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.
Then there was Lt. Col. Duncan Campbell, 91, who was awarded two Military Crosses in 1940 in the East Africa Campaign. Walking ahead of the two infantry companies he was leading on a strong Italian position, the Telegraph reported, "he ensured that his C.O. did not lose sight of him in the rough terrain by singing the theme song from the film 'Sanders of the River' at the top of his voice amid the crack of rifle bullets and the noise of shell explosions." (I gather "Sanders of the River" is a cinematic ode to Empire along the lines of the 1939 version of "The Four Feathers.") It's almost difficult to read about such dazzling bravery without also imagining a Monty Python-esque parody popping up like a jack-in-the-box to deconstruct it between the lines. But such was life before the "Desperate Housewife" and the "South Park" conservative, a time when the cultural mainstream -- the all-enveloping mass media -- treated duty and honor like dependable anchors rather than balls-and-chains.
That was a good half-century or so ago. In the interim, the sensibility these men expressed as deeds in their youth has died a death for which there was no obituary. A flood of affluence, the Baby Boom, the forces of political correctness and celebrity worship have seen to that. Which is not at all to say that their virtues no longer exist. The bravery and sacrifice and commitment of our armed forces, most obviously, prove otherwise. But I think it's fair to say that such virtues exist despite the mainstream culture rather than because of it.
This, in itself, is a testament to the innate resilience of something very good. But word is that the future of the very conservatism that has always prized such virtues lies in the hands of "South Park Conservatives," after the book by the same name by Brian C. Anderson. Very basically, the theory posits that the rank vulgarity institutionalized by the cartoon "South Park," which degrades and desacralizes absolutely everything, will inspire young conservatives to smash the stultifying tyranny of political correctness. If you're picking sides, P.C. vs. South Park offers about as much choice as the Iran-Iraq War -- which, remember, after eight years of carnage, left both sides still afloat.
Such stalemate on the cultural high seas is probably where we are, and certainly where we're heading. But I wonder who will give a cheer when we sink?