These Are the Men Who Took the Cliffs: On D-Day and Martial Virtue

Ronald Reagan’s speech on June 6, 1984 at Normandy ranks as one of the greatest speeches in American history. Here is the full text, which includes the famous line, “These are the boys of Ponte Du Hoc.” My favorite comes just after: “These are the men who took the cliffs.” Peggy Noonan, the speechwriter, reflected briefly on it over a decade ago. Interestingly, I personally think the most powerful part comes immediately in the speech. The first three minutes are spellbinding; you can hear Reagan flush with emotion as he reads how 225 Rangers came to Normandy, and two days later only 90 were left fighting.

There is nothing good about war. In the age to come, a perfected age, it will cease (see Revelation 21-22). But in a fallen world, war is sometimes necessary. Evil exerts itself and must be fought. Those who fight evil, though imperfect themselves, must embrace what has historically been called “martial virtue,” the noble conduct and identity of a warrior fighting for a just cause.

This virtue has fallen on hard times in recent years; it is often embedded in critiques of contemporary conflicts. War is always awful in its effects, and the prospect and conduct of war calls for judiciousness, discernment, and sobriety. Yet it must also be said: when confronted by evil, martial virtue is good. One shudders to think about what would have happened to the world had pacifism won the day in the 1940s. World War II shows us why pacifism, though noble on its face, has failed to take hold in virtue-driven societies. Hitler had to be opposed. To fail to do so would have been suicidal, and deeply unjust.

Historically, martial virtue was a crucial part of manhood. Men were expected to stand and fight in the face of evil, and in doing so, to sacrifice themselves if need be for women and children. This virtue led many men over the centuries to fight, and suffer, and die on behalf of others.

We find ourselves in an age with different “values.” We don’t really want to sacrifice for others. We might instinctively recoil from conflict. Even though we might like peace, we nonetheless are sorely tempted to be passive-aggressive, to be “snarky” as the term goes. This, you could say, is the new way to be aggressive: be passive-aggressive, masking your aggression in indirect sarcasm. Most lamentably, we struggle to believe in things, even causes, enough to warrant actually putting our lives on the line for them.

All of these problems relate to modern men. The church as an institution exists in part to call men to be like Christ, and especially so on behalf of wives and children (Ephesians 5:22-33). This means self-sacrifice, godly leadership, and martial virtue in both a physical and spiritual sense. Men should be ready and physically equipped to defend and protect women and children, and anyone in need or danger. Men should find special delight in going to war against Satan and sin on a daily basis, and in leading their families to flourish by the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Martial virtue, we see, is not dead.

Neither are men. In the incredible sacrifices of our grandfathers in World War II and D-Day, we should find great inspiration and great hope. There is a great cause before us. Evil must be answered, and soundly defeated. God will have his victory. Until he completes the task, godly men are those who, whether they’ve been trained or not by a father, hear a call through the ages to a greater way of life than a self-obsessed, inward, hardship-avoiding existence.

Living for yourself–what a shame.

Living, and if necessary dying, for something great–how glorious.

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(Also, do not miss the courageous speech given by King George VI of England; if you’ve watched The King’s Speech, you might find it especially poignant.)


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