Memorial Day Remembrance, 2014

I wrote this speech to deliver to the Village of Kohler, Wisconsin, as part of their 2014 Memorial Day parade and ceremony.

Memorial Day is dear to Americans because it isn’t about us. Simply put, if we are here to celebrate it, then it isn’t about us — because we are alive to remember. It honors the achievement and sacrifice of our countrymen and women whose service required their very life.

As a Marine, the stories of my forbearers who gave their lives in service are legendary to me. Nearly any Marine can tell you the story of Lieutenant Bobo. Quoting from his Medal of Honor citation: “When an exploding enemy mortar round severed Second Lieutenant Bobo’s right leg below the knee, he refused to be evacuated and insisted upon being placed in a firing position to cover the movement of the command group to a better location. With a web belt around his leg serving as a tourniquet and with his leg jammed into the dirt to curtail the bleeding, he remained in this position and delivered devastating fire into the ranks of the enemy attempting to overrun the Marines.” That occurred in Viet Nam in 1967.

A more recent example is Corporal Dunham. His Medal of Honor citation relates, “…[A]n insurgent leaped out and attacked Corporal Dunham. Corporal Dunham wrestled the insurgent to the ground and in the ensuing struggle saw the insurgent release a grenade. Corporal Dunham immediately alerted his fellow Marines to the threat. Aware of the imminent danger and without hesitation, Corporal Dunham covered the grenade with his helmet and body, bearing the brunt of the explosion and shielding his Marines from the blast.” This occurred in Iraq in 2004.

These young Marines, and their sacrifice, live on in the institutional memory of the service. I first encountered Lieutanant Bobo’s name in 2003, when I underwent Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia. It was the name of our Chow Hall, a place of great importance to us candidates, and our Drill Instructors never wasted an opportunity to tell us the story of the hall’s namesake (usually as part of a larger diatribe regarding our worthlessness and general incapacity to become Marines. Ah, the sweet nurturing environment of Basic Training!). Enlisted Marines also learn about Lieutenant Bobo in their Boot Camp. I know that in time, buildings and roads on bases throughout the Marine Corps will bear the name of Corporal Dunham, and newer generations of Marines will learn about — and be inspired by — his heroic deeds as well.

These two stories from different wars show us that the decision to give what President Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion” at Gettysburg (arguably the first Memorial Day celebrated by this nation) is not made in the moment of stress. Lieutenant Bobo would not have had the fortitude to resist evacuation and direct the fight after losing his leg unless he had already decided, in some deep unconscious center of his soul, that he would give his all for his country. Corporal Dunham could not have jumped on that grenade “without hesitation” and within the five-second fuse of such weapons, had he not already chosen — in the months and years of training and operations prior to that moment –that the success and integrity of his mission and his team were more important than his own life.

This day is set aside to celebrate our nation’s fallen, but not only their final heroic deed of service. It celebrates also their lives, for each of them had the character and courage to dedicate themselves wholly to the rest of us long before we collectively asked them to sacrifice themselves. They represent the best of these United States, the ones who have made our existence and prosperity possible: the Minutemen who faced British cannon and muskets in 1775; the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin Volunteer Regiments who as part of the famed Iron Brigade defended the high ground west of Gettysburg on the first day of that battle, enabling the rest of the Union Army to emplace and finally score a victory which led to the preservation our nation whole; the Soldiers and Marines who faced the unprecedented peril of amphibious landings at Normandy and throughout the Pacific; the heroes of Viet Nam and recent conflicts in the Middle East.

Today I remember the Marines I knew personally who died in service. Some, like Lieutenant Blue, died in Battle. He was as an outstanding officer, who routinely aced physical and tactical tests at The Basic School where we were classmates. He was also known as a “good dude” (in our lingo), which meant he was the kind of guy who would give up weekends to help his fellow students master testable skills, like marksmanship and compass navigation. He already had what the rest of us recent college graduates were struggling to develop: outstanding character. In training, he had all the talent and drive to graduate as the number one student, but chose instead to use his gifts to help his fellow students (and even so he graduated in the top 10% of our class). Our success was more important to him than his own. If anyone understood the importance of character and service at the tender age of 25, when he was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq (2007), it was Lieutenant Blue. Word of his death spread quickly among his classmates, even to those like me who had limited interaction with him during our short time in school together. I believe he was the first of our class to die in the conflict, and he proved the old adage “the good die young.”

I also remember Marines who died in Training. A fellow fighter jock of mine, Reid Nannen, died this year [2014] when his F/A-18 Hornet crashed into the mountains of Nevada, where he was training at the Naval Fighter Weapons School (otherwise known as “Top Gun”). His callsign, or nickname, was “Eyore” because he was always comically pessimistic, but it under-laid his solemn unwavering dedication to the craft of aerial combat and aviation ground support, which had earned him the rare and coveted spot at Top Gun in the first place. He was also known for his dedication to his family, and was survived by his pregnant wife and three children. Although he was only training, it’s easy to forget that  our service members assume serious risk beyond what most non-military folks ever encounter in just training for combat. And it’s important to note that his family served our country in a way as well, suffering his absence when the country needed him to get ready for war as well as execute it, as he did in Afghanistan, and suffering his loss in the deepest way. Memorial Day is for them, too.

We celebrate the men and women who have died for us because we recognize that the highest and best use of freedom is in the service of others. Some wars we fought to carve out and preserve a spot of freedom on the earth to call home, these United States, and some wars we fought to bring freedom to others. But the men and women who died in our wars swore their lives to protect that freedom, firstly for us, but also for others less fortunate. I ask you all, as I would ask any of our countrymen, to enjoy this day as Americans — enjoy our freedom, our happiness, and our prosperity at the dawn of summer. Enjoy barbecues, enjoy some pick-up basketball games, and enjoy this time with your families. Enjoying our blessings is how I believe fallen service members want us to remember them.

