April 28, 2004

A Decline in Courage

What do Pat Tillman and Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn have in common?

More than you might think.

Read this USA Today piece on Tillman first.

Some key grafs (my emphases throughout post):

"We didn't know him. Before he enlisted, even football fans would have been hard-pressed to identify the Cardinals' safety. But when a man walks away from a millionaire's life and puts himself in harm's way under our country's flag, we rise and cheer. For he is a better man than most, a man who could be true to himself only by laying himself on the line at its greatest point of peril.

Even as a New York Giants quarterback toyed with blondes on the television show The Bachelor, Tillman shipped out to Afghanistan.

"All deaths are tragic," said John Lock, a military historian and retired Army lieutenant colonel, a Ranger himself. "But some seem more tragic than others: 'An American Warrior, Ranger Pat Tillman, Killed in Action on the Field of Battle, 22 April 2004.' When one dies so tragically young, there is no finer epitaph. And my heart swells with pride knowing that this nation still produces such fine young men."

And later:

"John McCain also noticed that. The U.S. senator from Arizona, five years a prisoner of war in Vietnam, called himself "heartbroken" by the Ranger's death. He said he saw in Tillman's choice of duty "an inspiration to all of us to reclaim the essential public-spiritedness of Americans that many of us ... had worried was no longer our common distinguishing trait."


Compare some of these Tillman-related thoughts with Solzhenitsyn's famous (and still very topical) Harvard commencement address in 1978.

A key graf:

"A decline in courage may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days. The Western world has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party and of course in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite, causing an impression of loss of courage by the entire society. Of course there are many courageous individuals but they have no determining influence on public life. Political and intellectual bureaucrats show depression, passivity and perplexity in their actions and in their statements and even more so in theoretical reflections to explain how realistic, reasonable as well as intellectually and even morally warranted it is to base state policies on weakness and cowardice. And decline in courage is ironically emphasized by occasional explosions of anger and inflexibility on the part of the same bureaucrats when dealing with weak governments and weak countries, not supported by anyone, or with currents which cannot offer any resistance. But they get tongue-tied and paralyzed when they deal with powerful governments and threatening forces, with aggressors and international terrorists.

Should one point out that from ancient times decline in courage has been considered the beginning of the end?"

Yes, there has been something of a courage deficit among too many of our intellectual elites over the past decades (think of the moronic excesses of political correctness, of Clintonian pinprick attacks on pharmaceutical plants in Kharthoum, of the fanciful notion of zero-casualty wars...)

This is linked to a real dearth in public spiritedness in today's America (indeed, in the West generally).

Think of how Western society has become overly emasculated by legalisms, by bouts of boredom (often borne of material wealth) helping lead to a buffoonish culture--as evidenced by reality television (look 'ma--danger afoot!), legions of clueless commentators (on both sides of the political spectrum) flooding the airwaves and spouting off imbecilities with breathless abandon, flourishing cottage industries supplying botox injections and chin tucks, and so much more deeply underwhelming fare we are (all but) forced to imbibe daily.

It is, for instance, truly staggering that millions will tune in to spectate as some risible character looks to find his gold-digging bride on shows like The Bachelor.

Much of this, of course, derives from an obsession with self (often under the guise of misguided notions of 'self-improvement').

As Solzhenitsyn put it:

"When the modern Western States were created, the following principle was proclaimed: governments are meant to serve man, and man lives to be free to pursue happiness. (See, for example, the American Declaration). Now at last during past decades technical and social progress has permitted the realization of such aspirations: the welfare state. Every citizen has been granted the desired freedom and material goods in such quantity and of such quality as to guarantee in theory the achievement of happiness, in the morally inferior sense which has come into being during those same decades. In the process, however, one psychological detail has been overlooked: the constant desire to have still more things and a still better life and the struggle to obtain them imprints many Western faces with worry and even depression, though it is customary to conceal such feelings. Active and tense competition permeates all human thoughts without opening a way to free spiritual development. The individual's independence from many types of state pressure has been guaranteed; the majority of people have been granted well-being to an extent their fathers and grandfathers could not even dream about; it has become possible to raise young people according to these ideals, leading them to physical splendor, happiness, possession of material goods, money and leisure, to an almost unlimited freedom of enjoyment. So who should now renounce all this, why and for what should one risk one's precious life in defense of common values, and particularly in such nebulous cases when the security of one's nation must be defended in a distant country?"

Why indeed?

But Pat Tillman did, and he deserves to be honored for it.

Listen, I'm no shill for Solzhenistsyn.

He can get carried away at times (see some of his autocratic and overly religious reveille tendencies)--he might even be, all told, considered a flawed thinker (btw, he is widely mocked and viewed as irrelevant in today's Russia--albeit often unfairly, in my view).

But there is a lot to digest with respect and attention in his thought and literature.

I hope to have more on him soon.

Posted by Gregory at April 28, 2004 09:41 AM
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