May 22, 2004

STRENGTH (part 1)

First of all, let’s start this little journey by mentioning The Gloom. Fallujah. Abu Ghraib. Bodies hanging on bridges. Prisoners standing on boxes.

Listen troops, let’s get this straight right off the bat: it’s only a catastrophe. It’s nothing more than a major disaster. I’m not being cynical, or arch, or “ironic.” I am deadly serious.

We have seen two months of what looks like non-stop catastrophe, and we will see more, and maybe worse, before we are through. Here is my well-reasoned, historically researched, deeply nuanced opinion: Buck up. This war will be over when we say it is over, and not a second before.

When Santa Ana’s men ran up the red flag and his band played the Deguello –- “The Throat Cutting” -- it must have made the men and women in the Alamo sick and weak in the knees. But it did not have the demoralizing effect that the Mexican dictator intended. Rather, it hardened the defenders. They did not run, and we are not going to run either, and Dan Rather and Ted Koppel and the rest can play all the goddam dirges they want to. The Alamo itself was a military disaster, a catastrophe. And when Sam Houston retreated from and kept evading Santa Ana’s army, he was called a coward and a traitor -– afraid to fight, not tough enough to do what was necessary. Sam Houston was a deeply flawed man, but he had thick skin and that in itself goes a long way when you are planning deep. Sam Houston didn’t give a tinker’s damn about Glory or Honor. Sam Houston wanted Texas. Like the equally wily and patient George Washington before him, Sam Houston wanted to win. And they did win. And that is why there will be no major metropolitan area named Kerry.

We ran from Fallujah, we hear; those murdering bastards are laughing at us. We’re not tough enough to win. Uh, not quite. Hundreds of those murdering bastards are dead. They are not laughing at anything.

The Fallujah bridge pissed off a lot of Americans. It really made us see red. Would we be disgusted enough to walk away, or furious enough to go in and indiscriminately slaughter thousands? The architects of that atrocity must have thought they nailed that perfect tic-tac-toe move: we go one way, they win on the other. Quoth Den Beste: the object of Terrorism is to provoke an overwhelming response. And the response to that response is the political and strategic goal of the terrorist.

Al Sadr, you less than magnificent bastard! We read your book!

Blah, blah…war is lost…blah blah blah... disaster, wreck and ruin… Only it turns out that the United States military may have produced a few life-long professionals who actually hold victory more precious than crowing loud. Many of us value reason over emotion, and reality over wishful thinking. Well, we did not level Fallujah, and we did not do it because those bodies on that bridge were bait, pure and simple. We didn’t take the bait. Or, I should say, our military didn’t take the bait; I took it, hook line and sinker. I wanted to level the goddam city and then walk away and let them kill each other. Now, as Al Sadr’s support evaporates; as his militia thugs are being hunted and killed by shadowy Iraqi ghost armies and extremely corporeal Marines; as his fellow Mullahs condemn him; as Iraqi demonstrations against him and all that poison and ruin he represents continue to rise; as his headquarters are destroyed, his most vicious ‘soldiers’ killed in their own backyards, playing defense in an urban environment against Marines whose skill and tactics stagger credulity for their expertise and success -– now, we must ask ourselves: did you want to feel good or did you want to win?

I want to win. I was an idiot for taking that bait. And I thank God daily that America makes better, smarter people than me.

The average Iraqi knows full well we can bomb and pummel the hell out of anything we want. But this was different. This took patience, and a willingness to get inside the enemy strategy. This took commitment, and persistence. It was cunning. These people know how strong our military might is; no need to re-teach that lesson. But strong and cunning? Strong and cunning and patient? That puts the Arab imagination into overdrive.

The threat of the vast Shiite uprising that loomed in early April has largely evaporated. Things are still very tense. They may again get worse; they may become horrible. But we will win this because we are not going home until we do. This is slowly beginning to dawn on some of the hardest heads in Iraq. When Iraqi leaders start saying things like we’d better help the Americans stabilize the country, because they will not go away until we do –- well, that is precisely, exactly the kind of victory we need. We need that attitude. There is a shred of can-do self-reliance in those words. Al-Sadr will either end up like Uday and Qusay, or Saddam. Those are his remaining choices.

