Soldiers Who Die

This is a re-post from another website. Today seems as good a day as any to copy and paste.

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Alasdair MacIntyre complained about the modern nation-state almost 25 years ago in ways that foreshadowed some of today’s antagonism to nationalism. He wrote:

The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on its behalf. As I have remarked elsewhere, it is like being asked to die for the telephone company. Alasdair MacIntyre, “A Partial Response to My Critics

Michael Brendan Dougherty doesn’t exactly address nationalism but instead responds to a New York Times video that makes loyalty to nation sound like a piece of human existence from a primitive time:

The video …constantly invokes borders, for a reason: To make nationality sound silly. It indeed would be dumb to base your identity “just based on borders,” but in fact the relationship is the other way around. The identity is based on a shared homeland, or territory, along with shared law. National loyalty makes possible the kind of self-sacrifice that is necessary for living in peace with strangers. And in fact, the notable thing about national loyalty isn’t the times when, aggravated, it motivates us in war. War was very common before modern nationalism. Much more notable is the everyday peace and neighborliness that national loyalty fosters between people who may not share a tribe or a religious creed. Without nationality, we may still be trying to settle the wars of religion. With it, we were able to contribute to common treasuries whereby we provide for one other regardless of our ethnic background and religion. The border is just what you draw around this home.

The Times chooses Rocky IV to belittle its subject as well. It is a silly movie, which deploys the idea of national conflict in a heavy-handed way. But its effect “on our brains” is not in itself insidious, but commonplace and even comforting. National legends and patriotic songs exist to bind our emotions and our imaginations, to our national homes and to the people that share them. Sometimes, yes, they inspire a hatred of those who might work to destroy them. The most obvious alternative to binding our emotions to our national homes isn’t some higher peace. It’s something baser, as we’ll see.

Dougherty is valuable for countering journalists and government officials who fail to recognize the ways in which nation-states have preserved order, stability, law, and prosperity more than they have also sent citizens to war for some time ignoble reasons.

But I still wonder about MacIntyre’s point. Is dying for nation (or country) truly noble? More personally, would I be willing to fight for the sake of the United States? I can conceive of dying to save my wife or being willing to die if someone demanded that I deny Christ. But the nation?

Two pieces of Americana give this question weight. One is the Stephen Spielberg movie, The Post, which isn’t great and elides many of the important questions it raises about journalism during a war and a newspaper’s conflicted interests to turn a profit, beat a competitor to the story, and report for the good of the nation (truth and social stability). But one scene was particularly poignant, the one where Katherine Graham, the paper’s owner, confronts Robert McNamara, one of the chief strategists for the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in conducting the war in Vietnam, to ask what he knew and when he knew it. Once the Pentagon Papers come out and the public knew that many in the Johnson administration never thought victory was possible, Graham wants to know how McNamara could avoid saying something when her son (who survived) went to fight in Vietnam. Simply as a friend of the family, McNamara could (and should?) have let his friend know that this war was flawed. But he did not. The question Graham thinks but never asks is “would you have let my son die for such a foolish war?”

Another war movie that avoids this point is The Fighting Sullivans, a 1944 film about the five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo, Iowa, who all died when a Japanese torpedo sank the ship on which they were serving in the Pacific during World War II. The movie turns the boys into heroes, examples of bravery, fine, upstanding citizens. The book about the movie, the family, and the town by Bruce Kuklick, The Fighting Sullivans, shows how Hollywood was guilty of hype, the Sullivan family was not as reputable as the movie portrayed them, and that the town of Waterloo was almost always ambivalent about turning the city into a monument to honor a family that was a challenge.

But Kuklick scores his biggest point when he writes in the conclusion:

10 percent of the film conveys the most important fact entailed by the call to duty in even a democratic nation in a good war. The five brothers surrendered their lives to the state. FULL STOP. For those who lose their children in war, no closure exists. FULL STOP. Such deaths defeat families. FULL STOP. It is hard to combine the sentimentality of 90 percent of the film with the shocking 10 percent. (172)

Which leaves us with MacIntyre’s question. The United States may not be great. It may only be pretty, pretty, pretty good. But even if it were great, is that good enough to sacrifice your life?

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Only In America

From Julia Ward Howe, back to Jesus, and then forward to the Eucharist:

In the first moments of consciousness, Julia Ward Howe’s creativity penned what we now call “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Published in The Atlantic Monthly and sung to the tune of John Brown’s body, the song went viral, as we would say today, changing the war’s narrative from secession rights into a crusade for freedom.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal”;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.

Howe claimed that the song came to her on the border of consciousness, linking the Christ of long ago to the future of the war and the freedom of the slaves.

