Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Heroes and Cowards

“We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.” ― C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man.
I want to enjoy the movie Saving Private Ryan. And to be fair, 99% of the movie is worthwhile. But there are two things that turn the movie so sour that I despise it. The first is when Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) is dying and looks at Private Ryan (Matt Damen) and says, “Earn this.” With those two words, he destroys Ryan, because he’s given him an impossible task. How do you earn the deaths of so many people? You cannot.

But even that could be overlooked were it not for the absolute gravest sin of the movie: the character of Upham (Jeremy Davies). Specifically, it’s the scene where Private Mellish (Adam Goldberg) is being overpowered by the German soldier that Upham had previously rescued. Mellish is slowly being stabbed to death with his own bayonet. Upham has his M1 Garand and all he has to do is shoot the German and Mellish will be saved.

Instead, Upham sits in terror and does nothing while the German kills his friend. The German exchanges a look with Upham and leaves, not even bothering to kill the coward.

This is made even worse by the fact that Upham exists to be the “everyman” in the movie. He is ignorant of army traditions and sayings, looking through his dictionaries to try to find what a certain acronym means, for example. The “everyman” who is supposed to represent us as the audience—ignorant of the army-speak, unsure what will happen in the battle—is a coward, too afraid to act when his friend is slaughtered.

There are few things in life that actually infuriate me, but cowardice is one of those things. And of course the events that happened in Parkland, Florida bring it all sharply to focus. A killer (I won’t deign to publicize his name) shot 17 students and faculty. In the process, we found out that there was an armed deputy who stayed in the parking lot for six minutes while the students he was charged with protecting were slaughtered.

Then we found out that there were actually four deputies there, and none of them entered the building.

Now we are told that they had been ordered not to go into the building.

Saving Private Ryan was fictional. Private Mellish never existed to die. But 17 people—they really, truly died—because the people charged with protecting them pulled an Upham and chickened out. (Even when ordered to not go in, there are certain orders a decent person must disobey.)

Why is it that there are so many cowards in Broward County? Well, I actually think it’s not just Broward County. For the past couple of decades, there has been a culture war. One that hasn’t had any official declaration, but one which is no doubt being waged. It is a war on heroism.

Just as Saving Private Ryan tried to “humanize” World War II by creating the character of Upham, the coward, as the “everyman” the audience was supposed to relate to, heroes in movies and literature have consistently been trashed, belittled, seen as relics of the olden days, relegated to the dustbin of fantasy. Indeed, the knight in shining armor was the perfect example of heroism (at least in literature), and that concept is now mocked to such an extent that when a man agrees with a feminist on something, it's called “white knighting” because it is seen as the transparent ploy that it almost always is intended to be.

But the fact of the matter is, heroes need to exist. People who realize that there are more important things in the world than simply living another day.  And there are things that are that important, whether we remember them or not.

To give a personal anecdote, I remember after the Columbine shooting that the initial news had stated that Cassie Bernall was asked whether she believed in God, and when she said “yes” she was killed. This has been disputed by other witnesses since then, but at the time it was widely believed. As a result, I remember at my church hearing a group of young mothers saying, “If my kid was asked if he believed in God, I would tell him to say, ‘No.’ God will forgive him later!”

This caused instant cringes for me, not the least of which because it flies in the face of what Scripture advises: “whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:33). But I had also been reading recently about the early church martyrs, and how the Romans would permit people to recant (sometimes after torture). Many Christians did so, and were released. Some would be rearrested when they were found back at church again, and they’d repeat the process. I recall reading one story where eventually a man refused to recant and was burned at the stake, and as the fire was lit he thrust his hand into the flames saying that the hand that had signed all the false recantations ought to burn first.

Yes, it is true that God forgives; but it is also true that there are more important things than surviving by requiring that forgiveness. And our culture used to know and recognize the existence of things worth dying for. As an example, take the Charge of the Light Brigade. This happened during the Crimean War. Due to miscommunication, and to the fact that the person relaying the orders was killed within the opening minutes of the battle, the Light Brigade attacked the wrong position and was soundly defeated, resulting in nearly 300 casualties.

Importantly, while the commanders were roundly pilloried and criticized, the British cavalry was held in esteem for their heroism. In fact, Tennyson would write his famous poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” about it, celebrating the heroism on display as the men faced certain defeat and went on anyway.

Yet the very poem that Tennyson wrote helps to signify the culture shift. One of its most famous lines is:

Theirs not to reason why
Theirs but to do or die.

At least, that’s how it’s usually quoted. But that isn’t the line.

The line is:

Theirs not to reason why
Theirs but to do and die.

