Something I do while perusing the morning Internet is read the military obituaries in the British press, mainly The Daily Telegraph.
Invariably, these write-ups mark the passing of a veteran of World War II in the kind of scope and detail, as critic James Bowman has noted, rarely found in an American paper.
Sometimes, I feel compelled to save them in a file. Last summer, there was Wing Commander David Penman, 85, one of five Lancaster bombers pilots (out of 12 who started on the mission) to return in 1942 from a daring, low-flying, daylight raid on a German engine plant; the year before that, there was Capt. Philip "Pip" Gardner, the Victoria Cross-winning tank commander captured at the fall of Tobruk. His death at age 88 left only 15 (now 14) surviving VC-holders. Just this week, there was 84-year-old Petty Officer Norman Walton, who, after the cruiser Neptune was sunk in a minefield off Libya in 1941, endured three days in the water and two on a raft to become the sole survivor out of 765 crewmembers. A boxer of some success after the war, Petty Officer Walton thwarted two muggers with a left hook and a head-butt at age 82.
But there is more to these tales than derring-do. There is usually a line, maybe two, that offers the modern-day reader an almost shocking glimpse of a mode of behavior based on virtues unconstrained by the strictures of modern-day hipness, smarts and irony. For example, in his account of the final moments of the Neptune, Petty Officer Walton described clinging to the side of a raft in cold, heavy seas thick with oil. "We saw the ship capsize and sink, and gave her a cheer as she went down."
Was it a huzzah, maybe? Hip, hip, hooray? In their struggle for survival, these doomed sailors could still muster a salute that would save not their lives, but their gallantry. Only I can see it now: Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show," ripping this beau geste into ironic little bits.