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Octavia as the Tyche of Corinth (from the collection of the Museum of Corinth)

Octavia as the Tyche of Corinth (from the collection of the Museum of Corinth)

In Hellenic culture, Tyche was the sacred goddess of a city’s destiny.  Confusingly, each different city worshipped a different tutelary version of the goddess, however Tychewas always the same goddess–a daughter of Aphrodite by Hermes (or possibly a daughter of an Oceanic titan by Zeus).  Tyche represented the fortunes of a city in a time when cities were frequently destroyed by famine, war, or disaster—so she was regarded as a fickle goddess.  Her emblem was a crown in the shape of a city’s walls and parapets.  In time she evolved into the Roman goddess of Fortuna—a goddess of luck and chance (whom many poets reviled as a fickle harlot).  Even after the decline of the Roman principate in the west, Fortuna was a common theme of medieval literature and song.

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Tyche’s crown—otherwise known as the mural crown–went on to acquire a different (though related) significance.  As the Romans swept through the Mediterranean world conquering city after city and state after state, the Roman army was often put in the position of besieging walled or fortified cities.  This was a profoundly dangerous task, as the defending army had the upper hand until the walls were stormed or breached.  The first Roman soldier to climb the wall of an enemy city and place the Roman standard atop it was rewarded with the mural crown (“corona muralis”).  The corona muralis was the ultimate reward for bravery (and fortune) and was regarded as second in martial honor only to the grass crown presented to a general who had saved an entire army.   Unlike the grass crown, which was made of, well, grass, (or the laurel crown presented to a victorious general) the mural crown was made of solid gold and thus had an immediate practical value as well as being a symbol of tremendous bravery.

Modern medals just aren't the same

Modern medals just aren’t the same

The USS Shaw explodes during the Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbor

On December 7th, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor.  One of the teenage medical volunteers who assisted the many wounded American servicemen that day (and on days after) was Daniel Inouye, the son of Japanese immigrants who had moved to Hawaii looking for a better life. As soon as Japanese-Americans were allowed to enlist, Inouye suspended his pre-medical studies and joined the U.S. Army where he was assigned to the Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

U.S. Army painting of the Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team rescuing elements of the 1st Battalion, 141st Regiment, 36th (Texas) Division, trapped by German forces in the Vosges Mountains

In 1944, Inouye fought in the Rome-Arno Campaign and then in the Vosges Mountains of France, where the 442ndwas given what amounted to a suicide mission: rescuing the Lost Battalion (a battalion of the 141st Infantry Regiment which was ambushed and surrounded by vastly superior force of German veterans).   During that fight, Inouye was shot directly in the chest, but the bullet was stopped by two silver dollars which he had in his shirt pocket.  The Nisei 442nd suffered over 800 casualties on that day (and, in fact, went on to become the most decorated unit in Army history).  Inouye was given a bronze star and promoted to second lieutenant–which was most meaningful to him because the commission meant he got to carry a Thompson submachine gun into battle.

On April 21, 1945, Lieutenant Inouye was back in Italy storming a German fortification on the Gothic Line (the last line of German defenses in Italy).  During a flanking maneuver, at a heavily armed ridge named Colle Musatello, his platoon was pinned down between 3 machine gun nests.  As Inouye attacked the first nest, he was shot in the stomach.  His wound did not prevent him from throwing grenades into the first gun placement and then rushing in to finish off the German soldiers with his machine gun.   Refusing treatment, Inouye attacked the second machine gun nest in the same fashion and successfully destroyed it.

As the other men of his squadron attacked the third machine-gun placement, Inouye silently crawled within ten yards of the position and primed a grenade to throw into the bunker.  Unfortunately he was spotted by a German soldier who shot a rifle grenade through Inouye’s right elbow.  This meant that Inouye was clutching the live explosive in a hand over which he had no control as the German reloaded to finish him off.  Inouye’s astonished soldiers report that the lieutenant ordered them back, then pried the grenade from his own dead arm, and cast it off-hand into the final bunker.   After the bunker exploded, Inouye then mopped up with his Tommy gun and charged the main line.  Shot in the leg he tumbled to the bottom of the ridge and blacked out.   When he came to, the concerned men of his platoon were all around him, but he ordered them back to position with the exhortation that “nobody called off the war!”

During the action at Colle Musatello, Inouye reputedly killed 25 Germans (and wounded 8 more) while being shot in the abdomen & the leg and despite having his right arm mostly shot off (the shattered remains were amputated at a field hospital without proper anesthesia ).  While he was convalescing from these wounds, Daniel Inouye met other many other badly wounded men including future Senators Philip Hart and Bob Dole (who became a lifelong friend).

Inouye remained in the army until 1947 and he was honorably discharged with the rank of captain.  For his actions he was awarded many different awards including the Distinguished Service Cross, which was later upgraded to the Congressional Medal of Honor.  Although his ruined arm meant that his ambitions of becoming a surgeon were ended, he studied political science at Honolulu and then earned a law degree with honors from George Washington University Law School in Washington.  Daniel Inouye was the first Hawaiian congressman when the state joined the Union in 1959 and he was elected to the US Senate in 1962.  He is now the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.  A long-standing tradition is that the most senior member of the majority party serves as president pro tempore of the US Senate, so Inouye, a democrat, is third in line for the US Presidency (after Biden and Boehner).   If some appalling disaster brought him to the office, he would no doubt hunt down the malefactors and destroy them utterly (possibly with his own bare hand).

