Monday, May 28, 2012

We (Sort Of) Happy Few

Ambivalence. That has got to be one of my favorite emotional states. At the very least, it is a state with which I am intimately acquainted. Let’s take Memorial Day, for instance. (It is, after all, Memorial Day as I sit typing this.) I am ambivalent about Memorial Day. And Memorial Day itself virtually emblemizes ambivalence. Here is why: Memorial Day is supposed to commemorate those members of the US armed forces who died in battle; yet for those who are not closely connected to someone who died in that way, Memorial Day is more often a bonus day-off devoted to launching summer vacation, replete with barbeque-ing, swimming, shopping for sales, and watching basketball playoff games, perhaps topped off by cherry pie and fireworks. Kind of like the 4th of July but with even less red-white-and-blue and, here in Texas, slightly less oppressive heat.

In sum, Memorial Day is de jure a day of mourning but de facto a light-hearted tribute to fun in the sun.

So I feel the same way about Memorial Day that I do about The Life of Henry the Fifth.

There is no way around this: Henry V celebrates war. You could even say it is the finest piece of pro-war propaganda ever devised by humankind. The play’s most stirring moment comes in Act 4, scene 3, just as the English troops are poised to begin the battle of Agincourt in which they will be outnumbered by the French, 5 to 1. The scene begins as young King Henry’s officers bemoan the atrocious odds they face. The Earl of Westmoreland, for instance, grumbles “O that we now had here/ But one ten thousand of those men in England/ That do no work to-day!” Henry, who has secretly snuck up on the group, begs to differ. He calls out Westmoreland with some first-rate rhetorical chest-thumping that would not seem out of place in the context of professional wrestling:

What's he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin:
If we are mark’d to die, we are enough
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England:
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more, methinks, would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.

After that, Henry takes a quick breath and then launches into a speech so rousing that a person cannot read, let alone hear it without wanting to charge into the breach and slaughter a whole gaggle of haughty frogs:

            This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin's day.’
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

When I read this speech, I, a quasi (must-have-a-Nazi-exception) pacifist, am ready to swing a sword and shout “Hooray” for killing, raping, pillaging in the name of any old Sovereign. And then, shortly thereafter, I feel a bit bad about having had such feelings. Which is ambivalence. And this is just the way I feel about Memorial Day—simultaneously exuberant about that summer-preview celebration that amounts to a bonus day off in late May and yet a tad guilty about how the conversation is mostly about beer and burgers and not soldiers dying on the cliffs of Normandy or dead folks all over Iraq and Afghanistan. So at least I spent part of this holiday weekend re-reading passages from my former-lawyer friend Ben Fountain’s scathing new anti-war novel: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

And what do Memorial Day and Henry V have to do with lawyers?!

Come on. Do you really need to ask such a question?  

I can hardly think of a profession about whom people are more likely to feel ambivalence. (Except for maybe dentists and undertakers.) But, truly, lawyers have to be the poster-children for ambivalence. Everyone loves to hate them—until they need them—and then they still hate them—or at least hate paying their bills.

So, henceforth, perhaps we should, in the alternative, think of Memorial Day as “St. Crispian’s Let’s (Not) Kill All the Lawyers Day.” And he/she that shares a beer with me upon this day shall be my brother—or sister—be he/she ne'er so vile, for this day shall gentle his/her condition.  And lawyers young and old shall think themselves accursed and hold their licenses cheap while others speak who were here to share a beer (or at least this blawg) with me upon this Memorial Day!

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