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Recent medical problems have left me wondering what I might write if I were on my deathbed, assuming I still had the ability to put words down. Would I repudiate any of my deepest held convictions, as if they were good for the living but not for the dying? Would I write what I normally write, as if life went on forever? Would I not write a thing, but spend all the time I could with loved ones?
I don't know the answer, of course. I might know tomorrow, or next year, or five years from now, but as of this moment, as my fingers type these words, I still consider myself among the majority who have no definite idea of when they will die. But I would like to be convinced I've lived an honest life, and if I'm deceiving myself, if weakness or willful blindness have led me to a place I would rather not be, I want to know so I can possibly correct it.
In this connection, I find the lives of others quite helpful in assessing my own state of affairs.
For instance, I know nothing about Colonel David Hackworth other than what I've read on the web, and though he doesn't strike me as an enemy of the state, he staunchly opposed many things that are wrong with government.
His life was anything but easy. He was born on Armistice Day, 1930, and before he reached his first birthday, both his parents had died. His grandmother fetched him from an orphanage and raised him on tales of the American Revolution and the Old West. At 14, he lied about his age to join the Merchant Marines, and at 15 he was a member of a U.S. Army reconnaissance company in Italy facing five-star General Dwight D. Eisenhower during the latter's visit. Hackworth recounts the experience:
[Ike] stopped in front of me ' 15 years old and quaking ' and asked: "How do you like the chow?"
"It stinks, Sir."
"Why?" he asked.
"All we get is Spam."
"Spam? Why?" he roared to his entourage.
A shaky voice replied that the depots were filled with Spam from World War II, and the supply people were getting rid of it.
"Stop it," he snapped. "Feed these soldiers proper rations."
"That take care of it, son?" he asked me.
"Yes Sir," I gulped.
Hackworth said the experience with Ike taught him a valuable leadership lesson: a commander needs to get on the ground with his troops to find out what's really going on. (Sounds much like Jim Rogers's approach to investing.) And 'Hack' applied that lesson throughout his rise up the scale, putting him in perpetual conflict with the 'ticket punchers,' a term he applied to career paper shufflers at the Pentagon. He received a chestful of medals for his service in Korea and Vietnam , but his chief adversary was always the U.S. military. As one writer noted, he 'opposed military action in Bosnia , Kosovo, and especially Iraq .' He blasted Congress for padding the defense budget with unneeded weapons that fattened the wallets of arms makers.
After being kicked out of the army in 1971 for declaring on TV that Vietnam was being lost, he trashed his medals ' which included eight Purple Hearts ' and spent the next 20 years in Australia as an entrepreneur and antinuclear leader. When he came back to the U.S. he appeared regularly on radio and TV ripping the U.S. military bureaucracy, and his many articles were scooped up by all the big magazines.
His last column appeared on WorldNetDaily a day before his death in Tijuana , Mexico on May 4, 2005 . He had gone south of the border to get treatment for bladder cancer, a condition prevalent among Vietnam vets exposed to Agent Blue. Nowhere in the column is there any mention of his near-death condition. We would expect nothing less from an honorable soldier. He confined his remarks instead to defending Marines being mistreated by their superiors in Iraq .
Lacking war experience, I can't identify with a man whose combat frame of mind he once described as 'kill a commie for mommie,' though no one can doubt the raw truth of one of his better-known quotes: 'War is hell, but real combat is a motherfucker.' And I can certainly empathize with someone who made it his life's work to protest the government's exploitation of the young people it sends to fight and die for its unnecessary wars.
Another man I admire, with reservations, is my old friend, Thomas Paine. Paine is mostly remembered for Common Sense, his clarion cry for American independence from British rule. As critical as that pamphlet was in securing broad support for independence, Paine is often not considered one of the country's founders. Why?
Because he also authored Age of Reason, a two-part tract he wrote in the 1790s while in France , a treatise hostile to every major religion. As Susan Jacoby notes in her outstanding book Freethinkers, the America of 1802 when Paine returned from France was much less tolerant of dissenting views on established religion than it had been 15 years earlier. 'Had the Constitution been written in 1797 instead of 1787, it is entirely possible that God, not 'we, the people,' would have been credited with supreme governmental authority.' [p. 43]
Jacoby quotes a passage from Age of Reason that exemplifies Paine's heresy:
Every national church or religion has established itself by pretending some special mission from God, communicated to certain individuals. The Jews have their Moses; the Christians their Jesus Christ, their apostles and saints; and the Turks their Mahomet, as if the way to God were not open to every man alike.
