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The Slain Become a Necessary Part of You

In the matter of Robert Kerrey, how you see is what you get.

Ever since the first public notice of the Thanh Phong killings and their thirty year aftermath, those who offer opinions have spoken mostly of themselves. Pundits display the fineness (or the coarseness) of their moral weave. Combat veterans caution against harsh judgement, or any judgment at all, on the part of those who’ve never been there. Others, for whatever reasons, shrug it off.

And of course, there are the words, the vocabularies, we’ve learned to use on such occasions – conflicted, traumatized, closure, and the rest.

But there is no closure in matters of this kind. Nor should there be. For closure forecloses something far more human and far more important.

To approach this, consider another winner of the Medal of Honor, a man whose life and sensibilities in many ways speak to and about Sen. Kerrey’s struggle.

Today, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain enjoys a nearly mythic status. The hero of Gettysburg: the man who held Little Round Top when its loss would have opened the Union Army to assault from the rear and possible annihilation. His gallantry first returned to modern attention a few years ago via Michael Shaara’s novel, “The Killer Angels,” then in Jeff Daniels’ brilliant portrayal in the movie adaptation, “Gettysburg.” Since then, the cult has grown, in both the scholarly and popular worlds.

When the Civil War began, Chamberlain was a 33-year-old professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin College, a bookish classicist. A combination of political pull and rigorous self-instruction secured him a commission in the 20th Maine. By Gettysburg, he commanded the regiment. By war’s end, he’d made brevet major general and been wounded six times, including a shot to the groin that left him in terrible pain for the rest of his life. After the war, he served as governor of Maine, president of Bowdoin College, and in several other posts. At one point, he was seriously touted as a possible Republican vice presidential candidate. Had he craved national power, he might well have ended up in the White House.

He was also a writer: many articles across the decades, and his summa, “The Passing of the Armies,” published posthumously in 1915.

Chamberlain’s not an easy read. He’s often florid and grandiloquent, the style of a Victorian steeped in the classics. But if you read carefully, if you look for the hints and get beyond the conventions and formalities, you find two matters relevant to Bob Kerrey – another quiet man who came alive in war, who had his body shattered, who went on to high accomplishment in politics and education, and who never lost his intimacy with the slain.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a magnificent and chivalric warrior, was also probably, by our current standards, a war criminal. Spring of 1865 found him in defeated Virginia, where he took what he describes, briefly and obliquely, as swift and harsh measures to maintain civil order, especially among the newly freed slaves. Put bluntly: He ordered executions. How many? Were they justified, or merely exemplary? Did he lie about it or cover it up? Had his world been blessed, or cursed, with our media, his acts would most likely have become public knowledge years or decades later. How would he have handled it? What disgrace would have marred him?

But it’s Chamberlain’s relationship to the slain that matters more here. Again, you have to look beyond the prose to find the essence. But it’s there, in his eerie, almost hallucinating reminiscences of the ghosts at the Army of the Potomac’s victory parade (recounted in “The Passing”) and in articles with titles like “Bivouac with the Dead.” And this, perhaps this is what he would say, were he here to comment on Sen. Kerrey’s condition.

“Whenever you take the life of another, you also take part of your own. Whenever you move in the world of slaughter, the same. Sometimes you die.
In body: You take your life or let somebody else do it for you. In spirit: You go insane, either through too little feeling or too much.

“But if you survive, sometimes the slain become a necessary part of you. They’re with you, less as obsessions than as companions, less as horror than as reminder of life’s fragility and virtue’s necessity. They’re intimate with us, and we with them. The primitives understood this. So did the ancients. Some would believe that healing means forgetting, that closing off is good. Nothing could be worse. For to fail to live with the slain is to kill them yet again. And to fail to acknowledge the human need for intimacy of spirit with the dead, across the centuries and the generations, is to reduce us all to mere bits of matter, making death the meaningless end of some trivial span of years. It’s to guarantee that, in the end, we all die in vain.”

The slain of Thanh Phong have served and led and governed us no less than the slain of Gettysburg. May they, in the memory of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the person of Robert Kerrey, continue to do so.

Philip Gold is a Senior Fellow of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute.

Philip Gold

Dr. Philip Gold is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, and director of the Institute's Aerospace 2010 Project. A former Marine, he is the author of Evasion,: The American Way of Military Service and over 100 articles on defense matters. He teaches at Georgetown University and is a frequent op-ed contributor to several newspapers. Dr. Gold divides his time between Seattle and Washington, D.C.