Fallujah still stings proud people like me. I want them to admit the obvious: that we kicked their ass and can do so again at the drop of a hat. But confidence, the confidence borne of real strength, tells me I might perhaps be wrong. Victory may be more important than my personal pride; indeed more important than the pride of the US Marine Corps. The Marines are all about pride, but their mission is Victory, and nothing gets between a Marine and Victory.

So the next time you hear this Graveyard of Americans bull, do what I do: close your eyes, picture Colonel Klink, and remember that no one has ever escaped from Stalag 13.

Because we did not take the bait, because we so clearly were not the staggering, drunken, imbecile Giant we are accused of being by our European betters, we denied the Syrians and the Iranians the general, nationwide uprising they so dearly wanted. Idiots. We vote in November. They played their hand now. Kerry and Bush are in a dead heat after eight weeks of unrelenting catastrophe for Bush. And there is such a thing as catastrophe fatigue.

On May 7th, 1864, the Army of the Potomac had once again been thrashed at the hands of Robert E. Lee. Their newest commander, US Grant, had been beaten, and beaten badly, in his first contest with the legendary Southerner. Beaten worse than “Fighting Joe” Hooker had been on the same ground at Chancellorsville. Beaten as badly as Burnside, and Pope, and McClellan had been beaten before the endless retreats, the shame, and the false hope of a never-ending parade of new commanders. They were a beaten Army. And as they marched out of the Wilderness to camp back in Washington, they had nothing to look forward to but new commanders, new catastrophes, new humiliations, and new defeats.

But when they came to the familiar crossroads, a buzz ran down the line. Some solders described it as a wave of emotion -– disbelief, mostly -– others, as static electricity. It was a murmur, then a shout, and then a cheer. They were not turning North. They were turning South, trying to steal a March on Bobby Lee! They had been beaten and bloodied as badly as any time in their seemingly endless string of utter defeats. But now they were marching South, to try again.

The simplest farm boy in that line that night knew, with certainty, that they could suffer as many catastrophes and disasters as fate could throw at them, for while they might be defeated again and again, they only had to succeed once.

So remember this; tattoo this in backward letters on your forehead so you can read it when you brush your teeth each morning: the most deadly, most awful and destructive war in our history was won not by a series of tactical and strategic masterstrokes, but rather by an endless, relentless series of monumental, hair-rending, soul-destroying blunders, missteps and debacles…that never stopped until they had won total, complete, utter, victory.

When Lee announced the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, many of his soldiers wept. As it began to dawn on them, and they started along the winding dirt roads that led to home, they would say things to each other like One Johnny Reb was worth ten Yankees on the battlefield and Give us time to get a crop in and we’ll go back and lick ‘em again. They were proud and tough people trying to retain their pride in the face of the worst defeat ever suffered by Americans. We didn’t club these people to death to show them they were wrong. We left them what was left of their pride; we’d need those people to be good citizens again someday. Victory is enough.

That takes strength.

Catastrophes are only catastrophes; disasters are only disasters: they are not the end unless we decide they are. And so, let us, right here and now, decide that they are not the end. Because this is something we need to understand, something we need to feel deep in our bones: we are so strong, as a nation, that nothing can stop us when we set our minds to something. Nothing. We can only stop ourselves. All the players know this to be true. Al Sadr knows it. France and Germany know it. The Jihadis know it. The UN knows it. You and I know it.

Because we, the American people, are the only ones who can decide whether or not to give up in failure and defeat or carry on to the victory of a free and stable Iraq, we find that we ourselves -– the common, average Americans -– are to be the battleground. We are the soldiers. We are the weapons. We are the targets of the enemy strategy. Our hearts, our spirit -– that is the front line. All the players know this, too. This is our war, more than it is the Marines’ or Al Quaeda’s.

Our war. Ours.

So we need to find the strength to fight this war. And this search will not be a quick or easy one, for our strength lies both obvious and on the surface in some places, and in other places, very, very deep.

This is a critical, essential search, for the manifest strengths and beauty of our Western Society have been under such sustained attack, for so long, that we are beginning to believe this parade of lies launched against us. We have to stop it. We have to fight it. And we have to beat it. On this everything else depends.

