No Comment — November 25, 2009, 12:55 pm

A Thanksgiving Meditation

On November 10, President Obama, General Casey, and others spoke at a memorial service at Fort Hood, Texas. I was traveling at the time and missed this event, and just came back to it on the recommendation of some friends. It’s worth taking the time to watch this entire event, and the White House should be commended for offering it unedited.

Obama’s remarks displayed considerable rhetorical skill and nuance. Following in the tradition of Ronald Reagan, he mentioned each of the victims by name and spoke briefly about each. “Neither this country — nor the values that we were founded upon — could exist without men and women like these 13 Americans,” he said. “Their life’s work is our security and the freedom that we too often take for granted. Every evening that the sun sets on a tranquil town; every dawn that a flag is unfurled; every moment that an American enjoys life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — that is their legacy.”

Obama’s remarks fit in a genre that stretches back to Thucydides, who recollected a funeral oration delivered by the Athenian leader Pericles. Indeed, he adhered even to the form and structure of the Pericles speech. That is no coincidence for the former professor at a school that has long made the Athenian speech required reading for undergraduates, and saw in those words the birth of a democratic idealism. But Obama would also know it indirectly from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which, as Gary Wills demonstrates, followed the ancient oration step-by-step. This is not to say that Obama’s remarks, memorable as they were, will be seen by future generations as equal to those of Pericles or Lincoln, but it points to the timelessness of these salutes to the fallen warrior. The dead are seen as embracing the values of the state in whose service they fell.

The speech closes with an exhortation to honor not simply their memory but also their service and civic virtue. In this, the tradition broke with the orations of the Homeric era, which called somewhat crudely on others to follow in battle to honor the dead. Thucydides recalled these words:

If then we prefer to meet danger with a light heart but without laborious training, and with a courage which is gained by habit and not enforced by law, are we not greatly the better for it? Since we do not anticipate the pain, although, when the hour comes, we can be as brave as those who never allow themselves to rest; thus our city is equally admirable in peace and in war. For we are lovers of the beautiful in our tastes and our strength lies, in our opinion, not in deliberation and discussion, but that knowledge which is gained by discussion preparatory to action. For we have a peculiar power of thinking before we act, and of acting, too, whereas other men are courageous from ignorance but hesitate upon reflection.

It is appropriate that the President gives this salute at the same moment as he contemplates a commitment of more blood and treasure to a military mission in a distant corner of the globe. It is important that he consider and weigh carefully the sacrifice that will be asked, comparing this with the political interests of the state. The sacrifice can be demanded if the cause is right, but this demand must not be made lightly.

Thanksgiving in the English-speaking world has long been associated with military ventures. Thanks is given for victory over a foe. But in the tradition known to our forefathers, atonement for transgressions followed or preceded the feast day. The festive was joined with the somber and introspective. Thanks should be given for those who serve, facing deprivation, sacrifice, and death. But it is also fitting that thanks should take the form that Pericles, Lincoln, and Obama suggest: a renewed sense of community and a new commitment to honor the highest and best values in our society. In a time of vituperative and even violent political rhetoric, that call badly needs to be heard.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

March 2016

Save Our Public Universities

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Rogue Agency

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mad Magazines

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Killer Bunny in the Sky

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Bird in a Cage

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Hidden Rivers of Brooklyn

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Save Our Public Universities·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Whether and how we educate people is still a direct reflection of the degree of freedom we expect them to have, or want them to have.”
Photograph (crop) by Thomas Allen
Article
New Movies·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Force Awakens criticizes American imperialism while also celebrating the revolutionary spirit that founded this country. When the movie needs to bridge the two points of view, it shifts to aerial combat, a default setting that mirrors the war on terror all too well.”
Still © Lucasfilm
Article
Isn’t It Romantic?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“He had paid for much of her schooling, something he cannot help but mention, since the aftermath of any failed relationship brings an ungenerous and impossible impulse to claw back one’s misspent resources.”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
The Trouble with Iowa·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It seems to defy reason that this anachronistic farm state — a demographic outlier, with no major cities and just 3 million people, nine out of ten of them white — should play such an outsized role in American politics.”
Photograph (detail) © Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Article
Rule, Britannica·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“This is the strange magic of an arrangement of all the world’s knowledge in alphabetical order: any search for anything passes through things that have nothing in common with it but an initial letter.”
Artwork by Brian Dettmer. Courtesy the artist and P.P.O.W., New York City.

Number of people who attended the World Grits Festival, held in St. George, South Carolina, last spring:

60,000

The brown bears of Greece continued chewing through telephone poles.

In Peru, a 51-year-old activist became the first former sex worker to run for the national legislature. “I’m going to put order,” she said, “in that big brothel which is Congress.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Two Christmas Mornings of the Great War

By

Civilization masks us with a screen, from ourselves and from one another, with thin depth of unreality. We habitually live — do we not? — in a world self-created, half established, of false values arbitrarily upheld, largely inspired by misconception, misapprehension, wrong perspective, and defective proportion, misapplication.

Subscribe Today