The difference between “or” and “and” makes all the difference in the world. “Do or die” leaves open the possibility of surviving; “do and die” does not. When the men charged, they knew that it was hopeless. But they did it anyway. Because they were heroes who knew there were some things worth dying for. But we, today, subtly alter that line until it’s “do or die.” Because maybe they didn’t think they would die…

Somewhere along the way, the selfless act of sacrifice has slowly morphed into a punch line. It became something to be mocked and jeered. It is a fool who would willingly lay down his life, which is the most important thing!  And thus the hero was torn down and the anti-hero arose. It didn’t help that while the men were heroes in charges like that Tennyson glorified, it was still a blunder and they attacked the wrong position. Mistakes happen, but such were seen as less heroic and more tragic. And there is some truth to that. But what led us to the other extreme?

If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say this happened in America around the time of the Vietnam War. The seeds were there before that, of course, but it really did not become mainstream until the social revolution of the 1960s. Vietnam was increasingly run by Washington, D.C., and was widely viewed as a debacle, even though militarily the United States had significant advantages throughout.

But America was really just following the steps of Britain at that point, as C. S. Lewis’s quote at the beginning of this piece shows. Lewis wrote The Abolition of Man in 1943, the height of World War II, and already Britain was facing a different peril. In many ways, I think that England was facing a crisis brought about by the utter chaos of World War I, which was only exacerbated by World War II. As Lewis explains, this led Britain to reject all objective values and standards:
Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt. … It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are. …And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it). No emotion is, in itself, a judgment; in that sense all emotions and sentiments are alogical. But they can be reasonable or unreasonable as they conform to Reason or fail to conform. The heart never takes the place of the head: but it can, and should, obey it.
Over against this stands the world of The Green Book [the book Lewis is critiquing]. In it the very possibility of a sentiment being reasonable—or even unreasonable—has been excluded from the outset. It can be reasonable or unreasonable only if it conforms or fails to conform to something else. …On this view, the world of facts, without one trace of value, and the world of feelings, without one trace of truth or falsehood, justice or injustice, confront one another, and no rapprochement is possible.
Lewis goes on to give a specific example of the difference that comes about: “When a Roman father told his son that it was a sweet and seemly thing to die for his country, he believed what he said. He was communicating to the son an emotion which he himself shared and which he believed to be in accord with the value which his judgment discerned in noble death. He was giving the boy the best he had, giving of his spirit to humanize him as he had given of his body to beget him. But [the authors of The Green Book] cannot believe that in calling such a death sweet and seemly they would be saying ‘something important about something’.”
Lewis’s conclusion stands even today: “And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamor for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’ , or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

In that light, we can view the (in)actions of the Coward County Deputies. There is no devotion to sacrificing one’s life on behalf of another, because there is no sentiment that drives that. There is no emotion that causes someone to act despite his fear: no sense of duty, no sense of “this is the right thing to do”. Nothing. Why? Because when there is no objective truth to ground our emotions in, they can only be grounded in the subjective. And as subjective elements, no one can pass judgment that one “ought” to feel this or that.

In other words, when we got rid of the notion that there was a proper way to face reality, and that certain emotional responses are right and others are wrong, we lost the reason by which anyone would choose to give up his own life for the sake of a greater good. After all, why should a deputy sacrifice his life for those of 17 innocent people just because he said he would and is getting paid by the state to do just that in the unlikely event it should come to pass?

There will be no heroes until we affirm that there are certain things that are the way they ought to be, and certain other things that are not the way they ought to be. It is not right for Upham to let Mellish die when he had the chance to intervene. It, in fact, violates the second greatest commandment, for he showed no love to his neighbor. Likewise, it is not right that such a person ought to represent “everyman” in that film. But does it really matter that our entertainment does this?

If you want men to be brave, you have to instill bravery in them at a gut level. As Lewis said just before the quote above: “It still remains true that no justification of virtue will enable a man to be virtuous. Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism. I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite sceptical about ethics, but bred to believe that ‘a gentleman does not cheat’, than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among [cheats]. In battle it is not syllogisms that will keep the reluctant nerves and muscles to their post in the third hour of the bombardment. The crudest sentimentalism…about a flag or a country or a regiment will be of more use.”

This is not to say that the objective truth doesn’t matter as long as you have the sentiment in place. Indeed, because the objective truth matters, our entertainment ought to be in harmony with it. What our culture chooses to glorify in entertainment will have a drastic effect on the actions of her citizens. If it is objectively true that people ought to be heroes, we need to model heroes on the screen, not tear them down and mock them. Because ultimately, it’s not the intellectual assent to objective truth but the emotional belief in that objective truth that will make a difference to how a person behaves when he or she is asked to risk their life for something greater than they are.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, we observe this in the UK too. Middle-class-type managers appear to try to substitute their cowardice in refusing to deal with *real* problems, by puffing out their chests and signalling their virtue about some non-problem, or throwing the bureaucratic book at some trivial offence.

    So, consider this for a disgusting event; a man having an epileptic seizure drowned in a 3 foot pond, and firemen refused to enter the pond because no health and safety assessment had been carried out:


    But you can bet that the same people (as public sector employees in the UK) will have found time to carry out comprehensive training in LGBT sensitivity (aka how to detect and magnify trivial personal offences) and other such nonsense.