Last week’s mass shooting at a Florida high school reminds us yet again that to live well—to live free—requires men with chests. That is a fundamental requirement of free government.
One young man in particular, Peter Wang, died with his chest out for all to see. As the Daily Mail reports, Wang was killed while “holding the door for classmates, dressed in his grey ROTC uniform.” For his heroism, the Army posthumously awarded Wang with the JROTC Medal of Heroism. In addition, the United States Military Academy appointed Wang to West Point’s class of 2025, as it was his dream to attend the academy.
Such honors are fitting, but they are not sufficient.
Peter Wang exhibited extraordinary courage under fire for a young man, and his example serves as a stark reminder of the republican virtue required to live in a free nation. His sacrifice deserves extraordinary attention to match his deeds. With that in mind, Trump should do one of the things he does best: dispensing honors to the deserving to teach our citizens what republican virtue really is.
The idea of men with or without chests comes from C.S. Lewis’s description in The Abolition of Man. Lewis ends his first chapter with an important passage:
And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more “drive,” or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or “creativity.” In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.
This, it seems, captures our predicament today. A man’s chest—the organ that enables one to know right from wrong and the source of virtues like courage—is a laughable idea to many today.
This utter disbelief in the need for boys (especially) but even adult self-governing citizens more generally, to develop manly chests in order to act like free men, is systemic. As the controversial author Doug Wilson points out, our problem has to do with “fatherless boys who are loaded up on psychotropic drugs, administered by the school nurse, and educated by a school system that is prohibited by law from telling anybody what the meaning of life is.” We’ve denied to our children our heavenly Father, Wilson writes, and “substituted the state—a ramshackle federal father, if ever there was one.” PJ Media’s Roger Simon makes it clear that this substitution is our fault. “This abdication of adult and, quite often, parental responsibility,” he says, “is rampant in today’s America.”
Wilson and Simon are not the only ones to make this point. When fathers lack chests, it should not be surprising that our sons do too. “Unstable homes produce unstable individuals,” notes Peter Hasson. But unstable homes do not arise as a common problem in ordinary circumstances. Representatives without chests helped make it this way. And voters without chests helped elect those representatives. The problem is more than one of simple fatherlessness; it is a disease in the whole body politic.
But it does not have to be this way. We can elect representatives who will end government practices that hurt the family. And we can raise our boys better. We can teach them what their chests are for. American Greatness’s own Joe Long wrote an excellent piece about this in the wake of the shooting in Parkland, Florida.
And thankfully, there are still some men out there with chests. Which brings us back to Peter Wang.
While others died well that day, doing their duty and protecting the innocent, Cadet Wang’s courage was extraordinary. We should expect that any self-respecting man would have to charge someone shooting children, but we do not expect it of those as young as Cadet Wang. At the mere age of 15, Wang died a man’s death so that others might live.
For such heroism, we should honor Peter Wang. We should raise what he did up high in our minds, not simply because of the nobility of his actions, but because Wang vindicated himself in a way that represents what is required of all of us in lesser measure if we want to live free.
As James Madison pointed out so well in Federalist 55:
As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.
In other words, to live free we must have virtue. This is not limited to moderation and self-control. Adam Selene observes how the Founding Fathers knew keeping America free requires courage. They rallied behind sayings like “give me liberty or give me death” and “live free or die.” Our situation today requires no less courage—the courage to resist the tyranny of government and the tyranny of murders alike.
If we want to be free, we must be like Peter Wang, for where there is not “sufficient virtue among men for self-government…nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”
In this statement about republican virtue the Founders echoed the ancient wisdom found in Pericles’ Funeral Oration. And the words of Pericles would be a fitting epitaph for Peter Wang, preferably etched on his monument in Arlington Cemetery: “Make up your minds that happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous.” This is a message that Peter Wang clearly understood; and a message many of us need to learn.
Peter Wang had the chest required to live free, and President Trump should heed the petition to give Peter Wang full military honors. Trump should offer to the family the option to process through the nation’s capital to Arlington Cemetery if they should so desire. He should attend the ceremony and present the flag himself.
I’m a military man myself, and I’ve had the honor to do a few funerals for soldiers who have passed on. When men like me present the flag, we say:
On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.
Harder words to say are difficult to find. But they are important, for they honor men with chests. The President should do the same, but in an extraordinary way to match the extraordinary courage displayed by Peter Wang. President Trump should look in Peter Wang’s mother’s eyes and say his own version: “On behalf of a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our gratitude for your son’s example and courage.”
Perhaps in so doing, we might all get a better sense of what is right and wrong, and the courage necessary to defend our freedom. We are in extraordinary need of such courage. Perhaps in honoring Peter Wang, we might find our chests, and keep our country “the land of the free, and the home of the brave.”