Sergeant Bergdahl and Sergeant York - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Sergeant Bergdahl and Sergeant York

They were both sergeants. Neither liked war, one being a pacifist. But both served, one in Afghanistan, the other in World War I.

Yet Bowe Bergdahl and Alvin York could not possibly be more different. And that difference speaks directly to a difference in character that wound up having a decided effect on each man’s comrades in arms. A difference in character that former Army Lt. Col. Ralph Peters nails exactly in a superb piece in National Review. But first — Sergeant York.

Not many people mention Sergeant Alvin York these days. But they should. In fact, as the tenth anniversary of the death of former President Reagan is remembered, it is notable that the riderless horse prancing behind Reagan’s flag-draped casket was named “Sergeant York.”

Alvin Cullum York was a poor boy born — literally — in a log cabin in the back woods of Tennessee. One of eleven children — he was number three — his father was a blacksmith. When his father died, Alvin took on the role of helping his Mom provide for the York family. He worked as a logger and in railroad construction. He also loved to hunt, and was a crack shot with a rifle. Alas, young Alvin was something of a party animal, drinking, gambling, and generally raising hell. Out of the blue, one of his buddies was killed in a bar fight, stunning Alvin. Taken aback at the senselessness of the death, suddenly realizing that if he didn’t change his ways he too could die in a senseless bar fight, Alvin York turned to religion — to God — to help him understand. He went to a prayer meeting and over time went through a religious conversion. He joined the fundamentalist Church of Christ in Christian Union, sang in the choir and learned to teach Sunday school. His faith was strict. There was no drinking, no gambling, no movies, swearing or dancing. There was also another belief. His new religion was strongly opposed to violence — and to war. In short order, by 1914, Alvin York had become a pacifist. And it wasn’t too long before Alvin’s pacifist beliefs came up directly against the ways of the world.

Three years after he found God, on April 6, 1917, the United States entered what was seen in the day as the European War. His pastor doubled as the local postmaster, and three months after the war began for America, Alvin York — like millions of his male peers across the country — received his draft notice, brought to him personally by his pastor the postmaster. What to do? War violated his religion. The pastor suggested he file for conscientious objector. Alvin agreed. Not the most literate of men, Alvin filed thusly, writing simply on his response: “Dont [sic] want to fight.” He would say of this period: “I wanted to follow both [the Bible and the U.S.]. But I couldn’t. I wanted to do what was right…If I went away to war and fought and killed, according to the reading of my Bible, I weren’t a good Christian.” 

The local draft board was not impressed. In fact, the board did not recognize Alvin’s church as a legitimate Christian faith. This wasn’t the Methodists or Baptists or Congregationalists. Alvin was turned down. He was told to report for basic training at Camp Gordon, Georgia — and reluctantly, Alvin decided it was his duty. So he went.

Once there (York had been assigned to the 82nd Infantry Division), Alvin found himself marked as an oddity. He hated war — yet he was a superb marksman. Deadly. He drew the attention of his commanding officers — his company commander Captain Danforth, and his battalion commander Major Buxton. Both men, as it happened, were devout Christians themselves. As reported here by the Sergeant York Discovery Expedition, the three began a long, unusual dialogue between commanders and corporal about when war is moral, or as many faiths call it today, they discussed what is a “just war.” Says the site: 

Alvin shared his concerns with them. Buxton and Danforth knew their Bible very well, and dedicated hours of their time to contend with York’s doubts. They literally walked through the Bible together to debate the issue. For every verse the commanders used to support their position on warfare, York countered. Finally, one night, Captain Danforth read Ezekiel 33.

“But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, and the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand.” Ezekiel 33:6

… Specifically, Danforth and Buxton… spent hours out of their time to the concerns of this one soldier. They had every reason to decline speaking with York, foremost was the serious time constraints the unit was under. They had only a few months to train raw recruits for combat. Despite this, they sacrificed their time to help York overcome his doubts. [York would later write:]

“We talked along these lines for over an hour…We did not get angry or even raise our voice. We jes (sic) examined the old Bible and whenever I would bring up the a passage opposed to war, Major Buxton would bring up another which sorter (sic) favored war. I believed that the Lord was in that room. I seemed to somehow feel His presence there.”

Eventually, Alvin came to the reluctant belief that in fact there was a time for war — and this moment was it. After the citation of Ezekiel 33:6, as the Sergeant York site puts it, “York stood up and said, ‘All right, I’m satisfied.’ With this assurance, he sought to excel in all that was entrusted to him.”

