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Lee Wolverton

Lee Wolverton

Cliches carry many hazards extending beyond the one most visible, their lack of originality. Some cliches are a product of corrosion, their constant use rendering banal that which once was profound.

This is the case for that frayed alliterative phrase “Band of Brothers,” popularized in America with the release of an HBO miniseries under that name 20 years ago this month and descended from the pen of William Shakespeare, its rich meaning a well to which writers have returned, and now, after so many others far worthier, this one.

Chicago Tribune cultural critic Julia Keller brilliantly described the phrase in a 2004 piece as being “like a pebble tossed in a pond, initiating concentric rings of familiarity.”

Shakespeare wrote it for Act IV, Scene III of “Henry V,” the drama centered on the militaristic British monarch and the Battle of Agincourt. The famous clash took place on Saint Crispin’s Day, 1415, in Northern France, where the British prevailed over French forces superior in number but neither in fighting spirit nor acumen. A muddied battlefield helped.

On the eve of the battle in “Henry V,” the king rouses his troops, 500 men readying to face 5,000. He tells them they will be remembered, that those who survive will be famed for having fought.

“He that outlives this day and comes safe home will stand a tip-toe when this day is named,” Henry declares. Upon the coming of Saint Crispin’s Day, Henry says, the surviving soldier will “strip his sleeve and show his scars, and say, ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s Day [sic].’ ”

Fame alone is not enough to inspire people at the precipice of death. Henry builds on the bond between them at their darkest moment, which they will confront not in isolation but together, keying the signature line. “Crispian shall never go by,” he says, “from this day to the ending of the world, but we in it shall be remembered — we few, we happy few, we band of brothers, for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.”

Deftly, Henry sought to humanize a religious holiday. Saint Crispin’s celebrates two martyred brothers beheaded in the 3rd century for sharing the Christian faith. Critics rightly decry Henry as a war monger and Shakespeare and the Saint Crispin’s speech as aggrandizing his bloodthirst. But just as tireless repetition can sap meaning from eloquence so can calloused analysis.

That can cause people to miss the point Shakespeare drives home so skillfully, that human bonds carry with them extraordinary power, so much that logic, rarely defied with success, can be thoroughly conquered. Humans, naturally diverse from one another in their every aspect, can, to borrow from Henry David Thoreau, “realize success unexpected in the common hour” if they are united in spirit.

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It also works in the reverse, as President Abraham Lincoln feared and noted in an 1858 speech, noted for its reference to Christ’s declaration in the Gospels, that “if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.”

Our people, here in this country and here in this state, are testing Christ on that assertion. A people and a place that endured after a civil war, after world wars, after strife over civil rights, somehow are clinging to a national fabric worn and on the verge of being torn asunder over the rudiments.

Railing against the state of things has been a frequent topic in this space. I’ve been asked what I might propose to make things better. Frequently, people seek some grand idea, some elixir, something brilliant or otherworldly. No such thing will be found to fix us. No such thing is needed.

Simple things are needed, starting with a respect and concern for one another as people, as fellow human beings.

While we need not agree on all things, we desperately need to agree on a common framework for debate, a foundation for reasoned discourse. In the courts, there is the law. Lawyers and judges disagree frequently on their interpretation of the law but not on the authority of it. Lawyers dispute one another but recognize the necessity of proper decorum and conduct in the process.

Our steady societal disintegration, evident in every corner of America, is rooted largely in the fact of there being no such structure, no such framework for discourse and thinking outside the realm of law. Lacking these things, America is devolving into a house divided, not over the grotesque institution that was slavery — although race still divides too many of us — but over the very idea of what truth is.

Finding our way starts with our reuniting with one another over the common bond of our shared existence, rallying around points upon which all reasonable people can agree, seeking that singular framework within which we can contest one another and learning, when we disagree, to do so intelligently and tactfully. Finding our way starts with a brotherhood and sisterhood, which has proven power dating long before that historic battle in Northern France.

It all starts with us.

Lee Wolverton is the vice president of news and executive editor of HD Media. He can be reached at

304-348-4802 or lwolverton

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