But while enjoying this Memorial Day holiday, I will also honor the fallen with a quiet personal toast of my beer. I invite all of you to do the same.

Faith, Reason, and Debating the Existential “Big Questions”

I’m past college, and with those years has passed the incidence of earnest debate about things like religion and the meaning of life. That I attended a Catholic university and majored in a “Great Books” meant that I fielded my share of challenges from those who believed something different than I did, and one of the most pressing questions that came up at that time was why.

Why do you believe?

There is something fantastic and mythological, certainly, about the story of a God coming to earth in order to offer Himself up as a perfect, spotless sacrifice in order to atone for every human sin, past and future, and reconcile the human race to Himself as God. The particulars of the story are indeed quaint and uncomfortably sentimental: a sweet young woman chosen to miraculously conceive God’s child; archetypal authority figures hatching dastardly plots and darkly scheming to stop this bright young hero; a set of bumbling accomplices; an impossibly evil death; and the most mythical and unbelievable thing of all: that he was killed and then came back to life.

To my friends, well-educated and mostly liberal humanists, the tale of Christ bears too many similarities to the quaint myths of many other cultures, and is only the biggest myth in a child-like narrative of the world with a stylized creation story and a lot of horrible barbarities. Compared to sophisticated promise of modern disciplines like sociology, psychology, and specialized sciences, a primitive culture’s myth seems plainly archaic. How could anyone believe this, much less someone college-educated?

The challenge about answering this question is that it is ideological rather than academic. Those who ask it have a certain perspective which I don’t understand, but which seems to preclude the idea of a supernatural. Some profess to be humanists, who believe that continued enlightenment in sciences will eventually conquer our social and personal afflictions. Others profess to be rationalists, believing only in those things that science has proved or theorized.

Such alternative belief systems are not, in and of themselves, ideological. They fall more truly into the existential category, defining who we are and why we exist. But they seem to come with a lot of ideological baggage these days. After all, elements of our society today are unabashed and even aggressive apologists for faith (professing the Christian doctrine of sola scriptura) and many of them speak in terms of condemnation, specifically condemnation of those who disagree with them, to hell. They often stand for uncomfortably traditional values as well, like maintaining traditional gender and socio-economic roles. Now all of a sudden we aren’t talking about a different moral and existential perspective, we’re talking about an ideological opponent. And, to be fair, there are fundamentalist Christians who are offensive and judgmental in proselytizing their beliefs.

But to turn the tables, many so-called rationalists and/or humanists can be just as aggressive, and I am skeptical that their explanations of the world are actually more ‘rational’ than a faith-based one. It’s easy to talk about gravity or astronomical relations and say that we can “prove” real science empirically, but I doubt that many of us have empirically viewed the behavior of a virus, or the release of certain brain hormones causing affection or depression. We accept that viruses and brain hormones work a certain way because we have studied the effect of those things and measured them in actual humans, so we know they exist and they affect, somehow, our health or mental state. We also believe people called “scientists” when those people tell us about viruses and brain hormones (and the behavior of chemical elements, and many other things), because we have faith that their education and certification makes them intrinsically trustworthy on certain issues.

Whether or not you trust a scientist or a theologian (or a priest) is really the question, unless on. An Op-Ed in the Washington Post recently pointed out very thoroughly that the two sides are not mutually exclusive. I have little to add to the writer’s argument because I agree with him — I believe in the story of the Christ and yet also pursue understanding of scientific matters, because I want to know more about us and this world we inhabit. He ends with a marvelous paragraph worth quoting in full:

The problem comes when materialism, claiming the authority of science, denies the possibility of all other types of knowledge — reducing human beings to a bag of chemicals and all their hopes and loves to the firing of neurons. Or when religion exceeds its bounds and declares the Earth to be 6,000 years old. In both cases, the besetting sin is the same: the arrogant exclusive claim to know reality.

The answer to the question of why I believe the entirety of the Christian story, with it’s quaint mythological narratives about paradisiacal gardens and apples of knowledge of good and evil and floods and prophets and whales and the Son of God is that I find it more plausible than any of the alternatives. It really makes more sense to me. Not necessarily in they physical particulars (“do you really believe that some prophet actually parted water to create a passage?”), but in the tale it tells of how humanity became prone to doing bad things and how God then came Himself to redeem humanity from its sinful nature.

The Christian tale is plausible to me mostly because of my own experiences in sin and redemption. The vast majority of these experiences are with my own sins and redemptions in my life so far, and a few of them are observations of other peoples’ sins and redemptions. On a precious few occasions I recall witnessing a miracle, or experiencing a beatific presence I attribute to the Christian God. These things are open to interpretation in an academic sense, of course. Rationalists might argue that my experiences of good and bad in myself and others are filtered through a strong inculcated Catholic belief system. They might doubt that I, in fact, saw or experienced so-called “supernatural” things, and point to the demonstrated phenomenon of humans to manufacture memories that suit their subconscious perspectives. And as far as that goes, they may be right. I can’t transmit my experiences to others, so therefore I can’t expect anyone else to believe my conclusions. And yet I can no more forget them than an astronaut could forget his view of a round earth from space, or an astronomer could forget the sightings and calculations that the earth and nearer bodies revolved around the sun in elliptical trajectories.

My point here is not to convince anyone in my beliefs. I don’t think that’s possible — neither a rationalist nor a faith-based belief system can be truly transmitted via dialectic. Any belief system has to be experienced to be believed, personally and deeply experienced. And for a human, that means engaging both the intellect and whatever part of the brain controls belief.

