[lit-ideas] The Judge Who Remembered the War

  • From: John McCreery <mccreery@xxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Tue, 1 Jun 2004 12:26:26 +0900

<Cross-posted from BestoftheBlogs>

"Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was an officer in the Union Army. He stood 
six feet three inches tall and had a soldierly bearing. In later life, 
he loved to use military metaphors in his speeches and his 
conversation; he didn't mind being referred to good-naturedly as 
Captain Holmes; and he wore his enormous military mustaches until his 
death, in 1935, at the age of ninety-three. The war was the central 
experience of his life, and he kept its memory alive. Every year he 
drank a glass of wine in observance of the anniversary of the battle of 
Antietam, where he had been shot in the neck and left, briefly behind 
enemy lines, for dead.

"But Holmes hated the war. He was twenty years old, and weighed just 
136 pounds at the time of his first battle, at Ball's Bluff, where he 
was shot through the chest. He fought bravely and was resilient, but he 
was not strong in a brute sense, and as the war went on the physical 
ordeal was punishing. He was wounded three times in all, the third time 
in an engagement leading up to the battle of Chancellorsville, when he 
was shot in the foot. He hoped the foot would have to be amputated so 
he could be discharged, but it was spared, and he served out his 
commission. Many of his friends were killed in battle, some of them in 
front of his eyes. Those glasses of wine were toasts to pain.

"Homes recovered from the wounds. The effects of the mental ordeal were 
permanent. He had gone off to fight because of his moral beliefs, which 
he held with singular fervor. The war did more than make him lose those 
beliefs. It made him lose his belief in beliefs. It impressed on his 
mind, in the most graphic and indelible way, a certain idea about the 
limits of ideas. Thisidea he stuck to, with a grimness and, at times, a 
cynicism that have occasionally repelled people who have studied his 
life and thought. But it is the idea that underlies many of the 
opinions he wrote, long after the war ended, as an associate justice on 
the United States Supreme Court.(Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club, 
Chapter One, pp. 3-4)"

That loss of belief in beliefs, that cynicism born of hard-won 
recognition that all ideas are imperfect tools is, I suggest, something 
to look for in our politicians, not something to despise. What else 
have George Bush and the other fundamentalist terrorists we fear so 
much taught us than this, that naive and immovable conviction is the 
deadliest and most destructive attitude in the world.

John L. McCreery
International Vice Chair, Democrats Abroad

Tel 81-45-314-9324
Email mccreery@xxxxxxx

 >>Life isn't fair. Democracy should be. <<

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