Once upon a time in Western civilization, the knight in shining armor was the beau ideal for male character development. A guileless, clean-living, fair-playing Christian and brave sort of rule-keeping chap who treated women with due deference and willingly, if not enthusiastically, sacrificed all for God, king, and country.
The Somme, to steal from Robert Graves, bid goodbye to all that. In the United States, one might have thought Fredericksburg would have done the trick. It didn’t and it took until World War I to start the process in earnest. It took the Vietnam War to finish it.
But culturally, we see in the Great War poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, followed by the “Lost Generation” in Paris, the beginning of the disillusion with, and rejection of, Western codes of honor that had held sway for 1,000 years. Fictional characters such as Jay Gatsby, Rick Blaine, Harry Callahan, and Han Solo showcased leading men who broke rules, disdained authority, and behaved as they saw fit, sometimes in serious contravention of reigning codes of society. They are the antihero.
Though a phenomenon since the time of Andrew Jackson and the American cowboy, it’s fair to say that as artillery serves as a precursor to an infantry assault, this post-World War I trend paved the way in America for Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. These men are rogues who found political success in a culture no longer looking for Boy Scouts.
When we think of the past world, in a sense the old world before 1916, we think of bemedaled sovereigns and potentates striding in solemn procession at Edward VII’s funeral in 1910. The approximate century prior since Waterloo had seen the concept of the Christian gentleman, perhaps best typified by Gordon of Khartoum, as the apogee of masculinity. We perceive them as Dudley Do-Rights today. John Glenn was a self-admitted member of the club and worried about it.
The generation of men who thought and lived like that—Rupert Brooke may have been their most sublime and beautiful voice in “The Soldier”—found their ultimate sacrifice in the trenches of the Western Front. The young subalterns straight out of Eton or Oxbridge, in keeping with Wellington, saw it as a grand game at first. After all, gentlemen didn’t even carry a weapon. Slaughter was the work of the lower orders. Aristos had better things to do. Many of our best of 1917 felt the same way.
Their attitude soon changed when the butcher’s bill came due courtesy of German machine guns and poison gas shells.
British poet Wilfred Owen caught that acidic aftertaste in his classic Dulce et Decorum Est. Americans came home a bit less scarred but still questioning why. With the League of Nations not yet passed, Europe still in shambles, and an intervening decade that would see Europe on the road to world war again, just what did America accomplish in its bid to “make the world safe for democracy” and “end all wars”?
The consensus was very little. Hence, when the draft was up for renewal in 1941, and as World War II brewed with vigor, the bill passed by just one vote in the House, so present was the searing memory of the waste of World War I.
If you know your Fitzgerald, you know the story. The dashing young Princeton lieutenant off to war at the outset of This Side of Paradise is much removed from Gatsby, a bootlegging mystery man who consorts with mobsters and blithely violates societal norms to possess Daisy Buchanan. The difference between hero and antihero? The crucible of war.
Rick Blaine, who had run guns to the Spanish loyalists, then thought the nobler of the sides in the Spanish Civil War, in “Casablanca” is a boozy bar owner in Vichy France who is on the lam from American authorities for an unknown reason. When approached to help Victor Laszlo, a resistance leader against the Nazis, escape to America, he puts his bitter, burning torch for his ex, now Laszlo’s wife, above his alleged duty to fight for freedom and country. Yes, eventually he goes all squish. In 1942, the rot was in a state of stasis because of another war.
Jump forward two wars, Korea and Vietnam, a semi-victory and a loss, and we come to the San Francisco Police Department’s Dirty Harry. Since it’s relatively modern, I won’t belabor the details, as many readers will recall the film. Suffice to say, Callahan has only a passing acquaintance with rules and respect for duly constituted authority. The American public glorified him for it and a U.S. president quoted him from the podium. No more nice guys, we want winners, even if they have to fight dirty.
It’s almost as though we channeled the frustration over the failed objectives in Korea and Vietnam and decided to ape the Viet Cong in their dedication to final triumph, regardless of the questionable ethics required to achieve it.
Do I even have to go into all the ways Han Solo is no choirboy? He’s Rick Blaine in a galaxy far, far away. He’s out for himself and, like Blaine, only comes around at the urgings of a woman he eventually loves. Solo is a smuggler and free-booter, just the man for the age after “the best and brightest” lost Vietnam.
The young selfless honor-bound war hero George H. W. Bush’s win in Desert Storm notwithstanding, we rejected him a bit over a year later for a draft-dodging womanizer of highly questionable personal ethics and his wife who put, more so now, the Borgias to shame for their lack of integrity.
And how do we remember the 1990s? For many of us, it was a glorious decade. Now that could be a function of our then-relative youth, the good economy, or the GOP congressional dominance. No matter the qualifiers, however, many prospered. We noticed the White House doings, up to and including impeachment, and then went on with our lives, rarely giving a second serious thought to the summer stock Elvis in the Oval Office. Our need for noble individuals in power had fallen to that.
Consider that after Bill Clinton was impeached, his poll numbers went up.
I also won’t go into the current president’s foibles and what I consider his good record, as that was recently covered in another column in this space. You can make your own judgments. Though, ask yourself, when you hear of a scandal are you surprised at all? Do even the most heinous acts of political transgression motivate you to think, “Wow! I never would have guessed”?
I would venture to speculate it is generally unlikely.
Russian hoaxes, socialist authoritarians, and congressional witch hunts are usually not repulsed by the Dudley Do-Rights of the world. Fictional San Francisco police inspectors and their temperamental followers fare better when jousting with those foes. So our devolution from hero to antihero has its political plus sides. On the ethical and moral sides, the jury is most definitely still out on the question.
As it should be. For the specter of political conflict is not the total be all and end all of life. When it is our more vital civic, intellectual, and cultural lives are worse off for it.
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