Someone who believes that human emotions like love and depression are a combination of neuron activity and chemical activity in the brain has probably actively engaged the subject: he or she likely wondered why people experience love and other emotions, and pursued the answer until they found an explanation. That’s the activity of his or her intellect. He or she also had to exclude other explanations for emotions (presuming they found others), such as activity of a metaphysical soul, or instinctual behavior bred in by evolution, which is primarily a decision of faith. Does he or she trust neurologists who measure neuron activity and brain chemicals? Priests, philosophers, and/or wise men and women, who have reached a supernatural explanation due to their long experience in considering and/or observing human behavior? What about sociologists and/or biologists who study behavioral patterns and instinct activity?

Personally, I don’t believe that a scientist is intrinsically a better person than a priest or a philosopher. All three are human, which means they are subject to the same ideological myopia and vices, as well as the same inspiration and virtue, as the rest of us. No single person knows everything, and experience teaches that even if a person did, he or she would forget part of it, or hide part of it, or even use it to his/her advantage. Positing that it’s possible to know everything, and use that knowledge correctly, is coming dangerously close to positing God. Whether we follow to that conclusion, or stop short — and who/what we decide to trust and therefore believe — well, that’s just our obligation as rational beings. We each must individually decide what to believe.

It’s natural that each of us would seek like-minded friends in the world, and so it’s easy to see how we would gravitate towards those who believe the same things. So begins ideology, or the pursuit of actualizing an ideal, which carried to the extreme ends up forgetting that ideas are not more important than people — or so I argue as a Christian: that individuals have the highest intrinsic value; ideas may be valuable but they’re not worth more than life itself.

I plead that we don’t let this social instinct push us into prejudice. I and many people I know believe in the teachings of Christianity and yet also follow the progress of scientific knowledge. Many of these people are scientists or doctors themselves. And likewise, I know that people who religious faith (Christian or other) is irrational do not reduce the human experience to the peculiar behavior of a peculiar animal, enslaved to instinct and evolutionary imperative.

So let’s not discuss these existential issues of faith, science, reason, and belief with a desire to win, especially to win by painting other belief systems in pejorative colors. Rather let’s do it to better understand ourselves and each other.

Restoring the Meritocracy, or addressing concerns about the US Officer Corps

Recently Mr. William Lind published his latest article, and as usual it was provocative. Titled “An Officer Corps that can’t score,” it argues that the United States military has lost the competitive edge in combat for the following reasons:

  • An ego problem, the apparent perception of US Officers that they oversee the best military that’s ever existed;
  • A personnel problem, that officers are punished for creative thinking and innovation (and the mistakes that invariably accompany such a mindset);
  • A staffing problem, which shortens command tours of duty so everybody on the bench gets a chance to play, if only for a short period of time; and worst of all,
  • A moral problem, in which officers support and perpetuate the status quo to protect their careers–notably a problem the US Military did not have after the Vietnam conflict (according to Mr. Lind).

Certainly these are serious accusations. Mr. Lind’s article sparked a great deal of response, too. Several active duty officers penned articles which asserted indignantly that there *is* a great deal of debate in the military regarding staffing, weapons acquisition, force structure, and other ‘big picture’ issues. What is conspicuously absent from the responses, however, is a critique of the personnel situation–which, as the lynchpin of Mr. Lind’s argument, probably deserves the most thoughtful consideration.

Mr. Lind’s own history plays a big part in his critique as well. I’ve never met the man, but if you’ll indulge in a little amateur psychology, I would say that Mr. Lind very much has a dog in this fight. He was foremost among what he calls the most recent wave of “reformist innovators,” and highly praises his contemporaries Col Boyd (USAF) and Col Wyly (USMC), with whom he generated much of the intellectual foundation of so-called Maneuver Warfare. He also helped introduce and develop the theory of Fourth-Generation Warfare, an extension of Col Boyd’s definitive and much-lauded omnibus theory of combat “Patterns of Conflict.” Anyone who is a bit startled (and/or stung) by the opening line of his article, “The most curious thing about our four defeats in Fourth Generation War—Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan—is the utter silence in the American officer corps,” ought to at least realize that Mr. Lind is aggressively applying the theories of warfare that he developed and championed to his very broad-brush of a statement about our apparently constant defeats.

The predictable–and justified–knee-jerk reaction by junior officers in the US Military is that Mr. Lind is wrong, and that there is anything BUT silence about the struggles and outcomes of these so-called “Fourth Generation Wars.” Indeed, in my own experience there is a lot of debate about technology (drones, bombs, tanks, and their efficacy) and tactics regarding the most recent conflicts in the Middle East. That is all very good. But I think Mr. Lind hits the nail on the head when he criticizes the military–particularly the officer–personnel system. And while there is a lot of debate about that issue as well, it’s usually conducted in hushed voices and away from field grade and higher officers.

Complaints about personnel issues usually center around field grade officers focused on achieving the next rank (and running their subordinates into the ground to get it), or general officers trying to maintain their reputation to their civilian masters with an increasing administrative burden of annual training and paperwork accountability. To the uninformed, it just sounds like bitching, but hearing enough of it reveals that both types of anecdotes coalesce around one central issue: today’s officer cadre does not have either the time or resources to focus on warfighting.

How has this come to pass? At the danger of theorizing ahead of data, I have some suggestions:

