of the latter—a truth not lately much told or acknowledged. Children, once the future of a society, are now seen, in the right-thinking quarters of the postindustrial and sumptuously feminized West, as a burden both economic and social; women are regarded by some as fully capable of holding their own in any contests with men, whether mental, emotional, or physical, without any distinction or allowances; and as for men, well, the sooner they disappear into the dustbin of history, the better. After all, as the antiwar slogans of the 1960s put it, “War is unhealthy for children and other living things.” And who, historically, has fought—started, won, lost, or finished—wars?
We tend these days to think of war—when we think of it at all, so remote has it become—in near-bloodless terms, a luxury we ought no longer to afford. It has become an embarrassing relic of our past, something at once uncivilized and unnecessary. Although the United States has been engaged in a near-continuous series of wars, large and small, since the First World War, and has been embroiled in European and international affairs for even longer, war—with the notable exceptions of the Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War of 1861–65—has largely avoided these shores. And that last war was the bloodiest in our national history, a cataclysm so powerful that its social and political effects are still being felt today.
It is, however, a war we honor. It was a war to save the Union and free the slaves, a war that pitted brother against brother, father against son, fought in essence in the short distance between Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Virginia, a war that cost more than 600,000 lives in a country numbering at the time only 31 million souls. It was a war—“a great civil war,” in Lincoln’s famous formulation in his Gettysburg Address—worth fighting and winning. “We Are Coming, Father Abraham, Three Hundred Thousand More,” went the poem by James S. Gibbons, set to music by America’s first great composer-songwriter, Stephen Foster, in 1862. Men and boys from Maine and Michigan shouldered arms to kill men and boys from Virginia and Alabama because the cause was worth it—no matter what the price.
This is, by any standard, the very definition of heroism. (The word derives from the Latin for “illustrious man” and, even earlier, from the Greek for “demigod,” with the added nuance of “defender” or “protector.”) War has always been elemental, involving spears and swords, clubs and arrows, cannonballs and canisters, all instruments of death. In the great battles of the past, armies clashed with the express purpose of slaughtering each other until one had had enough and surrendered, fled, or simply gave up to be butchered in the field like cattle. Hunger and thirst both took their toll, as did diseases against which there was no effective treatment or cure. When their ships were rammed, the oarsmen died and the men above decks were tossed into the sea to drown. Once hostilities were offered and accepted, as in Greek and Roman times—generally after a day or two of maneuvering around the battlefield for maximum tactical and operational advantage—the conflict was waged to its conclusion, which was more often than not decided on a single day in one location.
The pitiless brutality of it is literally beyond modern imagination. Heads and limbs were hacked off, eyes put out, soldiers beaten to death. The French national epic poem, La Chanson de Roland, depicts men being split from skull to breastbone by the stroke of a sword, while at Hastings, the Danish axes wielded by the Saxon housecarls were said to cleave both rider and horse in twain at a single blow. Despite the massed formations of the Greek phalanxes and the Roman legions, at root the clash of armies was a clash of individuals, a prolonged series of simultaneous hand-to-hand combats, encounters from which only one man at a time could emerge victorious. The modern notion of a humanitarian, “proportional” war (surely an oxymoron) was utterly foreign to them. A soldier’s job, as Patton put it so bluntly and yet so eloquently in a speech to his Third Army during World War II, was to kill or die: “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”
The classical scholar and military historian Victor Davis Hanson notes:
As observers as diverse as Aldous Huxley and John Keegan have pointed out, to write of conflict is not to describe merely the superior rifles of imperial troops or the matchless edge of the Roman gladius, but ultimately the collision of a machine-gun bullet with the brow of an adolescent, or the carving and ripping of artery and organ in the belly of an anonymous Gaul. To speak of war in any other fashion brings with it a sort of immorality: the idea that when hit, soldiers simply go to sleep, rather than are shredded, that generals order impersonal battalions and companies of automatons into the heat of battle, rather than screaming nineteen-year-olds into clouds of gas and sheets of lead bullets, or that a putrid corpse has little to do with larger approaches to science and culture.3
There is no sanitizing it. War is, in fact, to use the voguish term, “toxic,” in the sense that killing and inflicting of severe physical pain is precisely its point. No one in his right mind would willingly engage in it were it not for a host of other factors, some of them genetic and sexual, some spiritual, some psychological; some vain, and some base, and some entirely unknown, even to the warriors themselves. And yet, from the dawn of recorded history, men have felt the need, the obligation, and the duty to take up arms against an enemy and fight for what they believe in, whether the defense of territory or in conquest, rapine, and plunder. Noble or base, it does not seem to matter.
