Where Motley is Worn – And Where it Isn’t

In a post a couple of weeks ago, I linked to Michael Yon’s moving report of a heroic Iraqi who thew himself on a suicide bomber, taking the thrust of the bomb and saving the group of women and children standing outside the mosque toward which the bomber, dressed as a woman, was headed. Such self-sacrifice, unlike that of the martyr he died with, is one for life rather than death.

Today, Dan Henniger describes a similar heroism, this time in Viet Nam, in the acts of Maj. Bruce Crandall, who was awarded the Medal of Honor. As with so many commendations, he is praised for the lives he saved in a war zone. Henniger also notes this was buried in the New York Times.

This reminds me of an old battle over naming a grade school in a neighboring town. The traditionalists wanted it named after a hero of the Alamo. A local teacher argued he had not otherwise led a life school boys should imitate. What she said was certainly true. But that same man had done a great, good thing – had been up to the broad noble act. I remember my husband quoting Yeats’ “Easter 1916” at dinner that night. Such a man – at the Alamo, piloting a helicopter in Viet Nam, giving his life to save not only his own children but those of his community in Iraq, at the Post Office in Dublin – reminds us that we do not always live where motley is worn. Some of them had done many small but heroic deeds before the great one; some had not always been so heroic. But we need to remember with affection and respect those who had, somehow, prepared themselves for such a day where they showed us what being human can be. When that school was named for a woman who had been a good teacher, teaching was recognized. But the children of the school (maybe most especially the boys) were not given a mythic hero to sustain them. We underestimate the importance of heroism at the risk of making us think we are not capable of rising to such an occasion. And if sometimes a disproportionality lies beneath the gesture, the need is also often as great as the act. Those men who turned to the priest to receive extreme unction as they then ran into the burning buildings on 9/11 called forth that courage. Will the next generation and the next be able to do it? For, I am sure that society will always have need of that terrible beauty.

(Yon’s story & Yeats’ poem below.)

Here’s the poem:

Easter, 1916

I HAVE met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

That woman’s days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our winged horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road.
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone’s in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse –
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

And if for some reason you can’t link to Yon, here’s his story:

He was dressed as a woman as he walked down the alley toward the mosque full of worshippers. It was Friday, just before Ashura, and the air was chilled.

The bomb strapped to his body was studded with ball-bearings so that he could kill more villagers as they gathered for prayer. The detonation would eviscerate and dismember those closest, shattering bones into fragments, but the ball-bearings would ensure lethality beyond the percussive edge of the blast wave, ripping through the flesh of people who might not have been knocked down by the explosion.

There were no soldiers in his path to stop him; no police to alert to the man in women’s clothes. There were only villagers. The man dressed as a woman was to be the agent of their deaths. He kept walking down the alley toward the mosque where more than one hundred people were praying, a mass murderer masquerading in a woman’s garb.

The prayerful people may not have known he was coming, but we hear the explosions every day. Every single day. Seven days per week. I remember the story told to me by Tennessee National Guardsman of another such man who had grabbed the hand of a nearby child as cover, then walked over to some policemen before detonating himself and the child. I remember the bomber who rammed a car full of explosives into vehicle full of American soldiers in Mosul. The Americans had been surrounded by Iraqi children, and the bomber could have waited a block or two then attack the Americans man-on-man, but instead he chose to blow up the Iraqi kids. Sometimes we see the torn and mangled hunks of flesh. Sometimes their open bodies curl a baleful steam into the cold morning air.

The closer a counterfeit comes to the genuine article, the more obvious the deceit. As the murderer dressed in women’s clothes walked purposefully toward his target, there was a village man ahead. But under the guise of a simple villager was a true Martyr, and he, too, had his target in sight. The Martyr had seen through the disguise, but he had no gun. No bomb. No rocket. No stone. No time.

The Martyr walked up to the murderer and lunged into a bear hug, on the spot where we were now standing.

The blast ripped the Martyr to pieces which fell along with pieces of the enemy. Ball-bearings shot through the alley and wounded two children, but the people in the mosque were saved. The man lay in pieces on the ground, his own children having seen how his last embrace saved the people of the village.

1 thought on “Where Motley is Worn – And Where it Isn’t”

  1. Ginny, I’m not surprised that worthless crank of a teacher won her battle. There’s something masculine about heroism and masculinity is out of style, so heroism goes with it.

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