  • First, during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts we created a whole sub-combatant-command for each location, complete with Joint Force Commanders, Functional Component Commanders, Service Component Commanders, and associated staffs. This effectively doubled the requirement for staff officers in each of the four major service components. In addition to being top-heavy, it prevented the whole coalition from having any true cohesion as a unit, because new units were revolving in and out under a joint commander who, in addition to directing the whole campaign, also had to administer the vastly increased relief-in-place and transportation requirements of such an ad hoc system. Imagine if Patton had new armored and mechanized units rotating in and out of the 3rd Army throughout 1944 and 1945. Would he have been able to build such a successful and dynamic fighting force?
  • Second, as a corrolary to the first, there are career requirements for officers appointed to joint commands. The demand for those officers has forced the services to cut career billeting corners to get enough qualified officers to meet the demand. That is a recipe for “check-the-box” leadership and careerism from start to finish.
  • Third, most services made a decision to shorten deployment times in order to ease the burden on servicemembers’ families. This was a social decision, and it may not have been a bad one. However it did create a ‘revolving door’ in nearly every unit in the military, as whole combat units turned over from year to year and had to be assigned places in the supporting establishment, which in turn was bloated beyond needs and suffered the same ‘revolving door’ effect. The Army alone experimented with year-long deployments in the hopes that more time in country would allow greater innovation and success in the counterinsurgency fight; I’d be curious to see if there were any positive results.
  • Finally, Congress has micromanaged the benefits of servicemembers to the point of restricting officers from shaping their force. I doubt anyone in the military, including me, would complain about pay increases, money earmarked for better base gyms and housing (including ‘in country’), and a reduction on sexual assault and/or suicide. The problem is the way Congress has enacted these changes. Forcing them down the military’s throat creates a culture of ‘yes-men’ who must “support and defend” the Constitution by bowing to each new decree of a prime Constitutional institution, Congress, no matter what that does to already scarce military resources. Sergeant Major Barrett’s comments, while tactless and insensitive, demonstrate the frustration of many military leaders that servicemembers need meaningful combat training, expensive as it is, more than they need administrative sexual assault training and fast-food joints on base.

The prevailing sentiment among junior officers is that the military is directionless, or maybe more specifically suffering the pull of too many ‘missions’ at once. There’s Congress, forcing social changes and shutting down government. There’s the so-called “War on Terror,” which carries real danger but no real reward–neither Congress nor the Services themselves seem to care much about it anymore. There’s the Administration, preaching a “pivot to the Pacific” and a drawdown, which ominously promises more tasks for the military to accomplish with fewer people, and there’s the innate sense of honor in the services themselves that expect the officer cadre to keep all these masters happy and still field fighting units.

In this context, I will speak heresy to the die-hards and state that there’s small wonder junior officers in particular keep their heads down and try not to screw up (i.e. bring all their servicemembers back alive with comparatively little regard for ‘the big picture’). It also explains why so many veterans of the recent conflicts look back nostalgically on the simpler world of their combat tours, when they had a single direct mission and a feeling of accomplishment.

So what sort of reform would make Mr. Lind happy? I’m not sure, as he simply bemoans US Officers’ lack of creativity and moral fibre, but I have some suggestions on that score as well. But first, I’ll point out that some of the best ideas have come from much more creditable sources than me. Go there, and explore.

My ideas are pretty simple. There is a romantic conception floating around that the military is a meritocracy–in other words, the officers who are best at their jobs should be the ones that get promoted. The shortened command tours, vast administrative requirements, and glut of officers in the services effectively obscure the good officers from the mediocre, lowering moral and motivation. I believe that the best leaders in today’s military truly seek a chance to lead and to show their mettle, so I propose the military make a few structural changes to recover a merit-based promotion system.

  • Lengthen command tours, including the tours that are required for command screening, to 3 (or 4) years. This would first of all require existing commanders to put a lot of thought into the junior officers they promote, knowing that the officers they evaluate highly will eventually control a combat unit for three years (instead of 18 months), and would allow existing junior officers a lot more time to develop and lead their troops under the guidance of one Commanding Officer. 
  • Longer tours help mitigate the ‘zero-defect mentality,’ a colloquialism which refers to the reality that one mistake in an officer’s career is enough to prevent him/her from making it to the next step, because he/she will always be compared to other officers with no such mistakes. It’s a lazy way to evaluate, because the positive effects of the officer with the mistake may be greater than those of his/her peers, and may indicate greater potential. But at least with a full 3 years of observed time, officers will be able to recover from mistakes–and their seniors will be forced to consider which of their subordinates are best suited for further opportunities, knowing that maybe only one will have the opportunity.
  • Longer command tours also permit greater unit stability, which will increase esprit de corps, has been shown to reduce things like suicide and sexual assault, and will certainly increase combat effectiveness.
  • Increasing tour length will be essentially meaningless if officer staffing remains high, because right now it seems like every officer gets the chance to move on regardless of his/her performance against peers. As part of the draw-down, the military as a whole should reduce officer staffing to the minimum level required for service administration, starting with Generals and working down the rank structure (and this reduction should occur before any enlisted personnel cuts, in accordance with good leadership practices). The military should also eliminate the additional joint force staffs located in Iraq and Afghanistan. This will be an unpopular step, as many generals will be forced into retirement, many more field grade officers will be forced into early retirement, and many junior grade officers will not have the opportunity to continue in the military past their first tour. It would help ensure, however, that only the best officers in each rank will remain–reinforcing the idea of the military as a meritocracy.

Actual, active duty officers have much more specific lists of things which need to change, most of which revolve around their ability to train their servicemembers. And we should listen to them. But we can’t force current officers to change their way of thinking–most of them have been shaped by the questionable leadership environment that Mr. Lind notes for the entirety of their career. We can, however, collectively change the game–we can stop playing that ‘everybody gets a chance’ and start giving our officers the space and responsibility to fully lead their men and women. That’s why most of them sought a commission in the first place.

These kinds of changes will force leaders at all level to focus on quality, not qualifications; it will force officers to make tough evaluation decisions after years of watching their subordinates develop. Ultimately, only the top 20-30% will have a career each tour, which will ensure that only the most effective officers run our military.

When our nation’s security and American lives are at stake, isn’t that what we want?

This article was published first by Military Spouse Magazine. Please check out their site!

Actual Text below:

The 11th of November is recognized around the world as “Armistice Day,” and was first celebrated in 1918 at the cessation of the First World War. Since that day, the combatant nations have developed their own traditions about the day, the most common being a 2-minute silence observed at 11:00 AM (the eleventh hour) with the first minute dedicated to the 20 million people who died in the fighting and the second minute dedicated to those they left behind, specifically their families and friends (who were recognized also as victims of the war).

