Posts tagged with: war

One of the powerful things about Memorial Day is that we live in a community and an America that is worthy of sacrifice. Many feel, for good reason, the foundational ideals of our Republic are in peril. The proclamation of the first Memorial Day by General John A. Logan in 1868 stated the importance of guarding the graves of those slain in battle with “sacred vigilance.” It is a calling bestowed upon all of us to toil for improvement of the common good and a better nation. We should constantly ask ourselves how do we sustain freedom and what can we do to spread liberty across our land? The Liberty Bell in Philadelphia bears an inscription that comes from Leviticus 25:10: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”

The men and women of the Armed Forces often remind us of the best aspects of our nation. It is beneficial and a blessing to educate ourselves on the military history of this country. Lexington and Concord, Antietam, Belleau Wood, Tarawa, Khe Sanh, and Ramadi, Iraq are just a few of the places covered by American blood. In Europe, one can easily be overwhelmed by row after row and cemetery after cemetery of American dead from the great wars of the 20th century.

In so many ways America stands at a precipice. Our debt is crippling the nation, we have a bloated moral deficit, and we no longer share a common purpose. These are all serious and seemingly overwhelming obstacles. But America has faced overwhelming odds before.

One of the most moving books I ever read was The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy’s Finest Hour by James D. Hornfischer. Hornfischer, a naval historian, called it the greatest upset in the entire history of naval warfare. But of course victory came at a tremendous price. Known as the Battle off Samar (island), it is an epic David vs. Goliath story. Take time to learn the sacrifice of those sailors and what they endured for our country. The book of Deuteronomy declares, “Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past.”

Take time this weekend to remember and give thanks for the sacrifice of our Armed Forces, especially those who paid with their life in defense of this land and its ideals. Remember to pray for peace and for the families who recently lost loved ones in defense of this country. Below is an exceptional and haunting video with still photos from Arlington National Cemetery:

This country suffers no shortage of heroic tales. For the Union soldier who served under Ulysses S. Grant, there certainly was no greater leader. Often referred to by detractors as “a butcher” for the wake of Union dead left after his victories, he took the fight to the Confederacy. After the Wilderness campaign in 1864, where 17,000 Union soldiers died in just a few days, Grant unlike all the Union generals before him refused to lick the Federal wounds and retreat across the Rapidan River to resupply and reorganize. Instead Grant famously turned his massive columns not North, but South towards the heart of the Confederacy. Towards Richmond. Those that have studied the Civil War are familiar with the iconic story, as war whoops, hat waving, and wild cheering echoed across the forest. There was no doubt that The Army of the Potomac, which had suffered a barrage of whippings by General Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy, was under new leadership.

It was moments like this, and not Grant’s largely unspectacular two terms as president, where one can understand why his funeral procession was seven miles long. Grant’s Final Victory by Charles Bracelin Flood is not a book about his time as commander of the Union or president, but the fascinating and heroic tale of his race against time to publish his memoirs and save his family from financial ruin.

In 1884, Grant was embroiled in one of the first famous Ponzi schemes on Wall Street, and his son’s partner at Grant & Ward, an investing firm, bankrupted the company and fled. Grant and his entire family was wiped out. Grant wrote his niece, “Financially the Grant family is ruined for the present, and by the most stupendous frauds ever perpetrated.” He was personally embarrassed having lent his name and prestige to the company. Doubtless many assumed it was on firm footing with the hero of the Union watching over it. In reality, Grant had little knowledge of the day to day operations of the firm.

Soon after the scandal, Grant was diagnosed with terminal mouth and throat cancer. He was said to partake in an average of 20 – 25 cigars a day. He rushed to write his personal memoirs of the Civil War. Before his financial destruction, he was on record as having little desire to write his own account of the war. Grant eventually settled on an agreement with his friend Mark Twain that would give his widow Julia 75 percent of the profit of the book sales.

As he toiled away with his pen, sometimes writing as many as 25 – 50 pages a day, The New York Times and publications across the country offered daily updates on Grant’s condition. His suffering was immense. His throat had to be constantly swabbed with cocaine to relieve the pain. As the illness progressed, it literally began to suffocate him and he would often wake at night in a panic, trying to gasp for air. Just swallowing was especially agonizing.

