The St. Crispin’s Day speech of Shakespeare’s Henry V tears at me. In the historic Battle of Agincourt, Henry’s men were badly outnumbered, far from home, exhausted, and suffering from widespread dysentery. The eloquence the Bard injected into the English defiance resonates still.
The valiant stand and the lost cause are among the most powerful tales in history. Whether it was at Agincourt, Masada, the Alamo, or Thermopylae the resolve men have shown in the face of probable death is both inspiring and humbling.
Before the battle is joined, King Henry offers individuals a chance to escape the expected fate. He speaks to the wavering saying “he which hath no stomach to this fight, Let him depart.” It must be a moment of great temptation to the hundreds of men without fame or title.
A more terrible temptation must have infected the 1,500 men at St. Elmo during the siege of Malta. There, the seemingly infinite forces of Islam under the Ottoman Sultan fell upon the tiny, ill-prepared and outdated fortification.
Four days into the assault on St. Elmo everyone involved knew that hope was lost. Savagery and extermination were before the defenders – most of whom were volunteers. For nineteen days 1,500 held off an estimated 48,000, including some of the best-trained and least-merciful forces in the world, the Janissaries. When it was over, all 1,500 were butchered or burned in grisly fashion.
Because of their defiance the knights at St. Elmo took more than 6,000 enemies with them, including most of those Janissaries. The sacrifice of the knights made the victory in the larger battle possible.
At Agincourt, things worked out better for the English. They won, and as Shakespeare’s Henry warned, those who were not there would rue being denied the glory. These military episodes have an exceptional power to make clear the dividing lines, and most of us are thankful that we are not asked to face such terrible moments. Yet there are lost causes to be fought, and valiant stands to make.
There are men today in Cuban concentration camps whose only crime is homosexuality or a desire to pray. There are whole families in Chinese labor camps subject to tortures from forced sterilization to organ harvesting. There are 24,000,000 people trapped in North Korea starving.
The line from the St. Crispin Day speech that stabs deepest comes at the end. It says all who did not fight, who did not risk, who did not stand, will “hold their manhoods cheap” forever more.
Today in America we do not have to risk “our lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred honor” to stand for liberty or the worth of each and every life. The outcome of these fights is still uncertain, and even if we fail our efforts may pave the way for a greater victory. Yet so many of us do not act. If the price of bravery is so cheap to us, how cheap must our manhood be to remain in silence?