Tag Archives: war

The Backstory: Reborn for the 4th of July

My Backstory series offers stories about my upbringing and background. You can find the whole series under the category “Biography,” if you’re interested.

When I was a teenager, I watched Born on the Fourth of July when it finally showed on TV. I doubt my parents would have let me watch it if I’d asked them for permission, but they weren’t around at the time and I thought it was a war film, so I watched it. The story disturbed me deeply for a long time.

I gaped at the screen as the soldiers shot up a Vietnamese village in the haze of war (and bad decisions). I watched as Ron Kovic, the central character, fell apart after the war was over, screaming in rage at his disability and his broken life. We didn’t talk about PTSD in my household. My dad considered the Vietnam vets ‘soft’ – too fragile to handle war like his Korean buddies or World War II relatives had done.  I didn’t know how to process Kovic’s protest at the RNC – in my life, Republicans were good guys (though my parents’ relationship with the political parties was a lot more complicated than I realized). It was a provocative film that hit me when I wasn’t at all used to being provoked.

I was raised in a sheltered environment by parents with strongly conservative viewpoints on most issues. B4J challenges the American mythos surrounding war, military service, and veterans even as it plays into the stereotype of Vietnam vets as baby killers and mentally ill.

At the time I had no background or preparation for handling the ideas that I had encountered, whether it was the sex, the language, or the attack on the simplistic view of America as entirely good and right (always on the winning side, always the righteous side). And I didn’t feel like I could really talk to my parents about it, since some of what bothered me so deeply was the content that they would have banned me from seeing in the first place.

So it lodged deeply in my mind and I tried not to think about it, though the ideas would surface occasionally and create an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. It would be decades before I learned enough history to come to grips with how Vietnam altered  American consciousness of the late 20th century; how film is its own rhetorical form, demanding assessment and critique and a recognition of the storyteller’s own bias; and how Americans tell ourselves myths about our own heroism to bury our national guilt that we should be feeling about our own nation’s imperialism and oppression.

Kovic reminded me of one of my brothers’ friends, a man whose name I’ve since forgotten, who showed up at our house one day in a black T-shirt, aviator sunglasses, and a cowboy hat.  Visitors were rare, so this hard-drinking, hard-smoking man stood out. He was older than my brother by at least a decade or two, and nothing was ever quite right for him after his Vietnam service. My dad closed the door after they left and felt sorry for the guy, hoped he’d find his way eventually. The vet was dead (as I recall) a few months later, the victim of a collision with a semi that sheared off the top of his convertible.

My relationship with America grows complicated as I grow older. A nation is more than the sum of its citizens.  I now begin to understand those few places in the Gospels where Jesus talks about evaluating nations (dividing sheep from goats) as if that is a separate process from judging individuals.

I choke up at a booming fireworks display overtop “God Bless the USA” even as I tremble in anger at our callous destruction of Native peoples because our leaders believed God and political power were on the side of our “manifest destiny.” We like to paint ourselves as the hero in every picture, perhaps because America is barely a teenager in nation-years, and we’re too stubborn or arrogant to listen to the older nations around us.  My Italian grandfather fled one of those old nations to start anew in America a century ago, where he drank heavily and beat his wife and abused my dad who grew up in abject immigrant poverty. Yet here I am, a college graduate, thanks to the sacrifice of my parents.

With the upstart hubris of a Silicon Valley start-up whiz kid, America  blazed forward in the 20th century – and we’re unwilling to admit in the daylight that we might have gotten a head start over the rest of the developed world by not hosting two bloody and destructive world wars on our own soil, as if our own wisdom and not geographical realities had the most to do with it.

I’m proud of my nation and appalled, and those two feelings churn in my stomach – ever more so in 2017, this ridiculous, stupid year. Perhaps I’ll rewatch Born on the Fourth of July this holiday weekend to see if its effect stemmed from my adolescent naiveté or the power of its story. This time around, I know too much about the world to be shocked. I’ll just be sad.

Review: Hugo Awards 2016 – Novelettes

What is a novelette? you ask.

