This is a photo circulating today, with people mistakenly captioning it "The Old Guard guards the Tomb of the Unknowns against Hurricane Sandy." This is not a photoshop, but it is a bit inaccurate: it was taken in September. The thing is, however, today The Old Guard is there. They have guarded The Unknowns, as their only defenders, since April 6th, 1948, when they first assumed the watch. Through storms and snow, administrations, fashions, wars and peace, they have been there.
You could be forgiven for mistaking the time and date of this photo. It could have been taken at any time and place. It would differ only in the details: the color of hair, the gender, (the first female Old Guard was a few years ago), the color of skin-----there will be snow or rain or heat or fallen leaves, but the one thing that will not change is the presence of The Old Guard.
Their devotion to duty, to respect, to honor, is what attracts so many people to the service in general, even as it tests them beyond endurance. The military is a creature of the most extreme factors one can find. In peacetime, it offers discipline and training. In war, it offers bravery. Always, it offers its service, and it is eternally at the mercy of those with the power to mobilize its forces. There's bad, good, shining gallantry, and horrible evil in the military, all at once. The best seems impossible to believe; the worst shocks the conscience. In the military, we must confront the simple fact that they are us, that they are who we are at our best and worst, and that great good and great evil often exist in one person. Their evils spring from the seeds our society planted in their souls, and their achievements are a reflection of what we would aspire to do and to become.
People are basically good. Some people are not content without something more, though. Some people wish to serve. They want to cast away the cares of their own daily drama and petty concerns, assume the camouflage not just of uniformity but of duty and discipline, and become an actor in larger, greater things. They hunger for the ability to become greater, not for themselves, but for the good of all.
The military has been used wrongly and savagely, but the very strength it gives its soldiers produces the kind of heroism that does not depend on bullets: Hugh Thompson, , Glenn Andreotta, and Lawrence Colburn fought not just against the enemy on the other side, but against the worst foe of all; they opposed their own, and they were outnumbered. Many civilians never attain that courage; wrongs go unchecked daily where only words are involved, and soldiers like Thompson and his crew faced evenly-matched opponents in their actions. The unarmed peasants he and his crew saved represented were no risk to he or his crew. In saving them, he, to my mind, achieved one of the greatest acts of heroism the military of any country has seen. He rejected the unlawful order that had set US soldiers against innocent civilians. There was no fog of war for Thompson, and sadly, there was not nearly enough recognition either. We want our heroes to be pure, shiny, clean, and untouched by reminders of what we ourselves are capable of, both good and bad. We want the enemy to be alien, remote, non-human, but in seeking that comfort we dehumanize not just them but ourselves and make more wars and conflicts inevitable.
People forget that soldiers formed the backbone of the resistance to the Viet Nam war. They were forced to serve and they were forced to obey. Who better to speak of an unjust war than those who fought in it, often unwillingly? There was a wide anti-war movement within the active duty military that many people don't know anything about. People forget that, perhaps deliberately. The desire to simplify the enemy finds its twin in the same desire to simplify our heroes. Pure gallantry----such a good word----as Thompson's often takes years to be appreciated. It's also a reminder of just how much good one person---or in this case, three honest, and honorable people----can do. Evil is weak at the same time it is powerful, but it's power is negative. Evil is destructive. It builds no hospitals, treats no sick, shelters no homeless. In the aftermath, good is hard work and sweat and unglamourous labor. When people recognize only battlefield heroism, as worthy as it is, they also bury moral heroism. They also make heroism look clean and pure and pretty. If you go in believing that, the reality of it can be horribly shocking.
You can always recognize that kind of heroism by its quietness. It serves, it works, it speaks quietly, it rebuilds, it heals, it soothes, it refuses to stand down. It is attainable not by special training or extraordinary acts, but by every day people. The weakest of children can be a greater hero than the strongest of soldiers. It is based on the premise that when one sees something horrible, one cannot then turn away. One is now responsible to act. Legally, that is not the standard, but morally, it is. To be aware is to be responsible. This is why so many people seek out lies and embrace them.
Most of all, true courage does not result in acclaim and medals and ceremonies. Often, it is punished. People can simultaneously desire to know themselves, and yet at the same time, flinch from it. The military requires that first of all, one must take that long deep look into one's soul and see if what is there can and is worthy of being changed and molded. Often time, there is no external enemy that poses more of a challenge than one's own weakness. The military confronts weakness and forges it into strength. People who claim or coyly hint at heroic virtues maintained by deprivation rather than challenge and effort don't impress me. Only the tempted know what temptation is. For every person who felt the freeze of terror and yet still did the right thing, for every person who felt the burn of physical injury and still got up and kept going, for every person who did a kindness and then walked quietly away without praise or recognition, the only recognition is often the brief sensation of having helped another selflessly.
The Old Guard are specifically picked for their abilities and their uniform appearance. They are meant to look as identical as possible. This is to direct the gaze to the Tomb, to symbolically give in death the recognition that the Unknowns might have lacked in life. Their anonymity is important, in that they represent together the best of the military and of the country who asked for their devotion, and who now repays it, a debt that can never be satisfied. We should all take courage from the fact that if we do the right thing, our only reward might be the thought that we have give someone a brief moment of hope. The Unknowns could have been cowards or heroes, rich or poor, an infinite number of things. Their anonymity makes them a slate on which to carve our own stories, to imagine them as Ours, to give them the respect due to any person, white or black, poor or rich, skilled fighter or rear guard cook, that those who offer their lives for their country or for a principle, to preserve freedom or to offer it. The motto carved on the Tomb is one of the few places where the mention of God is not cloying: "Here lies an Unknown Soldier, his name known only to God." Perhaps the ultimate message, finally, is that we should look not to others for our identity, but for our acts, our own honest self knowledge, to demonstrate our beliefs, to be unswayed by winds or trends or ease. If religious people need to believe in a God that knows them for their unremarked acts of heroism for comfort, if it inspires them, more power to them. (To too many others, religion is not this inspiration.) Jesus said not to boast of your beliefs on the street. The Unknowns have been rendered defenseless and silent by death and anonymity, so we step in to take up the quarrel with the foe, to take up the torch from failing hands, to symbolically step into their tracks and bear them up as they fall.
The Old Guard are the eternal protectors of these silent soldiers, assuming a duty not just to one, but to all, there in the dark, in the cold, in the snow, in the turmoil, symbol and sentry both, guarding this memorial and monument to our beliefs and doubts, to our hopes and our fears, our past and our future. They serve and they will serve till relieved of duty, one stern guardian after another, severe, unmoved, devoted. They guard not just the Unknowns, but a small humble notion: our ideals make us human, and our protection of the vulnerable makes us noble.