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Sunday, January 15, 2006

Duty. Honor. Country.

In a previous post, I mentioned the call of my heart and soul to duty, even when the cause seems lost, mentioning some things that made me think of it.

Teresa expressed a sense of frustration at it. She put it clearly, and it read as such:

"Anyway, it does move me but not in that way. It does however make me angry. I understand the way you feel, but I see it from a different perspective. My husband is a cop and a marine. When you are a wifeand have 4 children--valor is not a reason to die. I just don't see a reason to die FOR nothing. If there is a reason, that is different. To save the life of another...but it still chokes me why a person in charge of their family would want to sacrifice himself and hurt them. I just have a real problem there. My husband told me recently that he had the oportunity to go to Iraq recently and train the Iraqi police. He had "planned" to go. But he was disqualifed because of his back. I did not speak to him for weeks. Another: his friend was killed in the line of duty, just minutes after he left shift--in fact the deputy who was killed even took his gun. I know that someone has to do the job--but, now I'm going to cry."

I promised an answer to Teresa, but have strained to find the words. Now I have them, words that (a portion) were burned into my mind for eternity 15 years ago, that I can recite to this day. It's a long answer - but worth the time of most.


Duty. Honor. Country.

Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying points: to build courage when courage seems to fail; to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith; to create hope when hope becomes forlorn.

Unhappily, I possess neither that eloquence of diction, that poetry of imagination, nor that brilliance of metaphor to tell you all that they mean. The unbelievers will say they are but words, but a slogan, but a flamboyant phrase. Every pedant, every demagogue, every cynic, every hypocrite, every troublemaker, and I am sorry to say, some others of an entirely different character, will try to downgrade them even to the extent of mockery and ridicule.

But these are some of the things they do. They build your basic character. They mold you for your future roles as the custodians of the nation's defense. They make you strong enough to know when you are weak, and brave enough to face yourself when you are afraid. They teach you to be proud and unbending in honest failure, but humble and gentle in success; not to substitute words for actions, not to seek the path of comfort, but to face the stress and spur of difficulty and challenge; to learn to stand up in the storm but to have compassion on those who fall; to master yourself before you seek to master others; to have a heart that is clean, a goal that is high; to learn to laugh, yet never forget how to weep; to reach into the future yet never neglect the past; to be serious yet never to take yourself too seriously; to be modest so that you will remember the simplicity of true greatness, the open mind of true wisdom, the meekness of true strength. They give you a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions, a freshness of the deep springs of life, a temperamental predominance of courage over timidity, of an appetite for adventure over love of ease. They create in your heart the sense of wonder, the unfailing hope of what next, and the joy and inspiration of life. They teach you in this way to be an officer and a gentleman.

And what sort of soldiers are those you are to lead? Are they reliable? Are they brave? Are they capable of victory? Their story is known to all of you. It is the story of the American man-at-arms. My estimate of him was formed on the battlefield many, many years ago, and has never changed. I regarded him then as I regard him now -- as one of the world's noblest figures, not only as one of the finest military characters, but also as one of the most stainless. His name and fame are the birthright of every American citizen. In his youth and strength, his love and loyalty, he gave all that mortality can give.

He needs no eulogy from me or from any other man. He has written his own history and written it in red on his enemy's breast. But when I think of his patience under adversity, of his courage under fire, and of his modesty in victory, I am filled with an emotion of admiration I cannot put into words. He belongs to history as furnishing one of the greatest examples of successful patriotism. He belongs to posterity as the instructor of future generations in the principles of liberty and freedom. He belongs to the present, to us, by his virtues and by his achievements. In 20 campaigns, on a hundred battlefields, around a thousand campfires, I have witnessed that enduring fortitude, that patriotic self-abnegation, and that invincible determination which have carved his statue in the hearts of his people. From one end of the world to the other he has drained deep the chalice of courage.

As I listened to those songs [of the glee club], in memory's eye I could see those staggering columns of the First World War, bending under soggy packs, on many a weary march from dripping dusk to drizzling dawn, slogging ankle-deep through the mire of shell-shocked roads, to form grimly for the attack, blue-lipped, covered with sludge and mud, chilled by the wind and rain, driving home to their objective, and for many, to the judgment seat of God.

