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  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: July 2009

Introduction

Summary

Yes. Why do we all, seeing of a soldier, bless him? bless

Our redcoats, our tars? Both these being, the greater part

But frail clay, nay but foul clay. Here it is: the heart,

Since, proud, it calls the calling manly, gives a guess

That, hopes that, makesbelieve, the men must be no less.

The urge to praise soldiers has proved strong in most cultures. This stems from a number of emotions commonly held: gratitude towards those who fight, kill and sometimes die for what we might identify with; sheer envy of the sudden action, the rare clarity and decisiveness of mortal combat; and, not least, the persistent belief that those who have engaged in that sudden action can attain some sort of heightened moral quality forged in them during their time in the gap of danger. Samuel Johnson famously said that ‘were Socrates and Charles XII of Sweden both present in any company, and Socrates to say “Follow me, and hear a lecture on philosophy;” and Charles, laying his hand on his sword, to say, “Follow me and dethrone the Czar;” a man would be ashamed to follow Socrates.’ This sort of admiration has been (for a long time, anyway) particularly strong in England.