Grant received an abundance of personal letters and well wishes from North and South. He felt his illness was helping to further heal the sectional divide and noted as much. The author notes Grant was especially touched by a letter by A.M. Arnold from Rockbridge Baths, Virginia. Arnold wrote:

I hope that you will allow one, who, when but a boy, laid down his arms at Appomattox and gave his allegiance to the Union, to express his warmest sympathy for you in your hour of affliction. Dear General, I have watched your movements from the hour you gave me my horse and sword and told me to go home and “assist in making a crop” – I have been proud to see the nation do you honor . . .

May the God who overlooked you in battle and who has brought you this far give you grace to meet whatever He has in store for you. And may He restore you to health & friends is the fervent prayer of one who at 15 years of age entered the lists against you and accepted the magnanimous terms you accorded us at Appomattox.

Grant had his share of well wishers in the South because of the respect he showed for General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox and the brave men of the Army of Northern Virginia. Grant also later intervened on Lee’s behalf when President Andrew Johnson and others in the federal government wanted to arrest Lee and have him tried and hung for treason.

Grant, a lifelong Methodist, was not particularly known for devoutness. Nearing death he spent more time with his Methodist pastor and was baptized for the first time in his life. Flood suggests that Grant may have at times kept his pastor at arms distance because he thought he might have been being used by the clergyman so the minister could cement his own notoriety as Grant’s pastor. Grant refused public communion near his death, writing his pastor:

I would only be too happy to do so if I felt myself fully worthy. I have a feeling in regard to taking the sacriment [sic] that no worse sin can be committed than to take it unworthily. I would prefer therefore not to take it, but to have the funeral services performed when I am gone.

As Grant declined he was moved to a cabin in upstate New York where the climate better suited his illness and suffering throat. He sat on the porch working feverishly to complete his memoirs. Former generals and military men paid their last respects, and Grant mostly communicated through notes by now. Well wishers often walked by his cabin and if they were fortunate Grant would tip his cap to them or raise a hand. One minister upon seeing Grant writing on his porch while suffering in such agony expressed that the image was “the finest sermon at which he had ever been present.”

Grant died three days after completing his memoirs in 1885. He dedicated the publication to the “American soldier and sailor.” When it was suggested that maybe he should change the dedication so that it read “the Union soldier and sailor,” he declined. The healing of the nation was always on Grant’s mind and at the conclusion his optimism shined as he stated his belief that the healing would continue. As Grant peacefully departed this life, his son stopped the clock at 8:08. The hand of the clock still remains fixed on that time in the cottage where Grant passed away. The cottage is Wilton, NY is heavily visited today and is an enduring symbol of Grant’s courageous life and death.

The well wishes poured in for one of the most beloved leaders in American history. Church bells across the country chimed 63 times, one for each year of Grant’s life. The former Confederate General James P. Longstreet called him “the soul of honor,” adding that Grant “was the highest type of manhood America has produced.”

While his funeral was epic affair of state, it clashed with the humility that Grant would cast in his memoirs. Often memoirs of great generals or statesmen are puffed up affairs, but Grant’s work would be forever known as a chronicle that praised the men around him, with the attention focused not on himself but the battles and conflict. The chronicles avoided flowery speech and was straightforward and honest, much like many of the fellow Midwesterners Grant led. Flood has written a powerful story and helps the reader to see why Grant was so loved even through faults and poor choices. It could be easily said that no American in the 19th Century was more admired than Grant and did more to save the country.

Blog author: rnothstine
Friday, September 9, 2011

Justin Constantine has written an excellent piece on the high cost of war in the Atlantic titled “Wounded in Iraq: A Marine’s Story.”

Constantine, who was shot in the head in Iraq, notes in his essay,

Blood and treasure are the costs of war. However, many news articles today only address the treasure — the ballooning defense budget and high-priced weapons systems. The blood is simply an afterthought. Forgotten is the price paid by our wounded warriors. Forgotten are the families torn apart by lengthy and multiple deployments. Forgotten are the relatives of those who make the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our country. As we look back on 9/11, we should also remember all those who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Fewer than 1 percent of Americans have fought in these wars, and it is important for the public to understand their effects on our fighters and those close to them.

Constantine also touches on his own frustration with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in the piece. I wrote a commentary in 2009 on the need for the federal government to fulfill its obligations to our veterans before expanding its scope and reach on health care. The fact that Congress rushed through a comprehensive health care law in 2010 without major reform of care for veterans speaks to the failure of the political leadership in this nation.