It’s what, as an English teacher, I would’ve called a short story just a little bit too long to assign for one night’s homework. (That makes novellas, to me, about a week’s worth of high school homework.)

I found more to like among the Novelette nominees for the 2016 Hugo Awards, though the Sad and Rabid Puppies certainly left their muddy paw prints all over this category. All 5 nominated works were on one of the Puppy slates, but usually not both.

The nominees continue to suffer, in these shorter works, from poor selection but perhaps that’s as much a result of fan voting as it is the Puppies’ attempt at chaos and domination.

In order of my appraisal:

  1. “Obits” by Stephen King is going to be my top pick in Novelette, though my #2 selection is within a hair’s breadth of taking my top vote.  But it’s hard to deny the feel of sentences coming off the pen of a man as experienced and talented as King. It’s like holding a real $20 bill after checking out some counterfeits. Sure, his writing has weakened in the past decade (that auto accident did something to him, I think) but he’s still a master of the craft, and I’ve always liked his shorter fiction the most.
    This tale is nearly perfect – the “voice” of the main character just fits, the way it’s supposed to. Every word slots into its the sentence, painting exactly the picture King wants you to see and feel.

    This story, like a good sci-fi/fantasy tale, pushes people to the forefront to carry the plot, allowing the non-realist elements to create a rich background tapestry that absolutely supports the plot without shouting it down. I enjoyed pretty much every line.  The conceit of the tale isn’t a new one, but King handles it well, and I think that’s worth a lot.

  2. “Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingling, trans. Ken Liu surprised me in several ways. The story would be at home in the dystopian future of Paolo Bacigalupi, a world in which man’s inability to care for himself and his planet yields ugly consequences.In this story, Beijing in the future has been engineered so that the richest 10% of the population lives in spacious homes and parks for 24 hours, then the city “folds” itself, origami-style, and rotates, giving a second group of people 12 hours of daylight. That second group represent a minority class of educated professionals who rush to get everything done. Finally, the bulk of Beijing’s 50 million inhabitants are crammed into the teeming, squalid third realm, which emerges in the last quarter of the 2-day folding cycle to see 12 hours of night.

    Against this rich background Hao tells us a story of love and loss that’s poignant and touching.  The writing is a little bumpy – I know Liu is a good translator – perhaps there’s something about the cultural shifts and language usage that isn’t quite coming over clearly. But this is a story well worth your time to read.I’m not sure if this next story deserves a Hugo, but I sure enjoyed it:

  3. “And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander mashes up two of my favorite genres into one lively and darkly funny story that still manages to be very human and very perceptive.  She takes the cyberpunk world of Blade Runner or Android Netrunner and inserts the kind of hard-bitten characters you want to find in 1950s pulp detective fiction. But her protagonist, Rhye, blows through any gender stereotypes, presenting as a tough-as-nails street tomboy with a mouth like a sailor. (I noted that several folks on Goodreads gave up on this story quickly due to the flying F-bombs in just the first paragraph.)

    As a woman who happily inhabits gamer culture, I found this story like stepping into online multiplayer – a bit crazy, a bit vulgar, and very fun. It wasn’t exactly new thinking, but the writing was great. Plus, even as a Puppy nomination (Sad, not Rabid …. since I can’t envision any Rabid Puppy being supportive of a Strong Female Lead), this story shows that “classic” sci-fi themes aren’t destroyed when authors bend the genders and honor the culture of gamers/cyberpunk with good character writing.These two stories will fall below the “No Award” bar on my ballot, for sure

  4. “What Price Humanity” by David VanDyke was interesting enough, but the Big Idea has been done before (many times) and the story itself was a little ham-handed in its construction and plot pacing.  I guessed the twist at the end easily; the frame tale that attempts to give the story some context feels disjointed and preachy. Even the Big Question that VanDyke is trying to wrestle with falls flat.  It could have been provocative, but … it wasn’t.

