The Best Defense

Blogging Thucydides (II): Pericles' funeral oration & the Gettysburg Address

It seems to me, reading Pericles' funeral oration (431 BC), that it clearly provided the inspiration for Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

Pericles begins by dismissing his own speechmaking ability: "[I]t is hard to speak properly upon a subject where it is even difficult to convince your hearers that you are speaking the truth." That reminded me of Lincoln's "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here."

Pericles then dwells on what we might call "Athenian exceptionalism": "Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighboring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves." A bit later, he adds, "In short, I would say that as a city we are the school of Hellas." This brought to mind Lincoln's beginning, "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure."

Most striking of all, both speeches conclude by challenging the living to live up to the standard set by the fallen. "So dies these men as became Athenians," says Pericles. "You, their survivors, must determine to have as unaltering a resolution in the field." I think Lincoln expresses that thought better: "It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

(After writing this I did some quick Googling and saw that the comparison between the two speeches is apparently a major theme of Garry Wills' book on the Gettysburg Address. So clearly I am not the first to come across this.) I knew that Lincoln was into Shakespeare and the King James Bible, but I hadn't realized he also absorbed the Greeks.


The Best Defense

The day in 1965 when I mistakenly gave a ride in my boat to a bunch of Viet Cong

By Ron Rogers

Best Defense department of odd war stories

I forgot to mention a unique story about an experience enjoyed by no other soldier in Republic of Vietnam (RVN). There came a day when I gave a nice Viet Cong (VC) platoon a ride down the canal separating RVN from Cambodia and they asked to be dropped off on the VC side and disappeared into the high grass as they walked to their R&R leave, 1 kilometer away in Cambodia. They were so grateful for the ride that they didn't shoot me! 

When the platoon leader waved me down, I thought that I was giving a Popular Force platoon a ride. As I continued down the canal to my temporary duty at A-424, it dawned on me that they had gotten off on the wrong side! I pushed the throttle as far as it would go and raced along close to the bank so the VC would have a harder time tracking me with a weapon. Their nice platoon leader wore an NVA pith helmet without the star and he spoke French with me. I think they would have ridden further, but their crisp khaki uniforms were getting wet and the men got upset. Their leader wore shorts and high socks and didn't care, but he didn't want their uniforms messed-up or their AKs (very few of the South Vietnamese Popular Force had that weapon!) to get rusty. They didn't try to take the 2 M1s lying in the bottom of the boat. They belonged to the two VN SF assholes who ignored my orders to get underway and went to eat and take Pak. The chain didn't know what to say to me and I told them I didn't appreciate being fucked with. We had a schedule and they were violating it. Boy, were they pissed when they were handed back their rusted rifles.

We radioed around when my commander thought it was weird to find a wandering PF unit wanting to cross the canal. Well, there were no PF in that sector that day -- just me and a VC platoon. I held that throttle so hard that the web of my thumb was bleeding badly. So I stopped at a fort and a Vietnamese medic bandaged it and spoke French with me. (Can you get a Purple Heart for a self-inflicted wound?) They thought that I was French! In 1965, a decent number of rural folks thought that we beret wearers were French. I guess they hadn't read the papers nor watched TV. 

Sometimes you can get scared without being shot at. Of course, that platoon commander was awfully nice.

Ron Rogers was a Special Forces soldier once, and young.