At the same time, it is essentially masculine; there are no reliable accounts of nations of women warring against other women with spear, pike, hatchet, sword, bayonet, carbine, machine gun, or nuclear weapon. When war breaks out, as it inevitably does, fastidiousness goes out the window, and—in particular, when the fight is defensive and dire—men, not women, are called to arms. That they go, fearful but generally unflinching, is a continual wonder, but it is also a “celebration” of masculinity—which, in its essence, is simply another word for duty, honor, and country. In the view of the demon god Thanatos, women are born to give birth, to provide the next generation of cannon fodder; in the view of the priapic god Eros, women are born to provide the next generation of heroes.
None of this is diminishment. Rather, it is complementary. The sexes are different. A country whose women lose their virtue and whose men lose their nerve—the Soviet Union is the most recent example of this historical truth4—soon vanishes into history. When every man is a petitioner, a lackey, or a slave, and every woman a whore, that country is finished. A land of “strong” (i.e., in defiance of previous social norms with no immediate consequences, or even opposition) women and weak men is a dead country. As the cultural historian Camille Paglia inflammatorily wrote in the first chapter of her magisterial treatise Sexual Personae (1990),
Nature’s cycles are woman’s cycles. Biologic femaleness is a sequence of circular returns, beginning and ending at the same point. Woman’s centrality gives her a stability of identity. She does not have to become but only to be. Her centrality is a great obstacle to man, whose quest for identity she blocks. He must transform himself into an independent being, that is, a being free of her. If he does not, he will simply fall back into her.… The western idea of history as a propulsive movement into the future, a progressive or Providential design climaxing in the revelation of a Second Coming, is a male formulation. No woman, I submit, could have coined such an idea … if civilization had been left in female hands, we would all still be living in grass huts.
Of course women can be physically heroic,5 and many have been, although generally in the absence of available men. But most women are not, by nature, martial; they gestate, conserve, and protect life. For every Boadicea from Celtic Britain or Volscian Camilla in the Aeneid, there are millions of their male counterparts, some sung, most unsung. In the teeth of battle, those men did not talk, palaver, or powwow. They fought, died, and lie buried, often piecemeal or in fragments, in cemeteries or forgotten battlefields, long since plowed under. And yet they live on in the hearts and minds and the DNA of their descendants of both sexes. To paraphrase what Lincoln said of Grant: they fight.
In his account of the Battle of Mutina (present-day Modena) in Cisalpine Gaul in 43 B.C. between troops loyal to the Roman senate, assisted by Octavian (the future emperor Augustus), and those of Mark Antony, the Greek historian Appian of Alexandria notes the stone bravery of the Roman forces confronting one another:
Being veterans they raised no battle-cry, since they could not expect to terrify each other, nor in the engagement did they utter a sound, either as victors or vanquished. As there could be neither flanking nor charging amid marshes and ditches, they met together in close order, and since neither could dislodge the other they locked together with their swords as in a wrestling match. No blow missed its mark. There were wounds and slaughter but no cries, only groans; and when one fell he was instantly borne away and another took his place. They needed neither admonition nor encouragement, since experience made each one his own general. When they were overcome by fatigue they drew apart from each other for a brief space to take breath, as in gymnastic games, and then rushed again to the encounter. Amazement took possession of the new levies who had come up, as they beheld such deeds done with such precision and in such silence.
Antony, perhaps the most charismatic and tragic of the great men who fought Rome’s civil wars, was besieging forces commanded by Decimus Brutus, one of Julius Caesar’s assassins, to whose aid Octavian had come.6 (Antony eventually broke off the battle after heavy casualties on both sides; he and the future emperor, to be called Augustus, would shortly thereafter form an alliance against the plotters, crushing them at Philippi the following year.)
It was Roman versus Roman as the legions squared off against each other, knowing there would be quarter neither asked nor given: the courage this took is practically unimaginable today, as is the indifference to suffering. Death was, ultimately, a matter of duty and accepted by soldiers as their lot, should it come. The coward who fled was not viewed as prudent but as criminal, unmanly, and was generally executed when caught, as an example to others.7
Despite the steady advance of martial technology, things did not materially change for centuries. Even as late as World War I, single combat between soldiers had not entirely disappeared, especially when bayonets were fixed and encounters in no-man’s land sometimes ended with each man having run the other through, fatally. In the nuclear age, warring nations now have the capacity to annihilate the other side at the push of a button, but a postapocalyptic world will take humanity right back to where we started: hand-to-hand combat, to the death.
