February 25, 2021, 22:01

Why America Honors Her Heroes

Why America Honors Her Heroes

A new movie from the Netherlands, The Resistance Banker, now on Netflix, tells the true story of two Dutch bankers—a pair of brothers—who used their financial wiles to help underwrite the resistance to the Nazis in World War II. One of the brothers, Walraven van Hall, was caught, tortured, and executed by the Germans in 1945. After the war, the other brother, Gijsbert van Hall, was elected mayor of Amsterdam and served in that post for more than a decade.

Thus the film is a reminder that the stakes for patriotism can indeed be high. War is hell, of course, but in its hellishness, it’s also a proving ground for future political leadership.

In 1776, Thomas Paine, a patriot in a different struggle, the American Revolution, wrote about the inherent threshing out process of fighting: “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country.” And yet, Paine continued, “He that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”

In Holland, a grateful nation’s reward for “Wally” van Hall is indeed glorious. Today, there’s a monument to him across from the Dutch Central Bank, as well as another memorial to him and to others killed by the Nazis at the site of their martyrdom. (In addition, for his work helping Dutch Jews escape the Holocaust, Van Hall is immortalized at Yad Vashem in Israel; he was also awarded posthumously the U.S. Medal of Freedom.)

Every country finds a way to reward its heroes. It’s a matter of solemn obligation, to be sure, and yet over the long run, it’s also a matter of enlightened national self-interest. That is, a nation needs heroes, not just to provide inspiring role models, but for the sake of its very survival. After all, from time to time, every country faces a mortal threat to its existence, and so it must, in order to survive, have a reservoir of citizens who are willing to stand up and fight for it. Otherwise, the nation ends up on the ash heap of history, alongside Gascony, Wallachia, and the Iroquois Confederacy.

Thus the onus is on a country to figure out a way to inculcate patriotic virtue into its population. In 1785, Noah Webster, he of dictionary fame, took up this challenge in a compendium of inspiration, somewhat grandiosely entitled An American Selection of Lessons in Reading and Speaking Calculated to Improve the Minds and Refine the Taste of Youth. As Webster wrote in the preface, “In the choice of pieces, I have been attentive to the political interests of America.” In the pages that follow, Webster excerpts patriotic speeches from Cicero to Shakespeare, and yet the emphasis is on Americans, starting with George Washington.

A key theme of Webster’s book is the encouragement of martial valor and a spirit of self-sacrifice. Because what Winston Churchill said is true: without courage, all the other virtues are worthless. So Webster included John Hancock’s thunderous oration of March 5, 1774, on the fourth anniversary of the Boson Massacre. Speaking of those slain patriots, Hancock declared, “Death is the creature of a poltroon’s brains; ’tis immortality to sacrifice ourselves for the salvation of our country.”

So it’s a fitting and proper duty for every generation to find a way to pay tribute to those who served and sacrificed. War literature, especially war movies, might have their guts-and-glory appeal, but the best of them have an appropriate solemnity of purpose. Thus it is, for example, that Steven Spielberg’s 1998 film Saving Private Ryan begins and ends with an elderly veteran visiting the D-Day cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, overlooking the Normandy beaches.

Moreover, each new generation can find innovative ways to pay homage. For instance, Peter Jackson’s new documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, features colorized and otherwise enhanced video footage from World War I. (The title of the film comes from Laurence Binyon’s 1914 poem of tribute, For the Fallen.)

Yet patriotic exhortation rings hollow if nations don’t have the moral and fiscal courage to redeem their debt to veterans, as well as to other survivors of war. The words etched on the entrance to the Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C., come from Abraham Lincoln, and they form a stern injunction: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.” In other words, all citizens and taxpayers must be part of the social compact that supports veterans. Admittedly and unfortunately, the Veterans Department is rocked by periodic scandals; nobody ever said good governance is easy.

We can also say that the proper cultivation of good and dutiful citizenship entails a thoroughgoing commitment to the wellbeing of all citizens, in and out of uniform. As this author has noted, 2018 is the centennial of the famous pledge from Prime Minister David Lloyd George, in which he declared that post-Great War Britain would be “a nation fit for heroes.”

Thus the prudential expansion of the welfare state was not only the right thing to do, it was also politically expedient in terms of fending off radicalism. Furthermore, to put the matter in the most militarily reductionist terms, most people won’t fight, or at least won’t fight effectively, for a country they regard as unjust. Indeed, just two decades after the Great War, Britain, as well as America, desperately needed warriors yet again.

If social solidarity is an important goal of statecraft, then it’s vital that everyone offers some sort of participation—and visibly so. Thus it was was notable as well as admirable that all four of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s sons served in the armed forces during World War II. And three of them were genuinely in harm’s way for prolonged periods. Indeed, as many have noted with a sigh, the last president to have fought in combat was George H. W. Bush.

Such all-in participation should also include the plutocracy, in the form of the rich actually paying their fair share of taxes. It’s startling as well as demoralizing to realize that, as The New York Times reported in 2015, the effective income tax rate paid by the very rich fell from 27 percent in the 1990s to 17 percent during the Obama years. That’s a cut of 10 percentage points, or, to put it another way, nearly 40 percent. And all this good news for fat cats came at a time when the U.S. was engaged in two wars.

As an aside, one needn’t be a supporter of America’s military misadventures over the last two decades to see the value of demanding full societal participation. Indeed, if everyone, top to bottom, were to feel the pain of wars, a lot more thought would be given to the launching of them.

In the meantime, the public is always ready to reward veterans with the honor of high public office. As The Military Times reported last month, in the 116th Congress convening next month, 95 lawmakers will be veterans, or 18 percent of the total body. That percentage, we might note, is down from nearly 75 percent a half-century ago, when just about every male of a certain age had been in uniform in World War II.

So these days, when military experience is rarer, the war heroes, of both genders, stand out. One thinks of Senator Tammy Duckworth, who lost her legs in Iraq, and Congressman-elect Dan Crenshaw, who lost an eye in Afghanistan.

In the meantime, another war veteran in Congress, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, seems to embody many of the most important lessons of martial service in her new public career. That is, she is anti-war, but pro-solidarity. In 2016, she rejected the super-interventionist Hillary Clinton, favoring instead Bernie Sanders, an anti-war domestic reconstructionist. Since then, she has continued her anti-intervention efforts; daringly for a Democrat, she has even met with with Donald Trump.

Now reportedly she’s planning to run for president. It’s hard to know what to make of a 37-year-old who is only in her fourth term in the House—there are after all 20 or 30 other Democrats, most better known, also seeking the nomination. But we do know this much: when the stakes were high, Gabbard stepped up and put her life on the line in Iraq.

That sort of courage provides a bolstering foundation for everything else she might do. As Churchill would say, only courage ignites the other virtues.

It’s for their courage that the Dutch still honor the van Hall brothers. And that’s why Americans, too, have a way of exalting our brave heroes, such that other historical figures seem just to fade away.

James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

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