Robert Messenger’s Weekly Standard “Theirs But To Do Or Die”

Drop everything and head over to the Weekly Standard and read Robert Messenger’s “Theirs But To Do Or Die.”

The subtitle of his piece is “Dien Bien Phu and the twilight of the warrior”, and if there is any flaw in this beautifully written article, it is that its true name has been hidden here. The article is constructed so well that Messenger’s words flow right off the page and right into your head: there is no stumbling anywhere.

But I warn you: there is an intense melancholy that suffuses his writing that will be hard to shake off. And maybe it shouldn’t be—shaken off, I mean. Towards the end he makes an observation that serves as a warning:

Our most recent presidents have known nothing of that great life having nothing in the way of war records, which were once a prerequisite for the highest executive power. Men like McChrystal and Petraeus do the bidding of men like Bush and Obama, but can there be any doubt as to where the honor in the relationship lies? (This is one of the underlying currents in the Rolling Stone piece that led to McChrystal’s resignation.) Just consider the fate of Stockdale. To a small percentage of Americans, he is a hero of incomparable stature; to the rest, because of an ill-fated few weeks on a presidential ticket with Ross Perot, he is the butt of late-night comedians’ jokes.

I’m not certain which word is more wrong, comedians or jokes. That brave men like Admiral Stockdale and General McChrystal are ridiculed and cast aside and replaced with simpering, ungrateful, ignorant, ideological, facetious fools like David Letterman and John Stewart, men who have become trusted culture heroes, positively demonstrates that we have become a nation of self-satisfied idiots.

Our reporters now come equipped with “degrees” earned in “J” schools, institutions which instill the idea that the highest honor is had by exposing Military setbacks. If you doubt that, just think: who are heroes to most modern journalists, of what events do they hold to be historic? You will not find any of the names, places, or events on Messenger’s list among them.

But I’d better stop. That’s as much as I can stomach on this topic for one morning. Besides, I’m off to teach my High School Algebra Redux class; of which the majority of students, incidentally, are Communications majors.

Hat Tip as always to Arts & Letters Daily.

Update That should read High School Algebra Redux Sans Algèbre.


  1. To a small percentage of Americans, he is a hero of incomparable stature; to the rest, because of an ill-fated few weeks on a presidential ticket with Ross Perot, he is the butt of late-night comedians’ jokes.
    I guess it doesn’t bother me that popular media may joke on Stockdale (when they are bothered to remember him at all), and I don’t think it would bother him,
    …the Stoic demand for disciplined thought naturally won only a small minority to its standard, but that those few were everywhere the best.
    Courage under fire

  2. Kudos for choosing a timely and inspiring post.
    The biggest disappointment in the recent Koran burning/non-burning brouhaha was the shooting-self-in-foot performance of General Petreaus by making a publicized plea to the guy in question. Foreseeably, how could making that incident newsworthy not have gone wrong? In that brief time Petreaus went from having a future probably contributing to the betterment of America to forever being the butt of the Letterman, Stewart, Colbert style idiotgensia.

  3. Briggs


    Also linked from A&LD today is B.R. Myers’s (expected and delightful) surgical evisceration of Jonathan Franzen’s latest. In it he says (this being relevant to today’s topic):

    Nor are we to imagine that a fool or semiliterate is addressing us. The same narrator who gives us “sucked” and “very into” also deploys compound adjectives, bursts of journalese, and long if syntactically crude sentences. An idiosyncratic mix? Far from it. We find the same insecure style on The Daily Show and in the blogosphere; we overhear it on the subway. It is the style of all who think highly enough of their own brains to worry about being thought “elitist,” not one of the gang.

    Incidentally, if anything can disperse the melancholy of Messenger’s article, it is Myers’s prose.

  4. Noblesse Oblige

    Thanks for the post and a great reference.

    They remind me of the disappearance of heroes from our society. Do you recall the last New York City ticker tape parade for anyone except a local sports team?

    There are no more heroes. The J-school freaks and society itself have driven them extinct. We have exchanged Mantle and Mays for McGuire and Bonds; Feynmann and Bethe for nameless physics hacks; and who do we have to fill in for Hemingway and Faulkner? And so on in all segments of society. Petraeus and McChrystal uphold the traditions of honor and excellence, but society will not honor them; in other times Petraeus would be buzz for presidential timber, and well he should be.

    We need look no further for evidence of what we have lost.

  5. Thanks for the wonderful history lesson. We should honor our heroes with more respect. My own father, a 2nd Division WWII Marine, was ready to move us to New Zealand because he didn’t like how the Vietnam war was being run. In fact, he wrote many letters and got many replies from Senator Wayne Morse here in Oregon discussing why we should not be there. What a sorry waste of human life considering how it was lost.

    I had a close soldier friend who oversaw a supply chain in Vietnam. When he came back to go to college he had some interesting stories to tell about greed and black markets. It was all about money.

    While I fully respect and honor those on the front lines, those back here fighting the war from behind a desk and making deals with the Pentagon don’t impress me much. And I don’t think Afghanistan is ready for our style of democracy and may never be.

  6. Person of Choler

    Speaking of Bernard Fall, he wrote an excellent book about the siege of Dien Bien Phu called “Hell in a Very Small Place”. If you liked Messenger’s article, I expect that you would like Fall’s book as well.

    Fall was killed by a land mine in Vietnam in 1967.

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