No one who preaches the Gospel can extol war. It is ever a curse and a sorrowful affliction. Yet consider the strength that Union soldiers took from this song, the consolation that Union families found in it. On June 8, 1968, as the train bearing the body of Senator Robert Kennedy rolled through Baltimore on its way to the capitol, the crowd along the tracks broke into the hymn’s refrain. I remember the song on the night of Sept. 11, in New York City. It wasn’t sung against someone; it was sung for those who had suffered a terrible injustice.

As America observes Memorial Day Weekend, the church celebrates Corpus Christi, the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. The feast exists to foster devotion to the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Paradoxically, pondering the humanity of our Savior is one way to see the extraordinary divine gift, which is the Eucharist.

The church professes that Christ was always “true God and true man” but that declaration doesn’t address the nature of his consciousness, his creativity. We have no interior access to the mind of Jesus, no way to watch how his divine and human natures interacted with one another. We do know that Christ possessed faith, which suggests that his incarnation represented some emptying of his divine consciousness. So our Lord would have come to that supper, the night before he died, a true man, one who had even reason for fear for his future, knowing that death was nigh.

That night Jesus did something similar to Julia Ward Howe. Seeking solace and strength in the past, he immersed himself in the faith of his people, reciting the promises made to Israel. And with radical hope for the future, the Son of Man gave himself over to the God of Israel, calling him “Father.”

When the church prays in that same voice and measure, expressing the very same surrender to the Father, we believe that Christ is truly present among us, in the mystery of his Body and his Blood, a sacramental splice between the ancient past and the, yet distant, future. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the church stands with the Son, giving herself completely into the hands of the Father.

Americanism lives. Sloppiness beats scholasticism again.

Did Memorial Day Give Us the Confederate Flag?

What’s the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day? The straight answer is that the former commemorates soldiers who died in battle, the latter honors all soldiers (even Bowe Bergdahl?). The funny answer is we get Memorial Day off as part of a three-day weekend to kick-off summer. On Veterans day we work in preparation for Thanksgiving and the big holiday season (some call Advent).

The difficult answer is that Memorial Day started to remember soldiers who died in the Civil War, Veterans Day for troops in The Great (Pretty Good?) War. Now, just like with three-day weekends for Presidents, Labor, and Columbus, we lump all soldiers into holidays that originally referred to specific wars.

You have to wonder if this is the best way to remember veterans or deceased soldiers when you get one day for all of those soldiers. David Rieff has a new book out arguing that remembering the past can actually be harmful:

What I’m saying is, there are examples—not a few, but quite a number of examples—where remembering, far from leading to truth, justice, and reconciliation, has led to more war. Three obvious examples of that are the Balkans in the 1990s, where I was a correspondent; Northern Ireland, for 30 years and, some people would say, for 800 years; and the Middle East. And in all three of those cases it seems to me that invoking history, invoking the wounds of the past, the crimes of the past, the conflict of the past, has led to more bloodshed.

In the case of the United States, our memories of the past don’t necessarily lead to bloodshed, but they do make us uncomfortable. Memories of slavery and segregation put whites and blacks in awkward relations that leave persons with no experience of owning slaves or Jim Crow feeling the legacy of racism should all inform interactions between whites and black, from chance encounters on the subway to public school hiring practices.

But how much is our own government to blame for the way some southerners keep the memory of the Confederacy alive? Memorial Day originally was all about remembering the Civil War, with blacks, Yankees, and Southerners all vying to honor their side:

COLUMBUS, Ga. — Right on either side of Alabama, there are two places with the same name.

Like the one over in Mississippi, this Columbus was founded in the 1820s and sits just a few minutes from countryside in almost any way you drive.

Residents say it was here, in the years after the Civil War, that Memorial Day was born.

They say that in the other Columbus, too.

It does not take much for the historically curious in either town — like Richard Gardiner, a professor of teacher education at Columbus State University here — to explain why theirs is the true originator of a revered American holiday and why the other is well-meaning but simply misguided. . . .

Waterloo, N.Y., was designated the official birthplace of Memorial Day by presidential proclamation in 1966, and indeed, beginning in May 1866, Waterloo held an annual townwide commemoration.

But women in Boalsburg, Pa., which has a claim as the holiday’s birthplace, began decorating graves each year as early as October 1864. In and around Carbondale, Ill., according to the Jackson County Historical Society, there are two markers making such an assertion in two different cemeteries. James H. Ryan, a retired Army colonel, has descended into the Logan archives and come out with a strong case for the town where he lives, Petersburg, Va.

