"Is a soldier's death honorable even if he fights in an unpopular war?" asks author Frank Schaeffer in his new book Baby Jack. The question draws from the cultural fallout over Viet Nam and is raised today as the Iraq war becomes increasingly unpopular.
"Yes," Schaeffer replies, but it's not an answer he came by easily. Schaeffer, a cultural conservative even before the term became part of the cultural lexicon, felt a vague disdain towards military service. ("It's only for people who cannot do anything else.") Many late-boomer conservatives who, like Schaeffer, have no military experience probably hold the same benign contempt. It was part of the air we breathed growing up.
Recently an acquaintance said of his son's enlistment: "Even his officers had a hard time believing he joined just because he wanted to serve his country. They are so used to seeing kids influenced by sex, drugs, and rock and roll that at first they thought he joined to get the scholarship freebie on the other end."
"Baby Jack" reveals that the altruism had a practical side (and I suspect for my acquaintance's son as well): the only way to defeat the slow dissolution of character fostered by the MTV culture was to find a place where virtue can be forged.
How does this work? In the case of Jack the fictional son, joining the Marines was the first step of self-denial. Self-absorption was replaced by virtues like loyalty, self-discipline, bravery, honor, and love of country -- the characteristics necessary to fulfill the command that we should esteem our brothers higher than ourselves. The stakes are high. Take away these virtues and the team breaks down. Sooner or later someone gets killed who should have lived.
Marine training is like a monastic order, writes Schaeffer, who has visited monasteries on Mt. Athos, the center of Orthodox Christian monasticism. The drill instructors are like the elders who burn out self-centeredness and the weakness it fosters. Character can grow in this climate.
After reading Schaeffer's book I called a friend of mine, a graduate of the Naval Academy and now a full-time priest, for a book or two to read about military leadership. "Start with the movie '12 O'Clock High'" he said. "That's what they told us watch at the Academy."
The movie confirms Schaeffer's observations. A squadron of young flyers developing daylight bombing techniques over Nazi Germany was suffering too many casualties. A wise higher-up saw that their commanding officer was not instilling the proper discipline and replaced him. The fliers learned that discipline creates order, and order allows the required virtues to develop to face an enemy and win. They won.
It's hard to imagine in our post-Viet Nam era that the larger culture once honored these virtues. I would have seen the movie as one more piece of candy from the Hollywood fantasy machine if the recommendation came from someone other than a former sailor. We've drifted a long way from the things that matter.
Old conceits die hard like they did for the fictional father in Schaeffer's book (and perhaps for Schaeffer himself). For many tail-end boomers, the discovery that the military preserves many of the virtues that conservatives work hard to restore may come as a pleasant surprise. It should deepen our respect for the men and women who maintain them despite their failures from time to time.
"Is a soldier's death honorable even if he fights in an unpopular war?" Yes, it can be. Self-sacrifice is a virtue that draws legitimacy not from the political exigencies surrounding a war, but from a higher constellation of virtues. Baby Jack shows us that despite the increasing brokenness and corruption in the world, that higher place is still important.
Johannes L. Jacobse, a Greek Orthodox priest, edits the website www.orthodoxytoday.org.
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