I do not know the dignity of their birth, but I do know the glory of their death.
They died unquestioning, uncomplaining, with faith in their hearts, and on their lips the hope that we would go on to victory.

Always, for them: Duty, Honor, Country; always their blood and sweat and tears, as we sought the way and the light and the truth.

And 20 years after, on the other side of the globe, again the filth of murky foxholes, the stench of ghostly trenches, the slime of dripping dugouts; those boiling suns of relentless heat, those torrential rains of devastating storms; the loneliness and utter desolation of jungle trails; the bitterness of long separation from those they loved and cherished; the deadly pestilence of tropical disease; the horror of stricken areas of war; their resolute and determined defense, their swift and sure attack, their indomitable purpose, their complete and decisive victory -- always victory. Always through the bloody haze of their last reverberating shot, the vision of gaunt, ghastly men reverently following your password of: Duty, Honor, Country.

The code which those words perpetuate embraces the highest moral laws and will stand the test of any ethics or philosophies ever promulgated for the uplift of mankind. Its requirements are for the things that are right, and its restraints are from the things that are wrong.

The soldier, above all other men, is required to practice the greatest act of religious training -- sacrifice.

In battle and in the face of danger and death, he discloses those divine attributes which his Maker gave when he created man in his own image. No physical courage and no brute instinct can take the place of the Divine help which alone can sustain him.
However horrible the incidents of war may be, the soldier who is called upon to offer and to give his life for his country is the noblest development of mankind.

You now face a new world -- a world of change. The thrust into outer space of the satellite, spheres, and missiles mark the beginning of another epoch in the long story of mankind. In the five or more billions of years the scientists tell us it has taken to form the earth, in the three or more billion years of development of the human race, there has never been a more abrupt or staggering evolution. We deal now not with things of this world alone, but with the illimitable distances and as yet unfathomed mysteries of the universe. We are reaching out for a new and boundless frontier.

We speak in strange terms: of harnessing the cosmic energy; of making winds and tides work for us; of creating unheard synthetic materials to supplement or even replace our old standard basics; to purify sea water for our drink; of mining ocean floors for new fields of wealth and food; of disease preventatives to expand life into the hundreds of years; of controlling the weather for a more equitable distribution of heat and cold, of rain and shine; of space ships to the moon; of the primary target in war, no longer limited to the armed forces of an enemy, but instead to include his civil populations; of ultimate conflict between a united human race and the sinister forces of some other planetary galaxy; of such dreams and fantasies as to make life the most exciting of all time.

And through all this welter of change and development, your mission remains fixed, determined, inviolable: it is to win our wars.

Everything else in your professional career is but corollary to this vital dedication. All other public purposes, all other public projects, all other public needs, great or small, will find others for their accomplishment. But you are the ones who are trained to fight. Yours is the profession of arms, the will to win, the sure knowledge that in war there is no substitute for victory; that if you lose, the nation will be destroyed; that the very obsession of your public service must be: Duty, Honor, Country.

Others will debate the controversial issues, national and international, which divide men's minds; but serene, calm, aloof, you stand as the Nation's war-guardian, as its lifeguard from the raging tides of international conflict, as its gladiator in the arena of battle. For a century and a half you have defended, guarded, and protected its hallowed traditions of liberty and freedom, of right and justice.

Let civilian voices argue the merits or demerits of our processes of government; whether our strength is being sapped by deficit financing, indulged in too long, by federal paternalism grown too mighty, by power groups grown too arrogant, by politics grown too corrupt, by crime grown too rampant, by morals grown too low, by taxes grown too high, by extremists grown too violent; whether our personal liberties are as thorough and complete as they should be. These great national problems are not for your professional participation or military solution. Your guidepost stands out like a ten-fold beacon in the night: Duty, Honor, Country.

You are the leaven which binds together the entire fabric of our national system of defense. From your ranks come the great captains who hold the nation's destiny in their hands the moment the war tocsin sounds. The Long Gray Line has never failed us. Were you to do so, a million ghosts in olive drab, in brown khaki, in blue and gray, would rise from their white crosses thundering those magic words: Duty, Honor, Country.

This does not mean that you are war mongers.

On the contrary, the soldier, above all other people, prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.

