Adam Nicolson, writing in the London Daily Telegraph, makes a connection between the death at 88 of Captain Philip “Pip” Gardner — one of the last 16 surviving holders of the highest British decoration for valor, the Victoria Cross — and the dying English habit of understatement. In the battle for Tobruk in 1941, Captain Gardner was wounded as he saved the life of a fellow officer with, as his V.C. citation said, “complete disregard for his own safety, despite his wounds and in the face of intense fire at close range.” While convalescing in hospital afterwards, he wrote to his father: “Don’t get alarmed and think I am badly wounded. Just a few odd bits and pieces in my leg, neck and arm, nothing serious.”
Similar comments can be read almost every day in the obituary pages of the “quality” British dailies which, unlike their American counterparts, have adopted the admirable policy of obituarizing at some length, and with an account of how they got their medals, all the holders of all the major decorations that Britain awards. A few weeks ago the Telegraph ran an obituary of Michael Singleton, an eccentric schoolmaster and winner of the Military Cross, which is second only to the V.C. in prestige, in which it was said that “a burst of Luftwaffe fire left his body sprinkled with German shrapnel. When a doctor submitted Singleton to an X-Ray in the 1960s, his sole reaction was to exclaim: ‘God Almighty!’ Singleton murmured: ‘Oh, it’s just a bit of Krupp’s metal.’”
Americans are generally more likely to exaggerate than understate. It was said during the war that much misunderstanding between allies was occasioned by the fact that Americans didn’t understand that when their British allies described a situation as “a bit sticky” they probably meant that it was truly dire. In rhetorical terms, ours is a culture of hyperbole, while theirs is — or was — one of meiosis. For even in Britain, such modesty seems now to be outmoded. Nicolson points out that younger Britons, like Americans, would not make light of great deeds, their own or others’, but overstate them with encomiums such as “f****** brilliant.” Even the language describing the circumstances of his deed in Captain Gardner’s V.C. citation “is minimalised, suppressed far below what any of us would now use. What would a modern description of ‘fraught with great difficulty and danger’ sound like? Full of words that tried to mimic in their violence and extremity the conditions they hoped to describe….We have lost, or are at least in the process of losing, the habit of understatement as a means of conveying the nearly indescribable.”
But there is something about heroism which demands understatement, in America as much as in Britain. Dorothy Rabinowitz writes in the Wall Street Journal that, among the recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor and their families, there is a firm prejudice against using the word “win” or “won” about the medal. “‘Won,’ ‘winning,’ ‘winners’: they are all words that smack of contests, games, and luck, explains an official with the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.”
Maybe the reason we have lost the knack of understatement is that we don’t have many heroes to teach us that understatement is an essential part of heroism. Real heroes don’t puff themselves up. But how often do we get a chance to see real heroes? Ms. Rabinowitz advances the claims of Sergeants Shugart and Gordon, who both received the Congressional Medal of Honor for almost unimaginable bravery in the streets of Mogadishu in 1993, but they, alas, are no longer around to be modest about their deeds.
Andrew Bacevich of Boston University told Thomas E. Ricks of the Washington Post last month that, in America, “military fame has lost its durability” — which is a politer way of saying, as Ricks does, that “America no longer puts anyone up on a pedestal.” This is not unconnected with the fact that we have thrown away our vocabulary of superlatives on actions that fall short of superlative for the sake of promoting “self-esteem.”
But it is also owing to the curse of “cool.” The grown-up culture — insofar as such a thing exists any more — has so far adopted the values of the youth culture as to take on its practiced pose of world-weary cynicism as the foundation of moral and political thought. So in his “Doonesbury” comic strip, Garry Trudeau recently suggested that the Democrats are prepared to “send any number of young Americans to their deaths” for sordid electoral reasons and that the president and his advisers, in privately making the charge against them, laugh uproariously at their own cynicism.
That, so Mr. Trudeau wants us to suppose, is simply the way he thinks the world works. He’s not going to be such a chump as to suppose than anyone in politics really acts from principle and in what he believes to be the best interest of the nation. I wonder if Trudeau, any more than those war protesters who compare Bush to Hitler, really believes this? But such shallow sophistication doesn’t rise to the level of belief. It is merely an attitude, and it is of course compounded in its effects by the fact that the media culture has such a vested interest in what it invariably but tendentiously calls “free speech” — by which it means blanket approval for anything anyone wants to say — that there is almost no constituency within it for voluntary restraint.
Restraint of any kind — one of its kinds is understatement — is dull; outrageousness (note, by the way, the extent to which “outrageous” in the vernacular of “cool” has become a word of approval) and excess are interesting. “Cool” is what it used to be said that people like Captain Gardner were under fire. It meant that they were calm, restrained, unemotional, that they “kept their wits about them” and so were likely to be of use to others in a crisis, instead of making a spectacle either of their feelings or of their cleverness.
Nowadays, however, “cool” seems to mean something like the opposite — being “outrageous” and overstated and calling attention to oneself — and so is the heroism of the media. Having themselves no sense of duty or obligation to any higher principle than their own interests, the media naturally presume the same in others and resist even the most modest attempts to revalue and refurbish a becoming sense of reticence, modesty and understatement. Regrettably, we are soon likely to have fresh examples of heroism to take the silly grins off their faces.
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