While it may be true that history is written by the victors, it is often the tragic last stands that capture our imaginations with the victors being forgotten. This is something of a sacred week in Texas for it was this month in 1836 that a group of 200 volunteer soldiers including Davy Crockett from Tennessee (“You can go to hell. I am going to Texas”), Jim Bowie, and William Travis held out for thirteen days against a Mexican army of thousands. On the morning of March 6, the Mexican forces broke through a breach in the outer wall of the Alamo and overpowered them. Ordered to take no prisoners only a handful of Texans were spared. For Texans, the Alamo became a symbol of heroic resistance and on April 21 an army of 800 defeated the Mexican force of 1,500. The rallying cry was, of course, “Remember the Alamo” and my guess is more people remember those words than the name of the victorious Mexican general at the Alamo.
Does anyone recall the name of the Roman General who built the ramp to reach the remaining Jewish fighters and their families at Masada? Few, I imagine.
Do we celebrate the Persian general whose army of one million men overwhelmed the Greek Leonidas who held off the Persians for two days by blocking the only road by which the massive army could travel the narrow pass? Leonidas dismissed the bulk of the Greek army and remained to guard their retreat with 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians. They fought until every one was killed.
Do we remember the pastors of Germany who saved their careers by embracing Hitler or Dietrich Bonhoeffer who wrote before his death by hanging, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”?
By the end of 1942, the Jews trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto learned that the deportations were part of an extermination process, as the deportees were sent to death camps. Many of the remaining Jews decided to revolt. The first armed resistance in the ghetto occurred in January 1943. On April 19, 1943, Passover eve, the Nazis entered the ghetto. The remaining Jews knew that the Nazis would murder them all and they decided to resist the Nazis to the last, rather than surrender. They fought to the last person.
We remember the stark image of the young man who resolutely stood before the tanks in Tiananmen Square and the thousands who were then killed by the Chinese army but do we remember the generals of the army?
Band of Brothers
All of these were crushed, They lost the fight and forfeited everything but there is something more glorious about their loss than those who defeated them. What is it about those who are willing to give up their lives against hopeless odds?
You may remember the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V.
The English noblemen, gathering before the Battle of Agincourt, realize that the French outnumber them five to one. Westmorland wishes that they had with them some of the men who sit idle in England. But King Henry, entering and overhearing him, disagrees. King Henry says that they should be happy that there are so few of them present, for each can earn a greater share of honor.
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 rememb’red.
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 rememberèd—
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 accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
As I am writing this the news from Ukraine is dire and the odds are heavily against maintaining their rightful independence. They are severely outnumbered and yet whatever the outcome they will go down in history as those who, in St. Paul’s words, after they had done everything, did stand.
Art by Warren Hunter