    SPOILER ALERT…. I don’t want anyone who’s planning to read the story to see this accidentally so again — Spoiler!! — but VanDyke didn’t even raise a deep ethical quandary IMO. Is there anything unethical about copying a human’s consciousness and having it control a weapon? well, doesn’t that depend on whether the human whose consciousness is being copied gave his/her consent or no? and it’s so materialist (in the philosophical sense) to ground a story in the idea that copying someone’s brain pattern exactly (an engram) would somehow recreate a whole *person.*  Nah.  This is a bad knock-off of cloning ethics, at least in the way he handles the story here, and I’m confused why VanDyke didn’t learn anything from the other, similar stories in this vein that surely he’s read.

  5. “Flashpoint: Titan” by Cheah Kai Wai is the personification of what I expect the Rabid Puppies want in their foreign policy. I found the story to be a bit naive, slightly racist, overly reliant on stereotypes, and dull due to its reliance on technical details.  It had good moments, and I didn’t mind reading it through to the end. I even liked the main character and his crew, and I learned things about space warfare that I hadn’t considered (like the incredible cost to delta vee and propulsion systems that a simple redirection of course would take).

    That said, this story – like “Seven Kill Tiger” on the Short Story ballot, from this same collection There Will Be War – feels like a bunch of 50-something Republicans who like to shoot guns but never actually went to war decided to chew the fat about how much they hate Muslim terrorists and the Chinese, and turned that into a short story instead.

    Cheah’s story is at best tone deaf when it comes to racial stereotyping, totally unaware of how playing into 40s and 50s era pulp caricatures of other countries should strike 21st century readers as offensive. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure the Rabid Puppies who nominated this work consider that kind of insensitivity a badge of honor.

One final thought —

Military sci-fi can be brilliant (I thought The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu presented amazing military/space dilemmas) and very thought provoking (Joe Haldeman’s Forever War) even when it’s “fun” (eg: Hammer’s Slammers by David Drake).  But Drake and Haldeman write like men who experienced combat — because they did —  and their stories focus on the human side of war, not the details of the warfare itself.

To me, that’s a key difference between military sci-fi worth my time, and military sci-fi that reads like it was sponsored by the Koch Brothers.

*****

Next up (and already in progress): Novellas! I’ve read 2.5 and enjoyed them so far. Looking forward to writing that review.

The Backstory: Memorial Day, America, God, and Country

My Backstory series offers stories about my upbringing and background. You can find the whole series under the category “Biography,” if you’re interested.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Memorial Day was never complicated when I was a kid.

We lived on top of a mountain in Appalachia in the middle of the woods. Flagpoles weren’t part of the natural landscape, but my mom had inherited her mom’s 48-star American flag (so – pre 1950?) and bought a bracket for it one year.  Dad found a pole, strung up the flag, and installed the bracket on a tall tree that flanked the gravel pathway from our circular driveway up to the house.   It was a huge flag and I don’t remember how it came into our family. I’d guess it could be from World War 2.  I wish I’d asked.

But it was cool to see that huge flag wave in the breeze among the trees.  We eventually stopped putting wear and tear on the 48 star specimen and switched to my maternal grandfather’s funeral flag, with its crisp white edges and all 50 stars.

Dad was a Korean War era vet, so he was particular about the flag’s handling — he never left it out in the rain or overnight and folded it carefully back into its triangle at the end of Memorial Day and 4th of July.

the original RameyDomus. This is either my dad's flag or my grandfather's - I'm not sure when this shot was taken. My guess is that it's 1999 or 2000, and that would make this flag -- which is nearly as big as our first house! -- my dad's honor flag.
The flag tradition continued at the first RameyDomus. This is either my dad’s flag or my grandfather’s – I’m not sure when this shot was taken. My guess is that it’s 1999 or 2000, and that would make this flag — which is nearly as big as our first house! — my dad’s honor flag. Oh, and Coart had to climb onto the roof to hang it up.

