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Monday, June 4, 2007

Medal of Honor

Peter Collier:

"Jose Lopez, a diminutive Mexican-American from the barrio of San Antonio, was in the Ardennes forest when the Germans began the counteroffensive that became the Battle of the Bulge. As 10 enemy soldiers approached his position, he grabbed a machine gun and opened fire, killing them all. He killed two dozen more who rushed him. Knocked down by the concussion of German shells, he picked himself up, packed his weapon on his back and ran toward a group of Americans about to be surrounded. He began firing and didn't stop until all his ammunition and all that he could scrounge from other guns was gone. By then he had killed over 100 of the enemy and bought his comrades time to establish a defensive line."

Desmond Doss was a conscientious objector who joined the army in 1942 as a medic. He was in Okinawa during the fighting in 1945 when his unit was "cut to pieces" during an attack. "Everyone but Mr. Doss retreated from the rocky plateau where dozens of wounded remained. Under fire, he treated them and then began moving them one by one to a steep escarpment where he roped them down to safety. Each time he succeeded, he prayed, 'Dear God, please let me get just one more man.' By the end of the day, he had single-handedly saved 75 GIs."

Jack Lucas joined after Pearl Harber, at age 14. His mother colluded in this, on condition that he return to school after his service. The day after taking the beach at Iwo Jima, "he was fighting in a Japanese trench when he saw two grenades land near his comrades. [] He threw himself onto the grenades and absorbed the explosion. Later a medic, assuming he was dead, was about to take his dog tag when he saw Mr. Lucas's finger twitch. After months of treatment and recovery, he returned to school as he'd promised his mother, a ninth-grader wearing a Medal of Honor around his neck."

John McCain speaks of airman Lance Sijan, captured eventually and tortured endlessly by the North Vietnamese. He made an American flag out of a soiled rag, and was brutalized for it. When he recovered -- as much as it was possible to recover -- he started searching for another rag. "The North Vietnamese were obsessed with breaking him, but never did. When he died after long sessions of torture Sijan was, in Sen. McCain's words, 'a free man from a free country.'"

I've never done this before, just quoted someone else over and over. Indulge me one final time. Mr. Collier: "We impoverish ourselves by shunting these heroes and their experiences to the back pages of our national consciousness. Their stories are not just boys' adventure tales writ large. They are a kind of moral instruction. They remind of something we've heard many times before but is worth repeating on a wartime Memorial Day when we're uncertain about what we celebrate. We're the land of the free for one reason only: We're also the home of the brave."

We must all, somehow, be capable of savage courage, or selfless devotion, or perseverance through unbearable suffering. What is a man after all, but flesh animated by spirit. It is inexplicable therefore that some of us should succumb to fear, or betray the things that matter -- constructed as we are all of the same material. Yet there it is. There must be some indiscernible difference buried within flesh, or permeating the substance of spirit, that accounts for honor or its lack. And we know there is a lack. Just as we gasp for air in its absence, our stirred emotion informs us of our craving for righteous conduct in the face of intractable adversity. The evidence for this is acknowledged, sometimes, by such gestures as the Medal of Honor, the tribute that weakness pays to strength.

It is insufficient testimony, but it is all we have. It is both the least, and the most, that we can do -- to recount their stories, and nod in silent agreement. After that, what is there to say?


J

1 comment:

Mickey said...

true hero`s