This will be a long and circuitous journey. I’m sorry; I wish it were not so. But we must, we must find the strength we need to sustain our spirits against an onrush of negativity, pessimism, defeatism and despair that is so deadly precisely because it is so antithetical to the natural character of the American people.

Morale, my friends. Morale. Humor and confidence are our best friends now. And so, as we begin our journey through Mordor toward the heart of Mt Doom, on this mission to defeat this pernicious attack on our strength, remember this:

Americans eat disasters and crap hand grenades. And I got your quagmire right here.

It seems fairly incredible to me that I have to spend some time on whether or not Radical Islam -– which we will, for the sake of the discussion, call Islamist -– is really a threat to the West in general and the United States in particular.

But the fact remains that those determined to weaken our will are methodically trying to undermine every aspect of what we Westerners refer to as “reality.” So, like a giant and unusually serious game of Whack-A-Mole, we have to spend time going around clubbing arguments that should be blatantly obvious.

Remember, links in a chain of argument. Grab the hammer and tongs, and let’s get to work:

To those who claim that Islamist terrorists do not pose a direct, immediate and potent threat to the United States, I would like to condense the next four thousand words of this argument thusly:





One of the most vilified people on the internet right now is Charles Johnson at Little Green Footballs. It is the only website that I will check at least twice a day. Charles has been called a racist, a bigot, and much worse. He is personally threatened daily. Charles is attacked personally, and with a viciousness rare even among the most vicious out there, because there really is no other defense against the arguments that LGF makes, many times a day, than to attack the man.

But Charles Johnson is not the issue. I could counter with the fact that I have met him several times; he is, like Steven Den Beste, an extraordinarily gracious, soft-spoken and gentle man. None of this matters.

What does matter is what Little Green Footballs does on a daily basis. Charles Johnson does not sit down and write five essays a day on why he thinks Radical Islam is a deranged and poisonous and growing Death Cult. Charles simply links to newspaper articles, usually from Arab and Islamist sources like Arab News and Reuters, that show without question that Radical Islam is calling, daily and nightly, for the destruction of the West, the murder, enslavement or conversion of its citizens, and the establishment of a world-wide Caliphate where Shariah -– Islamic Law -– is the only law.

This is not his opinion. This is not the opinion of Western editorial writers. This is a filter (and of course it’s a filter -– that’s why it is useful) that looks at Islamist thinking and behavior daily and shows what Islamists are saying and doing in their own words.

I and many others view Little Green Footballs as the equivalent of the Cold War’s D.E.W. Line -– the Distant Early Warning radar system that searched the Polar skies, looking for incoming threats. This is why Charles is attacked personally. He is attacked personally in an attempt to discredit him and his website because the fact remains that almost everything he links to are articles by Islamists, about Radical Islam -– and what they say in their own words is so totally compelling, damning, and downright blood curdling that anyone not seeing the danger brewing does not deserve to be part of this argument.

Now, the source of this hatred towards the West is the source of endless books and analysis and articles and thesis papers. To this interminable Gordian Knot of causes and effects and counter-causes and grievances, I can only add this:

I don’t care.

If someone is coming toward me in an alley, knife drawn, I do not give a damn why their socio-economic status may have had an influence in coloring their worldview regarding income redistribution. To take such a position rather than preparing to defend yourself is suicide, and we will come back to this later because it is a key to understanding what is going on out there.

Radical Islam is a religious cult based on constant, never-ending warfare. I personally am aware of no other religious tracts that are as filled with page after page of conquest, strategy and military jargon. Islam rose to prominence under the sword, and the Prophet was, above all else, a military commander determined to spread his faith by conquest and enslavement. Islam has rules for when prisoners should be released, ransomed, sold into slavery or have their throats cut. As a matter of fact, Islam has rules for everything. What to eat, how to wash, where and when and in which direction to pray. Islam has rules for the treatment of animals and the treatment of women. There is no part of daily life that is not specifically addressed, sanctioned or outlawed by Islam.

And contrary to post 9/11 spin, the most accurate translation of Islam is not “peace.” Prior to 9/11, the nearly universally accepted translation of the concept of Islam was “submission.”