I always liked the rhythmic visual symmetry of the 48 stars even though the flag was technically “out of date.”  A holdover from when life seemed simpler, to my young mind wrestling to pin definitions on the words my dad used when ranting at the news about “commies,” “pinkos,” Democrats, Reagan, union-breakers, and Japanese steel imports (which to his mind were entirely responsible for destroying the Pittsburgh steel industry, not the failure of the unions to negotiate within a realistic understanding of a global economy.

But church on Memorial Day and July 4 and Veterans Day always themed around America, blending together Jesus’ sacrifice and the soldier’s.  We sang the Battle Hymn with no sense of irony:

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.

It wasn’t until I got to college that I met anyone who even began to question the easy elision of Christ and Country. Early in our dating days, it came up that Coart would not sing the Battle Hymn out of principle – not a Southerner’s simmering rage at the War of Northern Aggression, but because he could not sing words that suggested America’s bloody history of war and violence were the same as Jesus’ work of redemption.

Honestly, I’d never even realized what the hymn was saying, linking the Union war against Southern slavery to the advancement of God’s Kingdom.  Or that God would judge people based on how they reacted to “his contemners.”  It was awkward and uncomfortable and eye-opening.  If you have to kill 700,000 of your own citizens to bring them God’s Kingdom, you might be doing it wrong.

I was raised in a Christian school and community and household that thoughtlessly linked America and God, placing us without question on the same side of all issues.   I’ve since come to realize that the landscape is more complex.

It wasn’t until I got to Presbyterianism that I discovered people who refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance.  In fact, I taught in a school where no one said the pledge ever, it seems.  We experimented with pledging to the American flag and Christian flag at some early assemblies and ceremonies, but that fell aside quickly. Presbys understand that we are citizens of another country, and they mean it enough to risk (or enjoy) being “unpatriotic.”

But I’m not really happy with that approach either.  Is the Pledge really that big of a deal?  My dad and hundreds of thousands of other men and women have dedicated themselves to preserve an idea of an America where freedom matters, where people have chances, where democracy takes root and thrives.

It’s not an accident that I was born in the United States and not Zimbabwe, Peru, Denmark, or Thailand.  God placed me here, in this nation, to be good at both Kingdom work and civic virtues.

American Christianity, at least the Evangelical flavor, could use a dose of wisdom and discernment to separate their American ideals from what the Bible teaches. With no apologies to my friends, I cannot see Capitalism as a biblical virtue. (I’m not saying it’s evil; I’m saying it’s a system that’s just as broken as the humans who inhabit it.)  War is not a virtue either — it’s the last resort of sinful, broken people in a world that’s so twisted by sin that we couldn’t find any better solution. So we kill people.

I’m tired of conservative mantras showing up in Sunday sermons as truth, as middle class Christian Evangelicals adjust to living (once again) in a country where immigrant culture, changing demographics, and a shifting economy threaten to disrupt their traditional values. (America’s been through this before.)

But — all that aside —

My father, January 1953, Fort Hood, Texas (US Army)
My father, January 1953, Fort Hood, Texas (US Army)

I’m proud of my father, my grandfathers, and the friends I have who served proudly in the US Armed Forces.

I’m thankful for the many who have chosen military service (or were drafted but served anyway, even when they disagreed) because they see value in trying to give people the gift of self-direction.

I live too far away from my home to visit my dad or grandfather’s grave today for Decoration Day.  I know the local VFW has placed a flag and maybe a wreath on their brass military plaques.   And that’s the right thing to do.

1 Peter 2:17:
Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.

Zero Dark Thirty : Hamlet :: Revenge : __?__

Zero Dark Thirty has garnered nearly everyone’s attention this winter. Kathryn Bigelow directed the film, her second outstanding film that takes a look at war (or situations related to war). Her first, The Hurt Locker, ranks on my list of best films ever. The Oscar committee stunned everyone by giving her Best Director, snubbing Avatar (directed by her ex-husband James Cameron).

But having a woman director isn’t the controversial point of the film. ZDT tells the story of the hunt and eventual killing of Osama bin Ladin. Everything about this film hit the stride: pacing, scene-writing, overall story arc, sound design, visual storytelling, emotional hooks, rising action and climax and resolution. I highly recommend seeing the film, and not just because “it’s a famous story” or “you should really go see it to know what happened.”  It’s a great film, and a strong contender for Best Picture.