Each of these churches show certain books, which they call revelation, or the Word of God. The Jews say their Word of God was given by God to Moses, face to face; the Christians say that their Word of God came by divine inspiration; and the Turks say that their Word of God (the Koran) was brought by an angel from heaven. Each of these churches accuses the other of unbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve them all. [p. 42]
Paine fiercely defended Age of Reason. In 'an answer to a friend,' a letter dated May 12, 1797 , Paine asked:
. . . by what authority do you call the Bible the 'word of God?' for this is the first point to be settled . . . The Popish Councils of Nice and Laodicea, about 350 years after the time the person called Jesus Christ is said to have lived, voted the books that now compose what is called the New Testament to be the 'word of God.' This was done by yeas and nays, as we now vote a law . . . I am as capable of judging for myself as they were, and I think more so, because, as they made a living by their religion, they had a self-interest in the vote they gave.
In the same letter Paine further says:
It is from the Bible that man has learned cruelty, rapine, and murder; for the belief of a cruel God makes a cruel man. That bloodthirsty man, called the prophet Samuel, makes God to say, (i Sam. xv. 3,) "Now go and smite Amaleck, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not, but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass."
He concludes his epistle by saying his letter was
written to satisfy you, and some other friends whom I esteem, that my disbelief of the Bible is founded on a pure and religious belief in God; for in my opinion the Bible is a gross libel against the justice and goodness of God, in almost every part of it.
Paine's health began to deteriorate in 1808 while he was living in Greenwich Village , NY . As John Keane tells us in Tom Paine: A Political Life,
At this point in his life, his elementary daily needs far outweighed money. By now, his appetite even for bread and milk had waned, the strength had gone completely from both his legs . . . He spent most of his waking hours sitting in his room at a table covered with books and newspapers. He read and dozed, scribbled with his quill, and daydreamed . . . [p. 531]
The young painter John Wesley Jarvis assured Paine that like Voltaire and others, he would repudiate his views on religion before he died. Paine said he didn't believe the story about Voltaire:
I do not know what I may do when infested by disease and pain. I may become a second child; and designing people may entrap me into saying anything; or they may put into my mouth, what I never said. [p. 523]
Until that moment, Paine would stand resolutely by his written words.
By the first week of March, 1809, 'Paine began to suffer 'infinite pain.' He cried out, and cried, often.' Ulcerous sores developed on his feet and ankles, which became infected from the urine that passed during his sleep. Worried about his final resting place, he asked a member of the Society of Friends if he could be buried in their burying grounds. He rejected the Episcopalians for their arrogance, he told him, and the Presbyterians for their hypocrisy. The Quakers considered it, but told him no. 'The news plunged Paine into tears. He sobbed uncontrollably.' [p. 534]
His spirits picked up when friends carried him to another house some 80 yards away. He began to receive visitors briefly during the afternoons, including unwanted religious visitors, most of whom were determined to extract a confession from the famous 'atheist' during his last moments. Two well-known Presbyterian ministers pushed past his housekeeper one day to gain access to his bedside. One of them said,
Mr. Paine, we visit you as friends and neighbors: you have now a full view of death, you cannot live long, and whoever does not believe in Jesus Christ will assuredly be damned. [p. 535]
Just as the other began to add his comments, Paine, who was sitting up, leaned forward and cut him off. 'Let me have none of your popish stuff. Get away with you.' His housekeeper, pitying him for not being a Christian, began reading the Bible to him every day. Her readings had no religious significance to Paine. They served only to soothe him with language, to reassure him that he was still alive and not alone.
His physician, James Manley, tried desperately to get Paine to recant. One evening, Manley asked slowly, 'Do you believe, or let me qualify the question, Do you wish to believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God?'
Paine told him politely to get lost. [p. 536] The following morning, June 8, 1809 , Thomas Paine died. His reply to Manley were his last words.
From what I can gather, Hackworth and Paine had this much in common: They saw the world with their own eyes. They were surely wrong about some things, perhaps many things, but their loyalty to reality was seldom breached. Their gods were facts and logical argument, not authority.