In 1942 the United States had joined the war against the Axis Powers. In the North Atlantic, German U-boats were devastating the Allied merchant ships in the struggle to keep Great Britain supplied with food and war materials.

Some of the commanding officers of the U.S. Navy destroyers deployed to hunt down the U-boats were inadequate to the task. These men had advanced to their positions from their service in the peacetime navy.  

As merchant ships continued to be sunk at alarming rates, such skippers were replaced by rougher sorts who had been passed over for promotion in that same peacetime navy.

Eventually the combined naval efforts of the United States and Great Britain gained ascendancy over the U-boat menace.  In the process it became current within U.S. Navy ranks that “when the going gets tough, that’s when they call for the *******.”

I suspect that in sum the qualities of these rougher sorts – including, but not limited to, courage, tenacity, resourcefulness, and perseverance – would be regarded today in not a few circles, especially online circles, as comprising “toxic masculinity.”

I suspect, too, that these rougher sorts would find not a few things about 21st century America “toxic” as well – say, for example, public tolerance of a “drag queen story hour” for children.

These were men who probably accepted, with little or no thought, the lyrics of Herman Hupfeld’s song featured in one of the most popular movies of 1942 (and since then for that matter), “Casablanca.”

“Moonlight and love songs never out of date. Hearts full of passion, jealousy and hate.

Woman needs man and man must have his mate. That no one can deny.

It’s still the same old story, A fight for love and glory.

A case of do or die. The world will always welcome lovers … As time goes by.”

I doubt these men felt entitled to a seamlessness in life – let alone to happiness. I doubt they ever regarded themselves as victims.

If they happened to be Darwinists, they would have recognized that there are a lot more cases of “dying” than there are of successfully “doing.”

If Christians, they might have found the same idea in Matthew 20:18: “Many are called, but few chosen.”

In 1942 they were engaged in a life-and-death contest with men every bit as courageous, tenacious, resourceful, and persevering as they – in short, just as “toxic” and “lethal.”  Both sides would have regarded it as “survival of the fittest.”

If they lived through the war, they probably tried to fit into peacetime as best they could.

Having participated vitally in the winning of the war, they probably did not need to read Aristotle to know, in their veins, that the four tried-and-true virtues required to prevail in any meaningful struggle are prudence, justice, temperance and courage.

These four classical virtues are hard enough to attain and maintain without adding to the mix the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity.

If they were married, they probably did their level best to remain married to the same woman – and as happily as possible.

If they had children, they probably did their level best to raise them well – though having endured the Great Depression they may have been prone to conflate material well-being with spiritual well-being. They may even have believed in the advantages of a college education.

As they advanced into age, they may have felt inwardly an unease about how their lives missed the mark – the mark that is always, somehow, just around the bend or over the next hill. Perhaps sometimes they even envied their fellows, even their enemies, who died in wartime in the full bloom of their manly virtues.

But I suspect they never wavered in their belief in the existence of the mark, and in the eternal verity of reaching for it.

If there is no God in heaven, it was still worth reaching for. If there is a God in heaven, so much the better and it will be good at last to understand – without this “through a glass darkly” stuff.

As the 20th century became the 21st, if they lived that long, they may have felt pangs of worry for their grandsons, if they had any, who would find it difficult to exercise their masculine energies within the confines of workplace cubicles, rather than on a farm, shop floor, or deck of a ship – let alone be prepared to exercise those energies properly in the moments of crisis which will continue to confront, and in unexpected moments, every life.

And I suspect it grated on them to find their moral convictions regarded by many of their fellow younger citizens, maybe even their own children, as no more than a life-style choice – no better and no worse than any other life-style choice.  (See Herman Hupfeld’s fellow songwriter Cole Porter’s Anything Goes.”)

But, in lucid moments, they would realize such appraisals rang false. The life-style-choice advocates were really only trying to raise themselves up by tearing down what men like him believed in.  

If there are eternal verities, then men like him were, like in the struggle against Nazi Germany, on the right side of history. If there are no eternal verities, such men nonetheless acted for the best, hoped for the best, and took what came. What better way to face both life and death?


Michael Hartley writes from Wayne Township. 

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