CS Lewis Explains Why We Honor Veterans

 

When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say, For Their Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today.  Inscription on the memorial to the dead of the British 2nd Division at Kohima.

We have made men proud of most vices, but not of cowardice. Whenever we have almost succeeded in doing so, God permits a war or an earthquake or some other calamity, and at once courage becomes so obviously lovely and important even in human eyes that all our work is undone, and there is still at least one vice of which they feel genuine shame.  CS Lewis, Screwtape Letters

Sometimes simple questions can help illuminate great truths.   Why do we honor veterans? 

 Today is Veterans Day.  Ironically, many veterans will be working today as the “holiday” is mostly one solely for government workers, and most veterans in the private sector will be on the job today.  Veterans Day was originally Armistice Day and was observed to recall the ending of that conflict on November 11, 1918 and to honor the American veterans who served in it.  After World War II, veterans of World War I, many of whom had sons who served in World War II, spearheaded a move to change the name to Veterans Day to honor all Veterans.   Legislation changing the name of the holiday was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Eisenhower on May 26, 1954.  All well and good, but why do we set this day aside to honor those who have served in the military?

One veteran of World War I, CS Lewis, perhaps can help us understand why we honor veterans.  Lewis served on the Western Front as a Second Lieutenant in 1917-1918 until he was  wounded on April 15, 1918.  Lewis, the future Oxford Don, was an unlikely soldier and he wrote about his experiences in the War with humorous self-deprecation.  However, he had immense respect for those he served with, especially the enlisted men under his command, for their good humor and courage under the most appalling circumstances.  His war experiences had a vast impact on Lewis, as can be seen in his Screwtape letters, where Lewis writes about war.

In the fifth letter Screwtape admonishes junior tempter Wormword not to allow the sight of human suffering in war to allow him to believe that the war makes Wormword’s task any easier.

For it has certain tendencies inherent in it which are, in themselves, by no means in our favour. We may hope for a good deal of cruelty and unchastity. But, if we are not careful, we shall see thousands turning in this tribulation to the Enemy, while tens of thousands who do not go so far as that will nevertheless have their attention diverted from themselves to values and causes which they believe to be higher than the self. I know that the Enemy disapproves many of these causes. But that is where He is so unfair. He often makes prizes of humans who have given their lives for causes He thinks bad on the monstrously sophistical ground that the humans thought them good and were following the best they knew.

Most of us dread death.  Members of the military in war time have to set aside their fear for causes greater than themselves.  It brings to the fore that very precious virtue:  courage.

 We have made men proud of most vices, but not of cowardice. Whenever we have almost succeeded in doing so, the Enemy permits a war or an earthquake or some other calamity, and at once courage becomes so obviously lovely and important even in human eyes that all our work is undone, and there is still at least one vice of which they feel genuine shame. The danger of inducing cowardice in our patients, therefore, is lest we produce real self-knowledge and self-loathing with consequent repentance and humility. And in fact, in the last war, thousands of humans, by discovering their own cowardice, discovered the whole moral world for the first time. In peace we can make many of them ignore good and evil entirely; in danger, the issue is forced upon them in a guise to which even we cannot blind them. There is here a cruel dilemma before us. If we promoted justice and charity among men, we should be playing directly into the Enemy’s hands; but if we guide them to the opposite behaviour, this sooner or later produces (for He permits it to produce) a war or a revolution, and the undisguisable issue of cowardice or courage awakes thousands of men from moral stupor.

Lewis theorizes that the virtue of courage is perhaps why God created the world as dangerous as it is:

This, indeed, is probably one of the Enemy’s motives for creating a dangerous world—a world in which moral issues really come to the point. He sees as well as you do that courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty, or mercy, which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky.

A gentleman I know was a Marine during the battle for Hue in 1968.  He told me that he was absolutely terrified throughout, often vomiting from fear, and regarded himself as a coward even though he was decorated for bravery after the battle.  Then he told me he read this passage in the Screwtape letters and truly understood courage for the first time:

I sometimes wonder whether you think you have been sent into the world for your own amusement. I gather, not from your miserably inadequate report but from that of the Infernal Police, that the patient’s behaviour during the first raid has been the worst possible. He has been very frightened and thinks himself a great coward and therefore feels no pride; but he has done everything his duty demanded and perhaps a bit more.
 

We honor veterans because for a time in their lives they risked, or potentially risked, their lives for us.  Not all veterans of course are heroes, old news for most veterans, and most veterans who serve never see combat, but the potential risk was always there during their service.  Most veterans at that point in their life personified the virtue of courage, the ability of we mere mortals to rise above our fears and terrors, and that always deserves to be honored.

8 Responses to CS Lewis Explains Why We Honor Veterans

  • “Greet them ever with grateful hearts.” Chapter Heading, The Doughboys, Lawrence Stallings.

    In the book is a narrative of the famous WWI “Lost Battalion.” A US Infantry attacking unit that outran its flanks and was surrounded. The German commander, in asking them to surrender stated, “We envy you.”

    Enough said.

    My son is US Army Infantry, airborne ranger, who served 2009 in AfghanIstan. He is going back in May. Some of the troops then were on their third deployments.

    His best friend served in Iraq with the Marines.

    These are the finest we breed.