Of course, submission sounds a little more prickly to American ears. Matter of fact, it’s hard to imagine a word that would so enrage the American psyche than the concept of submission. “Tyranny,” perhaps, but tyranny is only what we are expected to submit to. Americans have fought against submission and Tyranny since there have been Americans. That’s what we do. That is who we are. And ever since the Revolution against submitting to the tyranny of King George, American revulsion with the entire idea of submission has been watered each generation by fresh waves of immigrants who have fled here escaping submission.

And here are two final thoughts on this issue:

First, Islam philosophically divides the world into two camps -– these are Islam’s definitions, not mine -- Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb. Dar al-Islam is the House of Submission. Dar Al-Harb is not the House of Infidels. It is the House of War.

I, and others who see a terrible threat in the growth of Radical Islam, did not invent this term. It is considerably older than my humble self; besides, I do not speak Arabic. It is their term. And unlike people determined to hide until this problem goes away, I am determined to take Islam at its word.

Finally, consider this: Muslims are angrily at war with Buddhists in East Asia. Muslims are enraged with Animists in Africa. Of course, none of this approaches the sheer hatred that Muslims bear towards Hindus in the South Asia peninsula. And this foaming hatred blanches compared to the white-hot fury Muslims feel for the Christian American Crusaders. And this fury is but a candle to the incandescent, boiling, supernova of murder they feel toward the Jews.

Does anyone beside me detect a pattern here? You know, my Dad told me once, “Bill, if more than three people in your life are utter, total assholes, then maybe it’s you.”

I am not a religious person. I do not have a horse in this race. But everywhere I turn in the world today, I see Radical Islam -- and not the United States -- at war with everybody. And I have no choice but to conclude that this is not a blip or a hiccup. It is a growing threat. And it needs to be met head-on. Right now.

Have I slandered 1.5 billion people? I don’t know. Have I? I speak of Radical Islam. I speak of people determined to kill and terrorize to impose their religion on the rest of the world. If you are a Muslim who is against these practices, you have my respect and admiration. And, as with all other religions in the United States, I will as passionately defend your right to practice your faith in harmony and goodwill as I attack those who may carry the Crescent far, far away from your peaceful and devout beliefs. But I will not pretend I do not see and hear what I see and hear every single day, just because you may not like to hear it. That is not something I or millions of my countrymen will submit to. Accept, or at the very least, understand that right now. I say this for both our sakes. More on this later.

The philosophy of Radical Islam is at war, not only with America and the West, but with everything that is not Radical Islam. So, do they hate us? Yes they do. Judging from their street demonstrations, and the rhetoric issuing from their madrassas, does anyone seriously doubt that if millions were given a button that would wipe us from the face of the earth, they would push it?

I don’t see how any rational person could deny this is so.

They are working on that button, by the way.

WHACK! On to the next mole.

Those who would have you doubt America and the West want you to believe that there are many legitimate grievances that Islamists have against us. They argue that they are only acting against American and Western aggression, colonization and arrogance. So it’s all our fault and if we’d just come home and mind our own business everything would be dandy.

Unfortunately, when you actually listen to the Islamists talk about their “grievances” (hey, Reuters? These “quotes” really do perform as advertised!), they will start at the Crusades and work their way forward, in no particular order. Sadly for those who want you to believe they hate us for what we do rather than who we are, Uncle Sam was not at that fight -- a fact that might be apparent had their historical knowledge predated 1968. Americans were not only quite spectacularly underrepresented at the Crusades…we in fact do not make much of a dent on the Islamist bloody roll-call until the middle 1970’s. Before then it was the Franks and the Spanish and the English and just about everyone else.

Why are these people still seething about things that happened a thousand years ago?

Well, because it’s been that long since Islam was a dominant force in the world. It’s like watching a Red Sox fan pining for the days of the Babe and the lost glory of that 1918 season.

The truly remarkable, astonishing and galling issue here is that while the multi-culturalists are the ones shrieking the loudest about understanding different people and different values, they are the ones absolutely least willing to take themselves at their own words and so they consistently apply western thought models to people who think nothing like we do.

We are a co-operative society. Compromise, agreements and webs of trust run through our culture in mind-blowing levels of complexity. The most virulent Islamist Arabs, on the other hand, live by completely different rules and values, and time and again we who should know better by now refuse to try to see things through Arab eyes because the view is frankly so jaundiced and horrible we really can’t believe what we are seeing.