This is a brutal notion, and one that our fastidious times do not want to entertain. Surely, the argument goes, there must be a better way to resolve human disputes. Diplomacy—talking—is said to be war by other means, but in reality war is diplomacy by other means, and far more dispositive. When has a major conflict been settled by high-level talks and a “peace process”? True, the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 concluded the Thirty Years’ War between Catholic and Protestant European states and ratified the Dutch emancipation from Habsburg Spain. But that only came about because the losing side was exhausted and enervated by the bloodshed and simply couldn’t fight any longer.8 Westphalia also set off a prolonged balancing act among the Great Powers and the royal families that headed them until it all collapsed in the mud and blood of Ypres, Passchendaele, and the Somme.
To put it in modern terms, war has long been a binary choice: win or lose, live or die, conquer or give way. It is neither pretty nor politically correct. And yet, it is human—all too human, in Nietzsche’s formulation. It is, in fact and in essence, masculine; no matter how “modern” man gets, he will never entirely abandon his biological and genetic roots and impulses. Historically, men organize themselves around status and power, both of which are often won at the point of a spear, while women from time immemorial have assumed the status of the men in their lives, by whatever means achieved, generally sexually. Men are Romans, women are Sabines. This is true of every culture, and in every time and place. That we find it regressive and deplorable today says more about our ahistoricism than the supposed prejudice of our ancestors.
Latter-day sensibility, and a loss of faith in traditional Western religions, has decreed that there is, literally, not a fate worse than death. We have, in our wisdom, transformed our short span of existence into a kind of living Purgatory, where life itself is misery and palliative surcease can only be found via drugs, sex, or therapy. That there might exist a teleologically aspirational end state is unthinkable; past and future have vanished, to be replaced by an eternally torturous present that can only be endured, and not transformed. Death becomes no one; if there is nothing worth living for, except for the sake of living, then what is worth dying for?
Still, no matter how feminized he may become—in attitude, emotions, and, latterly, even in vocal timbre and physique—a man can never entirely reject his essentially masculine way of seeing the world: as one in which the strong survive and the weak perish, whether he is a gladiator, a Wall Street arbitrageur, or even a capon-voiced NPR commentator. No one should “take care” of a man once he hits puberty and grows into what we once called manhood. He is, or should be, responsible for himself and those who look to him for physical protection and leadership. The defense of women and children is not a paternalistic plot, sketched in some prehistoric Lascaux cave, but a noble and essential prerequisite of all civilizations grounded in physical reality, and not something lightly to be forsaken. Fighting battles in faraway lands for cultural protection and expansion is not necessarily predatory imperialism or malevolent colonialism but a hedge against future disaster.
For masculinity is, in extremis, lethal. Males fight. They fight for both the present and for the future. The enemy who’s killing them now, in the moment of combat, may well—will—fall to one of their sons. The revenge drama is one of the theater’s mainstays for a reason. It is elemental. It forms much of human history. It is also progress, for without survival there can be none. Men fight for power, for love, for sex, for money, for wealth and possessions. The basest crime statistics prove it. So do the lists of geniuses in every form of intellectual, scientific, and artistic endeavor.
To be a male—in any century, apparently, but the twenty-first—is to be born if not raised, Spartan-like, with an understanding that the world is not your friend but your adversary or your enemy. The cuddly, anthropomorphic animals of fables and cartoons men know to be capable of ripping their throats out at any moment. The belligerent drunk at the bar challenging them to fight they know cannot be reasoned with, and when he charges, their only choices are fight or flight. There are many factors to consider in making those choices, but in the end they come down to self-preservation, by any means necessary. The only culture that doesn’t defend itself is one bent on suicide.
Historically, nations have recognized this powerful biological fact and have sought to channel it by inducting their young men into the armed forces, whether those of the ancient Greeks or contemporary China. The priapic thrust of young manhood must needs be given an outlet: fucking or fighting are generally the choices, as China is now discovering—and confronting, with the abandonment of its actuarially ill-conceived “one child” policy—even as it fields the world’s largest army.9 And, in the end, what are armies for but to direct the physical and sexual energies of young men, for whom combat and procreation are the most primordial instincts of manhood, into war?