But always in our ears ring the ominous words of Plato, that wisest of all philosophers: "Only the dead have seen the end of war."

The shadows are lengthening for me. The twilight is here. My days of old have vanished, tone and tint. They have gone glimmering through the dreams of things that were. Their memory is one of wondrous beauty, watered by tears, and coaxed and caressed by the smiles of yesterday. I listen vainly, but with thirsty ears, for the witching melody of faint bugles blowing reveille, of far drums beating the long roll. In my dreams I hear again the crash of guns, the rattle of musketry, the strange, mournful mutter of the battlefield.

But in the evening of my memory, always I come back to West Point.
Always there echoes and re-echoes: Duty, Honor, Country.

Today marks my final roll call with you, but I want you to know that when I cross the river my last conscious thoughts will be of The Corps, and The Corps, and The Corps.
I bid you farewell.

-General Douglas MacArthur's Final Speech to the United States Military Academy Corps of Cadets, May 12, 1962


I watched High Noon with my son last night. Kane exemplifies Duty, Honor, Country. When no one else would stand with him, when his wife sought to save him, with a town that abandoned him, and friends that proved to be anything but, he stood when no one else would stand, when no one else would even say he had to stand, in a cause that seemed lost and would not even benefit him personally. Why? Duty. Honor. Country.

Women are not given a sense of duty in this fashion. They have a more practical duty, which preserves our families and to a large degree, our civilizations. Otherwise, the men of honor in our societies would be throwing themselves upon the dragons of evil, leaving no one left to fight. Indeed, few men are given this sense of duty.

As MacArthur said, much more eloquently than I, we owe our great civilization to men who gave all they had, for those who would not, as the instruments of God.

Like Teresa said in a follow up comment, it's a man thing. Not a male thing - a man thing. The two are worlds apart.


  • Hey, Hammer. I keep coming back to read your site largely because you spell out so clearly all that is right with conservatism and all that is wrong at the same time. You are a true believer, not some hack making excuses, so you lay it all out right there.

    I agree with 90-95% of what you and MacArthur wrote, but that last few percent is huge. I think it can be summed up with this line:

    "These great national problems are not for your professional participation or military solution. Your guidepost stands out like a ten-fold beacon in the night: Duty, Honor, Country."

    My point isn't that the military should be involved in such things, of course it shouldn't. My point is all the virtues MacArthur lays out are independent of outside merit. "Duty, Honor, Country" where every bit as important to the Germans and Japanese in WWII as they were to the Americans. In the values of the warrior that is obvious and understood.

    But if these values were equally true for both the good guys and the bad guys, are these values intrinsically "good", as you so strongly imply? Was the Kamikaze innately good as they sacrificed themselves for Duty, Honor and Country?

    Ultimately the answer has to be no. What you are fighting for, what you are sacrificing for matters. This romantic notion that the sacrifice itself is valuable and good is just wrong. Step back and we all know this.

    But the warrior can't be allowed to think that way. If there is doubt the effectiveness dramatically diminishes. There must be the belief that the details don't matter, there is only Duty, Honor and Country. It even helps with the killing. You don't feel guilt if you believe. The enemy is either not honorable and thus deserves to die or dies an honorable death.

    So in order to promote the most effective warrior, the warrior must believe in something larger then himself that is not open to question: honor. I've always struggled with the concept of honor. The dictionary claims honor just means respect, but it means so much more than that. Honor for some is a tangible thing, something you can possess or lose, something you can almost measure. Something that is of great (even the greatest) value outside of all else. Outside of reality.

    When I read this post my heart aches for this kind of purity. To have something truly worth killing and dying for, to know you are on the side of good and will go to the ends of the Earth and one's own mental and physical limitations... what could be greater than that? The romance is overwhelming.

    But ultimately this sense of honor becomes a justification to give away that which should be earned. Sacrifice is not innately good -- it is only good if that which one is sacrificing for is good. And "Country" is too broad to qualify.

    So ultimately Teresa is right.

    What you describe here is not a male thing nor a man thing, but a certain form of romance. Self sacrifice is a very romantic notion, but without overwhelming cause it is only that; romance.