Honor and shame trump everything in that world. A pithy sentence, eh? So instead, think about what it would take for you to kill your own daughter with a knife, with your bare hands, because she was seen in the company of a man not her husband or a relative. Think about that. Think long and hard. What kind of hatred and shame could drive a human being to do such a thing? What kind of pressures does that society bring to bear on an individual to make him capable of that? How different is their view of women, of family, of honor and shame? What would it take for you to murder your daughter with a knife, or a knotted cord -– with your own two hands and against her pleading, her protestations, and her begging for her life? If your response wasn’t “there is nothing that could make me do that,” then stop reading right here and get the hell off my property.

Multi-culturalists will respond that Honor Killings are not the norm and not representative of Islam and life under Shariah. We can debate the exact numbers of these horrors for days, but the fact remains that no matter how many individual cases there are, there is de facto legal protection for committing these crimes. When Islamic schoolgirls attempting to escape a burning building with their faces uncovered were sent back inside to die by the religious police rather than dishonor Islam…well, that is a brush that will carry a lot of tar.

There is a simple enough reason why these Islamists so hate and despise the West, and America especially. It has little to do with our foreign policy. We have taken the side of oppressed Muslims in Kosovo, Chechnya, Kuwait and many other places. We spend billions of dollars a year in aid to Egypt. We’re still waiting for the love to pour in.

No, this is not about reason, as we understand the term. This is about shame, it is about denial, and it is about transcendent revenge. Shouts of Allahu Akbar! were not overdubbed by western propaganda agencies as they sawed through Nick Berg’s throat and twisted off his head. Those are authentic. As they got down to their filthy work they were screaming, over and over in a fit of religious ecstasy: God is Great! Nick Berg was nothing more than an animal sacrifice to them. That is Radical Islam.

The only thing that will appease them is your blood. All of it. Remember that.

They are the willing architects of their own brutal oppression. They are dirt poor -– not because of what was done to or stolen from them, but because of what they have done to themselves. This harsh, vicious, bitter patriarchy of control and domination has systematically and methodically wrung out of life the smallest joy or happiness. The Ayatollah Khomeini, the Santa Claus for your eternity in hell, famously remarked that:

"Allah did not create man so that he could have fun. The aim of creation was for mankind to be put to the test through hardship and prayer. An Islamic regime must be serious in every field. There are no jokes in Islam. There is no humor in Islam. There is no fun in Islam. There can be no fun and joy in whatever is serious."

And yet, in a very different desert on the far side of the world, sits... Vegas.

There was no issuance of demands prior to 9/11. 9/11 was not a response to acts taken by the United States government. 9/11 was never about what we have done. 9/11 was an attack on Who. We. Are.

In the world today there exists a 21st Century society with unimagined freedoms, opportunities and protections for the individual. Opposing it is a 12th Century religious cult bound in concepts of tribalism, shame, revenge and envy.

The presence of Las Vegas makes a mockery of these people’s lives. They have been taught that they are God’s own chosen people -– but they are humans, as human as we are. And so, shackled to an ideology determined to wring every precious drop of enjoyment out of life, they look across the world to see a group of people enthusiastically breaking every commandment they were ever given, and not only do these heathens succeed and prosper beyond the wildest tales from the Arabian Nights, but they are enjoying themselves beyond any measure as they do so. These tortured souls can vaguely guess, lying in bed late at night, that even the lowest and most common working man or woman in America can, once a year, travel to Las Vegas and live a few days in luxury unknown to the grandest Caliph in the very flower of their history.

You’ve got to admit, if that were you -– that would suck.

The success, the strength -– indeed, the very presence of the United States tells them that their religion has been lying to them. They, who follow every stricture, who submit to every admonition, who put away every single shred of enjoyment, have been told that they are the chosen people of God, and that the World shall become their domain and its citizens their slaves and concubines.

Not happening.

This fact is not lost on them. They are told it is because they are not devout enough. They are pointed toward 19 Warriors of the Faith, pure in heart, and what they can accomplish against the Great Satan. What other explanation can they accept? That their entire religion, their entire culture, their entire history of failure, torture, hardship and ruin is their own fault? That it will not, it cannot change, and must be discarded? That there is nothing for them but more of the same endless misery, while everyone else in the world grows richer, freer, and happier?

