Sunday Night Journal — May 30, 2004
Many years ago I read the following passage from John Ruskin’s Unto This Last and it permanently affected my view of the military vocation. Ruskin is considering “the general lowness of estimate in which the profession of commerce is held, as compared with that of arms”—that is to say, why we honor the soldier more than the businessman.
Philosophically, it does not, at first sight, appear reasonable (many writers have endeavoured to prove it unreasonable) that a peaceable and rational person, whose trade is buying and selling, should be held in less honor than an unpeaceable and often irrational person, whose trade is slaying. Nevertheless, the consent of mankind has always, in spite of the philosophers, given precedence to the soldier.
And this is right.
For the soldier’s trade, verily and essentially, is not slaying, but being slain. This, without well knowing its own meaning, the world honours it for. A bravo’s trade is slaying; but the world has never respected bravos more than merchants: the reason it honours the soldier is, because he holds his life at the service of the State. Reckless he maybe—fond of pleasure or of dventure—all kinds of bye-motives and mean impulses may have determined the choice of his profession, and may affect (to all appearance exclusively) his daily conduct in it; but our estimate of him is based on this ultimate fact—of which we are well assured—that, put him in a fortress breach, with all the pleasures of the world behind him, and only death and his duty in front of him, he will keep his face to the front; and he knows that this choice may be put to him at any moment—and has beforehand taken his part—virtually takes such part continually—does, in reality, die daily.
In Memoriam: my father, Donelson Branch Horton, June 2, 1925-September 13, 2001. Wounded in action in a forest somewhere in Czechoslovakia a few days after VE Day (May 7, 1945) and a few weeks shy of his 20th birthday.