There’s a scene in HBO’s World War II miniseries “Band of Brothers” that takes place at Bastogne, during what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. As the opening credits roll, you see a knife, chopping at ice. Chopping, chopping, chopping at hard, thick-frozen ice, chips flying as the knife gradually beats and cuts its way through. Finally, water splashes out and there’s a hole.
Then the camera backs off and you can see that the ice is frozen across the top of a tin Army mess kit. And you see a razor — one of those old double-bladed “safety” razors — plunge through the hole and swish around, then pull back out and go to the face of Major Richard Winters, commander of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne. No man who has ever shaved can help cringing when that cold steel scrapes against his cheek.
That brilliant scene was created to tell us something important about Major Winters. Here he is, war-weary, surrounded by the German army, living in a trench cut into the frozen ground, running out of supplies, taking artillery fire and losing brave men every day, and still… he shaves. With ice-cold water, he shaves.
It’s what I call an internal compass — the kind of character that simply won’t yield or give way to circumstances. No matter how barbaric, raw and evil the world all around him may become, Major Winters is going to be who he is. It’s why we won the war — not that the Germans didn’t shave, or didn’t have discipline, or didn’t fight hard. We won because there was something in the American character that knew right from wrong and would not yield.
In the hindsight of history this seems hugely heroic. To them, it was just standard procedure: doing what’s right, standing by the guy next to you, being true to your word, honoring your commitments, being the same man in war, half a world away, that you were back home.
Right now, we desperately need a resurgence of that American character in our leaders — in fact, we need it in every American. It has nothing to do with shaving, but everything to do with values. I believe it’s still there, in men and women all over this country: that internal moral compass that teaches us to say “please” and “thank you,” to hold the door, to help people pick up the things they drop. It lets us distinguish truth from lies, prompts us to defend the defenseless and fight injustice.
It’s as simple as that famous anecdote about Abraham Lincoln, when someone asked him, “If you call a tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have?”
“Four,” Lincoln said. “It doesn’t matter what you call it. A tail is not a leg.”
During World War II and at other times of war and peace throughout our history, there have been moments when it seemed that our country’s very survival hung on the common sense and character of a few brave people. Thank God they’ve been there.
Now, as our country sinks deeper and deeper into a crisis of our own making, we need leaders who embody the American character. We need leaders who can tell truth from falsehood and will speak truth to power, regardless of the consequences. We need leaders who will judge people by their actions, not tell us actions don’t matter and character is no longer required. We need leaders who understand the values this country was founded on and are willing to pay whatever price is called for to defend them.
It’s true that we have never fully lived up to those values, but that’s why we need them more than ever. Those values call us higher.
The world’s eyes are on us. They still believe in America. Do we?