No. That is not going to happen. We are their test. God has promised them the world, and, if you will forgive the trendy internet reference: all our base are belong to them.

To them, we and our pursuit of happiness are intolerable. More intolerable is the incredible appeal our culture has for people -– especially young people -– all around the world.

Our 21st Century society can easily survive the cultural appeals of their 12th century one. The reverse is certainly not true. Radical Islam, without Jihad, without the promise of elevation and achievement through death, cannot survive in the world we have created.

One way or another, it is going to be Them or Us. Everybody knows this, and no one will say it.

Because this conflict is about who we are, rather than what we do, defeat for us means not stepping back from places where others claim we have no business, but rather the destruction of this society, and the values upon which it is based.

And so the attacks on our foundations continue, a concerted and coordinated effort to define our history and our culture as being unworthy of defense and antithetical to humanity’s greater good.

Having spent untold hours hovering in the electronic cafes, meeting halls and sewers that link us in this world wide web, I see a disgust for and frankly a complete disbelief in the amount of patriotism displayed by the average American.

I have seen ugly, mindless displays of American pride and arrogance. In some of this, I think, I see the hurt and disbelief, and the growing sense of betrayal and shock at the abandonment and slander coming at us from those formerly thought friends whom we have helped often and dearly in the past when their existence was threatened and their own buildings lay in smoke and ruin. Those friends that have remained are especially dear to us now. I suspect we will not forget either camp for a very long time indeed.

There was a time when most every nationality expressed a burning pride in who and what they were and had become. I have always understood and admired this essential pride in one’s self and their extended national family.

Many in Europe, especially, have renounced such feelings of nationalism. Nationalism has not played out all too happily in Europe, and so we, who have had nothing but success in this regard, are expected to toe the line and voluntarily scrap our shiny new automobile because the neighbors went and ran theirs over a cliff.

What is not apparent from history is the simple fact that being an American is a choice. It is a choice we have all made to be here, or to come here, either ourselves, or our parents, or their parents. It is a choice new millions make annually. And any of us can leave, at any time. No one not a part of this experiment, no one who does not hold the truths we live by to be self-evident, can have a glimmer, a nanosecond flash of how deeply and brightly that pride burns inside so many of us.

This is a strength -– I believe the only strength, when all is said and done -– that has the power to stand up to these forces of darkness gathering once again in the margins of the world. It is another reason why those who would strangle liberty, individuality and joy hate and fear us so greatly.

And so the attack on our self-image is essential to weakening our fundamental strength. And it has been accelerating where we are the most vulnerable, in our schools and universities, launched by the most self-obsessed, pampered generation in our history: mine.

Do you disagree?

Well, let’s start by looking at how we view ourselves now, in our antiseptic, safe and bland reality, against how we viewed ourselves in the crucible of our existence when our personal lives and the life of our Republic hung in the balance.

On the one hand, we’re lucky. We’ve got a history that is so packed with heroism and courage and strength that the hard part is figuring out which example to start with. It could be much worse, n’est pas?

History is woven from a collection of snapshots, flashbulbs in a dark room revealing instants frozen in time and memory. Behind the boilerplate of historians are moments so fragile and ephemeral we can catch and preserve but the thinnest fraction of them. After the Civil War, many millions of delicate glass negatives were used as panes in greenhouses all across a nation determined to forget the horror and sorrow and move on with life once more. How many proud or grim expressions have simply faded slowly away in the sunlight of the succeeding years, ghosts lining the walls and ceilings of hothouses in Maine and Alabama, growing dimmer, and fainter…and…gone.

From the eve of that nightmare, that horror that so many had seen coming for so long, history and chance have snatched one of those snapshots back from eternity. Study it. Take your time. Soak it up. Even better, whisper it aloud, if you dare -– these words need human breath again. It is a dried and brittle flower, pressed into the book of our collective memory; a snapshot of American thought from 143 years ago…

Shortly before the first great battle of the Civil War, a Major of the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers wrote to his wife in Smithfield. (The unedited text is here: )

July the 14th, 1861

Washington D.C.

My very dear Sarah:

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days -- perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.

If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing -- perfectly willing -- to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.