We should remember the high cost of war this weekend and every day. Constantine evokes the 44,000 wounded warriors from Afghanistan and Iraq and the more than 6,000 families who have had to bury a loved one. Last Memorial Day, I wrote a post on a few of the men whose names adorn the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. One of the names is Roy Mitchell Wheat, a Medal of Honor recepient from Moselle, Miss. Trying to hold back tears, his brother recently offered these haunting but wise words about the cost of war,

When you see a man there that’s 19 years old, and you can look in the casket and his shoes are at the end of it. And his pants legs is neatly rolled up. It’s, that’s when you realize what war is.

Blog author: rnothstine
Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Today is the 235th birthday of the United States Marine Corps. The PowerBlog has some excellent tributes to the Marines in the archives. They are certainly appropriate to highlight today:

Here is an excerpt from my post “The Few, The Proud, The Marines:”

When I worked for U.S. Congressman Gene Taylor in Mississippi, one of the rewards of the job was helping veterans with military casework. I was also able to meet many of the Marine veterans from battles such as Iwo Jima, Tarawa, Okinawa, the “frozen” Chosin Reservoir, and Khe Sahn. They are the men who helped spread the light and flame of freedom across the world. Today, this elite class of warriors remain dedicated to the courage and principles that made our country free. All the Marines I know are familiar with Ronald Reagan’s words, “Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they made a difference in the world. But, the Marines don’t have that problem.”

And below is The 2010 United States Marine Corps Birthday Message, from the Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen James F. Amos, marking the 235th birthday:

Check back in with the PowerBlog tomorrow for Veterans Day because there will be a special tribute to E.B. Sledge, a Marine who fought in the Pacific in World War II and authored With The Old Breed.

Blog author: jballor
Monday, December 21, 2009

I saw the latest blockbuster Avatar last night, and the early plaudits are true: this is a visually stunning masterpiece of “hybrid” cinematography, a “full live-action shoot in combination with computer-generated characters and live environments.”

But there are other, less compelling ways, in which Avatar is a hybrid of sorts. There are literal hybrids in the Avatars themselves, the genetically-altered bodies combining both elements of Na’vi and human genes to act as bodies for the Avatar “sleep walkers.” Other commentators have noted the lack of originality in the plot. Indeed, Avatar’s narrative seems to be a combination of other films and stories, and Avatar‘s only original contribution is the setting on the planet Pandora. In one sense, you could think of Avatar as The Mission set on an alien planet and with scientists instead of Jesuits.

Another film worthy of comparison to Avatar is last year’s CGI masterpiece, WALL-E, as both tread some of the same territory, so to speak. In both films humans have laid waste to the Earth, which is no longer capable of supporting a viable ecosystem. WALL-E spends a great deal of time set on the damaged planet, but Avatar only makes vague references to the “dead” planet where there is no green, and that the humans, the sky people, have killed their mother (Mother Earth).

It’s here that Avatar‘s message stumbles the most. Whereas in WALL-E responsible stewardship of the world was set within a compelling criticism of consumerism and waste, it is emotionally powerful without being sentimental, preachy, or clichéd. Avatar misses this kind of nuance. It plays on the worst stereotypes Westerners have about native and indigenous peoples to present a naive portrayal of the Na’vi, the alien inhabitants of Pandora.

In WALL-E, when humans use up the Earth, they essentially gorge and pleasure themselves in space, passively waiting to return to home one day. In Avatar, humans maraud other innocent worlds, looking for other ecosystems to kill. Now as Bill Easterly points out, this alone shouldn’t be enough to raise the ire of conservative critics against Avatar.

There is much that rings true in the film’s depiction of human greed and disregard for those considered to be “other.” As Easterly writes in another context, “those of us of Euro-American heritage would be a lot more convincing on Individual Rights by acknowledging that we have had as much trouble applying them as anybody else. We were pioneers in applying them to our own ethnic group, but we kept handing out free passes to kill other people’s rights.” This is one of the core messages of Avatar that is right on, and pundits and commentators on all sides of the political debate should be able to see this.

So it isn’t in its critique of genodice or murder that Avatar fails, but rather in its tone, its caricature rather than prophetic depiction of the human condition (war-mongering Marines come off especially flat and unconvincing). As an indictment of a kind of space colonialism, Avatar functions well, sometimes reaching a meaningful level of authentic rebuke. As a screed against the favorite peeves of the radical environmentalists and a paean to the neo-pagan deity, however, Avatar falls flat.

