After Vietnam, the West in general and America in particular went through the great MASHification of culture, in which military and masculine virtues were despised and denigrated for a decade or two. Soldiers were routinely painted as baby-killing psychos, or as brain-dead gung ho types ready to order their troops into insane battles for the sake of Glory, or as whiny hypocritical dweebs and cowards like Frank Burns. The good soldiers were guys like Hawkeye Pierce, who always laughed at military pomp and who was always better and smarter than the brass-decorated idiots who reveled in war. Courage in battle was portrayed as the folly of suckers who believed the jingo agitprop fed them by the war machine. The theme of the 60s through much of the following decades was “War, What is it Good For? (Absolutely Nothing)”.Not surprisingly then, a culture filled with contempt for the military virtues tended to regard the term “military virtue” as an oxymoron like “jumbo shrimp”. After all, if the wars the military fights are good for absolutely nothing, then it follows that the virtues the military inculcates and honors are likewise worthless. So love of country, bravery in battle, and sacrifice were pooh-poohed. Troops returning from Vietnam were jeered. Films and books that celebrated courage under fire went out and films and books ridiculing military life came in. And, correspondingly, the God whom Scripture reveals was ridiculed as a mere Hairy Thunderer, the Lord of Hosts and God of Battles who was to blame for Christianity’s supposed warlike bloodthirstiness. Previous generations had read passages like the praises heaped on David’s great general Eleazar who “rose and struck down the Philistines until his hand was weary, and his hand cleaved to the sword; and the LORD wrought a great victory that day; and the men returned after him only to strip the slain” (2 Samuel 23:9-10) and saw in it the just honors given in golden old age to a doughty fighter who had defended his people from enemies bent on their destruction. All the post-Vietnam era could see was John Wayne macho, for which it had nothing but contempt.
But then 9/11 happened. Courage in battle, so long pooh-poohed as a virtue since the debacle of Vietnam, made a sudden comeback. Sheer stamina and the will to face danger and death to protect our homes and loved ones were suddenly seen again as the obvious virtue the ancients had long recognized. They had recognized this because most war in antiquity was quite literally a struggle to keep one’s family from being killed or enslaved. So the Old Testament is unabashed in its celebration of people like David’s Three Mighty Men: warriors who fought at David’s side and showed unusual skill and courage in battle. But the writer is always careful to do something that other ancients forget or deliberately ignore: he does not credit the victory to the victor. Not for the Old Testament writer is the exaggerated boasting of Assyrians like Sennacharib (whose naked boasting makes Nazi propaganda in praise of Hitler look modest). The instinct of the sacred writer is to see might, not as some raw power summoned by sheer dint of will, but as a gift. David’s mighty men are mighty because the Lord gave them a mighty victory. And physical strength is, for the Old Testament, simply an image of spiritual strength. That’s why Proverbs 16:32 says, “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.” True might is seen in the battle of the heart.
This is why “might” is one of the gifts of Confirmation. The lesson of David is that the king who could defeat the armies of the Philistines, slay Goliath and unite the tribes of Israel under the banner of the House of David could not muster the inner strength to resist sleeping with Bathsheba. We are called to be greater than David when faced with our own temptations, by the grace of Christ. That is why Paul tells us to be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might.