The debate has raged over whether the film portrays the facts accurately, or whether millions of people will see the film and walk away thinking torture is a great tactic because it gets results.

The Economist magazine presented my favorite counterpoint to that pragmatic line of thinking: There are two problems (at least with torture) in the name of good: 1) there’s no way to know if the suspect is giving accurate information; and 2) as the leader of world democracy, we lose too much credibility when we bloody our hands. It’s a great article and I recommend taking a few minutes to read it.

 

Anyway —

As I sat in the theater and watched a fictional woman (the combined force of all the actual CIA agents who did the footwork to find bin Ladin) devote every inch of her being to having bin Ladin killed, as I saw through the green-tinged night vision goggles of Seal Team Six the moment when the men put a bullet in one of the wives and then tried to shush the screaming children … I found my meta-brain churning away about the idea of revenge.

The Seal officer was trying to soothe the screaming kid. “It’s ok! It’s ok!” He pulls a lightstick out of his pocket, snaps it to bring up an orange glow, and waves it in front of her. “See? Cool, huh? It’s ok. We aren’t going to hurt you. ….Who’s this man over here? what’s his name?” (They were trying to get a positive ID on the body of the man shot on the 3rd floor, which turned out to be bin Ladin.)

But it wasn’t ok.  Flip the tables, walk in their shoes, and those kids had just watched armed intruders shoot down their father (or uncle or whatever) in cold blood.  Were the men in the house guilty? Absolutely.

Then why does revenge feel so empty?

My mind traveled over to Hamlet. (Any discussion that ends up in Hamlet is an extra-good discussion to me.)  Among the many themes woven into that incredible work is an intense study of the fine shades of difference between lawful passion and consuming revenge; between justice and vengeance.  At the end of Hamlet for the audience, despite knowing that Claudius has finally got what was coming to him, the pile of dead bodies on the floor robs the audience of a true satisfaction.

I fount Zero Dark Thirty stirred the same emotions for me.  I thought back to the day bin Ladin was killed, and a roomful of curious but troubled seventh graders asking me whether we should be happy that the arch-terrorist had been killed.  Yes, I believe that justice is a godly virtue. The psalmist prays for God to shatter the teeth of the wicked and break the arms of people who abuse the poor.

Over 3,000 coalition military personnel have died in Operation Enduring Freedom, the optimistic moniker given by the US/UN to the mission to break the Taliban, kill bin Ladin, decapitate al-Qaida, and restore America’s security in the world. That’s a lot of dead bodies piled around on the stage as we get ready to let the curtain drop. And we’re still coming to grips with our own civil rights abuses that can’t be swept easily under a cry of “Tu quoque!”

Perhaps if humans could be truly righteous, someone would figure out how to engage in military combat without the mess. I don’t know.

But ten years after we invaded Afghanistan, the victory seems hollow. “We’ll show them!” served as enough of a rallying cry in the wake of 2011 (by the way, Bigelow does an amazing job of evoking all those 9/11 emotions for her film with just audio recordings of that harrowing day). Tobe Keith reminded us all that if you mess with America, “we’ll put a boot in your ass — it’s the American way.”

 

Is the only biblical avenue given to fallen humans in a wrecked world the hollow tang of revenge-justice?

Teaching The Hunger Games series

There are some bandwagons worth jumping on, and Suzanne Collins’s YA series The Hunger Games proved worthy of the hype.

Currently Reading
The Hunger Games Trilogy Boxed Set
By Suzanne Collins
see related

To catch up on the story (if you’ve missed it)

Together the 3 books tell the life of Katness Everdeen, a 16 year old girl alive in a post-apocalyptic North America of the future. The society remembers little of the “America” that lies in rubble beneath them. Currently, a dictatorship centered in The Capitol (in what used to be Colorado) rules 12 districts ruthlessly. Want, starvation, and scarcity form the atmosphere of the novel, as each district specializes in making a certain product for the Empire.  Katness lives in District 12 which sounds like West Virginia — it’s nestled in the coal-rich Appalachian mountains.  It’s a small district that’s less bothered by all of the tyrannical practices, yet the people live with far less than they need.

