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Even heroes commit treason. Can you believe it? A person who fights
and bleeds, who is wounded in battle, who is decorated for valor, can
yet betray his country. And why not? Bravery in battle, or receiving
wounds in action, is no proof of inner purity or goodness. Consider a
famous American war hero whose case should be etched into our minds.
This hero’s earliest memories were of Connecticut. In his youth he
served as a sailor, though he later moved on to other things. One day
his country became embroiled in a war, which he later described as a
mistake. Even so, he acquiesced in this mistake, facing the enemy with
courage. Eventually he was wounded, even crippled. Here was bravery.
Here was suffering.
The truth is, our hero was lucky to survive his ordeal. He was lucky,
as well, to subsequently marry a beautiful woman — who came from a rich
and conservative family. (Our hero craved money.) Some who watched his
activities weren’t so pleased with him. They thought he was overly
friendly with those who opposed the cause of liberty. How could this be
One does not question a hero.
But there was, nonetheless, a problem. Our hero had a vile temper and
a questionable character. He was once described as “touchy, ambitious,
and arrogant.” Eventually his greed led him into scandal, involving
money, for which he received a reprimand. When others might have gone to
jail, our hero
received a mere slap on the wrist. Who, after all, would dare to put a
wounded veteran — a war hero — in jail for corruption? Those who spoke
ill of this hero were called “waspish, peevish, and childish.”
Our war hero, despite so many wounds and laurels, was a bad man. This
fact was finally realized by an observer named Allen McLane. Details of
our hero’s offenses were known to McLane, who spoke to the appropriate
authorities. But McLane was sharply rebuked for his trouble.
War heroes have tremendous advantages over the rest of us. They can
get away with the most outrageous conduct. Past valor excuses them,
granting a power and freedom that others do not possess. It seems that
war heroes are judged by a different standard. Even when evidence of a
problem exists, the evidence is brushed aside.
And so, because of past services, a famous hero was able to plot
against his country’s liberty. From a position of absolute trust he
sought an important post — perhaps the most important post in America.
If he could only have that post, he could then betray the entire
Some readers may have correctly guessed that I am referring to Gen.
Benedict Arnold, the American commander who invaded Canada early in the
American Revolution, who distinguished himself in 1777. Sadly, it was
Gen. Benedict Arnold — a brave and bold man — who sought an
appointment to command the fortress at West Point (upon which Gen.
Washington’s whole strategy depended). West Point was likened to
Gibraltar. It guarded the passage up the North River where the American
Army was deployed.
Arnold secretly negotiated with the British commander, Sir Henry
Clinton. He wanted the modern day equivalent of half a million dollars
in exchange for surrendering the fortress to the British. This betrayal
would expose Gen. Washington’s army to an up-river surprise attack.
Think of it. Washington regarded Arnold as a son. He had given Arnold a
position of trust. Nonetheless, Arnold schemed to undo Gen. Washington
and the American cause.
The adjutant general of the British army, Maj. John Andre, was sent
to make final arrangements with Arnold, who gave Andre papers revealing
details of the West Point defenses. Dressed in civilian clothing, Andre
attempted to return to the British lines with a pass written by Arnold.
But Andre was captured by the New York Militia. The papers were
discovered, and so was Arnold’s treason.
Lucky as ever, Arnold was alerted to Andre’s arrest in time to
escape. After Gen. Washington found out, he sadly asked, “Whom can we
The historian David Ramsay wrote of Arnold, “He had been among the
first to take up arms against Great Britain, and to widen the breach
between the Parent State and the colonies. His distinguished military
talents had procured him every honor. …”
Arnold safely reached the British lines and became a brigadier
general in the King’s Army. Washington Irving, in his biography of
George Washington, later commented that we would be wise, indeed, if we
conferred high trust exclusively on men of clean hands — withholding
public confidence from those addicted to pleasure.
In this context, we cannot help asking: What was wrong with Benedict
There is a fascinating little volume entitled, “Narcissism: Denial of
the True Self,” by Alexander Lowen, M.D. According to Lowen, narcissism
is a distorted kind of selfishness in which the true self is betrayed.
The narcissist, according to Lowen, is a person who believes himself to
be a special case, someone who stands above the rules.
Spoiled as a child, the adult narcissist is not emotionally prepared
for life’s disappointments, which constantly put him in a precarious
emotional position. The narcissist does not accept this fate gracefully.
He experiences intense feelings of envy and rage. The narcissist fears
that his bubble of specialness will burst. “The emotion correlated with
fear is anger,” notes Lowen. And here we begin to understand Arnold’s
bad temper, his tendency to hostile outbursts. Lowen writes, “It is true
narcissists can and do at times fly into a rage. Indeed, one could say
that a tendency to fits of rage is characteristic of this disturbance.”
The danger signs in Arnold’s case were always there. He bickered with
Ethan Allen; he quarreled with Horatio Gates. He was easily angered,
affronted, enraged. He was always threatening to quit, to resign and go
home. This also shows a tendency to manipulate — another narcissistic
If you read some of Benedict Arnold’s letters, which are quoted at
length in Page Smith’s “People’s History of the American Revolution,”
you will see that Arnold was highly manipulative, calculating, and
grossly selfish in his plans. Again, related to this condition, Lowen
tells that “an absence of
limits is connected with the development of narcissism. …”
Today’s America definitely wants limits. Without limits we become,
step by step, narcissistic. Writing over two decades ago, Christopher
Lasch described our country as “a culture of narcissism.” In other
words, a culture without limits. Look around and see who is in the White
House. Notice what leading office-holders in trusted positions are
doing. We now discover that a former CIA chief — a Clinton appointee —
placed vital state secrets on his home computer, from which he accessed
Internet porn sites. Is he put in jail for breaking the rules? Mr. John
Deutch, former director of
central intelligence, has merely been slapped on the wrist. After all,
he is a special person.
There is something wrong with our country. People don’t follow the
rules like they used to. Perhaps people feel they are special, that they
are “above the rules.” If this is true, if this is the idea that
motivated Benedict Arnold’s treasonous behavior, then we have been
cultivating our own destruction. No distinction, no achievement, no
heroism is proof against this kind of rottenness.
It is a sad day when we must ask, as George Washington once asked,
“Whom can we trust now?”