The Victoria Cross

victoria2On a sunny summer day in 1857 (June 26th to be precise) a disciplined line of 62 officers and men lined up in Hyde Park, London, to await their Queen — Victoria.  She was coming to award them a new military medal — one which would, along with the Congressional Medal of Honor in America, become one of the highest military honors in the world – the Victoria Cross.  These men had just recently fought for “Queen and Country” in the Crimea, a nasty little war, distinguished only because it was the first “living room war.”  Foreign correspondents from Britain had been on the scene at Sebastapol, Balaklava and the Alma River.  They saw and they wrote.  Their stories told the British public about disease and filth, inadequate clothing, obsolete equipment and idiotic orders, but what captivated the country was the nobility and the bravery of the common soldier.

Even though the public now loved him, Great Britain had no way to recognize its ordinary fighting man.  There was the Distinguished Conduct Medal, instituted in 1854, and staff officers were decorated all the time, but for most soldiers, the best they could hope for (aside from not getting killed) was a mention “in dispatches.”  Several officials took up the cause.  Liberal MP Thomas Scobell brought a motion to parliament suggesting an “Order of Merit…to which every grade and individual from the highest to the lowest… may be admissable [sic].”  Meanwhile, the Secretary of War wrote to Prince Albert about “a new decoration open to all ranks.”  His letter was enthusiastically received by both Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, who wrote back to suggest the name be changed from “the Military Order of Victoria” to “the Victoria Cross.”  Victoria also took a hand in the design of the medal itself, changing the motto from “for the brave” to “for valour” and recommending that, even though it was to be symbolically made from ordinary metal, it should be bronze, not copper.

The drawings and specifications, along with Her Majesty’s “suggestions,” were given to the jewelers Messrs. Hancock of London,victoria where H. H. Armstead is credited with the actual design.  It’s unlikely that he was the one who decided to make the medals out of the bronze from Russian cannons captured in the Crimea.  It was probably just cost cutting, but at the time, this extra bit of symbolism was not lost on the British public.  Hancock and Company still make the Victoria Cross today from the same lump of bronze, safely stored in the vault of the Royal Logistics Corps, in Donnington.  The cannons, two 18-pounders, are still at Woolwich Barracks, where anyone can plainly see that these “Russian” guns are, in fact, Chinese.

Since that first sunny day in June, the Victoria Cross has been awarded only 1,357 times to 1,354 recipients throughout the British Commonwealth – which, given the number of wars and warriors over the last 150 years, is not a lot.  It has been won by 4 sets of brothers, 3 times by fathers and sons and 3 men have won it twice.  Incredibly, during World War I, it was won by three men who all lived on Pine Street in Winnipeg, Canada.  Pine Street is now named Valour Road.  The youngest recipients were Andrew Fitzgibbon and Thomas Flinn, age 15, and the oldest was William Raynor, 61.  Legend has it that, at the first ceremony, Queen Victoria, stretching awkwardly from the side-saddle of her horse, actually pinned the first medal through Commander Henry Raby’s chest.  Popular Victorian fiction says he didn’t even flinch.  A fitting beginning for the Victoria Cross.

Margaret Thatcher 1925-2013

thatcherWe cannot look at historical figures without the telescope of history, so it’s hard to judge what our contemporaries will look like to the ages.  As hostages of living memory, we get caught in the fever of the times and think with our hearts and not our heads.  Margaret Thatcher is such a figure.  To some, she was the embodiment of all that is wrong with representative government — the conservative terror that nightmares all “progressive” dreams.  To others, she was a Joan Bull of Britain, standing with Elizabeth I, Nelson and Churchill in the stubborn defence of British attitudes and values.  Regardless, she was Britain’s first female Prime Minister and held that office for eleven years, longer than anyone else in the 20th century (including Winston Churchill.)  And, like it or not, she revolutionized politics in Britain and around the world.

For me, Margaret Thatcher still represents hope.  In her, I see the enlightened idea that we are citizens of our country not clients of it.  We, each of us, are personally responsible for how all of us make our way in the world.  We should not download that responsibility onto distant bureaucrats; nor put our faith in the chimera of government programs which history has proven unworkable and unsustainable.  In 1987, Margaret Thatcher summed it all up in an interview, when she said, “It is our duty to look after ourselves.” and I believe she was right.

Solid Walls of JFK

jfkMy generation has survived earthquakes, famine, Disco, AIDS, the End of the World (several times) and Richard Nixon.  For all our relentless whining, we’re actually a tough bunch of folks.  However, we are about to be tested as no generation before us has ever been.  Let me be the canary in the mineshaft and warn all humanity that, for the next nine months (about the same amount of time it took Rosemary to have that baby) we’re going to be up to our elbows in John Fitzgerald Kennedy – and it’s not going be pretty.  You might not have heard – but you will – that this is the 50th anniversary of his assassination.  From now until November 22nd, we’re going to be subjected to solid walls of JFK.

Before I get too deep into full-throated rhetoric, I want you to know that I believe John Kennedy was a good president.  He wasn’t necessarily Mount Rushmore great, but, as CEOs of the American Empire go, he’s definitely somewhere on the top end of the middle group.  The problem is it’s hard to judge.  We tend to credit him with initiating the good stuff (like civil rights) and to hand Lyndon Johnson the blame for mistakes (like Vietnam.)  What we forget is that Kennedy merely set the tone for both.  He didn’t have enough time to formulate policy.  It was Johnson who had to handle the follow-through and, alternatively, clean up the mess.  It’s this fundamental oversight that makes me wary of the approaching media tsunami.

We love JFK more for the idea of him than the man himself.  We want to believe that once there was a Camelot: a place where a bold young king gathered “the best and the brightest” around him, to spread peace and prosperity throughout the land.  An All-American America where daring New Frontier knights joined battle equally with the suits of things like corporate steel as well as the hard men of organized crime.  A place where lawyers used the honest tools of the law, not the loopholes; a place where journalists were honourable and money lenders trustworthy.  A place where smarts and the arts weren’t sins; where painters and poets rubbed shoulders with scientists and engineers; where university dons played metaphorical (and sometimes real) touch football with their political masters, each learning from each.  A place where race didn’t matter and our only adversaries were poverty and ignorance.  We want to believe that — for one brief, shining moment — the great tribes of America spoke with one voice; a voice that said we can do anything if we try.  We want to believe this because those of us who were there think we saw it happen.

Unfortunately, fifty-year-old memories have a way of clouding and fading and distorting the truth.

Fifty years ago, my generation was in the first bloom of immortal youth.  We see those years as a time of “sunshine, lollipops andjfk1 rainbows … brighter than a lucky penny.”  The Kennedy presidency is that tangible talisman that still tells us how young and unafraid we were.  We hold it dear to our hearts.  Yet it also holds the sum of all our regrets — all the shoulda, coulda things we woulda done if Lee Harvey Oswald had just called in sick that day.

For the last half century, day-late/dollar-short Cassandras have been turning history into legend, reworking JFK into the once and future king, soothsaying all the wonderful things he might have been.  Now, the Kennedy Camelot is about to get a modern-day makeover, courtesy of our ubiquitous media who can’t wait to cash in on an aging population, eager to squeeze in one last Look-At-Me.  They’re going to do it, too — and with all the spin that money can buy.  And Kennedy’s Camelot will take its place alongside Avalon, Shangri-La and Xanadu — unrecognizable to anybody but the myth makers.