Maybe it’s just me, but I didn’t think that Trump’s comments to the widow – if they were accurately reported – were offensive. I can just imagine my father saying pretty much the same thing had I died during my Navy service. I’ve read some comments from some veterans claiming to be offended and I’m not going to call them wrong for viewing it that way, but for me and the veterans I know, it was just a thing to be said. When we signed up, we all knew it was possible. To be sure, we all thought, if it came to combat, “it’ll be you and you and you, but not me”, but we also knew that the reality could be very different.
And it all got me thinking that we’re taking the whole thing of death a bit the wrong way. We all, as Shakespeare said, owe God a death. We hope to have our line of credit extended indefinitely (as Manchester in his autobiography about his war experiences put it), but death does come for us all in the by and by. And I think that, these days, we get entirely too maudlin about death.
I’m not thinking we should get all Spartan about it – “come home with your shield, or on it”; was what Spartan mothers would say to their sons going off to war – but, perhaps, a bit more Roman?
Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods.”
Or another view, similar, which I’ve quoted here years before:
Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!
Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there,
Where there’s no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending,
Naught broken save this body, lost but breath;
Nothing to shake the laughing heart’s long peace there
But only agony, and that has ending;
And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.
That was Rupert Brooke, written as he went off to World War One. He got his death, and while very sorrowful for his many friends, it was still a glorious thing and he a man worthy of honor and remembrance. And I think that a lot of our people who seem ill at ease around death are those “sick hearts that honour could not move”. People who shrink from any real sacrifice – whether it is the sacrifice of merely having children and being decent parents; the sacrifice of keeping at a dreary job because one has responsibilities…or the sacrifice of one’s life in a cause.
I am getting old, now; not quite old, yet – but getting there. There is more time behind me than in front. I have done many things to be ashamed of, but there are a few things I’ve done which please me. I’ve kept my promise in some things, that is – and one of them was to be a Sailor in the United States Navy. Had I died as a young man in the Navy, I’d likely be nearly forgotten by now. Decades would have passed; my parents are now dead. My brothers and sisters would, at times, be reminded they once had a brother who is no longer there…but I wouldn’t be much more than a fleeting memory; a life cut short on this Earth. But, for all that, we are all doomed to be forgotten on this Earth. Whether one believes in the religious or the purely materialistic view of the world, eventually everything we do here becomes less than a memory here. We who have religion believe there is something much greater beyond this world, but even we believe that this world is doomed. You can take one of two courses of action in light of this: to either greedily grab on to every bit of life you can, or to merely try to do the right thing by others, even if it means you die and they go on. To those who greedily grab on to life, the fact that a life is cut short is the worst crime. To those who take the other view, it is the life that is poorly lived, long or short, which is the worst crime.
It is terribly sad for us – especially as we grow older – to see a young person die. Even for those of us with religious belief, there seems to be something very wrong in a young person, so full of promise, to be taken away from us. But there is something else to ponder about those who die young:
Right you guessed the rising morrow
And scorned to tread the mire you must:
Dust’s your wages, son of sorrow,
But men may come to worse than dust.
Souls undone, undoing others,-
Long time since the tale began.
You would not live to wrong your brothers:
Oh lad, you died as fits a man.
Now to your grave shall friend and stranger
With ruth and some with envy come:
Undishonoured, clear of danger,
Clean of guilt, pass hence and home.
Turn safe to rest, no dreams, no waking;
And here, man, here’s the wreath I’ve made:
‘Tis not a gift that’s worth the taking,
But wear it and it will not fade.
That is from A Shropeshire Lad – which is not exactly what I’m looking for, but it does address the issue of whether death is the worst thing which can happen. A man (or, these days, a woman) who goes to war is doing an act of sublime self-sacrifice. This is especially true in our modern age where we do not conscript people into war (and God grant we never do, again). That young man or woman who dons our nation’s uniform may have all sorts of bad in him or her. But by putting their lives on the line, they are balancing that bad – and if they do end up giving their life for their country, then they have carried out the greatest love of all, that a person should give his or her life for their friends. C. S. Lewis pointed out that had he, in his World War One service, shot a German in the same instant the German shot him, they’d both probably have wound up in heaven and had a good laugh about it. At such a moment, a person’s selfish desires are at their lowest ebb and their willingness to sacrifice to save others at the highest pitch. And as we must all die, why is this the worst way to die?
I would, of course, that all the young people today could live to a hundred and during their long lives have nothing but the blessings of peace, love and prosperity. But we all know that won’t happen. Even in the best of our lives, there is pain. And, at the end of it, death. We should avoid war because it is wrong to kill. But some times it becomes necessary to kill in order to defend what we hold most dear. And if we have to kill, it is certain that some of ours will be killed. To feel sorrow at their deaths is natural and beautiful – but to take their death and keep it separate from their courage is wrong. They, I think, would not want to be merely remembered as those who died, but as those who did something very special.