    By Blogger Mark, at 1/15/2006 11:55:00 PM  

  • One more thing. The romance of self sacrifice can be overwhelming; it just makes us feel so good, so special, so wonderful. But to abandon one's family just to make yourself feel important is the ultimate form of selfishness.

    Of course, sacrifice for what truly is important is the ultimate form of selflessness.

    "Duty, Honor, Country"? Sorry, not enough information to draw the distinction.

    To get a better idea of Teresa's point of view check out liberal propaganda video. :-)

    By Blogger Mark, at 1/16/2006 12:11:00 AM  

  • Very thought provoking post. On the one hand....."YES!" On the other hand, "Yes, but..." and on the last hand, "Hmmm ... I wonder"
    In the bible we see statements from the Lord like: Go and take the land. Kill every inhabitant, every living thing. We also see in Jeremiah the advice to surrender and go willingly because if you fight you will lose and it will be worse for you. Then of course we have Jesus who says turn the other cheek, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you. He also says that the time to draw the sword will come. I think in all of it, the Lord's will MUST be sought or living, dying, fighting or peace may be in vain. Evil must be fought against, of that I do agree.

    By Blogger Inheritor of Heaven, at 1/16/2006 08:47:00 AM  

  • My caveat to what you wrote, in addition to what Mark said, is that this isn't "a man thing". It's a cultural thing - the "man" culture we have at the moment.

    These values aren't universal - good though they can be, other cultures have framed them quite differently. And, most crucially for the way you usually talk, they simply cannot be extracted from the Bible. They can be reconciled with it, and they can be read into it, but reading the Bible will not leave one thinking "Duty, Honor, Country". Which means that these must be, at best, secondary truths.

    pax et bonum

    By Blogger John, at 1/16/2006 05:43:00 PM  

  • Hi Hammer,

    I think you addressed very articulately why a soldier would give his life for a noble cause, but I’m not sure you addressed Teresa’s concern for why a father should risk his life knowing he has a wife and children who need him for financial and emotional support.

    Let me try: I am confident that the greatest heritage I can leave my family when I die is the knowledge of knowing what I am willing to die for. A father who dies in prison does not leave the same heritage to his children as a father who dies fighting for the freedom of the citizens of a foreign country. The two are vastly different and do not have the same affect on the children. While both families may grow up without fathers, the family of the soldier have a hero for a father while the family of the convict have a weasel for a father. Children of soldiers who are killed in action may not have the physical presence of their father, but the children will always have a hero as a role model.

    I am willing to bet that the children of soldiers who die in Iraq will be some of our great leaders of the future. It will be their heritage.

    By Blogger David M. Smith, at 1/18/2006 06:59:00 PM  

  • David,

    My first thought in response to your post was to reprint the lyrics of Manowar's song Defender. (With Orson Wells reading the part of the father, btw.)

    My second thought (well, not counting a similar Queen song) was to go all Bennett on you and say your statement was like saying rape and incest wouldn't be so psychologically damaging if society just accepted it.

    But ultimately I think you are correct. Right now we are being lead by a bunch of cowards, small men who have no problem sending others to die for their pet projects or to test their pet theories. The children of those that die in this conflict won't be like that. They will greatly value the honor and service of their father's (and mother's, actually) sacrifice but will also feel the profound impact of the price paid. They won't make the mistakes of these small men.

    By Blogger Mark, at 1/20/2006 04:00:00 PM  

  • Mark,
    I had to read your first comment a few times to truly grasp your meaning. I still am not sure I do, but will respond to what I think you mean:

    I agree - Duty and Honor of themselves are of infinite value, but it is Country that makes this a speech for Americans. After all, our country is one that was founded upon and still stands for liberty, freedom, equality of value and opportunity, and justice. It is a place where you are not important for your birth, but for your life; where your name is not a guarantor of respect; where men of quite ignoble birth became national heroes.

    That is what makes America a "Country" worth dying for, and what made Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan not worth dying for. The one commits atrocities in support of its values, the other in spite of its values, and therefore condemns itself. It is why I don't complain that the US is castigated for our Abu Graibs and My Lais, while the treatment of non-combatants by our enemies is largely ingored. Our Country is better, and expects better of our soldiers.