Instead, we are witnessing an attempt at profound cultural and historical change—the transformation of men into women and women into men, at will, and on a mere say-so—that is as audacious as it is insane.10 The profoundly ahistorical, anticultural, and unscientific assertion that something as elemental as biology can be altered on a personal whim is something unique in human history; autonomy without God—indeed the replacement of nature, Nature’s God,11 or God himself by mere humans who have abandoned their sense of the transcendental and substituted instead a perverse desire to abjure the evidence of their own genitals in the pursuit of a counterfactual.
This is not to say there aren’t exceptions to all norms, even the biologically Mendelian. Nature has her sports: two-headed snakes, Cyclopean calves, albinos, hermaphrodites. But to say that something as elemental as sex is arbitrarily “assigned” (by whom?) is absurd, a cultural-Marxist12 attempt to play God. “Stereotypes” are stereotypes (fixed images) for a reason: they are largely true and therefore broadly useful. Stereotypes are not conspiracies but rather the evolved shorthand of decades, centuries, millennia, of folkish and cultural data, which can only seem “offensive” in retrospect and out of cultural context. But the exception cannot be the rule.
Iconoclasm is a luxury in which only stable societies can indulge; once it becomes institutionalized, it turns into a battering ram wielded by a resentful minority against the larger, historically based, cultural entity toward which its animus is directed. To put it in Hegelian Marxist terms: the antithesis has superseded the thesis, thus negating the need for a synthesis. This is the goal of all “progressivism.”
Nature, however, has greater powers of resistance than mere humans. The straw-man argument of desirable stasis is an imaginary social goal, attributed to conservatives in today’s intellectually bifurcated agora, and is held by precisely nobody, on either left or right, with the possible exception of those advocates of “sustainability,” the zero-sum theory of humanity enforced by the coercive power of government.
In life, however, nothing is static, and nowhere is that more evident than in war. No major battle ends the way it began; wars cease only when one side is conquered or cannot continue. “Negotiated settlements” are essentially truces by both sides and rarely survive even a few years, which is to say, until one side feels emboldened to take up the cudgels once more. War is the great leveler, the great decider. When civilizations collapse, as all must and do, they do not simply dissolve from enervation (although that is always a factor; today we might call it guilt), but by conquest: just ask Romulus Augustulus, the last Western Roman emperor.13 When Caesar attempted to emasculate the Roman senate by having himself named dictator14 for life, the senators fought back with poiniards and pugiones, but once the Julio-Claudian line of emperors had run its course, ending with Nero,15 the senate was of little consequence. By the fifth century, Rome was begging to be put out of its misery, and the barbarian tribes who had settled in Italy under Roman aegis were only too happy to oblige. Nature abhors a vacuum.
* * *
And so, in the end, when they knew that all was lost, when they knew they not only would not survive but also that they would never see their families, wives, children again, they set their jaws, fixed their bayonets, emptied their revolvers, used their rifles as clubs, shot their mounts for breastworks, and piled their dead high. They broke their spears in the bodies of their enemies, used their swords for stabbing instead of slashing, and, when all else was exhausted, employed their teeth and fingernails as weapons, until they could fight no longer.
As you will read in these pages, the Romans did it at Cannae, and again at the Teutoburg Forest; so did Custer’s men at the Little Bighorn. The Christian Hungarians and Croatians at Szigetvár embraced a final, suicidal charge as preferable to surrender or supine slaughter at the hands of the Muslim Turks, but cleverly planned to take as many invaders with them as they could, even after death. The Jews held off the Romans at Masada and the Germans in Warsaw until they could fight no longer. Men died also at Thermopylae, at Roncevaux, at Hastings, and before the door of St. Peter’s in Rome. They perished at the Alamo and at Camarón in Mexico, in the Tennessee mud at Shiloh and at the godforsaken Little Bighorn in Montana. The fought to the end at Khartoum, as well as Rorke’s Drift, Stalingrad, and the Chosin Reservoir, because death was always preferable to dishonor, for without his honor, and his fidelity to his training, his country and, most important, his comrades, a man was nothing. Even when, against all the odds, a few of them survived or even won through to victory, they still were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice.