Blog author: rnothstine
Wednesday, November 11, 2009

373613_cover.indd Washington Post reporter and author Christian Davenport has told a deeply raw and emotional story in his new book As You Were: To War and Back with the Black Hawk Battalion of the Virginia National Guard. This book does not focus on battlefield heroics but rather it captures the essence and value of the citizen- soldier. Most importantly this account unveils through narrative, the pride, the pain, and the harrowing trials of the life of America’s guardsmen and reservists. Davenport tells the stories of Mark Baush, Kate Dahlstrand, Craig Lewis, Miranda Summers, and Ray and Diane Johnson. He tells of their deployment and return home. For some it means the end of a marriage, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder diagnoses, career and schooling problems, getting gamed by a grueling bureaucracy, and perhaps most common, a disconnect from the society at home after deployment.

Davenport focuses on some very important themes related to the disconnect some soldiers feel. It may be that guardsmen and reservists experience it to an even greater extent than soldiers in the regular Army. They in fact live and work in the civilian world. One example from the book is Craig Lewis, a former teacher who tries to find a job after his return from Iraq. He performs above and beyond the call of duty as a Blackhawk pilot, is promoted and given command of a company in the guard. But in the civilian world he had immense difficulty finding any sort of quality employment. Davenport notes:

Federal law required that employers, and even small companies, hold jobs for deploying reservists. Swept up in the wave of patriotism after 9/11, many sent their citizen-soldiers off to war with pats on their backs, flags waving. Many employers even made up the difference in pay. But as the wars slogged on, and soldiers were called to active duty again and again, the word reservist suddenly had a stigma attached to it.

Miranda Summers’ story in some ways mirrors the experience of many guardsmen and reservist in college at the time of deployment. Summers balances academics, social and sorority life, and her National Guard commitment. She is a student at The College of William & Mary, and later a graduate student at Brown University after her return from Iraq. At William & Mary she is asked when somebody finds out she is going to Iraq, “I thought only poor people go to war?” At Brown the experience is a little different when a student proclaims, “I have never met anybody in the military.” The opening of this book is deeply moving, when Davenport tells how Summers is embraced by a World War II veteran at the memorial commemorating that conflict in Washington D.C.

There is a saying that was put on a dry erase board at a Marine Corps operation center in Iraq which read, “America is not at war. The Marine Corps is at war; America is at the mall.” It conjures up all the frustration some in the military feel about the lack of sacrifice on the American home front and the general disconnect. It’s an alien concept to the total war of World War II or even the draft obligations of Vietnam. The soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines currently represent an all volunteer force. The Founders understood the dangers of the disconnect and Davenport makes note of this in his account:

The framers, having thrown off a king who could wage war without the hindrance of popular sentiment, knew this, and they had designed the system so that burdens of war were spread through out the population. Citizen-soldiers, then, weren’t a mere check against executive power, but rather the conscience of a nation. The cause had better be worthy of their sacrifice.

Davenport cites the famous Robert E. Lee quote, “It is well that war is so terrible, lest we grow too fond of it.” He sharply then notes a concern shared by some military and civilian leaders alike, “What happened instead is that America had grown ignorant of war, which was just as dangerous, if not more so.”

But it is the masterful ability to tell a story that makes this author shine. Davenport hauntingly captures the pride, emotions, and frustrations of the citizen-soldier. Some of the stories can be quite heartbreaking and the reader feels sympathy for those profiled. At the same time, Davenport is able to articulate the pride and importance the characters feel towards the nation and their service in it. My own brother Chris was a reservist in the Marine Corps who served in Iraq in an intense combat environment. He said the disconnect and alienation is real. “It’s not like you can just go back to whatever it is you were doing and things would be the same,” he told me. Kate Dahlstrand not only had her husband leave her when she was in Iraq, she suffered nightmares and flashbacks after her return. When she tried to contact Veterans Affairs for help, she was brushed aside. Kate was able to remarry and eventually receive some quality help after meeting James Peake, former Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

This is an amazing book and the theme that examines the isolation and brokenness that some soldiers feel is very penetrating. For the Christian, and being somebody who has worked in ministry and studied for the ministry myself, I had one overarching thought through this entire account. And it’s an appropriate thought especially during the coming Christmas season, and that is Christ felt all of the emotions of pain, hurt, loss, abandonment, abuse, and betrayal. Augustine said of the incarnation, “nothing was lacking that belongs to human nature.” The account by Davenport is also a reminder of the complexity and the enormous task so many military chaplains face in the Armed Forces. On this Veterans Day it is important to remember all our service men and women, and Davenport has achieved that by telling the unique stories of just a few who represent so many.