In the United States, Armistice Day was renamed to Veteran’s Day. Its purpose was changed, too, because the United States already had a day of remembrance for those who died in combat. Instituted after our deadliest war, the Civil War, the final Monday in May is known as Memorial Day and is dedicated to all Americans who died in battle. Our Veteran’s Day, however, is meant to recognize not specifically those who died for our nation, but all those who stepped up to take that risk.

The importance of this holiday lies in the nature of our own democracy. Whereas colonial powers in the 18th century chiefly fought with professional armies and mercenaries, the nascent United States chose to ask its civilians to bear the hardships and risks of military service. The founding fathers reasoned that citizens, who were aware of their value to the state and invested in its continuance, would both best defend the country and prevent tyrants backed by professional armies from threatening their freedom. And so the idea of a citizen-soldier came into being.

We all contribute to our national defense mostly by paying taxes that finance our military. During the Second World War, we collected scrap metal, scrap rubber, and planted victory gardens. We may post social media statuses in support of our military, or advocate better care for those suffering the physical and emotional wounds of conflict, or put a supportive sticker on our car. And those are great and appreciated acts, especially considering the many voices that vilely condemn and degrade our service members.

But what separates the Veterans from the rest of Americans is their oath to support and defend the constitution—and, by extension, both the people it represents and the institutions it created—even unto their own death. The Veterans willingly chose to give up some of their inalienable rights for the sake of military discipline, to give up the comfort and safety of family, friends, and society, to practice and execute wildly dangerous tasks necessary for the defense of our nation. They risk their lives, not just in all the conflicts we’ve fought since the ceasefire in Compiègne, France in 1918, but in their daily existence: they train in all weather, risking heat stroke and hypothermia; they service and operate engines, pushing ground and air vehicles to the very edge of design capability; they practice using firearms and explosives. They also forego the luxury of leisurely self-discovery in their service of a higher cause, as well as suffer deployments which take them away from their loved ones during holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, births, deaths, and all the other little life events that are markers for memories in a relationship.

For most Veterans, their service was mostly enjoyable. It bestows confidence, meaningful achievement, strong friendships, and unforgettable experiences. But many Veterans also bear scars from their service. They remember comrades who died, or terrible hate in the faces of their enemies, or the price of a second’s neglect, perhaps on the trigger of a gun or in the cockpit of an airplane. That is often the price of military service, though it mostly gets little press or attention, and most Veterans bear such anguish stoically because they know they “signed up for it” and are unwilling to demean their sacrifice by making it the burden of another.

And finally, let us not forget that the privation and suffering of Veterans are shared by their families and friends, who are often left alone and bereft during deployments or training, and who do not have the military support structure of discipline and camaraderie. Service members’ families also receive far less emotional support from our society than military men and women. As they share the burden, so also should they share recognition on this day.

On November 11th, we remember that what Veterans—and those who love them—have done, what they have risked, is special to our country. It continually validates our democracy and our society, recognizing that our nation’s will is truly of the people and by the people. So for those people who take the risk imposed by their oath to defend this country, and who bear the burdens of military service, we (whether we are Veterans or not) offer our thanks and appreciation.

Thank you for your service.

On Proselytizing

A recurring discussion in our democratic world is the role of religion in society. The issue is divisive and applied to all manner of tangential issues–immigration and abortion are the first that come to mind.

Historically, Christianity was the dominant religion. By the numbers, it still is, though at one point there was a sizeable Jewish minority and there are growing Islamic and atheist communities. The percentages have changed with immigration and secularization, which is the process by which a growing number of Americans who were raised in a religious tradition leave it behind as adults.

Theoretically, none of this matters. The First Amendment ought to make the United States a nation in which all religions can be practiced freely, as well as a nation which does not endorse one religion over another (or, perhaps, any religion at all). But historical oppression of Jews, Catholics, Evangelicals, and Muslims by a majority has illustrated the fragility of the First Amendment in the face of the mob. I say a “mob,” because the United States is not meant to be governed by ‘majority rule,’ it is a country which purports to protect minorities–whether they be racial, religious, intellectual, sex, or sexual orientation–from the tyranny of the majority.

But of course it matters. Research in psychiatry and psychology has noted that humans, as social creatures, respond most positively when they are a part of something larger than themselves–little wonder, then, that religion is so dominant a perspective in our lives. I use the word “religion,” but I mean any articulated belief system (and yes, a rationalist perspective advancing the supremacy of science is an example of an articulated belief system, and may be described in this manner as a religion). After all, we can understand and have complete faith in the efficacy of gravity (it has literally never been disproven, as far as humanity knows) without knowing the why; postulating that the why is irrelevant–or, for that matter, speculating on the why at all–is literally an act or statement of faith. In any case, what matters to a discussion on these belief systems is the uncomfortable fact that each of us tends to have beliefs that we regard as truth, such as: that Christ died for our sins; that there is one God and Jews are His chosen people; that good people are rewarded in heaven, and bad ones condemned to hell; that God is the ‘opiate of the masses’ and humanity is steadily progressing toward a socialist communal lifestyle of rational equality; or even that there is no God at all, and He was invented as a panacea for the terrible greatness and apparent unpredictability of our world, and that we have developed so far as to understand that, and may eventually understand all things. Such beliefs are examples, of course. They are probably facile and archetypal. I don’t pretend to speak for any person, though I suspect that some kind of core belief lies at the bottom of every human’s value system.