But, my dear wife, when I know that with my own joys I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with cares and sorrows -- when, after having eaten for long years the bitter fruit of orphanage myself, I must offer it as their only sustenance to my dear little children -- is it weak or dishonorable, while the banner of my purpose floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle in fierce, though useless, contest with my love of country?

Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.

The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when God willing, we might still have lived and loved together and seen our sons grow up to honorable manhood around us.

My dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.

Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have oftentimes been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.

But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the garish day and in the darkest night -- amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours -- always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.

Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.

Major Sullivan Ballou was killed one week later at the first battle of Bull Run.

The most remarkable thing about this letter is simply how ordinary such thoughts were in that day. Many, of course, have heard of this letter thanks to Ken Burns and his amazing documentary, The Civil War. Many have said it might be the greatest love letter ever written. And I would agree, but look deeper…

Major Ballou is, in effect, writing this letter as an apology. It is an apology to his wife and sons that his love for his country has called him away, to leave that which he loves so dearly alone and undefended in a world very much harder than our own. Until I read the unedited letter I myself never suspected that Maj. Ballou was an orphan; how bitter it must have been for him to willingly condemn his own two children to a fatherless existence in the days before life insurance and Social Security.

Look at how this man views his country. Here he stands, a beacon of love and sacrifice against the gloom of historical anonymity; a man ready to sacrifice his overwhelming love for his wife, his children and his life for a cause which he believes supercedes them all. More than anything, this letter speaks of a selflessness and gratitude that surpasses modern understanding. There is not a shred of victimhood, not a whiff of regret or bitterness from start to finish.

There are people who will read this letter and cry. I am one of those people. To me, the sentiments expressed with such casual eloquence are the absolute pinnacle of what the endless human struggle entails: Courage. Honor. Duty.

And yet, and yet…for all those hard virtues, how much love is in this letter? How much joy? How much beauty? How much pride and dignity? How much confidence? How much compassion? How much sacrifice?

How much strength is in that letter?

There are people who will read this letter and call men like Sullivan Ballou idiots and fools. They will mock those values and say they wasted their lives, and abandoned their children, to die horrible deaths at the hands of their brothers for no reason other than foolish jingoism and false glory. Such people will say that he was a mere cog in the interests of rich and powerful men struggling only to grow their own wallets. But Sullivan Ballou is above their derision and deconstruction. He had a level of courage and moral clarity so far beyond these critics that it goes through them, invisible and undetected, like an X-ray.

Those people will never know what he knew, and what some of us struggle to retain today. It is beyond them, as far beyond them as Shakespeare is to a slug or a sponge. I pity these gutless, heartless, soulless, guilt-ridden, self-obsessed, self-hating people. But every generation, it seems, we glorify the self ever further, place personality further above character, and steadily create from the security and prosperity provided by better men and women a wave of smug, unprincipled, ungrateful Narcissists who can see nothing beyond the nearest mirror and hold nothing sacred but themselves. Nothing is worth dying for to such people, because to them, the end of them means the end of everything. I once heard such a tower of self-obsession, Dr. Helen Caldicott, admit exactly such a thing on Public Radio. One of the reasons she fights so hard against nuclear war, she said, was because she can’t shake the idea that if she were to die that would be the end of…well, the entire Universe.

I wasn’t shocked that she said it. I was only shocked that she admitted it.

And you mark these words: in another 143 years, people like you and me will still be reading this letter and weeping at its selfless, immortal beauty, while people like Ted Rall will be as anonymous and forgotten as some crude pornographic cartoon carved in an outhouse wall in 1861.

In 1861, this love for and obligation to the ideals of America was common. The selflessness, the recognition of things greater than one’s self -– earthbound, temporal realities like the ability to say what one wants, go where one wants, to live a life free from the dictates of the powerful, and the freedom to defend one’s self and family from the depredations of the cruel and the ruthless -– these qualities were common, if not ubiquitous, in the America of 143 years ago

Let’s look at another snapshot, shall we? Here’s one that’s a little more recent -– October 2nd, 2001:

Here is a song from the point of view of someone free and powerful, admired and loved; a person possessing the most fabulous gifts imaginable, a voice that has known no hardship, no fear, no illness and no enemies capable of even giving challenge, let alone loss and defeat:

By Five for Fighting

I can’t stand to fly
I’m not that naive
I’m just out to find
The better part of me

I’m more than a bird... I’m more than a plane
More than some pretty face beside a train
It’s not easy to be me

Wish that I could cry
Fall upon my knees
Find a way to lie
About a home I’ll never see

It may sound absurd... but don’t be naive
Even heroes have the right to bleed
I may be disturbed... but won’t you concede
Even heroes have the right to dream
It’s not easy to be me

Up, up and away... away from me
It’s all right... you can all sleep sound tonight
I’m not crazy... or anything...

