Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

10-10 Will Columbus Survive?

SANTA FE -- Eighty-two years ago, 8 Oct 1918, Alvin York, an American
draftee corporal from the hills of East Tennessee
(and a religious pacifist who had been denied
conscientious-objector status), almost single-handedly took
out three German machine gun nests, killed at least 25 enemy
soldiers, and captured 138.
Then with a half-dozen men
surviving from his own squad, led them back through American
This remarkable feat made him the outstanding American
hero of World War I, winning him the Distinguished Service
Cross for the captures and his country's highest honor, the
Medal of Honor, for the assault on the machine gun nests.
few months earlier, an unknown German lieutenant named Erwin
Rommel exceeded even York's tally, on the Italian front during
the Caporetto battles.
Almost alone and at night, he killed a
large number of enemy and with just a handful of privates
captured and led through German lines over 3,000 Italian
prisoners, opening a wide gap in the enemy lines that
permitted a significant German advance. For his heroism he
received his country's highest
Heroes do not commonly fare well in peacetime, although York
and Rommel may be exceptions.
York went home to a farm
provided him by a grateful state, and lived out his life
peacefully until Gary Cooper won an Oscar playing him in a
1941 movie.
Under renewed attention, he served as head of his
local draft board after volunteering for service in WWII and
being turned down.
Rommel continued as a rather bookish
officer in the German army until receiving not-fully-merited
acclaim as the "Desert Fox" leader of the Afrikacorps during
the next war.
He lent his blessing to the failed 1944 plot to
kill Hitler, and killed himself in its aftermath to save his
family from extermination. York and Rommel alike were credits
to their countries.
More commonly, whatever it is that makes a man disregard his
own life for the sake of his fellows can affect him in ways he
is unable to overcome, and in our own country the rates of
drunkenness, depression, and suicide are higher among
surviving Medal of Honor winners than almost any other
identifiable group of the population.
America's most
decorated soldier, Audie Murphy of World War II, like York a
simple farm boy who performed valorous deeds that not even his
fellow soldiers could comprehend, the Medal of Honor being one
among scores of honors.
His country tried earnestly to treat
him as it thought a hero should be treated, but in his case it
might have been better if he had been forgotten.
He became a
movie star on account of his fame and good looks, but his
acting ability was limited and he evidently was tormented by
the fear that he could do nothing wholly on his own talents
except kill enemy soldiers.
So how should we think about our heroes on the next patriotic
holidays? Perhaps it is enough that we remember them, and
also remember those who just did their duty, because each one
is as individual in peacetime as the citation that awarded his
Remember the 300 Spartans, and in doing so remember the
heroes of all nations. With their king Leonides they defied
their country's own laws to make a hopeless effort to stop the
Persian invasion of Greece.
They died to a man, but set in
motion a chain of events that ultimately preserved Greek
civilization and therefore ours.
Simonides recorded this
epitaph for their mass grave: "Go tell the Spartans, thou who
passest by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie."
Perhaps that defines heroes: They are different from the rest
of us, and for whatever reason do not their duty, but
something else.

MON, 10-08-07

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