Soon, Corporal York was off to France. The site tells the story this way:

October 1918: Argonne Forest, France. It was another wet and foggy morning in the rugged Argonne Forest. At precisely 6:10 AM, the battalion attacked. The mission was to take the German Decauville Rail. This would force the Germans out of the Forest. The attack took York’s battalion up a funnel shaped valley, which became narrower as they advanced. On the sides of the valley were steep ridges, manned by German machine guns and troops. As the Americans advanced, they encountered intense German machine gun fires from the left, right and front. As York recollected:

“The Germans got us, and they got us right smart. They just stopped us dead in our tracks. Their machine guns were up there on the heights overlooking us and well hidden, and we couldn’t tell for certain where the terrible heavy fire was coming from…And I’m telling you they were shooting straight. Our boys just went down like the long grass before the mowing machine at home. Our attack just faded…And there we were, lying down, about halfway across (the valley) and those German machine guns and big shells getting us hard.”

The German fire took a heavy toll. Something had to be done to silence the German machine guns. Sergeant Early took three squads of men to attack the machine guns (this included York). They worked their way behind the German lines and captured a large group of German soldiers who were preparing a counter-attack. Early’s men were contending with the prisoners when machine gun fire hit them, killing six Americans and wounding three others. The fire came from German machine guns on the ridge, which turned their weapons on the US soldiers. As his men remained under cover, guarding the prisoners. York worked his way into position to silence the German machine guns.

And those machine guns were spitting fire and cutting down the undergrowth all around me something awful. And the Germans were yelling orders. You never heard such a racket in all of your life. I didn’t have time to dodge behind a tree or dive into the brush…As soon as the machine guns opened fire on me, I began to exchange shots with them. There were over thirty of them in continuous action, and all I could do was touch the Germans off just as fast as I could. I was sharp shooting. I don’t think I missed a shot. It was no time to miss…All the time I kept yelling to them to come down. I didn’t want to kill any more than I had to. But it was they or I. And I was giving them the best I had.”

One of York’s prisoners, First Lieutenant Vollmer, emptied his pistol trying to kill York (while York was contending with the machine guns). Failing to injure York, and seeing his mounting losses, he offered to surrender the unit to York, which was gladly accepted.

Alvin York’s valorous efforts that day astonished everyone around him. When York and his six surviving comrades arrived back at their battalion, the commanding officer was incredulous, saying: “Well York, looks like you captured the whole damned German Army.” Asked how many prisoners he had, York replied: “I don’t rightly know.” A count was taken and the answer was 128 soldiers and 4 commissioned officers — 132 prisoners. Another quick count was taken. There were between 20-25 dead Germans taken out by York and his comrades, with his personal deadly aim credited for 9 of them.

Very shortly thereafter Corporal York was promoted to Sergeant York and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. An investigation into his actions was conducted. On December 31, 1919, another award was issued. General of the Army John “Black Jack” Pershing personally awarded York the Medal of Honor. The citation reads:

After his platoon had suffered heavy casualties and 3 other noncommissioned officers had become casualties, Cpl. York assumed command. Fearlessly leading 7 men, he charged with great daring a machine gun nest which was pouring deadly and incessant fire upon his platoon. In this heroic feat the machine gun nest was taken, together with 4 officers and 128 men and several guns.

Still, for all of this, at home in America York’s heroism was unknown. Until the Saturday Evening Post — with a circulation of 2 million — learned of the story from a reporter who had been traveling through the war zones. Suddenly, Alvin York was one of the most famous men of his day. On his return to America he was greeted by the Tennessee Society — a group of Tennesseans living in New York — and the honoring of Sergeant York began. It would continue for the rest of his life (he died in 1964) as he would continuously receive various honors. He met the Secretary of War (President Wilson was in Paris at the Peace Conference), was put up at the Waldorf-Astoria, banquets were given in his honor. The Nashville Rotary took up a collection to buy him a 400-acre farm, and when he married, the governor of Tennessee performed the wedding service. A highway was named for him. There was a ghostwritten autobiography. And as mentioned, 40 years after York’s death a horse named in his honor was chosen to be the riderless horse in a funeral for a former President of the United States. He was repeatedly helping charities and other civic causes. Famously, although he held out for a long time, York was finally convinced to let Hollywood tell his story. Gary Cooper, the Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise of his day, starred as Sergeant York. The film won the 1941 Best Actor Award for Cooper and was nominated for multiples of Oscars, including Best Picture. The film includes this gripping depiction of York’s famous charge against the Germans. 

