Words attributed to President Trump have provoked national soul-searching on the meaning of sacrifice, honor and our obligations to our nation’s war dead.News organizations ranging from Fox News to the New York Times have confirmed the gist of the president’s disparaging attitude toward the military and our war dead. Each media outlet has contributed some additional nuance, yet the portrait of the president is remarkably consistent with what we already know. While he now swears he never called American war hero John McCain a “loser,” we’ve all heard with our own ears his excruciatingly painful words: “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
John McCain was not a hero because he was captured, Mr. President; he was a hero for what he did in placing honor and duty above the trappings and temptations of privilege. As a captured naval aviator in an unpopular war, McCain was beaten and tortured by the North Vietnamese. When they learned McCain was an admiral’s son, they offered to release him. McCain refused. He would not go home unless all his fellow captives also went home — and so he remained a prisoner.
And that’s a hero.
I’m a professor of religion. I’m also a born-and-bred native Texan. I teach an honors course on foundational stories that shape communities and tell them who they are. For those of us who are Christian, our foundational story is the narrative of Jesus Christ. For those of us who are Texan, we have the Alamo. Just as every Christian knows there would be no Easter without Golgotha, so every Texan knows there would be no victory at San Jacinto without courage, integrity and self-sacrifice at the hopelessly embattled Alamo.
Every one of my Texas students knows the Alamo by heart. When the occasional “foreign” student, say from New Hampshire, admits he or she hasn’t heard the story or doesn’t know it fully, my Texas students regale them with minute details. Often these “foreign” students will be shocked to learn that the story ends with everyone at the Alamo dead. Why, they ask, do you Texans revere a battle that you lost? Why, President Trump might well ask, do you honor “losers and suckers”?
For Texans the Alamo is imbued with sacred meaning. Blood was shed and soil was sanctified so that later generations of Texans could live free. Young Texans are told about William Travis. Knowing death was imminent and the battle was lost, he gathered the Alamo defenders. Taking his sword, he drew a line in the sand and issued a challenge: “If you’re willing to die, step over the line and join me.” One by one those “loser” Texians crossed over. Jim Bowie, so sick and frail that he couldn’t walk, said, “Boys, carry me over!” What a “sucker” this fighter and frontiersman was. The bloody self-sacrifice that ensued has been emblazoned across history with the simple phrase: “Remember the Alamo.”
In November 2018, President Trump cancelled, at the last minute, an appearance at the World War I military cemetery at Aisne-Marne in France. The weather was too bad, or the two-hour drive was too long, or the French traffic too congested, he said. His explanations have shifted over time. Members of his military staff, however, came. Why? Because they understood the foundational meaning of the Battle of Belleau Woods, the dead of which are buried in Aisne-Marne American Cemetery. Texans have their Alamo; U.S. Marines have their Belleau Woods.
In late summer of 1918, two developments were tragically coalescing. The Communist Revolution had swept Russia out of WWI, giving Germany complete victory on the Eastern Front. Now 50 divisions of veteran, battle-tested, well-trained German soldiers were arriving in France for a massive, final assault on Paris to defeat France once and for all. And the German assault was going to go through Belleau Woods.
A second development: America was newly immersed in the war. Fresh, untested, untried and unproven American doughboys were beginning to show up on the front lines in France. Among them was a brigade of Marines. And they were stationed at. . . Belleau Woods. On June 1, 1918 the storm struck. Experienced, battle-hardened German forces drove west into Belleau Woods. And thus began the epic battle that every Marine learns by heart. Before the German onslaught, the French fell back, telling the Marines to similarly retreat. “Retreat? Hell, we just got here,” the Marine commander responded — and they held their ground. Sgt. Daniel Daly, who had already won two Medals of Honor, led his Marines in a charge with the exhortation that has gone down in legend: “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” These words are as sacred to Marine grunts as “Remember the Alamo” is to those of us from Texas.
Desperate hand-to-hand, bayonet-to-bayonet fighting lasted for weeks. Germans, so the story goes, began to refer to the Marines as Teufel Hunden: “Devil Dogs,” a title that every Marine still bears with pride. After some of the most intense fighting anywhere in the war, the Germans were stopped, they retreated, Paris was saved and French liberty was preserved. And this simple dispatch came from the Marine front: “Woods now entirely U.S. Marine Corps.”
In France, these blood-stained woods are no longer called Belleau Woods. In honor of the Marines who died there, the French rechristened this stretch Bois de la Brigade de Marine: The Forest of the Marine Brigade. The Devil Dogs of the U.S. Marine Corps are revered in France. The cemetery at Aisne-Marne is not full of losers and suckers; it is a shrine to self-sacrifice and freedom.
Seven score and 15 years before President Trump skipped the ceremony at Aisne-Marne, another president visited a cemetery. Weak, dizzy and feverish from the onset of a smallpox infection, Abraham Lincoln delivered the most eloquent tribute to fallen soldiers in the history of our nation — the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln rightly pointed out that the soldiers who “gave the last full measure of devotion” had a cosmic significance. They died, Lincoln said, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Lincoln understood the sacred preciousness of American blood spilled for others. Lincoln got it, McCain got it and Texans get it.
No, Mr. President, Davy Crockett was not a loser and William Travis was not a sucker.
Lynn Tatum is a senior lecturer in Baylor University’s Honors College. He has served as president of the Texas American Association of University Professors and is a member of the American Schools of Oriental Research, the Society of Biblical Literature, the National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion and the Texas Association of Middle East Scholars.
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