Heroism — the willingness to put your life on the line for family, tribe, duty, honor, country and God in the face of the greatest possible adversity — used to be considered one of the foremost masculine virtues.
Indeed, the history of western civilization from the ancient Greeks to the recent present has been the history of heroism as well: the last stands at Thermopylae, Masada, the Swiss Guard at the Vatican in 1527, the Alamo, Khartoum, and Stalingrad are still names to conjure with, learn from, and celebrate.
Indeed, just 70 years ago this week, the First Marine Division fought its way into the pages of history with their gallant stand at the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea. In temperatures as low as minus-30 degrees, the Marines held off some 100,000 Chinese attackers and fought their way in hellish conditions back to the allied lines.
Today, however, we live in a decidedly unheroic age, one in which the traditional masculine attributes of courage, physical strength, and moral fortitude have been disparaged by feminists and soy boys nearly into oblivion.
Dismissed as outdated and derided as “toxic,” masculinity and the martial virtues so vital to the maintenance of society and social order have been stuffed into the cultural closet in favor of wishful thinking, politically correct fantasy, and dangerous good intentions. It seems we’re too rational, too sophisticated, too civilized for definitive brutality anymore.
But are we? As I argue in my new book, “Last Stands: Why Men Fight When All Is Lost,” the notion that a progressive “arc of history” has somehow made war obsolete and men superfluous goes against all the evidence of history.
As my study of more than a dozen notable last stands shows, the decision to fight to the end not only affects history, it changes it. The Spartans at Thermopylae stopped the Persians and gave birth to Western civilization. The Hungarians and Croats staved off the Ottoman Turks under Suleiman the Magnificent at Szigetvar in 1566 and halted militant Islam’s incursion into Europe. The “Texians” at the Alamo helped create the modern territorial United States. In each battle, the defenders died to the last man.
Others survived, but at a terrible cost. The Union Army under Grant and Sherman was surprised and nearly overwhelmed by the Confederates at Shiloh, but they regrouped and won through the following day; the Civil War might have turned out very differently had they lost.
The Sioux and the Cheyenne warriors who annihilated Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 never again mustered so large a force, or defeated the US Army. A Russian loss against the German Wehrmacht at Stalingrad during the fierce winter of 1942-43 — where the combined casualties were 2 million dead, wounded, missing or captured — would have left Hitler the sole master of Europe.
Don’t think it can’t happen again, because while technology changes, the human animal does not. Battles are won or lost most often by which side wanted victory more, even if they had to pay the ultimate price. “The human heart,” wrote Col. Ardant du Picq in his treatise, “Battle Studies” (1880), “is then the starting point in all matters pertaining to war.”
Wonder Woman fantasies aside, that heart is usually male. Men fight for women, both to woo and win them, and to protect them. They also fight for their children, both born and yet to be born. But most of all, when everything is on the line, they selflessly fight for their comrades in arms. From this grim reality come our notions of duty, honor and country.
“The state of peace among men living side by side is not the natural state; the natural state is one of war,” wrote philosopher Immanuel Kant in 1795. Nothing has changed. As the old saying goes: si vis pacem, para bellum: “If you seek peace, prepare for war.” That’s a lesson we forget at our peril.
Michael Walsh’s book “Last Stands: Why Men Fight When All Is Lost” (St. Martin’s Press), is out Tuesday.