Having lost her father in a mining accident years before, Katness takes to the woods to hunt for food (illegally). She cares for her mother and sister until the Reaping for the Hunger Games — an annual atrocity of the Capitol to remind the 12 districts what happened to them 75 years ago when they attempted to rebel. The government destroyed district 13 completely, imposed draconian shortages on the other 12, and force each district to send 2 tributes to a gladiatorial contest called The Hunger Games for the amusement of the rich, indulgent Capitol district population. Bread and circuses, indeed.

The teen tributes must kill in order to win, and the winning tribute returns to his/her district with a bounty of food for the coming year. Losers die gruesome deaths in the large outdoor arena via other tributes or through snares and traps left by the gamemaker. This isn’t a book series for the faint of heart.

I won’t describe more of the story; you ought to just read them for yourself.  They’re very fast-moving, well-written, and rich with good characters.  I’m not an overly-fast reader and I could take one down in a solid day of reading. You will find complex characters in this world, portraits painted with moral nuance and authenticity. I highly recommend the series.

Why it’s valuable lit for the classroom

The series muses on the cost of war in the lives of those who fight it.  As I worked through the 3rd (and final) book in the series, I considered how Collins was introducing a generation of young readers to the issues facing our veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. The books are in no way gratuitous with their violence, but the author does not shy away from the graphic violence that comes with war. And the nightmares. PTSD in a horrifyingly-real and comprehendible form.

Further, Collins forces you to consider the price of rebellion. Americans sit on warm couches in safe homes and judge the world’s political movements. We did not have to fight the Arab Spring. We do not live in an Afghanistan where a woman trapped and tortured in a basement for months has to wait for the government to declare an investigation into the crime. Terrorists don’t firebomb our busy shopping malls like they do in Israel or shoot protesters in the Occupy Wall Street movement like the Syrian government is dealing with its uprising.  For all our problems, we live a charmed life.

Go live with Katness and her uprising for these 3 novels. You’ll be glad you did.

Curricular Connections

  •  Current Events – veterans’ affairs in the US; veterans & mental illness; veterans & homelessness; reintegration of veterans into society after duty; economic justice
  • Social Studies, Economics, & History – how economic resources, natural resources, and human geography are linked; the realities of economic injustice in an industrialized or developing economy; colonialization and its after-effects (compare with Africa, India); the cost of war in human terms
  • Political Science – anatomy of a revolution (compare/contrast Hunger Games world with historical or current revolutions); role of media & journalism in shaping public opinion
  • Ethics – entertainment that harms others (whether Roman gladiators or the predatory world of current reality TV); killing in the name of political revolution (if you’re on the rebels’ side)
  • Literature – Katniss as an anti-hero (much of what she does really isn’t admirable); alt-history genre; science fiction genre (Hunger Games is set in a post-apocalyptic future); dystopian fiction

Some Useful Reading on Veterans’ Issues in our current wars

Coalition for Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans

Invisible Wounds

The Private Scars of War

From Battlefield to Ivy League, on the G.I. Bill

War Memorials with Neatly Made Beds

A great resource book for adults to read: The Good Soldiers, by David Finkel. A journalist spends a year embedded in the young Army platoon who had to secure one of the worst slums in Baghdad a few years ago. The stories are raw, honest, humbling. Great for adults or mature teens.

Talking Points for Parents of Middle Schoolers

If your middle school kids are reading The Hunger Games, they should be asking questions about war and survivor syndrome. If they aren’t, prod them into some good conversation. Kids learn recent history primarily through their home lives, so get familiar with the Iraq and Afghan wars and some of the issues facing veterans as they come home.