This — readers, please take note — is just a partial and by no means definitive list.

But the claims of the two Columbuses, eyeing each other across Alabama, are among the more nuanced and possibly the most intertwined.

Maybe the solution is Rieff’s distinction between memory and history:

History is really about the past. There’s the great English novelist L.P. Hartley, who wrote a book called The Go-Between. And the first line of that book is “The past is another country. They do things differently there.” History is about the difference between the past and the present. Memory is about using the past for the purposes of the present, or for some group in the present. History is critical history … Memory serves the present. History is the material out of which this collective memory is made. But collective memory, commemoration, is not history. If it is history, it’s so simplified and reduced to be, as I say, to be closer to myth than to history in any usable sense.

That distinction may explain why this Old Life historian gets the last Monday of May 2016 off from research to do yard work.

When People Believe in God . . .

. . . they believe almost anything. That isn’t how G. K. Chesterton’s famous quote goes, but it seems more accurate than the one he actually penned: “When Man ceases to worship God he does not worship nothing but worships everything.” Christians (Protestant and Roman Catholic) believe a lot of stuff that isn’t in the Bible, which is hard enough to believe. And when it comes to national holidays, Christians believe even more stuff that may be comforting but doesn’t have a lick of logic attached to it. Consider Lincoln, the Civil War, and Memorial Day from the perspective of that unbeliever, H. L. Mencken:

Of Lincolniana, of course, there is no end, nor is there any end to the hospitality of those who collect it. Some time ago a publisher told me that there are four kinds of books that never, under any circumstances, lose money in the United States—first, detective stories; secondly, novels in which the heroine is forcibly debauched by the hero; thirdly, volumes on spiritualism, occultism and other such claptrap, and fourthly, books on Lincoln. But despite all the vast mass of Lincolniana and the constant discussion of old Abe in other ways, even so elemental a problem as that of his religious faith—surely an important matter in any competent biography—is yet but half solved. Here, for example, is the Rev. William E. Barton, grappling with it for more than four hundred large pages in “The Soul of Abraham Lincoln.” It is a lengthy inquiry—the rev. pastor, in truth, shows a good deal of the habitual garrulity of his order— but it is never tedious. On the contrary, it is curious and amusing, and I have read it with steady interest, including even the appendices. Unluckily, the author, like his predecessors, fails to finish the business before him. Was Lincoln a Christian? Did he believe in the Divinity of Christ? I am left in doubt. He was very polite about it, and very cautious, as befitted a politician in need of Christian votes, but how much genuine conviction was in that politeness? And if his occasional references to Christ were thus open to question, what of his rather vague avowals of belief in a personal God and in the immortality of the soul? Herndon and some of his other close friends always maintained that he was an atheist, but Dr. Barton argues that this atheism was simply disbelief in the idiotic Methodist and Baptist dogmas of his time—that nine Christian churches out of ten, if he were alive to-day, would admit him to their high privileges and prerogatives without anything worse than a few warning coughs. As for me, I still wonder.

The growth of the Lincoln legend is truly amazing. He becomes the American solar myth, the chief butt of American credulity and sentimentality. Washington, of late years, has been perceptibly humanized; every schoolboy now knows that he used to swear a good deal, and was a sharp trader, and had a quick eye for a pretty ankle. But meanwhile the varnishers and veneerers have been busily converting Abe into a plaster saint, thus making him fit for adoration in the chautauquas and Y. M. C. A.’s.

Mencken also takes the wind out of the sails of anyone who favors a two-state solution in Israel but insists that the Confederate States were always misbehaving:

The Douglas debate launched [Lincoln], and the Cooper Union speech got him the presidency. This talent for emotional utterance, this gift for making phrases that enchanted the plain people, was an accomplishment of late growth. His early speeches were mere empty fireworks—the childish rhodomontades of the era. But in middle life he purged his style of ornament and it became almost baldly simple— and it is for that simplicity that he is remembered to-day. The Gettysburg speech is at once the shortest and the most famous oration in American history. Put beside it, all the whoopings of the Websters, Sumners and Everetts seem gaudy and silly. It is eloquence brought to a pellucid and almost child-like perfection—the highest emotion reduced to one graceful and irresistible gesture. Nothing else precisely like it is to be found in the whole range of oratory. Lincoln himself never even remotely approached it. It is genuinely stupendous.

But let us not forget that it is oratory, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it! Put it into the cold words of everyday! The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination — “that government of the people, by the people, for the people,” should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in that battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves.

Could it be because Mencken didn’t believe in God he could cut through the shine of the halo and see civil religion for the idolatry it is?