Brains? Sure, we value brains in our Important People: a law degree, maybe; a much-followed Twitter account. A capacity for 12-hour days and shared household duties; the ability to “lean in” without getting leaned on.
And does all of this together seal the deal on “talent” and “success”? Not without character, it doesn’t. Not without courage; not without what we used to praise, and still occasionally do, as “moral fiber.” Before the habit of thinking on these traits dies away entirely, let us talk of Jerry Denton, and how he honored his country not by seeking fame or money for his services but rather by putting duty above mere well-being. I say “mere,” because, as Admiral Jeremiah Denton Jr. proved during his seven-year captivity in Hanoi, personal well-being is low on the list of the highest human goods.
When Jerry Denton died the other day, at age 89, the obituaries led with graphic accounts of how he defied his North Vietnamese captors in a TV interview intended as anti-U.S. propaganda. He blinked his eyes: each blink a Morse Code signal. The message: “T-O-R-T-U-R-E.” The enemies were torturing their American prisoners. The world needed to know. Denton reckoned correctly the price for spilling the beans so publicly: torture, beatings, more of the same.
In his postwar memoir of captivity, When Hell Was in Session, Jerry Denton described one Vietnamese technique of persuasion. He would sit on a pallet, hands cuffed behind his back and feet against the wall. “Shackles were put on my ankles, with open ends down, and an iron bar was pushed through the eyelets of the shackles. The iron bar was tied to the pallet and the shackles in such a way that when the rope was drawn over a pulley arrangement, the bar would cut into the backs of my legs, gradually turning them into a swollen, bloody mess. The pulley was used daily to increase the pressure, and the iron bar began to eat through the Achilles tendons on the backs of my ankles. For five more days and nights I remained in the rig.”
The point, from Jerry Denton’s angle of vision was — what? What could it have been but to do the right thing in a tough place? To keep faith with his country, his government, his comrades. What would have been easy for him — compliance with his jailers’ orders — he shunned. What was hard and painful and degrading, he accepted willingly. He had character. It made all the difference in the world.
I met him once in my newspaper office. In a book review, I had praised his memoir as inspiring and important. I was privileged, when he dropped by, to tell him as much to his face.
The Denton experience and the comparable experiences of brother P.O.W.’s such as John McCain and Sam Johnson (the latter now a Dallas-area congressman) provided inspiration and pride during a morally debilitating time. All these years later, their stories imprint on minds and hearts the narrative that stock portfolios and sports contracts count for nothing as against virtues of the sort that Jerry Denton held up for our notice.
We gaze, or should, into the future. What contemporary America teaches its up-and-coming about the ingredients of character — honor, obligation to others, veneration for truth — will matter in the end more than how many technological wonders they bring forth, how many prizes and awards they pile up. A Jerry Denton on the torture rack is worth 100 Wall Street wizards or 500 sports heroes with no more important mission than that of heaping the moolah higher, ever higher.
My personal, semi-fearful observation is that we don’t worry half as much as we once did about the teaching of character in all possible forums and outlets — schools, homes, churches, sports, business, books, movies. I could be wrong; but if I am right, it wouldn’t hurt a thing for When Hell Was in Session, duly reprinted, to come pouring anew from the presses: a beneficent tide of knowledge and moral encouragement.
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