- - Tuesday, July 2, 2019



By Sen. Tom Cotton

William Morrow, $28.99, 301 pages

Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, heard his country’s call to service in a law school classroom on the morning of 9/11. In that moment, “I knew the life I had anticipated in the law was over. I wanted to serve our country in uniform on the front lines.”

And that’s precisely what he did. After finishing school he enlisted, serving in Iraq as a platoon leader with the 101st Airborne Division (the “Screaming Eagles”), and in Afghanistan with a Provincial Reconstruction team, earning the Bronze Star, the Combat Infantryman Badge and the Ranger Tab.

Between combat tours, Mr. Cotton was chosen to serve as a platoon leader with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment at Arlington, Virginia — the “Old Guard,” America’s oldest active-duty regiment, dating back to 1784. Its soldiers, as Mr. Cotton puts it, are among the Army’s “most squared away,” with their mission, “not only conducting daily funerals in Arlington but also world-famous ceremonies like presidential inaugurations and state funerals,” the most recent conducted for President George H.W. Bush.

The training, which Mr. Cotton explains in considerable detail, is extremely rigorous, involving everything from blackening the soles of their shoes, modifying uniforms, measuring things to 164th of an inch; and in exercises, maintaining positions and controlling breathing with no movement for 75 minutes, in what is called a standing proficiency test. (In all, to interject a partially partisan observation, not too different from aspects of the training at Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island, as this reviewer remembers it.)

From the minutest spit and polish details to extraordinary physical demands made on a routine basis, the objective is to insure perfection. Whether it’s a state funeral for a president or a funeral for a private killed in combat in Afghanistan, there’s no room for the smallest misstep. It’s a matter of honor and the most basic form of patriotism.

Mr. Cotton goes on to review the history of the Old Guard in some detail, in the process making several profound points about our nation.

The Old Guard, “three years older than the Constitution fought in Mexico alongside Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. They faced off against the rebel commander in the Civil War and served at Appomattox Court House when he surrendered to the great Union General. In between they had camped at Lee’s old farm, which was destined to become the nation’s ‘most sacred shrine.’”

“This legacy lives on each day at The Old Guard I never served in or witnessed another unit so linked to the past and the bravery of its forerunners.” That legacy places extraordinary demands and expectations upon Old Guard Soldiers, and it’s perhaps especially fitting that it is expressed with ceremonial perfection on Lee’s former property.

On the eve of the great Civil War that would transform this farm into a national cemetery, Mr. Cotton reminds us, President Lincoln, in his First Inaugural, pleaded for national unity.

“‘Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection,’” he acknowledged, while appealing to the “‘mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land.”

Today, writes Mr. Cotton, passions may also strain our bonds of affection, “but those mystic chords of memory still stretch from the patriot graves of Arlington across our great land, calling forth yet again ‘the better angels of our nature.’”

Mr. Cotton continues to serve his country in the Senate, as one of the 19 members with military experience. In all, including the House, the number is 96. In terms of talent, intelligence, maturity and experience, combined with an understanding of the world and where in it America’s interests lie, they provide the solid core for our next generation of national leadership.

In this respect, nothing is more important than setting an example of strength, integrity, and fidelity to the old American values for our young people, who often seem adrift today, victims of various culture wars. And no group of men and women is better qualified to undertake this mission than Sen. Tom Cotton and his colleagues in Congress with military experience.

As Gen. H.R. McMaster says of “Sacred Duty,” Sen. Cotton “helps his fellow Americans understand not only the hardships, but also the tremendous rewards of service in our military.”

• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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