Some thoughts on deployment to the Far East

This weekend I flew to Korea. I am pretty fortunate to be in a profession and a place where, on a weekend, I can just fly to a foreign country. I’m learning that I find East Asian countries much less familiar than European ones. I grew up in a culture that descends directly from the social and intellectual legacy of Western Europe. When I lived in Spain there were many characteristics of the place and the people that seemed strange to me, but for which I had a frame of reference from literature, history, or religion. At the very least, I had a vague cultural memory of those places. Here, in spite of the obvious Western capitalism, industry, and entertainment, I sense a great divide in perspective. I can’t explain what exactly it is, since I know next to nothing about Japan and Korea. I am willing to concede that much of what I feel probably springs from my imagination.

I didn’t actually spend much time in Korea. The area we visited was clearly for the benefit of Americans, and was culturally ‘modified’ from the rest of the country. We landed at Osan Airbase, just south of Seoul. Alongside the north side of the runway was a line of revetments (thick concrete walls surrounding equipment or structures, meant to protect them from explosive blast and fragmentation) and Patriot surface-to-air missile batteries. On the other side of the runway were concrete bunkers for fighters, designed to shield alert fighter aircraft from bomb and artillery damage. It was an immediate reminder that the Republic of Korea — South Korea — is still at war with the People’s Republic of Korea — North Korea — and the current cessation of hostilities is an armistice (not a truce) that has been in effect since the 1950s. It also reminded uncomfortably of North Korea’s extensive artillery that supposedly can send hundreds of thousands of shells an hour to Seoul and environs if combat breaks out again. But away from the runway, on the part of the base where we actually stayed, the nice quarters, large gym, and American restaurants bore testament to the protection of a strong military.

That evening we walked out of the gate to what can only be described as a bazaar. Tiny shops lined narrow streets, themselves crowded with street merchants and food kiosks. Nearly everything there is fantastically cheap, from jewelry to custom suits to dive bars and strip clubs. It is all clearly for the benefit of the many Americans stationed on base, and it catered well to my imperialist sensibilities. The shopkeepers, waitresses, and hosts were all so eager to please–So must British colonists have felt when they browsed for oddities in the markets of Cairo and New Delhi a hundred and fifty years before. Such men might have written home to their families (as I write now) in smug tones, relating stories of the “funny people” and exotic merchandise available halfway across the world. Of course it is dangerous to fall into this trap, since in reality Korea is as developed as America, with a powerful and diverse economy and global influence. But the ‘colonial mindset’ was certainly seductive.

One nice thing about my trip north (we stopped back in Iwakuni for the second night) was the weather. Both days and nights were archetypically early autumn, with the sun pleasantly warm, the leaves just about to start turning, and the nights brisk and invigorating. That said, there is something just different about the weather in Asia–there is a thick haze in the air nearly all the time. It isn’t pollution (I asked), and I’ve heard a theory that fine dust from the Gobi desert in Mongolia is carried up into the higher altitudes by strong winds and becomes the haze. Whatever it is, it washes out the light to bleak effect, and it makes those stylized oriental paintings I have seen seem much less stylized and more photographic. The sun is often indeed a burnished red orb instead of a fierce bright light, and the mountains are shrouded and vaguely threatening in the thick air.

Another feature to Japan and Korea is the way civilization huddles in the valley of their mountainous landscape. Looking down from above, there are none of the crop circles and exact squares of the American agriculture, nor the sprawl of small and large American cities. The farm fields fit together like a jigsaw, and urban areas are tight clusters filling river valleys. It looks efficient but crowded; in fact, despite the many concrete apartment buildings or office buildings, the landscape looks somewhat medieval.

The highlight of the trip, surprisingly, was the final flight on Sunday afternoon from Iwakuni to Okinawa. There are always many layers of clouds in the sky here, often extending (without thunderstorms) up to 30,000 feet and higher. We were flying south with the sun setting to our right, and it shone red and very distant. Off to our left huge cloud formations were lit up pink and orange; the lower clouds immediately off to our right were delicately outlined in fire. It was very beautiful and quiet in the darkling sky, and I conceived dimly why ancient societies placed their deities in the sky. Words like glory and majesty floated in my mind as I watched the scenery pass my canopy. My pilot and I remarked on how fortunate we were to have seen such a sight.

It was an interesting weekend. The flights were excellent training (always a source of satisfaction), the night in Korea was very entertaining, and there was much for me to consider. Often, focused on my profession, I am isolated from my surroundings. Yet it seems after all that there is some benefit to new experiences.