    Dictionaries do a poor job of explaining honor. The Army came out with the "Army values" and defined honor (one of them) as, well, "living up to the Army values" - equally sad. My best definition of honor comes from the USMA Cadet Prayer (which, by the way, I think you would like):

    "Encourage us in our endeavor to live above the common level of life. Make us to choose the harder right over the easier wrong, and to never be content with a half-truth when the whole can be won."

    Sacrifice is truly not innately good - who would acclaim the last stands of murderous bank robbers? However, sacrifice so that others, who you do not even know, may have what you have enjoyed is not only worthy, but stands starkly in the face of Social Darwinism as a testament to the nobility of man.

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 1/23/2006 12:25:00 PM  

  • No one gives up their life in order to "feel important". After all, you don't feel very important when you are dead.

    Furthermore, I doubt David's premise has any greater traction in the "reason why we do it" area. While I agree with the value of a legacy of honor as opposed to dishonor, I would not die so that my son can have that legacy.

    Instead, my son already knows of my honor, and would know that I died because it was the best and right thing to do, not because I wanted to hurt him or didn't care, and would know that if I had instead exhibited the cowardice desired by most loving wives and weak willed men, I would have hurt him far more. Thus, what David speaks of is not how we decide to sacrifice ourselves for something better than our lives, but is no less true. No man, under withering fire from the enemy with no hope of surviving it, gets up anyway to leave his family a legacy. They do it because it must be done.


    Some who you should remeber, who paid with their lives.

    One who you likely do not know, who lived to influence my life.
    (Scroll down to Foley, Robert F. Mind you, this man is 6 feet 6 inches tall)

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 1/23/2006 12:37:00 PM  

  • John,

    I disagree that Duty, Honor and Country are western cultural phenomenons. I do agree that they have a special place in American history, however. For example:

    Leyte Gulf 1944
    Little Round Top, Gettysburg, 1863
    Little Big Horn, 1876
    Bastogne, 1944
    Ia Drang - 1965
    Alamo, 1836
    154th Infantry, Argonne Forest, 1918
    Chosin Reservoir - 1st Marines w/attached US Army and British Royal Marines, 1950
    Mogadishu – 1991

    There are some great examples in the history of the UK as well:

    Agincourt, 1415
    Islandhlwana – Rourke’s Drift, 1879
    The Battle of Britain – 1940-41
    Crimean War, 3rd Guards Battalion, 1854, Defense of the Sandbag Battery
    Hastings, 1066 – the Saxons Housecarls
    El Alamein - 1942
    Bannockburn, 1297

    Finally, Duty, Honot, Country is not limited to Anglophones or the past 1000 years. In fact, sometimes it was by guys we may not like so much:

    Thermopylae, 480 BC
    Stalingrad, 1942
    Iwo Jima – the Japanese, not US, 1945
    Sempach, 1386 – The Swiss
    Waterloo – No, not the thin red lines, the French Old Guard that was the reserve after the remainder of the French had been routed. 1815.
    Camerone, 1863 – The French Foreign Legion
    Gaugamela, 331 BC

    As my military history was gunpowder and western-centric, my knowledge ends there. However, it is clear that cultures all across time and space on the earth have valued Duty, Honor, Country. Each of the above battles was not a win, nor each a loss. However, each was a testament to men attempting the unwinnable for a cause greater than themselves.

    Are Duty, Honor, Country Biblical maxims? I think that two out of three make it, and the third is not excluded. What else is it to suffer persecution for Christ, but honorable? What is it to forsake all for the cause of Christ, but our duty? And, if we believe as Bonhoeffer did, that our job as Christians is not to merely help the victims of a madman, but to do our best to stop his creation of victims, and our country is in such a venture, then it is our honorable duty to serve our country in such an endeavor.

    My exegesis may be flawed, but our creator did not make our honor start and stop with spiritual service. Fortunately, we carry it farther than that.

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 1/23/2006 12:51:00 PM  

  • Hi Hammer,

    I didn’t mean to imply that a person should willingly die solely to leave a heritage to his or her children. That would be insane.

    However, a person who is willing to risk death for a great cause will leave a heritage to his or her children that will be greater than his or her continued physical presence if they do not perform their duty.

    By Blogger David M. Smith, at 1/23/2006 01:27:00 PM  

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