Now. Why is the story of Sergeant York important today? Compare the character of Sergeant York to what America is learning about the character of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.

Like York, Bergdahl was not a fan of war, in this case the war in Afghanistan. But as his comrades-in-arms are now coming forward to relate — with a seething anger — Bowe Bergdahl is seen as a deserter. Someone who deliberately, willfully deserted his colleagues and walked away. Setting in motion an effort to find him that cost the lives of six Americans. 

Yet there is Obama national security adviser and ex-UN Ambassador Susan Rice taking yet again to Sunday morning television to say that Bergdahl served with “honor and distinction.” And that the right thing to do was to trade this hostage — and Bowe Bergdahl quickly became a hostage — for five high-value Taliban detainees.

How to explain the difference between the character of Alvin York — and not only Bergdahl but the civilians running the Obama White House? No one has done this more devastatingly than Ralph Peters, the retired Army Lieutenant Colonel. Peters has written a brilliant piece over at National Review Online titled “Why Team Obama Was Blindsided by the Bergdahl Backlash.” Writes Peters in part:

This is a fundamental culture clash. Team Obama and its base cannot comprehend the values still cherished by those young Americans “so dumb” they joined the Army instead of going to prep school and then to Harvard. Values such as duty, honor, country, physical courage, and loyalty to your brothers and sisters in arms have no place in Obama World. (Military people don’t necessarily all like each other, but they know they can depend on each other in battle — the sacred trust Bergdahl violated.)

President Obama did this to himself (and to Bergdahl). This beautifully educated man, who never tires of letting us know how much smarter he is than the rest of us, never stopped to consider that our troops and their families might have been offended by their commander-in-chief staging a love-fest at the White House to celebrate trading five top terrorists for one deserter and featuring not the families of those soldiers (at least six of them) who died in the efforts to find and free Bergdahl, but, instead, giving a starring role on the international stage to Pa Taliban, parent of a deserter and a creature of dubious sympathies (that beard on pops ain’t a tribute to ZZ Top). How do you say “outrageous insult to our vets” in Pashto?

Colonel Peters did not mention Alvin York — and yet, he described him to a tee. Alvin York came from an American culture which, then as now, has “Values such as duty, honor, country, physical courage, and loyalty to your brothers and sisters in arms [which] have no place in Obama World. (Military people don’t necessarily all like each other, but they know they can depend on each other in battle — the sacred trust Bergdahl violated.)”

Sacred trust. Values of duty, honor, country, physical courage, loyalty to your brothers and sisters in arms. That’s what Alvin York was all about. And from everything well out there from his comrades, this doesn’t even come close to describing Bowe Bergdahl.

The problem here, as Colonel Peters writes so devastatingly, is that these values are not only not understood in the White House — they are viewed by cultural elites today with a condescending contempt. Nothing so better visually illustrates the arrogant attitude of the cultural elite than the clip of State Department spokesperson Marie Harf from Tuesday night’s Kelly Files, in which, around 51 seconds in, Harf sniffily dismisses the idea that the men who served with Bowe Bergdahl might actually know more about what happened with Bergdahl. The body language says it all. 

Had Alvin York become a military hero today and then been exposed to the sharp tongues of today’s cultural elites, one can only imagine the cutting remarks that would be directed at York for saying things country-style like “the Germans got us, and they got us right smart” or, drawing on his (gasp!) religious background to say: “When you have God behind you, you can come out on top every time.”

How quaint. How so-not-sophisticated. 

How American. Which Alvin York decidedly was. An American through and through. Reluctant to fight, but once committed, determined to see the fight through to victory.

As the Bergdahl story continues to unfold, with one of his military comrades after another coming forward to accuse him of desertion and one story after another emerging of emails and letters in which Bergdahl makes plain his disgust at being an American, it’s worth while to remember the story of Alvin York. Sergeant York. To remember the values that shaped the story of Sergeant York.

Not to mention the values said to have been displayed by Bowe Bergdahl. Not to mention the values that shaped — and still shape — the left-wing cultural elites of this White House.

Jeffrey Lord
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Jeffrey Lord, a contributing editor to The American Spectator, is a former aide to Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp. An author and former CNN commentator, he writes from Pennsylvania at His new book, Swamp Wars: Donald Trump and The New American Populism vs. The Old Order, is now out from Bombardier Books.
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