Years ago, during the Bosnian War, I told a good friend that I would like to be one of those who walked over the hills around Sarajevo, through the Serb lines and into the city, dodging snipers and murder squads, delivering medicine or vital information to the besieged.
I have never known war. I have been beyond fortunate in that circumstance. I know that. However, most men wonder how they would hold up under fire, whether they too would have the sand to remain calm and to fulfill a mission. I have spoken with enough veterans of WW II and Vietnam and with many former students who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan not to discount my visions as just boyish, immature, romantic half wishes. Some men and women must fight. They must find the internal resources to go beyond their fear. Their training and the codes of conduct they develop over time and during the missions spent with compatriots play heavy parts in this, but their imaginations must also give them strength.
For the last six pages of For Whom the Bell Tolls , the protagonist, Robert Jordan, is holding on through the pain of a compound fracture of his femur, resisting suicide, resisting becoming his father, fighting his pain to cover the retreat of the other guerillas and Maria. He imagines them: “Think about them being away, he said. Think about them crossing a creek. Think about them riding through the heather (470).”Jordan holds on. He sets the sights of his Lewis gun on Lt. Berrendo of the fascist forces. He will cover the retreat. Maria will escape. Bu tBerrendo is a decent man who resists brutality, who despises fanaticism, who Jordan might have called friend in a peaceful Spain. I think Hemingway captures some part of the truth both about the unfathomable complexities of civil war and of a warrior’s motivating vision.
Heroes are necessary. We need paragons of moral action against whom we can measure our aspirations, and in the most private and silent part of ourselves, assess our own abilities and our actions. Courage is the virtue we most often wish we possessed – the desire to act, to risk, to step up into the harshest light imaginable and then to perform — not in any self-dramatizing or narcissistic sense, but to act with “grace under pressure,” (Hemingway’s definition is still the best) even if we, alone, are the only ones who will ever know.
Among those public figures I most admire — Camus, Alfred Kazin, Martin Luther King, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Wilfred Owen, T.E. Lawrence — Lincoln is my lodestone. Above my desk, I’ve hung both his oil portrait and a photo taken of him just before he grew his beard. One could compose long lists of his admirable qualities: his superb political maneuverings, his mystical devotion to the preservation of the Union, his uncommon toughness in seeing the terrible, necessary war through to its end, his deep, apparently inexhaustible reservoir of magnanimity, empathy and sorrow for suffering. His on-going alchemic transformation of tragedy, both personal and national, into meaning has never been matched by any other American politician or writer. One cannot read the Gettysburg Address or the Second Inaugural Address without being aware of this gift. He is deserving of awe on every level … and yet … and yet … he is so wonderfully approachable. His son’s dog, Jip, slept curled in his lap during some meal times. His feet swung well below the bellies of many horses he rode. He looked permanently disheveled. He permitted his son, Tad, to aim a toy cannon at cabinet members during a meeting, and he tolerated a pet goat sleeping in Tad’s bed. He allowed both his sons, Willie and Tad, the run of the White House. They brought joy to an often somber home. But Lincoln also dreamt of corpses in a field while the battle of Murfreesboro was engaged early in January of 1862. He feared that he would die before seeing the war through to its end.
In February of 1862 both Willie and Tad fell ill, probably from typhus. Willie, only 11, died on the 20th. Mary Lincoln was inconsolable. Lincoln found some kind of distraction in his work. I cannot comprehend that leap – seeking some kind of distraction from the death of a second child (a second child!) in the crushing responsibilities of what was then a war being lost by the Union.
There is an abiding mystery in the heroic generally, a part of the same mystery we confront when we want to understand another’s consciousness. We are trapped within our own. We make a leap of faith that those around us possess the same kind of interior life we possess. Now add the heroic impulse or moment or even more astonishing, years of heroism, and we are in the presence of something glorious, and if the word means anything, holy. Lincoln is that transcendent being for me.
Lincoln source material: With Malice Toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen Oates