“We few, we happy few . . .”

In 480 B.C. at Thermopylae a fabled band of a few hundred Spartans, Thespians, and Thebans under King Leonidas I of Sparta held off the Persian hoards of Xerxes I for three days, buying with their lives sufficient time for the Greeks to withdraw and consolidate their forces for the decisive naval victory at Salamis in 480 B.C.  Remarkable not merely for its display of stoic resolution and bravery, but for its consequence as well,  these martyr-soldiers quite literally saved the Greek city states–and thence Western Civilization itself–from near-certain extinction.

Nearly two thousand years later, at an hourglass-shaped clearing near the rural farming village of Agincourt, France, Henry V, leading a sick, hungry, exhausted army variously estimated to be outnumbered three-to-one to as much as ten-to-one, faced the cream of French nobility.  They hadn’t a chance, and knew it.  The evening before the battle was spent in confession and atonement, for Hell beckoned. The French actually prepared and painted a donkey cart to haul Henry before the mocking crowds of Paris. We know otherwise. On October 25, 1415, the English annihilation of French knighthood preserved the Plantagenet claim to the French throne, secured Harfleur as an English staging area, and allowed Henry V to roam his armies throughout France largely unimpeded for years. A noted historian put it simply, “a regular, trained and disciplined army defeated one that possessed none of these virtues.”  Shakespeare, of course, immortalized Henry as he exhorted his tiny army, his “band of brothers,” all of whom expected to die the next day, into immortality. 

Fast forward another 535 years. Winston Churchill, perhaps the greatest English-speaker of the 20th Century, put it best. “Never have so many owed so much to so few.”  In the period July through October 1940, the “few” were pilots and aircrew of the RAF and Fleet Air Arm who defended Great Britain against the onslaught of the Luftwaffe in the famed Battle of Britain.  They were indeed, “few.” Only 2353 young British men and 574 overseas volunteers crewed the Spitfires, Hurricanes, and other aircraft during this period.  Of these, 544 were killed during the Battle itself, and another 791 were killed before the War ended.  Yet these few men, incredibly, were the first to succeed in arresting the German juggernaut.  But for their stoic heroism, skill, and tenacity, it is easy to conclude that Western Europe as we know it might well not exist. 

What many of us may forget, though, is that these same young men who piloted the ‘Spits in 1940 had just seven years earlier at Oxford University carried a resolution, 275 to 153, that “This House is resolved that we will under no circumstances fight for King and Country.”

All of this came to mind as I handed out our annual MOAA JROTC awards at my alma mater, Mitchell High School, some forty-one years after I graduated.  JROTC mission is to produce leaders of character dedicated to service to their nation and their community. They’re succeeding. This small group of young Mitchell Maruders performed over 6,000 hours of community service in the Pikes Peak Region.  Tom Strand, on the District 11 Board of Education and himself a retired AF JAG, told me that only fifteen to twenty percent of JROTC cadets went on to active service.  Not here.  Fully one-half of this graduated class of cadets (about 32), are going on to serve on active duty.  One is going to the USAFA prep school, the other, our award winner, received a four year USAF ROTC scholarship to the Colorado School of Mines. He told me this has been a dream of his all of his life.  I left with my spirits soaring.

That a comparative few patriotic freemen possessed with unfathomable courage can and have prevailed over vastly superior forces in pivotal engagements that unquestionably changed the course of human events is a comfort today.  Those of us rocked by the financial, cultural, political, and intellectual tsunamis of our times look for that sliver of light that promises a better tomorrow.  I’ve seen it. We Americans have always been blessed with people of uncommon moral and physical courage who understand and love who we are and what we stand for, and who answer the call.  From Antietam to Adhamiyah, Cowpens to Chosin, Valley Forge to Omaha Beach, Ploesti to Khe Sanh and on to Karibilah, we have been blessed with Americans of temper, wit, unflinching courage, and selfless dedication.  These young people we in MOAA sponsor are no different. They will, I’m quite confident, be there should the occasion rise to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Henry’s longbowmen, Leonidas’ hoplite warriors, and the “few” brave young airmen of the RAF to face down insuperable odds and triumph.  More than that; it takes a special kind of courage in our post-modernist conceit, so very like the effete intellectuals of Oxford in 1933, to announce to a cynical and diffident generation that you love our country, love what it stands for, are proud to wear the uniform, and will at some future unknowable pivot point of history, Be There.