In Spite of Ourselves

Jace Yarbrough: Is America still the home of the brave? There are some good reasons why it shouldn’t be.

Last September I listened to CJCS Admiral Mike Mullen’s retirement speech. Having just received my commission earlier that month, I was especially interested in this comment from him.

“And we talk about the resilience of our troops and their families as if it is something apart from the rest of society. It isn’t, or at least it shouldn’t be. Where do you think those troops learn to be so brave? In your homes, in your schools, in your communities.”

Unfortunately I think Adm. Mullen’s hesitation (i.e. that resilience and bravery shouldn’t be unique to military members) is timely and much needed. While courage is still alive in many who serve in our armed forces (and many who don’t), the predominant cultural shifts of the last century have denied us collectively of exactly those considerations that are so essential to valor: namely, purpose and direction.

That bravery depends on the two considerations just mentioned is obvious from the structure of the military training environment. Basic Training is intended to strip recruits to the core, and after almost two and a half centuries of practice the US military has pretty well perfected that art. So at the end of Training Day 0, every trainee is lying in bed asking the same fundamental question, “What in the Sam Hill am I doing here?” That’s exactly what Head Quarters wants. They know how difficult a military career can be, and they also know that humans don’t handle hard stuff very well without purpose. You’ve got to answer that question from the outset.

Although purpose is necessary, it isn’t sufficient; we also need a goal, a direction to work toward in the immediate. In my case, MTIs (military training instructors) suggested that direction with two words: “Butter Bars.” It became a common motivator, and gold second lieutenant rank began to pop up at the final checkpoint of several field exercises. Whatever answer my peers and I had for the purpose question (e.g. family tradition, love of country, good retirement benefits), the next step was earning those bars.

We should now ask ourselves how successful twentieth century American society was at providing the next generation with purpose and direction. As I previously stated, I think the answer is pretty lousy. That’s apparent on a number of fronts, but take architecture as an example. The two dominant philosophies of the last century were Modernism and Post-Modernism.

The former gave us structures like this:

Anyone want to venture a guess as to what this building is used for? Me neither. It might be a courthouse, or commercial office space, or a library. Heck, the Google image caption reads “blood_bank_0.” Its purpose isn’t obvious from the outside—and that’s the point. Thank you, Modernism.

This structure is one of my personal favorites:

You might recognize this as the Denver Art Museum. A few years ago some friends and I interacted with it; we actually circled all 360 degrees of the building without finding the main entrance (woops). It provides its patrons with little guidance for even the most fundamental spatial question, i.e. how to get inside. Thank you, Post-Modernism.

Given the courage-zapping philosophies that have dominated our  national life for the last hundred years, we should give thanks for the “beneficent obstinacy”  (to barrow a phrase from Lewis) of those homes, schools, and communities mentioned by Adm. Mullen. They haven’t yet surrendered to the Modern and Post-Modern schools, and if they hold out long enough, maybe they won’t have to.

Jace Yarbrough
Jace is a member of the Humane Pursuits editorial board. He is a life-long Texan and is currently a JD candidate at Stanford Law School. Before heading out to California he served in the Air Force, taught AP Calculus in Honduras, studied at the John Jay Institute for Faith, Society and Law (www.johnjayinstitute.org), and earned his B.A. in Government and B.S. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. He enjoys all things old and dust-covered, and his favorite pastime is reading to his wife, son, and daughter.

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