Blog author: rnothstine
Wednesday, May 6, 2009

joker It is appropriate that Donovan Campbell offers an inscription about love from 1 Corinthians 13:13 at the beginning of his book, Joker One: A Marine Platoon’s Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood. That’s because he has written what is essentially a love story. While there are of course many soldier accounts from Afghanistan and Iraq, some that even tell more gripping stories or offer more humor, there may not be one that is more reflective on what it means to be a leader, and what it means to love the men you serve and lead.

This book is receiving considerable press attention and Campbell’s ability to convey love the way he does has to be a big reason for the popularity of the book. Campbell movingly says about his own Marines in the opening chapter, “And I hope and pray that whoever reads this story will know my men as I do, and that knowing them, they too might come to love them.”

Campbell’s account looks at the seven and a half months in which he serves as a platoon leader in some of the fiercest fighting of the Iraq war, which occurred in Ramadi in 2004. Before the Marine Corps, Campbell was an undergraduate at Princeton who spent a summer completing the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School (OCS) because he thought it would look good on his resume. Campbell says he hated the entire program, and didn’t think twice about joining since he hadn’t taken any money from the Corps, and therefore didn’t owe them anything. He would ultimately change his mind however as graduation approached.

If love and leadership are recurrent themes, it is often discussed from a faith perspective, and Campbell is somebody who has thought seriously about his own faith and what that means for him and his men. Campbell talks about how before each combat mission he huddles up with his platoon for prayer, which often included reciting the twenty-third Psalm. “I had a responsibility to my men to provide for all their needs, and those included their spiritual as well as their material ones,” says Campbell. He also discusses some of his early thoughts on the prayer ritual before each mission:

Deep in my heart, I believed that prayer would work without fail, that if together Joker One prayed long and hard enough, God would spare us all from Mac’s fate [another Marine seriously wounded by a road side bomb]. What I know now, and which didn’t occur to me then, was that by praying as I prayed, and hoping what I hoped, and believing what I believed, I was effectively reducing God to a result-dispensing genie who, if just fed the proper incantations, would give the sincere petitioner (me) the exact outcome desired.

This book is masterful at tracing the growth and experience of Campbell’s theological progression just as it does concerning his leadership skills, decision making ability, and the moral questions he asks himself. Where prayer before was focused more on personal safety, He says it changed even more as the chaos and random violence surged. “To those who sought it, the prayer also provided some comfort that God was in control, that their lives had worth and meaning stemming from an absolute source,” says Campbell.

After one of his own Marines, Lance Corporal Todd Bolding was killed in action, Campbell understandably lost much of his enthusiasm to continue the mission. He had promised himself that he would bring all of his platoon home. He says:

For whatever reason, [Private First Class Gabriel] Henderson’s tender heart kept a close watch on me, and one day, roughly two weeks after Bolding’s death, he walked up to me and said out of the blue: ‘Hey sir, you know that none of the platoon blames you for what happened to Bolding. It’s okay, sir.’ I didn’t know what to say to that. Henderson broke into a smile. ‘Bolding’s in heaven now, sir, and I know that he’s smiling down at us right now, just like he always smiled at us when he was here. He’s okay, sir. Don’t worry, sir. He’s okay. And someday you will get to see him again, sir.’ I had to turn away to keep from crying. I think that Henderson’s profound, simple faith was what finally allowed me to pick myself back up, and, in some very real sense, regain my own faith.

This book deals with a lot of raw emotion, the frustrations with all the problems in Iraq, and tragedy. At the closing of Campbell’s account, he does a beautiful job of articulating the greater-love principle from John’s Gospel (15:13).

In seminary I took a class on leadership and I know Campbell’s book teaches more lessons about leadership than classes or many other books could. His account is a strong reminder that some of America’s best, regardless of policy debates or politics, are the ones silently shouldering a heavy burden in America’s current conflicts. While much of the country goes to the mall, shops, and attends sporting events, there are those who suffer and have to make quick life and death decisions where the consequences of combat often result in bad or worse.

This is definitely one of the best books of 2009. The narrative is somewhat similar to Nathaniel Fick’s book from 2005, One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer, in that both authors do a wonderful job at baring their heart and telling the stories of young men who do courageous acts solely for others and not themselves. Interestingly enough, both authors were officers in the Marines who came out of Ivy League schools. All of the wonderful sacrifices Campbell’s platoon made for a largely unappreciative civilian Ramadi population in 2004, and the havoc they wreaked on their foe, is a reminder of the truth that rings out from the great unofficial U.S. Marine motto, “No greater friend, no worse enemy.”