Joe Biden, Bob Dole, Dan Inouye, and Pat Roberts at a WWII Plaque Dedication

In this era, the political parties of the United States of America are bitterly divided.  Whatever happens in today’s election is unlikely to change the long stalemate or foster friendship across the aisle.  Things have sometimes been like this in the past—as when Democratic-Republicans locked horns with Federalists or when Whigs fought acrimoniously with the Jacksonian Democratic Party—yet I feel that is dangerous and shameful to have our leaders so deeply divided.  There have been happier and more productive times too. Today Daniel Inouye is a bizarre and ancient political dinosaur, but he rhapsodizes about warm friendships with colleagues of all political stripes.

Politicians, don’t forget core lessons about unity.

I would like to congratulate the victors in today’s election and wish them every success in their honored positions of leadership.  The United States is in need of their finest effort and hardest work. However, I would also like to draw their attention to Daniel Inouye in order to remind them of America’s shared tradition of sacrifice, compromise, and friendship (& badass heroism).

Dueling was a major conundrum for gentlemen of the nineteenth century.  Since dueling was against the law, engaging in contests of honor could endanger one’s career and prospects.  To refuse a duel however was inconceivable: it meant forfeiting one’s honor and manhood–it meant being a coward, in an era where that was the most despicable thing one could be.

The field of honor, was therefore a great crucible for true character. Some men were indeed revealed to be cowards or cheats.  Some people did not deign to fight but fired their bullets in the air and waited to see if their opponent would shoot them in cold blood. Other men fought it out and wound up as killers or as corpses.  The man who solved the problem with the greatest panache was Abraham Lincoln, the great emancipator, who found a completely satisfactory way out of the terrible conundrum (although it was a close thing).

The oldest-known photograph of Lincoln, about 1847

In 1842, Lincoln, then an Illinois state legislator, allegedly wrote a series of anonymous letters criticizing a hot-headed Democrat named James Shields, the state auditor.  The national financial crisis of the preceding years had left the state coffers in disarray and had infuriated the electorate–circumstances which left the auditor ripe for mockery.  It is unclear how many of the letters, Lincoln authored himself—his future wife Mary Todd probably was much more culpable (although Lincoln was courting her at the time and was trying to both impress her with his wit and gallantry as well as shield her from any scandal).  Unfortunately the anonymous letters acquired a life of their own as other writers added to the canon. Ultimately the letters hinted tauntingly at Shield’s cowardice and…inadequacy as a man.  The irate Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel.

Lincoln realized that he had gone too far and tried to apologize to Shields, however the latter was not appeased by any words. Since he had been challenged, Lincoln was allowed to choose the location and the weapons.  A cunning lawyer, Lincoln chose Bloody Island as the battleground:  this spit of land on the Missouri side of the Mississippi was disputed between the states (and by the flooding river).  The island’s actual legal location was therefore unclear (a useful subterfuge for possible legal tangles).  James Shield had a reputation as a crack shot and a fearless fighter, but he was small, whereas, at 6’4” Lincoln towered above his compatriots and was known for immense physical strength.  Lincoln also excelled at championship submission wrestling–as a younger man he had frequently grappled against all challengers on the frontier and he was only thrown twice.

Lincoln Wrestling (by Harold von Schmidt)

For the dueling weapons, Lincoln chose the heaviest & longest cavalry swords, which gave maximum advantage to his height and strength (and possessed the added advantage of being terrifying).  The future president showed up at Bloody Island early and dug a fighting pit which, in the event of a sword fight, would prevent Shields from escaping or circling away.  When Shields and his entourage arrived they were dismayed by these provisions and preparations, however the bold Shields continued to demand satisfaction.  It was only when he witnessed Lincoln hack off a large willow branch far above the ground, that Shields finally was swayed by Lincoln’s apologies.   The two men settled their differences and remained friends and political allies for the rest of their careers. During the civil war Lincoln appointed James Shields as a Brigadier General.

What Shields and Lincoln both saw in their nightmares

Lincoln was personally ashamed of the whole incident and did not refer to it often.  ‘I did not want to kill Shields and felt sure I could disarm him…,’ he later wrote, adding, ‘I didn’t want the d—-d fellow to kill me, which I think he would have done if we had selected pistols.’  According to one of Mary Todd Lincoln’s letters an officer once asked President Lincoln if it was true that he had nearly fought a swordfight for his wife’s honor.  Lincoln responded, “I do not deny it, but if you desire my friendship, you will never mention it again.” Perhaps the near disaster taught him to keep his sarcastic humor more in check (although his letters and quips reveal this always remained difficult for him). It also taught him to create allies through self-deprecation, sincerity, and–failing that–intimidation. I think Lincoln may have been embarrassed because the whole affair revealed that, if everything else failed, he maintained a cunning ability to win at any cost—a steely strength which lay within the genteel and amiable man.

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