From the standpoint of meaning, there is no connection between recognizing the importance of belief in human cognition and self-regard, and the truth or fiction of the beliefs themselves. I am a Catholic, and I believe Jesus Christ was a real person who was also really God, who suffered a horrible death made worse by my sins, and who in doing so redeemed humanity. That belief has informed my entire perspective on the world, and mostly unconsciously–I bet it’s engrained upon my soul in ways I will never, ever comprehend (even after a lifetime of reflection). It is almost certainly the primary source of my values and therefore of my interaction with the world. So, from a psychological standpoint I actually need that belief, because without it there is no foundation for my perspective. I need that belief the way a Jew, a rational humanist, a principled atheist, or really anyone else needs their own core beliefs.  Yet the need for such a belief does not–cannot–imply that such beliefs are either true or false. Just because something is necessary does not mean it is manufactured. Truth or falsehood is another matter entirely, and one for the theologians and philosophers.

Truth and falsehood are also very touchy subjects. I know many an atheist who would brindle at the very suggestion that his or her rational world-view is in fact a sort of faith (religion) with its own doctrine and structure. By making that faith-based critique, I am quite literally attacking the foundation of his/her self, the place of his/her most deeply held beliefs. It’s important to remember that. When encountering a news story about a legal decision favoring a religious group, or perhaps an email or social media anecdote about one person getting the better of another, or even lamenting or lauding a decision regarding Christmas Nativity scenes or the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, most people will react strongly because the perceived ‘victory’ or ‘defeat’ is either very self-affirming or very threatening.

On that note, I’ll remind my fellow Christians that “proselytize” is a negatively connoted word, implying that the proselytizer is representing or practicing their beliefs in a way that intrudes upon the victim. Comments like “God is watching!” and “God would be so happy!” on a story, picture, or other piece of internet media are proselytizing comments. They actually condemn (though indirectly) those who don’t share the commenter’s particular perspective. In the New Testament, Jesus pretty explicitly forbids condemnation, as does the Apostle Paul. I think the Christian community (and the world) would be much better served with comments like “I disagree with…” or “I think this is wonderful…,” mostly because such comments establish a perspective based on values, and therefore acknowledge the dignity of other people’s values, without intruding upon them.

Traditional Catholics may point out that one of the seven Corporal Acts of Mercy is to ‘admonish the sinner.’ I agree, though I would add that admonishing the sinner does not excuse one from respecting their essential dignity as a free, rational human being, and would beg to recall Jesus’ own comment about the mite in one’s neighbor’s eye with respect to the beam in one’s own. Besides, disagreeing with someone out of conviction does not condemnation of their world-view. And for those who find value in the act of asserting themselves (the “I won’t apologize if someone else is offended!” set), then I would reiterate Jesus’ call to Charity and turning the other cheek, and remind that causing offense, even if it’s unwarranted, is a sure way to cause further division.

Finally, I’ll say that no-one should have to tiptoe around their beliefs. I certainly don’t. But if the First Amendment’s promise is to come true in our society regarding religion, then we all need to practice our own belief system–rational or faith-based (or both)–with courtesy and respect for others. A good first step for this is to stop proselytizing and to engage others’ values instead of their beliefs, and by extension their essential personhood.

On Pope Francis and the teachings of the Catholic Church

Pope Francis has really shaken up the Catholic Church this time. He affirmed that people of good will, even if they are atheists, are close to Christ. He condemned the, er, widespread condemnation of homosexuals. He has called for the Church to more open and welcoming, which is seen by many as a hint he will relax the mandates of the Catholic Magisterium. His “stance,” a ridiculously vague term which implies his worldview, agenda, and perspective, has prompted much spilling of ink on these controversial subjects from news media and Catholic commentators. And yet he has affirmed Church teaching as well. What could be going on?

I think the commentators may be missing the point. Pope Francis wouldn’t be the first pope to install sweeping changes, but until that happens I’m going to assume that he is doing what his predecessors have done, which is teach the faith. And so far, his comments affirm what the Catholic Church has always taught, though perhaps not with so much emphasis: that humans have free will gifted to them by God, with which others should not interfere; that they are called to follow their conscience to be people of good will; and that they must treat others as they would treat themselves.

These teachings mirror, as far as I can tell from my own scriptural study, what Jesus himself taught. Remember the Good Samaritan, the woman charged with adultery, the tax collector at the temple, the centurion, and the Prodigal Son? In each of stories, Jesus chooses forgiveness over condemnation. He also identifies unlikely protagonists; namely Samaritans, Roman soldiers, tax collectors, and outright, confessed sinners. Most homilies/sermons I’ve heard on these scriptural passages emphasize that the humble, the lost, those seeking goodness are the ones close to God–and the spiritual authorities (the Pharisees) are outside God’s favor.

Notably, the Gospels have little good to say about the Pharisees. They constantly try to trick Jesus and get him to blaspheme against the law, they grumble about him associating with enemies of the Jews, and Jesus himself condemns them pretty stridently, calling them “hypocrites.” The reason for this, I think, is because they are overly scrupulous, a word which used to mean “overly concerned with rules.” Put simply, to be scrupulous, a person must be dedicated so much to following the letter of laws and dictates that he or she fails to accomplish the good for which those laws and dictates were instituted in the first place.

Pope Francis seems to have evoked this element of Gospel teaching in his recent statements, speeches, and interviews…and it is not surprising that he has caused a furor in doing so. The Gospel’s challenge in this regard is a very personal one, and it strikes at the core of each person’s unconscious, but deeply held, beliefs and convictions. Left to each of our own devices, I’m sure we would each live a good life according to our own perception and experience. But such is not our world: we are immersed in society, and so we contact nearly infinite other perspectives and experiences. What are we to do when another perception, or someone else’s experience, challenges our own?

This question is not a Catholic one; it is a universal one. Who among the people of the earth today has never been shamed out of an opinion by someone else’s story, or never had a rival in love, or cause for jealousy, or has violated his or her own values? These essential human conflicts we can resolve in one of three ways: first, we can ignore the conflict by becoming a hermit–either separate from the world, or existing within it yet unwilling to challenge our fellows; second, we can identify one rigid set of values to give our interactions structure, and never change them no matter what additional experience we receive; third, we can interact dynamically with our world, seeking understanding of others, though we are aware that we might hurt them. The third option requires love, humility, compassion, generosity, and forgiveness, and it is the Catholic answer, for the Gospel teaches it.

