The key to these lines is: “battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won.” Whitman is upholding the ideas of honour, valour, heroism, and bravery: the zeal that allows a soldier who is doing his duty to march into battle, even if he knows he’s doomed, because he knows it is the right thing to do. Perhaps the victor takes the spoils and writes the history books, but Whitman sings the unsung song of the defeated.
This is a very common and compelling concept in culture, the idea that giving it your best is what matters, not winning. Many a coach reminds his young charges that “winning isn’t everything.” Alfred, Lord Tennyson, reminds us that “it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” The book, film, and television series Friday Night Lights all examine the idea that culture and community are more important than victory.
The most poignant rephrasing of Whitman’s words, however, comes from Harper Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird, a novel as quintessentially American as Whitman’s poem. Atticus Finch admonishes his daughter thusly:
I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.
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