IN A MOMENT of high cynicism I took Martin Treptow, the World War I doughboy mentioned by Ronald Reagan in his inaugural address, and wondered if he shared Reagan's view of himself. He died, after all, carrying a message that no longer matters to a battalion doing something that everyone has forgotten in a war that accomplished little except to kick off the next one. Ronald Reagan says he's a hero. He might just call himself a victim.
Treptow was 24 years old when he was killed in France. He was an Iowa farmboy, a courier for the 42nd (Rainbow) Division and a hero in his own time. He took a message one day and got killed, but on his body was found a diary with his credo:
"America must win this war. Therefore, I will work, I will save, I will sacrifice, I will endure, I will fight cheerfully and do my utmost, as if the issue of the whole struggle depended on me." This pledge later appeared on posters and Treptow himself had an American Legion post named after him. It is in Bloomer, Wis.
Ronald Reagan, who is infaturated with heroism, has elevated Treptow to the ranks of heroes. Who is to say that he does not deserve it? And who is to say that Reagan is also not right that people who just do their jobs -- "You can see heroes every day going in and out of factory gates" -- are not also heroes? Certainly, there is a degree of heroism in everyday life and just as certainly there is a heavy dose of it in, say, the efforts of a welfare mother to keep her family together. I, for one, consider my parents heroes. They have come a very long way.
But inaugural rhetoric aside, that is not the sort of heroism that fascinates Reagan. Instead, he is drawn to men who do something, perform an act, and with that act change things. He has a tendency to assign to individuals the kind of importance that conventional historians assign to movements. Reagan likes, for instance, to credit the bravery of a black cook at Pearl Harbor for the subsequent integration of the armed services. The cook was brave, but the services were not integrated until after World War II and then only because Harry Truman ordered it and -- maybe most important -- the time was right.
Heroes fit Reagan's view of things. They are stock Hollywood characters and stock conservative characters and they attest to the ability of the individual to make a difference -- to matter. Who does not want to believe this and who can not get some satisfaction out of the knowledge that there are times when a single person can make the difference? Jesus, Mohammed, Moses -- they made a difference.
But in some sense, heroes can be victims. The cathedrals of Europe are chock-full of the bodies of heroes -- heroes of this war and that war. Young men ae entombed in the walls or in the floors and, if you read the plaques, they say that they died in a war you never heard of, fighting for a cause that never mattered and has since been forgotten, but that they were, for sure, heroes.They died in Nepal or Afghanistan or India or Burma if they were British, but these places are no longer British and they were never worth dying for in the first place.
But oh what valor! But, oh, what heroism! Oh, how they dodged the ball and shot. Oh, the poems that were written for them and to them: "Cannon to the right of them. Cannon to the left of them, Volleyed and thundered. Into the valley of death rode the six hundered." Quick: Why? Where? For what cause?
Now to Martin Treptow. It is no disrespect to him to take a different message from his death. It is no disrespect to him to ask why he thought the war that killed him was worth dying for -- what, for instance, was the threat to Iowa, "the issue of the whole struggle" that he mentions in his pledge?
It would be interesting to have had seen him at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, the politicians selling out the soldiers, heroes and cowards alike, wondering then if it had been all worth it. Tell me, Martin, was this the war to end all wars or the war for Britain to keep its empire or the war that resulted when the old order in Europe collapsed in a heap or just the war that preceded the next war?
Ah, to be certain of the answers would be nice. I, for one, am not certain, but I think Ronald Reagan is and it would be terrifically reassuring if a little skepticism crept into his Kiplingesque view of the world. It would be terrific if he wondered if some of the great causes of the moment for this country are not just updated versions of British colonial wars. It's good to be cautious when using heroes. It's true they die but once. But it's also true that that's all it takes.