Martial Virtue: Promise and Peril

“It’s A Wonderful Life,” the Frank Capra film starring Jimmy Stewart, is fascinating for many reasons. One of them is its celebration of citizens — ordinary guys and gals who make a difference due to their generosity of spirit. Recall in that movie that Stewart’s brother won the Medal of Honor, yet the movie celebrates the “ordinary” achievements of Stewart. Yet today’s movies, such as “American Sniper,” are much more likely to celebrate the warrior.

The decline of the citizen-soldier ideal in America–in fact, the decline of the citizen ideal in America, and the related rise of a cult of war heroes–speaks to the decline of America as a republic dedicated to freedom. Which put me to mind of this post I wrote in September 2013. It’s not a wonderful life when we embrace the “wonders” of war, nor is it wonderful when everything becomes a commodity to be consumed by customers. No. It’s a wonderful life when we act as a community with generosity of spirit.

Frank Capra knew that. When will we as a country regain that vision? We need to, and soon.

The Contrary Perspective

It's unwise to worship without question the god of war (Worcester Art Museum, image of Ares) It’s unwise to worship without question the god of war (Worcester Art Museum, image of Ares)

W.J. Astore

Ever since the attacks of 9/11/2001, the United States has actively celebrated martial virtue.  We’ve portrayed our troops as heroes.  Presidents have celebrated them as the best led and best trained and most effective military in all of human history.  To question the wisdom of such hagiographic portrayals is to be dismissed as ungenerous and un-American.  Just ask the journalist Chris Hayes.

But the hard truth is that martial virtue is consistent both with republican freedoms and with imperial or despotic agendas, to include the suppression of freedom.

History teaches us that martial virtues (such as they are) are readily enlisted or perverted to serve imperial or even fascist regimes.  Sparta celebrated military virtues even as they lived off of slavery and exposed the “weak” to death.  The Romans, in…

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One thought on “Martial Virtue: Promise and Peril

  1. In my opinion “virtue” has absolutely no relationship to the martial” life. the “martial” life should have one and only one goal and that is to DEFEND the citizenry not to expand the empire. The 1860 Civil War was necessary to maintain a unified country under the rule of law ( our Constitution). Our entrance in 1941 WW II was necessary because we were attacked and threatened by three nation states who had the intent and capability to project their power to our shores and they did that at Pearl Harbor.

    On 9/11 2001 a small band of Saudi and assorted zealots decided to kill themselves and destroy some of our lives and property. Big difference between that and the Civil War and WW Ii. No virtue has been required to conduct the ineffective military ventures we have undertaken as a consequence. There may have been some virtue if we had gone after the Saudis but our politicians chose the route of protecting oil and expanding our imperial interests so we invaded the backward country of Afghanistan ( for a hopeful oil pipeline route from the Caucasus) and tried to pick up the biggest source of oil in Iraq. No virtue there, just business.

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