    Where do we find such men? I envy THEM.

    Our retired monsegnieur pastor prays for the veterans and military at every Mass, all year. Last Sunday, one of the older vets thanked him. He said, “How could I not?”

    Bless them all.

  • This is a beautiful post Donald. Thank you.

  • Thank you David.

  • What’s with the creepy Civil War video featuring some guy celebrating the heroism of Confederate soldiers? Practically ruins the article for me. Granted, I’m prejudiced on this point, but I can’t help it. Those nasty, murderous traitors were fighting for the right to buy and sell my ancestors like cattle. Thank God they lost. And kindly don’t hold them up to me as noble heroes. I’d as soon sing the praises of the SS. And yes, I know they weren’t quite as bad as the SS. But the difference is smaller than you might think.

  • The scene Jesme is from the movie Gettysburg. The actor is Richard Jordan who portrays Brigadier General Lewis Addison Armistead who died gallantly leading his men during Pickett’s charge.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewis_Addison_Armistead

    The scene is given additional poignancy in that the actor Richard Jordan was dying of brain cancer at the time he appeared in the film.

    The men who fought for the Confederacy did not invent negro slavery. It was an institution that was over 250 years old in what would become the United States by the time of the Civil War.

    What to do about slavery seems simple to us now. It did not appear so to most people at the time as demonstrated by this statement from Abraham Lincoln in 1854:

    This declared indifference, but, as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I cannot but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world; enables the enemies of free institutions with plausibility to taunt us as hypocrites; causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity; and especially because it forces so many good men among ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty, criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.

    Before proceeding, let me say that I think I have no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist among them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist among us, we should not instantly give it up. This I believe of the masses, North and South. Doubtless there are individuals on both sides who would not hold slaves under any circumstances, and others who would gladly introduce slavery anew if it were out of existence. We know that some Southern men do free their slaves, go North and become tip-top Abolitionists, while some Northern ones go South and become most cruel slave masters.

    When Southern people tell us they are no more responsible for the origin of slavery than we are, I acknowledge the fact. When it is said that the institution exists and that it is very difficult to get rid of it in any satisfactory way, I can understand and appreciate the saying. I surely will not blame them for not doing what I should not know how to do myself. If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do as to the existing institution. My first impulse would be to free all the slaves and send them to Liberia, to their own native land. But a moment’s reflection would convince me that whatever of high hope (as I think there is) there may be in this in the long run, its sudden execution is impossible. If they were all landed there in a day, they would all perish in the next ten days, and there are not surplus shipping and surplus money enough to carry them there in many times ten days. What then? Free them all and keep them among us as underlings? Is it quite certain that this betters their condition? I think I would not hold one in slavery, at any rate; yet the point is not clear enough for me to denounce people upon.

    What next? Free them and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this, and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white peoples will not. Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment is not the sole question, if, indeed, it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether well- or ill-founded, cannot be safely disregarded. We cannot, then, make them equals. It does seem to me that systems of gradual emancipation might be adopted; but for their tardiness in this, I will not undertake to judge our brethren of the South.

    When they remind us of their constitutional rights, I acknowledge them not grudgingly but fully and fairly; and I would give them any legislation for the reclaiming of their fugitives which should not, in its stringency, be more likely to carry a free man into slavery than our ordinary criminal laws are to hang an innocent one.”

    It was the inability of both the North and the South to remove the stain of slavery peacefully from the land that led to the Civil War. Lincoln viewed the war as the punishment of God for this and I agree with him:

    “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope–fervently do we pray–that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’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.”

    The men who fought in the ranks of the Confederacy were not Nazis. They were men fighting for the freedom of their people to rule themselves. Tragically this included the right to continue the centuries old institution of black slavery. It took the worst war in our history to end that institution and to preserve the Union and it is a very good thing in my mind that the Confederacy lost. However, that fact does not negate that most Confederates fought gallantly for a cause they thought right, just as did their Union opponents, which of course includes their black Union opponents.

    Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the Union officer featured in the first video clip understood this. He was an ardent foe of both slavery and secession, but he had great respect for the valor of the Confederates he fought. He was chosen to oversee the Confederates as they marched out to surrender at Appomatox. As the Confederates passed by, Chamberlain ordered a salute to them by the Union troops. He explained why he did this:

    “I resolved to mark it by some token of recognition, which could be no other than a salute of arms. Well aware of the responsibility assumed, and of the criticisms that would follow, as the sequel proved, nothing of that kind could move me in the least. The act could be defended, if needful, by the suggestion that such a salute was not to the cause for which the flag of the Confederacy stood, but to its going down before the flag of the Union. My main reason, however, was one for which I sought no authority nor asked forgiveness. Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond;–was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured?”

    http://www.jenniferboylan.net/2009/08/06/the-passing-of-the-armies-by-joshua-lawrence-chamberlain/

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joshua_Chamberlain

    The great lesson of the Civil War is that we are one people, North and South, black and white, and when I study that period in our history I always attempt to remember that fact.

  • Donald, thank you for those beautiful words. A better explanation of the complexity of Confederate character and motivations I’ve never read.

  • Thank you Lori! My heart is always with the boys in blue, but I seek to do justice to my fellow countrymen who bravely wore the gray.

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