  • Let younger kids (middle schoolers) talk through what’s happened to Katness and her friends during the Hunger Games. They need an outlet and you can help them connect the fictional storyworld to the reality our veterans face as they try to reintegrate into “normal” society.
  • Talk about the difficult choices Katness faced and the moral dilemmas. Kids profit from considering “what would I do if faced with this situation? what moral principles should guide me here?” and talking through those questions in a safe, non-judgmental environment.
    (Translation: Don’t freak out, even if your kid considers destroying the entire planet with a nuke or bludgeoning your neighbor to death. She’s thinking out loud, not determining her life’s moral code. If you hear shoddy reasoning, question her assumptions or mention consequences that she might not have realized.  99% of kids will think themselves back out of bad reasoning if the discussion remains civil, nonjudgmental, and unemotional.)
  • Refresh your own knowledge of the ethics of war. It’s a complex, difficult subject.  Don’t fool yourself into thinking your kids will fail to ask the tough questions if you simply ignore them.
    (Christian parents: Here’s a great PDF that overviews the scriptural data [link will open a PDF]: Some Introductory Notes on the Biblical Ethics of War)
  • Though you may be struck by the violence in the story, remember that children and teens are the bloody victims of violence like this in our world — the child soldiers of Somalia, the brutal stoning of women accused of adultery in Islamic countries, the civilian casualties of car bombs and IUDs in Iraq. The Hunger Games are supposed to be disturbing.
  • Do some reading on the aftermath of our own wars and the personal effect on our troops.  I’ve offered some links above to get you started, but Google will dredge up plenty.
  • If you know someone who came home from Iraq or Afghanistan, find out if they’d be willing to share with your family their own experiences. Talk with your kids beforehand about being sensitive when asking questions and not prying into personal affairs. Your local VFW can probably point you to veterans who are willing to speak about their experiences. Vietnam vets too. It’s important for kids to understand war in real, personal terms from people who’ve been there, not the caricature they pick up from TV and movies or even realistic video games.

 

Catch-22

200px-Catch22Just finished reading Heller’s classic anti-war novel last night, Catch-22.  I understand that the writers of the M*A*S*H TV series drew a lot of their “feel” from Heller’s novel — the idea that war is just nuts. Insane. Absurd.  And most veterans say few books or movies even come close to the real horrors of the insanity.

I teach a war lit unit to my oldest students every couple of years. It’s one of my favorite units, not because the literature is fun or easy, but because it means so much to my students as they work through it. I think war is the ultimate illustration of sin, its destructiveness, and the cost of redemption (victory of good over evil).  But I digress….

If you decide to read Catch-22, prepare yourself for a barrage of idiocy. Everyone at first seems to make no sense. Sorting the sane from the insane seems futile. I nearly quit. (This is my second attempt to read the book.)  The story focuses on American bomber pilots stationed in Italy during 1943. I took time to soak up some of Coart’s WWII knowledge before I plunged in, and I highly recommend you do a little background reading on the Italian campaign before you start.  You need to understand how futile things appeared to be in that part of the war to get Heller’s point.

I’m glad I stuck with it. About halfway through, Heller begins to weave powerful ‘story-truth’ into his novel (as Tim O’Brien says). The absurd ironies remain, but a deeper message arises — one that mourns the loss of life and common sense during times of war.  Heller’s prose turns thick and beautiful at the most horrific points — when the young man is accidentally sliced in half by a low-flying plane; when plane after plane is shot out of the sky on seemingly useless bombing runs ordered by a commanding officer who merely wants his unit to look good by flying all the most dangerous missions; when Snowden spills his horrible secret in the back of an icy bomber.

While I think O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is a far more literary exploration of the human cost of war, I have a new respect for Heller’s attempt to catch us all with his Catch-22:  Only an insane man would voluntarily put himself into the horrible dangers of being a bomber… but asking to be removed from flight duty merely proves you are indeed sane, and thus fit to fly.

The Beauty of the Battle Song

This year’s Hamlet production brings with it a number of challenges, including staging the climactic duel scene at the very end. Any audience willing to sit through two hours of Elizabethan Englsh deserves either rollicking -good entertainment in Act V or some good killing.