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Thoughts on Faith, Hope, Hemingway, and Communism

One author I’ve returned to recently is Earnest Hemingway; he makes for good reading on deployment. His work is entrancing and yet simple to read, and it takes me out of the day-to-day routine. I read The Sun Also Rises on my way across the Pacific, and found it compelling and resonant. The whole “lost generation” idea of modernity is embodied in the protagonist of that book, who is castrated by cynicism and unwilling to make the extra leap of faith required to find hope in a broken world (the literal cause of castration and cynicism being the first World War, and the broken world the depressed aftermath of the same). Of course, Hemingway himself provides plenty of reason to hope in the book, from the undoubtedly real love between the protagonist and Lady Brett, to the deep satisfying beauty of rural Spain, and finally in the “beautiful Spanish children” he mentions in an odd and conspicuous interlude.

Surely there are lots of reasons to be cynical now (when our world starts to more closely resemble that of post-WWI Europe), but applying hope and faith to the problems enables one to stand against them in optimism. A modern example of this, perhaps, is when two young people get married. Finding another to love is an act of Providence–it is a grace and something to nurture and probably has helped keep many out of the cynicism and unhappiness which seem sadly prevalent in first-world societies today.

The book I read after The Sun also Rises was the children’s classic The Secret Garden, wherein a neglected and pettish little girl is suddenly orphaned in India and sent back to England to live with a crippled and bitter uncle. She also meets a young cousin who is both her own age and likewise neglected and pettish (even though he is spoiled on account of the fact he might be crippled like his father). I won’t spoil the book for you, but I will say that both the girl and the boy encounter and enter a world of nourishment and growth, which turns out to be the legacy of her aunt and his mother, and alter for the better. Thus, while I find much meaning The Sun Also Rises, I find that The Secret Garden offers a more compelling view of life–a view that Hemingway is not blind to, even if he can’t quite make the leap to make it his own.

Now I am re-reading For Whom the Bell Tolls. I think it is Hemingway’s masterpiece, a rich tale about adversity and love and the power of ideas. The protagonist, Robert Jordan, is fighting in the Spanish Civil War for the Republicans (sponsored by and ideologically similar to the Soviet Union), and the book opens with him going to a band of guerrillas behind Fascist lines to blow a strategic bridge in support of a forthcoming Republican offensive. Along the way he meets Maria, a victim of the war (and of numerous atrocities including rape) who is hiding with the guerrilla band. They fall in love immediately and sincerely, an event which combined with Roberto’s (as they called him in Spain) natural appreciation for the Spain causes him to spend much of the next few days re-thinking his priorities.

Prior to meeting Maria, Roberto was an ideological communist, intimate with the Soviet “political advisers” who really ran the Republic and quite cynical about it all. He was ready to die for that cause, but not passionately–as a materialist, he drew tepid pleasure from the pleasures of life and suffered through its adversities, but had no real wish to continue living. After meeting Maria, he begins to realize that there are transcendent goods in life: most immediately, a future with Maria; that the world is a place of beauty (something that resonates with me, for I too have wandered the rugged hills of Spain); there is something deeply admirable in the officially condemned but quite present and fervent religion of the Spaniards. This transition is underscored by the prose: at first, Hemingway narrates in his customary entrancing, wonderful way with Roberto as a mere part of the whole scene; later Hemingway narrates through Roberto’s own thoughts. Also, there is a part where Roberto kills a Navarrese cavalryman fighting for the Fascist side, noticing later that his victim was a Carlist (a soldier who fought not specifically for Fascism but rather for Catholicism against the atheist Republic). Feeling sorry for the man and his family, Roberto thinks to himself, “There is no people you love more than the Navarrese” (recalling his time spent in Spain before the outbreak of the civil war) and later admits to himself “Hell! you’re no Marxist. You believe in liberte, equalite, fraternite! You believe in Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” The book embodies the struggle story between the cynical and seductive intellectual ideology of materialism (Communism) on one hand, and hope and faith on the other.

Was Hemingway himself raised Catholic? I don’t know, but after reading a scene in The Sun Also Rises where his protagonist kneels in the Cathedral of Pamplona and prays forgiveness for being “such a rotten Catholic,” I suspect so. It is likely no accident that the agent of Roberto’s transformation was Maria, who is named after the original God-bearer and conduit of grace. Certainly he betrays in both the books I’ve cited a deep regard and almost reverence for the devotion of the simple people of rural Spain. There is certainly an element of condescension in his treatment of them (after all, his protagonists are all lettered, affluent men like him), but he echoes a Romantic and sometimes desperate envy of “the simple life” within a marginalizing and hedonistic modern society. It is, after all, in the simple life where fairy tales are born and where notions like “forever” and “contentment” are allowed to grow.

If Hemingway says he was Communist, then I believe it–but even a dedicated intellectual liberal like Hemingway was not immune to the kind of joy that proceeds from grace: the grace of falling in love, the grace of joy in something so simple as a beautiful spring day, the grace of loving those who one suffers with.

And I doubt it is an accident that Catholicism casts such a long shadow across his oeuvre.