Commentary: The Battle Hymn

By TOBIN BECK  |  Oct. 11, 2001 at 11:31 PM
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WASHINGTON, Oct. 11 (UPI) -- The "Battle Hymn of the Republic" resonates in the backbones of Americans who look at the rubble of the Sept. 11 terror attacks in sorrow, with a strong call for justice, but who also have searched themselves for ways to make their lives count for good in the tradition of love and service rooted in the founding principles of the United States.

"I believe that many people are reassessing what's important in life," President Bush said during his news conference Thursday night.

The Declaration of Independence sets out the basic principles on which the United States was founded: that people are endowed with inalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Happiness is not necessarily pleasure, but long-term fulfillment -- a feeling that a person's life has made a difference, has been lived well, that it has had a purpose and counted for something.

It's a country based on love, not hate -- the same premise set out in the biblical admonition that besides loving God, the other great commandment is love your neighbor -- all people you deal with -- as yourself, to treat them as you want to be treated: with respect.

Americans are not angels -- a fact recognized by the Founding Fathers, who set up a system of checks and balances to allow what President Lincoln later called the "better angels of our nature" to rise above squabbles and selfishness in service of the common good.

The United States is seen around the world in a variety of ways, framed through individual experiences -- and the hatred some people feel for Americans is baffling to many in the United States.

"I'm amazed there is so much misunderstanding among people who hate us," Bush said.

While there is hate, there should be no misunderstanding of American resolve, as reflected in the Battle Hymn, which was sung Thursday at the memorial service for those killed at the Pentagon, as it was sung Sept. 14 in a memorial and prayer service at the National Cathedral for those who fell victim to terror in Pennsylvania, the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon near Washington.

At the Pentagon Sept. 14, Bush said: "There's no question in my mind that the resolve of our military has never been stronger, and we will win the war."

The hymn symbolizes tenacious resolve.

Julia Ward Howe wrote the words in the early days of the American Civil War, after hearing soldiers singing to the tune of the abolition song "John Brown's Body" at a Union army camp along the Potomac River in Washington. Howe's poem was published in the Atlantic Monthly in February 1862. The first and fourth verses are:

"My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,

"He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored

"He has loosed the faithful lightning of his terrible swift sword,

"Our God is marching on."

"He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;

"He is sifting out the hearts of men before his judgment-seat:

"Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant, my feet!

"Our God is marching on."

The hunger to make a difference, to help those who need it, has been reflected by many people, including Air Force Maj. Charles Koehler. On Sunday, Sept. 15, he called on his church congregation in Springfield, Va., to get involved in a variety of small group ministries, saying the terror attacks had focused in him the call to help those who need it.

"This is the mission Jesus Christ has given us -- to work, pray, take care of the poor, visit those in prison, help widows and orphans," he said.

He said justice would come to those who carried out attacks, but he said his outlook on life forever had been changed.

"I don't anticipate looking at life the same way again," he said. "I want a sense of normalcy, but I don't what to lose that sense of doing good things to help those who need it."

Many others in the military as well as civilians from a variety of faiths have said much the same thing: how do we help those who need it? How do we make a difference? That includes a woman I know who drove over to a mosque just to let whoever was there know that there were non-Muslim Americans who wanted Muslim neighbors to feel welcome, and accepted, and unafraid.

The sense of love, of having the freedom to live a life that means something, also produces the strongest kind of tenacious resolve -- that the values that give life meaning will be defended relentlessly at all costs if necessary -- while the displaced refugees will be given food, medicine and shelter.

That's the steel in the backbone of America, and the power resonating in the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

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