This weekend, the high school guys started their sword training for the play.
“This early?!” you ask.
Well, remember that we’ll have two sizable guys wailing away at each other with heavy-duty broadswords in a complex fight that requires three individual bouts, an exchange of weapons (for the sake of the plot), and two injuries. Our Viking-era stage-design demands broad-swords instead of those sissy French fencing foils. None of that crab-like shuffling here. We’re talking sparks-flying, shield-wielding combat.  Oh yeah, it’s gonna rock….
http://ncsdrama.xanga.com/videos/76c9d1202380/#filmstriptitle

So on Friday, the two principal actors plus other interested males met in a back yard to beat on one another with plastic light sabers. OK, they didn’t beat on each other…. but those Star Wars light sabers are more dangerous than you might think. Our fight-trainer Phillip is one of those mild-mannered “killing machine” kind of guys: lots of fun to be around … total and complete chivalrous gentleman … probably could cut your arm off in 1.2 seconds if he wanted to (even with a plastic light saber).  With his help, the boys started working on their high, mid, and low attacks and defenses…. and gained more than a few scrapes and bumps in the process. (Anybody got spare gauntlets lying around your house?)

There’s something beautiful about sword fighting. Even in the gory realism of a bloody battle scene, somehow the singing blade is more lovely than our gunpowder and high-powered rifles. The battle-dance lost its art some time ago, replaced by an impersonal mechanization that provoked Tolkien to ascribe such ugly yet efficient killing to the Orcs.

Don’t get me wrong — the horror of war tarnishes the beauty of the sword. A metal blade strong enough to rip a man’s torso from navel to neck. Not pretty. You don’t own swords for hunting. You own them for killing.

But I think there’s an aspect of the image of God that is missing from the education of our boys today. It’s not tied to sword-fighting, of course, but we ought to consider the metaphor.

Why should boys learn to fight and do so with effectiveness and honor?
Why is there something beautiful about a sword handled well?

God describes Himself as a Warrior. (Don’t believe me? Read the OT major/minor prophets… or Revelation.)  He talks about striding onto the battlefield of this sinful planet in all His majestic glory, clad in glorious armor, wielding a giant sword. He mocks His enemies with sarcasm that makes good-mannered folks wince. He hacks them into bits and dances on their broken armies.

Does that bother you?

War is hell. Thus said General Sherman in 1860-something. I’m sure thousands of men echoed his sentiment long before his quotation became famous. Yet war is also redemptive (see Isaiah 59). And I think it is also a powerful parable.

War shows us that salvation costs something.  

How evil is sin? 
Evil enough that people die in the destroying of it.

How costly is our wickedness? 
It wrecks families and good farmland and bodies.

What does it take to untwist our perverted souls? 
It takes a war.  And God is its Battle-General.  He leads the army.  In fact, He already won the decisive victory by destroying the power of death and sin.

Our lives evidence the marks of the mop-up operation.  But our souls somehow sit victorious (even while our flesh yearns for the old ways).  Ah, a paradox.

Men, as God’s image-bearers, stand as the protectors on this earth. They take up the sword (or M-16) to crush evil wherever it appears. Like any other human endeavor, well-intended human wars are twisted by the very sin they try to end. The invasion of Iraq seemed to start with good intentions, but things are rather messy right now. Atrocities occur on both sides. We sinful humans can’t even do good deeds without getting them dirty.

But it is right to fight evil. Even in this, we image God. The sword is a tool of redemption, not oppression.

Boys must learn to fight honorably and for the right reason … and often without their fists (or weapon). Our enemy is not of this world, nor can he be opposed by physical weapons, says Paul in Ephesians 6. A man’s task of seeing sin rooted out of the lives of himself, his wife, children, or friends is not for the fainthearted.  But it is right.

Our view of God is warped when we force boys into a pacifist, submissive, passive view of their place in this world.

The Vikings used to talk of the “battle-joy,” a euphoria that overtook some warriors in the midst of pitched battle.

Rejoice in God the Warrior. 
Praise Him for His redeeming Sword.
And teach your young men to fight.