In the movie, Patriot Games, an Irish bookseller tries to show IRA terrorists his mettle with a gun, and fails miserably. The story ended badly for him. There was, however, an American bookseller who made the unlikely transition from shop keeper to military hero: Henry Knox.
One of my favorite college professors, George Geib, was a master story teller. From Dr. Geib's lectures I learned of the Populist Party roots of the Wizard of Oz stories, how red brick business buildings in West Lafayette, Indiana were transformed into a red light district, and little known stories of General Henry Knox, the first U.S. Secretary of War.
Official biographies of Henry Knox gloss over the fact that his military training consisted of his committing to memory a number of "how-to-do-it" books on warfare. Perhaps more so in those days than the present, every aspect of engaging in battle was subject rigid rules. As a bookseller, Knox had access to the official British manuals on the subject, and had developed an encyclopedic understanding of artillery strategy. So, as Dr. Geib told it, the humble bookseller approached General Washington with a request that he be commissioned in the Continental Army. He backed up his request by telling General Washington some of what he knew, and was rewarded with a commission as Colonel.
Knox first gained fame by putting his knowledge to use in the Siege of Boston, where cannons captured at Fort Ticonderoga by Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys were placed above Boston Harbor on the Heights of Dorchester. The British, knowing the artillery manuals as well as Knox did, realized that their fleet was threatened from the high ground, and fled the city. The valiant colonials cheered. Huzzah!
According to Dr. Geib, another incident involving Henry Knox didn't turn out so well. Though my class notes are long gone, I think it may have been the Battle of Princeton. In this case, troops led by Knox were in pursuit of retreating British forces when they passed a tower where 2 or 3 British soldiers had holed up. Knox recalled words from the warfare manuals: "Never leave a castle to your rear." Deciding that a couple soldiers in a tower constituted a castle, Knox called off the pursuit and laid siege, as his "training" dictated. The retreating British took advantage of the lull to regroup, and recaptured the town.
Though this incident was clearly not significant enough to sully the legacy of a military hero after whom Fort Knox and Knoxville, Tennessee are named, I often think of General Knox when wrestling with literalists, legalists, and anyone who is most comfortable in a world of absolutes. What such people fail to recognize, again and again, is the important of context. There was nothing wrong with the manuals memorized by Henry Knox. The problem was his inability to discern whether, when, and how to apply his knowledge.
The first missionaries to the Sandwich Islands had a similar difficulty. These stolid Yankees, having donned woolen long johns every October of their lives, did so their first years in Hawaii, despite marked discomfort in the warm weather there. The long johns were not at fault. The problem was with the failure to take context into account.
In popular culture, so-called situational ethics have gotten a bad rap. Conservatives are quick to defend solid black or white, right or wrong absolutes, and to scorn any who attempt to determine the best decision or course of action based on the situation they face. Once again, I believe that it's about time, as we shall see.