With much distinguished scholarship on sin, objective evil, and the elements of a good life, the Catholic Church has (probably inadvertently) created the elements of a rigid set of values, for those who choose the ease of such a moral compass. Yet other members of the Church (and our society) seem to withdraw from the difficulty of true compassion and generosity, preferring a simpler course of benevolently accepting all experiences–and, along the way, granting themselves license to ignore the idea of “true values” in favor of no values.

I don’t mean to generalize here. I realize that few, if any, people live their lives entirely on one side of the spectrum or another. In truth, I suspect that each of us has beliefs about which we are scrupulous, and others which we choose not to engage. But Pope Francis seems to be guiding Catholics toward the third way, reminding them that they have a responsibility to dynamically engage the world, seeking to love and care for all people–even (or perhaps especially) for those who are most offensive and pharisaical to them. Whatever sins we abhor in our neighbor, remember Jesus calls us foremost to love them anyway.

And should we be tempted to pass judgment when dynamically engaged, I submit that we remember (whether we are progressive or traditional Catholics, for all that we imperfectly know of God’s perspective from the Bible and Church teaching, and no matter the reach of our perspective which is necessarily limited by the tiny fraction of humans we happen to know) that in the end we surely must admit that cannot know the heart of God (as the bible reminds us though Isaiah and Christ himself).

So let us not commit the sin of the Pharisees, and use our religion to condemn and degrade others, either by accusing them of a lack of love or by passing judgement on them for failing to sufficiently respect the rules. Let us not pridefully arrogate God’s province of salvation and condemnation to our imperfect human understanding. Let us remember Jesus’ warning about the child and the millstone, and remember that when we fail to love and be compassionate for someone who appears to us as sinful, and then treat them with disdain and unlove, then we may very well be the agent of their stumbling in their relationship with God.

I believe that is the message of Pope Francis. It can be boiled down to love your neighbor, whether he/she is scrupulous or progressive, tends toward latin mass or the vernacular, is gay, or has had an abortion, or is divorced. Loving your neighbor doesn’t mean condoning what they do, but there’s a catch here. If one perceives a sin in someone else, couching a correction (or condemnation) in loving words is not the same thing as loving them. In fact, it is usually the opposite. And anyway, we are pretty specifically told to focus on our own sins, which–if we presume to pretend that we’re better than others morally–may trend toward the deadly.

As far as how to love our neighbor, I suppose our best teacher is Jesus, who wants us to feed, clothe, care for, and visit in prison our neighbors, in metaphorical ways as well as material. Pope Francis, bless him, provides us an excellent example of this, and the crowing or panicked pundits of his papacy only indicate that we certainly need both his reminder to love, and his leadership.

The Injustice of our Over-Sexualized Society

I’ve heard/read a lot of discussion about sex recently. More so than usual, in fact. I think perhaps Ms. Cyrus’ glorification of wanton, objectifying lust at the recent Video Music Awards (VMAs) is chiefly responsible for re-kindling this long-running social debate.

Because much of our interaction occurs on the internet, there has been a glut of responses to the VMA performance, particularly, and been some popular blog posts on the subject of over-sexualized young people, generally. Social media friends of mine have posted among themselves two articles in particular that caught my attention. The first is an “FYI” (for your information) by one Mrs. Hall to girls who post sexy pictures of themselves on social media; the second is one of many dismayed responses to that “FYI.”

I’m not here to criticize (at least, to criticize any more than stating my opinions and thoughts should be construed as criticism). My heart goes out to Ms. Cyrus because I worry that sometime in the future she will regret her lascivious performance at the VMAs. She may regret it because she’s tired of hearing about it, or because she worries what her parents, future boyfriends, or future husbands will think, or because she doesn’t want her children (if she decides to have any) to see her in that degrading sexual way.

Worst of all, she may even have relationship troubles and/or decide not to have children because of that performance (and it’s backlash).

After all, many have pointed out that it was an excellent attention-getter, and in my experience most people who want attention have some emptiness inside they hope the attention will fill. If that’s true with Ms. Cyrus, then it’s likely that she will cling at least partially to whatever ideology of hedonism or reckless youth inspired her to create her drug-celebrating, sex-celebrating, promiscuity-celebrating song–or to, er, ‘perform’ Mr. Robin Thicke’s sex-celebrating song–in the first place, because it got her some attention. It’s also something of an ideology today to forego regret and embrace mistakes, because…well, I don’t know. A sign of maturity is recognizing past mistakes and resolving to do better, which is also a form of atoning for those mistakes, and which implies regret (because if you didn’t regret it, then why was it a mistake?). Unfortunately, refusing to admit mistakes and celebrating promiscuity do not conduce to long-term, loving, trusting relationships. As I am fortunate enough to be in such a long-term, loving, and trusting relationship, and I realize just what I wonderful thing it is, I hope that Ms. Cyrus (along with everyone else) finds it in her life.

So I hope my concern is warrantless. But the idea of celebrating sex, and the idea of freedom from mistakes and regrets, is not limited to Ms. Cyrus or Mr. Thicke. We’ve all had those ideas in our lives, because we’ve all experienced the excitement, desire, and lust for sex, as well as the unpleasant guilt, anger, and depression that comes from making a mistake (and for the record, I’m talking about all mistakes here, not just the relationship ones. Botched interviews, incomplete projects, hurtful words, everything). It’s a psychological certainty that as we begin to experience sexual desire, we will model our parents’ behavior towards the same. It’s also virtually certain that our reckless teenage brains will revolt against our parents’ staid views, and that we will in some way, big or small, experiment with sexuality. And by the time we are full adults, most of us will have had some actual sexual experiences (good, bad, and ugly) and will have reflected a bit on them: rarely maybe just by ourselves but certainly when confronted with those we hurt along the way, or those who loved us along the way, or our own pain or heartbreak.