Which brings us to one of the paradoxes of Western civilization: a culture based on the primacy of the individual serves the common good better via the mechanism of willing self-sacrifice than the regimented, collectivist societies of the East. Western soldiers do not have to be prodded into battle by political commissars. They do not have to be conscripted on a vast and permanent scale. They need not be propagandized to come to the defense of the homeland. The individual, while extolled politically, is dispensable militarily—for the good of all the other individuals.
Indeed, death in battle was glorious—that was the word the ancients used, repeatedly—the end state to which masculine humanity aspired. For some things were worth dying for. To the individual soldier, the goal was not survival of the individual, although that was always preferable to the alternative. Men in war generally fought as long and as ferally as they could as the end approached; as the Spartan maxim had it, you emerged from battle either with your shield or on it. But when the end appeared, whether in the form of Persian arrows, Turkish cannons, captured Winchesters in the hands of American Indians, or Chinese AK-47s, these heroes never flinched. They fought to the last man, to the limits of masculine human endurance, and beyond. They suffered willingly the sword thrusts, stab cuts, arrow wounds, gunshots, legs and limbs blown asunder by artillery, the battlefield butchery, scalping, and even decapitation—things that no men other than criminals would ever inflict upon women but do willingly inflict upon one another in their service.
We now arrive at the central question: Why do men fight? What or whom is worth dying for? Property is disposable and fungible—more important, it can be reacquired through conquest, prosperity, or sharp dealing. The answer, as we shall see in these pages, is surprisingly simple: they fight for themselves, for their brothers-in-arms, and therefore for their women and children and for their country, which is the expression of the family. Without women, there are no children, and without children, there is no future. And without a country—a patria, which means “fatherland”—there is nothing but the tribe, the family, the self. And so men sacrifice themselves, finding in that sacrifice not only glory (as risible and even “offensive” as that word seems in our louche yet murderous age) but in defense of all the structures of society from the individual (expendable) to the family (replaceable, although less so now than formerly), to the town, city, polis, province or state, and finally nation. E pluribus unum.
Almost no one dies for an abstract idea. No one dies for democracy, or fascism, or communism, or National Socialism, or “Europe.” He dies instead for America, or Italy, or Russia, or Germany—for the nation-states that emerged from the ruins of the Roman Empire, or in the case of the Islamic ummah, for a seventh-century Arabian Peninsula faith that combines the pertinent elements of both Judaism and Christianity (long preexistent in the region). While it is true that the Crusades were a European reaction against the occupation of the Holy Land by the Islamic Arabs and their religiously colonized subjects, including the Turks and, soon enough, the religiously and militarily hapless Persians, the Christian reaction to the Muslim conquest was essentially transnational: a kind of prefigured NATO in the service of the Cross of Christ. Soldiers, of whatever stripe, are trained not simply to win—although that is the optimal outcome—but to die, that their fellows might win.
Therefore, what is heroism? What are its moral components? Is it altruism, love, self-sacrifice? What are its amoral components—fear of cowardice, lust for glory, pride? Why was it once celebrated, and now often dismissed as anachronistic at best, foolish and vainglorious at its worst? Is it something unique to the Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian West, or is it found universally—and, if so, how does it differ from culture to culture? Can it be separated from religious faith, or at least some sort of ethical code? Is it innately human, implanted by the divine, or both?
In an age of victimhood and identity politics, heroism is increasingly regarded as an antiquated relic of the “patriarchy” as if, historically at least, there had ever been an alternative. Is it “racist” to sacrifice yourself for your own kind rather than submit to the sword of the alien enemy seeking to supplant you? By regarding all cultures as equal, or even superior, to one’s own, has not treason therefore become the highest form of patriotism? The cultural-Marxist import of “Critical Theory” would have us ask these questions, not to illuminate the moral issues, which have long since been decided, but to sow doubt about our most basic social concepts: a pacifist, post-Christian, feminized West seemingly can no longer take its own side in a quarrel.16 Accommodation, inclusivity, tolerance, and, above all, shame have become the new watchwords. In a politically correct culture, only a fool would sacrifice himself for something as fashionably objectionable as the traditional nuclear family or as base as personal honor.
As the British epistolarians Trenchard and Gordon wrote in “Cato” Letter No. 15 (1721), “In those wretched countries where a man cannot call his tongue his own, he can scarce call any thing else his own. Whoever would overthrow the liberty of the nation, must begin by subduing the freedom of speech; a thing terrible to publick traitors.”17 But here we are. Even heroism has now, it seems, become politically incorrect.
We cannot afford it to become so.
Copyright © 2020 by Michael Walsh