Ruth R. Wisse is Martin Peretz professor ofYiddish literature and professor of comparative literature at Harvard University. This article, War is No Joke, is adapted from her address on May 20 to 13 Jewish cadets graduating from West Point—whose inaugural class of 1802 had two students, one of them a Jew.
I feel exceptionally privileged to address the graduates at this West Point Jewish Baccalaureate Service.
Our society generally tries to spare its young, and prolongs adolescence beyond anything imagined by previous generations. Colleges increasingly act in the role of parents to protect students from conflict, and to keep them from harming themselves. We adults often prefer to sacrifice ourselves rather than to ask help from our children. But soldiering in the defense of the country is a service that only youth can perform. Any society that expects to remain strong and purposeful must have a viable defense, which depends on the young who train for that purpose. Consequently, there are no graduates whom we, as a society, respect more than those prepared to take the lead in protecting our freedoms. Coming as I do from a school where only a handful among several thousand undergraduates join the Reserve Officers Training Corps, I am honored to address graduates who take on military leadership as a matter of choice.
My appreciation also has a personal component. I teach Yiddish, the language and culture of European Jews and their descendants—the language and culture of people who had no independent means of self-defense. Yiddish was created and flourished before the rise of the State of Israel. Although by the end of the 19th century, thousands of Jews were serving in the armies of their respective countries, Yiddish expressed the predicament of Jews who lacked the means to fight on their own behalf. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on a character that embodies this dilemma, “The Schlemiel as Modern Hero.” It begins with a joke:
The Battle of Tannenberg was fought at the start of World War I between the armies of Germany and Russia. The battle is at its height when a czarist officer announces to his company: “The moment has come! We’re going to charge the enemy. It’ll be man against man in hand-to-hand combat.” A Jewish soldier in the company pipes up: “Please, sir. Show me my man! Maybe I can come to an understanding with him.”
For the complete speech, please go to The Weekly Standard.