The Last Line of Defense

By George Roche

The time has come ... to rediscover the spiritual roots of personal responsibility and integrity that built this country. What we need today is the leadership to carry out the task. In a word, America needs its heroes as never before.

"The thin red line" is an expression often used in literature to describe soldiers on the front who are faced with overwhelming odds. The word "red" refers to the color of the uniforms worn by some of the most famous soldiers of all, British infantrymen in the 18th century.

The thin red line is the last line of defense. It is the line drawn between civilization and barbarism. And the only way to hold the line is to teach our young men and women the right values and the right attitudes. This means teaching them to appreciate what Rudyard Kipling once called the "thin red line of heroes."

Heroes have deeply influenced my personal life. They have helped me define ideas like honor, duty, truth, honesty, compassion, self-discipline, and sacrifice. These are the ideas that are the bedrock of our society. Unfortunately, they are also ideas that we don’t hear very much about these days.

Such a theme is especially important just now at the end of the century. There is a heroic dimension to life that we must pass on to our children.

George Washington’s Rules for Life

First and foremost among my heroes is George Washington: citizen, patriot, risk-taker, leader. He used to be every schoolchild’s hero. But he seldom earns more than a passing mention these days. The greatest American of all time has become just another dead white male.

George did not cut down a cherry tree with a hatchet and confess the deed to his father by saying, "I cannot tell a lie." That is just a legend, But this man’s real deeds turn out to be far more amazing than any of the tall tales that have been told about him.

He was born in 1732 on a small, struggling tobacco farm in Virginia. His father died when he was eleven, and he had to work to help the family make ends meet. As a young boy, he also had to memorize over 100 rules of conduct devised by French Catholic monks. Here are a few examples:

Speak not when you should hold your peace. Always submit your judgment to others with modesty, Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any.

Let your conversation be without malice or envy....

When you speak of God or His attributes, let it be seriously,...

Let your recreations be manful, not sinful.

Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.

He didn’t forget these rules or outgrow them. They were rules for life, and they were not just about common courtesy but about developing moral character and moral discipline.

The Testing Ground of Experience

By age 15, he was already working as a professional surveyor far beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains. The wilder- ness had a profound impact on him. It tested his mettle and endurance, force him to improvise to meet unexpected challenges, and opened wide new vistas in his imagination. He was filled with the restless longing of the pioneer - and, if it were not for his family obligations back home in Virginia, he undoubtedly would have become a legendary woodsman and explorer like his contemporary, Daniel Boone.

By age 21, he was a major in the colonial army. He fought during the French and Indian War, and his bravery made him a living legend. In one battle, he had two mounts shot out from under him, and his hat and uniform were riddled with bullet holes.

In 1775, after the first shots between the Redcoats and the Minutemen were fired at Lexington and Concord, the Second Continental Congress unanimously elected George as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Why?

He was not a general. He was just a simple country farmer who happened to have some limited military experience. He did not enjoy a reputation as a powerful politician or a great orator. At 43, he was also far too young for such an awesome responsibility. But he was the type of man who never quit, no matter how difficult the odds. If the American cause has to rest on the shoulders of one man, the delegates knew unquestionably that the man had to be George Washington.

A Hopeless Cause

He was facing a hopeless cause. The Continentals had no trained soldiers, no money, no ammunition, no weapons, and no supplies. Yet they were about to take on the greatest army in the world. Britain was a superpower. George, however, found ingenious ways to make America’s great liabilities into assets. And as a commander, he was bold, decisive, and strategically brilliant. Moreover, he inspired his men by setting a personal example of bravery on the battlefield and endurance in camp. He lived in the same conditions as his men. He suffered the same cold, hunger, and pain.

There is no question that the army would have deserted en masse at Valley Forge if it had not been for George, Think about that for a moment. What kind of man could command such devotion?

The War for Independence was essentially won in 1781 after George pulled off a stunning surprise attack at Yorktown. But his army couldn’t be disbanded until a treaty was signed. His men were furious; they couldn’t return to plant crops and care for their families. Worse yet, most of them hadn’t been paid for two years.

It is hard to believe, but as late as March of 1783, they were still marooned in a dirty, crowded camp in Newburgh, New York. Congress continued to turn a deaf ear to George’ s pleas that the men be paid or discharged. It wasn’t just the enlisted men who were grumbling about this shameful ill- treatment. Scores of officers were circulating anonymous pamphlets calling for mutiny. The rag-tag arm has won the war, but now it stood to lose the peace. It looked as though the American experiment would be over before it had really begin, and the nation would be plunged into bloody civil war.

Then George performed one last desperate act. He showed up unexpectedly at a secret meeting that was designed to launch the mutiny. He asked if he could speak and was reluctantly given the floor. He called for his officers to be patient just a little while longer. He reminded them that the army could not be a law unto itself. He also pointed out that they had fought together to institute democracy, not a new king of tyranny. And he concluded by saying, "I have a letter here from a congressman that will prove the good faith of our government." He drew the parchment from his pocket and unfolded it.

But the light in the tavern was too dim for him to make out the words. With a trembling hand, he fumbled for his glasses. He hated them and had never worn them in public before. In a deeply mortified tone, he apologized, "gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country."

He started to read the letter, but he couldn’t speak. His voice, as well as his composure, deserted him. He stalked out of the room without uttering another word.

The officers were all hardened soldiers who had witnessed terrible sights without flinching. But, seeing their beloved commander reduced to such a state, they began to weep openly. They immediately pledged to follow orders and quell all attempts at mutiny. Once again, George Washington had saved the new nation from destruction.

Reprinted by permission from IMPRIMIS, the monthly journal of Hillsdale College. Subscription free upon request. ISSN 0277-8432.