“People suck” is a thing we’ve all heard said and have probably said ourselves. Indeed, it seems that integrity is a personal quality that is often cast aside when someone finds themselves in a difficult situation, when their personal interest is threatened or when they stand to benefit from something unjustly. History, of course, provides us with ample examples of good living so we aren’t doomed to repeat it.
One such story is that of Alvin York, a desperately poor, illiterate and ignorant hillbilly from the backwoods of Tennessee who served in World War I. He gained some measure of glory while he was there in France in an encounter with the Germans that occurred Oct. 8, 1918.
Corporal York and the 16 other men of Company G, of the 328th Regiment, 82nd Infantry, suddenly came under fierce German machine gun fire. Nine in York’s unit fell within the first few seconds of the fight, including his commander. Alvin York was suddenly in charge, but the remaining seven men scattered and Alvin found himself alone.
In his after action report, York said, “Those machine guns were spitting fire and cutting down the undergrowth all around me something awful. And the Germans were yelling orders. You never heard such a racket in all of your life. I didn't have time to dodge behind a tree or dive into the brush...All I could do was [kill] the Germans off just as fast as I could...All the time I kept yelling at them to come down. I didn't want to kill any more than I had to. But it was they or I, and I was giving them the best I had.”
As York stacked up the German casualties, six Germans crept up to within 25 yards of York, then jumped up and led a bayonet charge against him. Knowing he’d have to reload his rifle to shoot six men, thus wasting valuable time, Cpl. York drew his pistol instead. Starting with the rear man and working his way up to the front so they didn’t know they were being eliminated, he began to kill each German with a single shot.
The last German fell nearly at York’s feet.
The German commander then surrendered his battalion to the lone infantryman. Cpl. Alvin York marched 132 German prisoners back to the American lines and was immediately promoted to the rank of sergeant, awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and later awarded the Medal of Honor.
Returning home after the war, Alvin York became the Army’s poster child hero and insanely famous back here in the United States. He was inundated with endorsement deals from various corporations. Had Alvin accepted the offers, he would have made hundreds of thousands of dollars—the equivalent of millions today—just for saying he liked this product or that one.
But Alvin York refused all of them.
When asked why he wouldn’t take the money, York said what happened in France was his duty. Other good men, he said, did the same things and died; he himself was famous because he had killed, and he couldn’t rightly take advantage of that. A 1941 movie about Alvin York summed it up when Gary Cooper, playing York, said “What we done in France, we had to do. And some as done it, didn't come back, and that kind of thing ain't for buying and selling.”
Alvin’s stand on principle was nothing new.
In the early days of the Roman empire, legionnaires would strike their breastplates with their fists during an inspection and proclaim “integritas” to indicate the armor was strong there over the heart, able to protect the legionnaire from arrows and swords as he fought his empire’s battles. A Latin word, integritas defined is “the quality or state of being complete; unbroken condition; wholeness; entirety.”
“Integritas!” the Roman legionnaire would shout, meaning “My armor is unbroken and I, a soldier, am complete! I am able to fight for my country!”
Some time later, as the Roman Republic faded into history and the Empire rose in its stead, the Praetorian Guard formed as a special unit of legionnaires and played an important role in palace coup after palace coup. The Praetorians' job was not to protect their country but to protect the emperor. The tradition of striking of the breastplate with a fist remained in the guard, but rather than shouting “integritas” the Praetorian would shout “hail, Caesar!” instead.
Now, rather than signal their devotion to their country and the readiness to do battle for their country, the Praetorians signaled their devotion to a single man, who typically was corrupt.
Understanding that they were the proverbial “old breed,” the legionnaires stopped shouting “integritas” and began instead shouting “integer.” The Latin word meant “untouched, whole, entire” and “anything complete in itself.” Now the proclamation was not simply about the soundness of their armor and ability to fight but of their undiminished character.
Over the course of the next several hundred years, the legionnaires began to suffer from the same internal social degradation that infected the Praetorian Guard. The armor was heavy, so first they stopped wearing helmets. Then they put down their shields and shed the breastplates. They lost their integritas, diminishing their integer. The legionnaires met their enemies as ill-equipped as their enemies, and eventually, Rome fell.
Today, we memorialize the Roman legionnaires with our word “integrity,” combining “integritas” and “integer,” to refer to a person with a whole and strong character. Integrity is defined by Webster’s as “the quality or state of being of sound moral principle; uprightness, honesty and sincerity.”
With everything from presidential and other political campaigns so often trying to satisfy enough micro-constituencies to gain office, to everyday temptations such as hurrying out of a building to nowhere in particular rather than show another person some courtesy at the door, it is easy to forget there is something larger than self-interest. That something larger is character. “You can judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him,” one saying goes. The world is bigger than one individual and his ego; as with every other challenge, there is no time like the present to work on transcending the alluring seductions of pleasure over what is right.
What is right is always right. What is fun depends on the moment. If Alvin York can make the right choice, so can we. The legionnaires learned the hard way, losing the integrity they once had and surviving to witness the demise of their homeland.