Memorial Day

Monday, May 31, 2010

"BRAVE." IT'S BECOME an almost mandatory adjective in speechifying whenever some officeholder or candidate makes reference to the people who fight the country's wars: the "brave" men and women, soldiers, Marines, sailors, pilots and so on. It must amuse many of those serving, since they know firsthand that not all of them are brave and a few are not particularly admirable. What they are -- those who risk their lives, bodies and futures in war -- is part of a community that extends over generations, whose members living and dead have learned the deepest meaning of trust in one's fellows and who often have discovered that, when put to the test, they can draw from themselves and those around them a measure of courage and selflessness they had never known was there. It's not a band of heroes that Harry the King addresses in Shakespeare's play but a band of brothers.

This is why the popular and long-serving attorney general of Connecticut, Richard Blumenthal (D), found himself in so much trouble for untruths, briefly uttered in past speeches and statements, about having served in Vietnam. Politicians are generally granted quite a bit of leeway in praising themselves and their accomplishments, even to a degree that in others might be considered insufferable. But Mr. Blumenthal discovered, as other candidates have before him, that a claim of the sort he made is regarded not just as political exaggeration but as an attempt to claim something merited by only a small, and dwindling, number of people in our country -- for want of a better word, call it "glory." Or, to use a dictionary definition: "praise, honor, or distinction extended by common consent." Mr. Blumenthal was treading, however unwittingly, on sacred ground.

There are many wealthy, accomplished and successful people in this city and around the country who would give a lot for a share of that kind of glory (but probably not what's really required). They don't necessarily "hold their manhoods cheap," in Shakespeare's phrase, but they do look on those who have served, who have put themselves in danger, with an often unexpressed mixture of admiration and envy.

This high regard for service isn't a new thing. The Greek playwright Aeschylus -- renowned in his time and ours as a literary giant -- had an epitaph of but a few lines on his stone; they relate not that he wrote many great plays but that he fought well against the Persians at Marathon. This is our national day not only of memory but of praise, honor and distinction -- of true, unembellished glory achieved in many American wars and still being won today.

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