I can’t stand to fly
I’m not that naive
Men weren’t meant to ride
With clouds between their knees

I’m only a man in a silly red sheet
Digging for kryptonite on this one way street
Only a man in a funny red sheet
Looking for special things inside of me
Inside of me
Inside me
Yeah, inside me
Inside of me

I’m only a man
In a funny red sheet
I’m only a man
Looking for a dream

I’m only a man
In a funny red sheet
And it’s not easy, hmmm, hmmm, hmmm...

Its not easy to be me

It’s not easy to be me. Dear God, no -– the horror of it all. Immortal, impervious…faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. How gauche. How tacky. How totally uncool.

This modern Superman -- this symbol, this America -- hates who he is and what he has become: imprisoned in his ridiculous red and blue sheet, desperate to go up, up and away, as far away from himself as possible. There he stands, in a filthy city doorway: stooped, cynical, a broken man, digging for Kryptonite -– digging for death -- on this one-way street -- to Hell. Suicide. Ah, there you go. He’ll be dead and then we’ll all be sorry.

So this is Superman for the new millennium: a charcoal-gray, lower-case ‘s’ on a black T-shirt, curled on a filthy mattress in the basement, hands pressed to his ears to tune out the screams for help from Lois Lane whose ankles he can see as she is murdered up in the alley. Superman: cowering, whimpering, the ultimate victim, who dies from stomach cancer at age 24 from endlessly using his X-ray vision to stare at his own navel.

Gone is the icon of great strength in the service of great good. Gone too is a Superman raised by a simple, honest man and woman on a farm in Kansas, who taught him that there is a difference between good and evil, right and wrong, and how to recognize it, and what to do about it. In his place sits a brooding, whining victim, an emotionally abandoned child raised by a Belgian nanny in a mansion in Bel Aire, hating his father for not producing his student-film screenplay. If our original Superman had nightmares, they were no doubt about the times he had failed to act, failed to save, failed to rescue. This Superman fears nothing more than being caught doing a good deed -- like there’s any difference between “good” and “evil.” They’re just words, cultural relics from a bloody past leading us ever deeper into the darkness of a pointless and meaningless future. It doesn’t matter anyway. Nothing matters. Not even me. Especially me.

The Superman -– the America -– that most of us love and admire is lovable and admirable because they both personify the ideal of strength against evil -- and not just brute force, physical strength, but something far more rare and precious: the ability to tell right from wrong, and the courage to do something about it.

Somewhere along the way some people have let their compassion for the weak and the victimized in society trump everything else -- everything. A growing number of people no longer wish to protect the weak and defend the victim -– they wish to become them. As champions of the victimized, it stands to reason that the more victims, the more important the champion. And so the cult of the Victim continues to grow. And since it takes strength to oppress the weak and the defenseless, but strength and courage to oppose it, those without courage have made strength the enemy instead of oppression.

Of course, for a class of people that fetishizes weakness and idolizes victimhood, the entire archetype of a Superman simply has to go. Good and unimaginably strong? Please! After all, how will the Big Brains in the teacher’s lounge be able to control such a boy? Idea! Perhaps we should drill into this Kent kid the notion that if we can’t all fly faster than a speeding bullet, then no one should. It’s not fair to all the other kids at Smallville High. Yes, that might work: he’s a sucker for wanting to play fair and do the right thing. After all, better we should all drown when the dam breaks than lower anyone’s self esteem.

No, this fellow’s got to go.

Of course, you can’t just walk up and kill Superman. No. Too strong for that, the bastard.

We’ll have to talk him into committing suicide.

And that is exactly what some people have been trying to do for no less than the 66 years Superman has been with us.

(continued below)

Posted by Proteus at May 22, 2004 5:40 AM