Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

FW: SgtYork

Churning out columns has been easier than I figured on this trip, so far. Now we leave the country and it may get more iffy. I'll keep my fingers crossed. We head to Barcelona and then cruise back along Columbus' route to the Caribbean. That ought to make for a good 10/10 column. I'll try working on something along that line today. And maybe get it out before I leave.

SANTA FE -- On Oct. 8, 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 lines.

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. 

A 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.

Witness 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 medal.

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, 10-8-07


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