Some years ago Ernest Tuveson argued in his landmark study Redeemer Nation that our country’s Puritan background has led it through a series of historical crusades—from Indian wars to Vietnam—to bring righteousness to a corrupt world. It’s an interesting idea, disturbing and perhaps perverse, that deserves more attention than it has gotten. Tuveson’s study leads the reader to consider what happens when a country, which began its history motivated by the belief that faith in God required men to perform righteous acts, loses its faith but retains its zeal. One possibility is that it will continue to act with a fervent confidence in its own purity even as it loses its formerly sound foundation and clear purpose. That may describe the history of America and suggest why our country must regain something of its earlier self, however modified, if it is to survive in a world where other empires act with equal or superior zeal and deadly serious purpose.
Tuveson’s argument kept popping in and out of my mind as I read Louis Auchincloss’ latest novel. Honorable Men. Not that the novel is a perfect fictional form for its themes. Auchincloss’ method of dual narration (first person in some chapters, third person in others) distracts rather than facilitates the narrative, and the novel-ending conversion of the protagonist, Chip Benedict, from his errant ways is less than convincing.
Yet elements of Tuveson’s arguments are effectively realized in Honorable Men—whether in spite of or because of the author’s intentions, I cannot say. These elements emerge in the character of Chip Benedict and the America he represents. The Vietnam War introduced America to a group of leaders who had lost all moral clarity. Confident, technically minded wizards, Robert McNamara and the rest of David Halberstam’s best and brightest were men with no inkling that their enemies might be evil men representing an alien, destructive ideology. Their efforts rested on nothing more substantial than their personal wills and the taxpayers’ money; as soon as one or the other ran dry, the game was up, leaving a bewildered group of men who never possessed the virtue and foresight necessary to shoulder the burden they tried to carry.
Honorable Men paints a fuzzy but still memorable picture of a man who, according to the fiction, rises to become a member of this unfortunate cadre. Chip Benedict is rigid and willful— almost religious in his dedication to whatever goal consumes him at a given time. But religiosity of that kind is not faith, and it is precisely what makes Chip dangerous. He serves with a tenacious spirit in World War II and works in the State Department during Vietnam with equal resolve. But throughout his career he never understands what his friend and career naval officer Gerald Hastings tries to tell him, that it’s not simply an enemy but the enemy’s state of mind, his beliefs, that ought to be hated. Lacking this understanding, Chip can only play at being what Hastings is, a patriot and (in his own peculiar way) a redeemer.
As our liberal century has progressed from one debacle to another, men have prayed for their righteous causes—without believing in God. Gus Leighton, friend to Chip’s wife, Alida, spots the problem in Chip early on when he warns her of the dangers of his “rigidity” once divorced from faith. “What I suppose I’m trying to say,” he says, “is that if you scrap Christ, you’d better scrap the whole business of religion and take your chances with reason.” In other words, the redeemer manque, not the Redeemer, is America’s bane.
Auchincloss may not realize what he has said, but if Honorable Men carries any lasting point, it is that the generation of men who governed America for the larger part of this century have never acted in the service of any noble cause, because the very terms under which nobility might obtain did not exist for them. The Cavalier Lovelace understood well that he could not love Lucasta, loved he not honor more. Truly Honorable Men know—as Chip Benedict does not—that they cannot love honor or be honorable if they do not love something else, something infinitely superior, more. Whether that something should or should not be acknowledged both publicly and privately is the subject of the burning debate of our time, one on which the fate of the West hinges.
[Honorable Men, by Louis Auchincloss (Boston: Houghton Mifflin) $15.95]