All that reflection certainly does not mean the end of sexual desire or the freedom that we felt as teenagers. In a good relationship, such ‘teenage feelings’ ought to be part of the emotional connection. Certainly a multi-thousand-year-old canon of love stories, love songs, love poetry, and well, love bears witness to the fact that at our best, we don’t grow out of excitement, desire, and carefree recklessness. We might temper it with some restraining virtue as our prefrontal cortex develops in our mid-20s, but we don’t get rid of it. How would our relationships last otherwise?

But our collective experience of these things should teach us not to condemn it in our youth. I think it’s a pity that today’s teenagers got to see the VMAs, it’s a pity they have such easy access to sometimes very disturbing pornography, and it’s a pity that social media makes people so accessible. But if a teenager, boy or girl, is interested or desirous of sexuality, that’s neither bad nor good–it’s totally amoral. It’s a result of their development as a human being. The only negative about it their exposure to what I would consider unhealthy sexuality (Ms. Cyrus’ performance, disturbing pornography), and the fact the entire world can see their development and their mistakes via social media.

The original FYI subtly condemned some young women–friends of the sons of the author–who posted sexually alluring pictures of themselves on social media websites. Ignoring the fact that it was cruel and demeaning criticism, with detailed and contemptuous noting of a lack of a bra, or an arched back, the article explicitly held the young women responsible for the possibility of unhealthy sexual thoughts in Mrs. Hall’s sons. The responses are consequently fun to read: they point out that young men also post pictures of themselves in sexually alluring (in a masculine way) poses; and more to the point they note that whatever desire a young man might feel, healthy or not, it is his responsibility and his alone to behave well.

I won’t rehash their arguments, but I encourage you to check them out. If you happen to think that the alluring or sexy behavior of a young woman, however self-demeaning it might be, is an good reason for you to treat her demeaningly yourself, then perhaps you in particular need to read the responses.

I wish, however, to add two additional considerations. The first is a study which showed that a male confronted with a picture of a scantily-clad, sexually alluring female has increased activity in the area of his brain that relates to tools and other items he can manipulate; the second is the fact that nothing we record and/or post on line is ever, ever erased in our frighteningly new technological age.

The first consideration helps explain (but certainly does NOT excuse) why men are disposed to treat women who present themselves sexually worse than they ought. It also probably explains why Mrs. Hall, who no doubt wishes for her sons to grow up into respectful and gentlemanly men, has some misplaced (and justly condemned) anger against the sexy selfies she saw on social media.

The second consideration is really more of a personal preservation piece of advice. Fortunately most of us, if we ever made an exhibition of ourselves like Ms. Cyrus did, (publicly or to a partner), we can safely hide it away in our past where we won’t have to explain ourselves to future partners, spouses, or children. Social media took off after I had graduated from college, and I shudder to think what my statuses or pictures would have shown had I been able to post them publicly. Now, sexy selfies, videos of less-than-respectable party behavior (whether silly drunkenness or salacious dares) and other records of typically reckless, experimental teenage behavior are there for the viewing–by everyone. Literally, everyone in the world. They’ve been used to bully and demean, too. Make no mistake that such evidence which may by right be personal and private, but by reality are accessible to everyone, may determine to a large degree one’s reputation.

Furthermore, while I personally hold that promiscuous, reckless, or demeaning behavior is equally bad in girls and boys, I don’t think that’s a very widely held perspective. Mrs. Hall, along with (no doubt) many mothers of sons, seems predisposed to blame alluring young women for the vicious thoughts of men; the male frat-boy locker room culture of male college students and young professionals seems to have no problem with the essential hypocrisy of demanding easy sex but condemning ‘easy women.’ Which is very unfair. Food for thought.

So if you do find yourself looking at a sexy selfie of a young girl on some social media site (Mrs. Hall and any other parent or teenager), remember that the young person in question is probably in the process of discovering sexuality for the first time, and is maybe expressing a totally understandable and fairly universal desire to be attractive to the opposite sex, and is ultimately behaving just like the young men who post shirtless pictures of themselves at the beach. And if you argue that it’s ‘boys being boys’ for the young men, but find yourself feeling shocked and/or condemnatory about the young women, then perhaps we should re-evaluate the phrase, ‘boys will be boys’ and advise our children to stop over-sexualizing themselves, regardless of their own sex. Then perhaps the young girls that Mrs. Hall, along with much of society, picks on might get a break from the unjust blame and contempt and responsibility.

Because we all recognize the importance of raising virtuous children. Many have noted that Ms. Cyrus and Mr. Thicke are notably devoid of certain virtues like respect, for self or others, as an explanation for their overtly, almost offensively sexual behavior. (Which is perhaps unfair to Ms. Cyrus because she’s only in her early 20s and therefore hasn’t finished developing the part of her brain that houses virtue, while Mr. Thicke is in his 30s and has no excuse.)

Such judgment may be true, academically. I certainly wouldn’t wish to act like Ms. Cyrus, because her performance at the VMAs seemed degrading and elicited disgust in me. I hope I could make that judgment without judging her to be a bad person–after all, most people do things because they think they are good things to do, not because they have malice in their heart. Yet condemning Ms. Cyrus, or any young women who uses sex as a form of allure in what they say, or how they dress, or even (yes) what they do, is shifting the blame. It binds upon them some of our own individual guilt about sex or sexuality, and it is a mean and bullying pathway to feel good about ourselves.

So let’s start by treating everyone, perhaps especially the over-sexed among us, with dignity, and let’s teach our children the same. It’s better for us, better for our relationships, better for the people we meet–and it will be better in all those ways for our children, and for those who meet them.