TCS Daily

The Heroic Age

By James Pinkerton - March 3, 2003 12:00 AM

This is the age of heroes. The Heroic Age.
That realization came to me as I listened to President George W. Bush speak to the American Enterprise Institute last Wednesday night. He outlined a foreign policy vision that went beyond battling terror, beyond eliminating weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, he went way past the liberation, pacification, and democratization of Iraq; he pledged to do the same for the entire Middle East. Now that's ambition-heroic ambition.

But it's not just Bush's grand vision. It's America's vision, too. And in this Second American Century, our vision is what the world sees. So who are these strivers, these makers of an Age? Who are these men and women, these Americans? They are the people who cheered when the 43rd President declared, "Much is asked of America in this year 2003. The work ahead is will be difficult to cultivate liberty and peace in the Middle East, after so many generations of strife." Yet, he continued, "the security of our nation and the hope of millions depend on us, and Americans do not turn away from duties because they are hard. We have met great tests in other times, and we will meet the tests of our time."

Of course, the tests facing American heroism stretch far beyond the Middle East. From Afghanistan to the Korean peninsula to the Philippines to Colombia, other huge challenges loom, too. These are not to be confronted all at once, the President has said, but all are to be confronted, he has made plain.

That Americans and their president aren't shrinking from these fights might come as a surprise to some. After all, in past years, observers on both the left and the right have worried that Americans were growing weak and soft; the academic Paul Kennedy, for instance, in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, argued that America was one of the falling powers. And former judge Robert Bork published a book provocatively entitled Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline.

But under the pundit/publishing radar, signs of a revalorization in the popuar culture have abounded. Movies such as 'Saving Private Ryan," "Gladiator," and now, "Gods and Generals," were, in their own way, oblique heralds of American invigoration. Indeed, Chuck Colson, the Watergater-turned-religious-proselytizer, argued that "Gods" was a reminder that Christianity was "a religion for heroes." That's all the more remarkable, given that the chief funder for the film was none other than Ted Turner, the former Mr. Jane Fonda. When a man of the Left makes a movie that's praised by a man of God, then surely that's a sign that the culture has circled back, and come back together in an heroic whole.

After September 11, 2001, some wondered about America's capacity for effective response. Operation Enduring Freedom answered that question quickly enough. As Bush said of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in March 2002, "They must have not known who they were attacking. They thought we were soft, they thought we were self-absorbed. They thought we were so materialistic that we would maybe try to sue them." Those who imagined that the Gulliver of American greatness had been warped and wefted by so many Lilliputian trial lawyers, professional diversitarians, and freelance media buffoons were in for a pleasant-or perhaps unpleasant-surprise. Those who offered silky praise only to sophists, economists, and calculators were to be confronted with the battle-hardened and combat-honored successors to Sgt. York, Audie Murphy, and Stormin' Norman Schwarzopf.

And so welcome to the new Heroic Age. We grew up reading about epics and epochs, about Iliads and Odysseys, about knights and grails. But perhaps we never thought we'd see such a day ourselves. But now, here we are. One's conclusions must still be a bit tentative, of course. After all, when one is flowing along in the river of time, it's never possible to see the final shore. For example, in the year 1337, one might have known that France and England were commencing to fight, but one could not have known that the fighting would last until 1453. Nor could one have known that one of the great heroic battles of all time, Agincourt, in 1415, lay ahead-although, of course, that battle's true apotheosis into the historical pantheon wasn't guaranteed until 1599, when Shakespeare wrote his play Henry V, which gave the world the immortal lines, "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers."

But if we have entered a new historical order, then we must become familiar with better ways of thinking about historical remembrance. Heroic times belong to-no shock here-the hero. That was the lesson taught by the Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle; his 1841 book, On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, is the lively and still-readable chronicle of heroes, from Mohammed to Cromwell to Napoleon. He declared, in his arched Victorian way, that "the history of what man has accomplished in this world is, at bottom, the History of the Great Men who have worked here." As those words suggest, Carlyle is the father of the Great Man Theory of History; his oeuvre is a tonic to those who were taught to believe that history is the determinist product of economic forces, the pointillist agglomeration of trivia.

Nay, Carlyle exclaimed, the hero makes his own history. And so it is today. President Bush may have sought help from the "coalition of the willing," but it's clear all along that the U.S. military has been willing to do the job, worldwide, on its own. Which is the quintessence of the Carlylean argument: heroes seek out larger-than-life missions. It was Carlyle's fellow 19th-century Romantic man of letters, Herman Melville, who exclaimed, "Give me a condor's quill! Give me Vesuvius's crater for an ink stand...To produce a mighty book you must choose a mighty theme." And so, of course, Melville penned Moby Dick, an epic book about an epic quest.

Bush, of course, may never have read Carlyle or Melville. But that's the point. The world-changing figure--guided by "sincerity," by his commitment to "the inner fact of things"-is ultimately a doer, not a reader. Doing, not philosophizing. Acting, not agonizing. Who can't see the diamond-bullet genius-the moral clarity-of such a life? Because, as Carlyle preached, "the end of man is action, not thought." And so to life, and to ends. Life, he knew, was "a little gleam of Time between two Eternities." And so, since life is fleeting, one must focus on the end-on the ultimate meaning.

And who provides that meaning? There are two possible answers: History and God. This President has addressed both. As he told the United Nations on November 10, 2001, "History will record our response and judge or justify every nation in this hall." And as he said in his 2003 State of the Union address, "We do not claim to know all the ways of Providence, yet we can trust in them, placing our confidence in the loving God behind all of life and all of history."

Even today, some argue that America is not up to these challenges. The Sunday New York Times Magazine, for example, outlined the difficulties of homeland security, laying great stress on the challenge of providing security for a single city, Baltimore, which abuts so much navigable water, which has so many "soft targets" within its confines. In fact, the article assayed the cost of homeland security at $100 billion a year, for an indefinite number of years-with still no guarantees of safety.

Fittingly, a relevant and important book graces bookstore shelves today, offering a refutation to such thinking. Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inauguration, by Ronald C. White, analyzes an address of 701 words, delivered by the 16th President in 1865. Those few words have much power, because they remind Americans, then and now, that heroic work takes precedence over everything else. Here's the Great Emancipator:

If God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

Who could argue with Lincoln? Who will argue with Bush? According to the polls, very few Americans. And to those who protest, or otherwise cavil about costs and civil liberties, Bush's ready answer is that the war is already here, on our homeland.

Almost as many Princeton graduates were killed at the World Trade Center as were killed in the entire Vietnam War. And so we-we Americans, we band of brothers and sisters-have been called to arms, bound together, whether we like it or not, in heroic purpose. Which was another one of Carlyle's themes: "Not a hero only is needed, but a world fit for him; a world not of Valets; the Hero comes almost in vain to it otherwise!"

To all, 2001 brought tragedy. And then 2002, which brought the Bush Doctrine, which identified the mission, expanded the struggle-and was ratified by the voters in November. And now, 2003 will see the beginning of the mission, the realization of Bush's vision, for all of us. It will be a time for us to find our destiny-or die trying.

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